A Note on the Evil Inclination and Sexual Desire in Talmudic Literature

The biblical concept that humankind’s foundational distinction is that it was made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) made R[abbi] Akiva remark: “Beloved (sc. to God) is man, in that he was created in the (divine) image: still more beloved in that it was made known to him that he was created in this image” (m. Avoth 3, 15). And Akiva definitely was not the only rabbi to cherish this idea. All the more striking is it that the rabbis developed the theory that an evil inclination or impulse was part of this image. The widespread Goethean concept of the existence of ‘zwei Seelen in meiner Brust’ [‘two souls within my breast’] was given expression by the early rabbis in a theory of two yetsarim ‘inclinations, desires, passions, drives, impulses, bents of mind’), namely the yetser ha-tov (the desire to do good) and the yetser ha-ra‘ (the desire to do evil).

This theory may have had precursors...but nowhere else do we find a comprehensive theory such as we have it in rabbinic literature. The notion of two opposing inclinations is a major feature of the anthropology of the rabbis. They found biblical support for this notion in the fact that in Genesis 2:7 (“the Lord God formed [wayyetser] man”) the verb ‘formed’ is written not with one but with two yods, which is unusual and hence loaded with meaning: It was God himself who had created humankind with two yetsarim, a good one and a bad one (see, e. g.. b. Berakhoth 61a; Sifre Deut. 45). Moreover, Genesis 6:5 and 8:21 state explicitly that the inclination (yetser) of the human heart is continually evil (ra’), and it is so from its youth (cf. b. Sanhedrin 91b). Further biblical passages taken into service by the rabbis for this theory include Deuteronomy 6:5 (and 11:13), where the Hebrew word used for ‘heart,’ levav instead of lev, has two beths, which is again taken by the rabbis as a sign that God created humankind with two inclinations (see, e.g., m. Berakhoth 9:5); and also Genesis 4:7, Deuteronomy 31:21 and Psalms 103:14 were interpreted accordingly.

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Author: Pieter W. Van Der Horst

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Bible reference(s): Genesis 1:26-28, Genesis 2:7, Genesis 8:21, Romans 7:17-24

Source: Jews and Christians in Their Graeco-Roman Context (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006), pp. 59-61.

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