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In Isaiah 45:7 (ESV):

I form light and create darkness,
  I make well-being and create calamity,
  I am the LORD, who does all these things.

The word "create" (01254) is the same word used in Genesis 1:1 (ESV):

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Nearly all the other uses of the word refer back to the moment of creation. Many of the other uses convey the idea of doing something entirely new as in Jeremiah 31:22. There are a handful of uses that follow totally separate meanings such as "choose", "cut down", "dispatch", "done", and "make fat". But as far as I can see, none of them besides this passage talk about creating something undesirable.

Further, it seems to me that "darkness" and "calamity" are not so much things in themselves as the absence of something else ("light" and "shalom"). Maybe I'm reading more recent metaphysics into this passage, but "create darkness" seems like something of an oxymoron.

What did Isaiah intend with this word choice?

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4 Answers 4

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Side note:

This is an example of poetic verse where a lot is lost in translation.

"I form light and create darkness" Yotzer or u'voreh choshekh - Just four words in the original Hebrew

"I make well-being and create calamity" Oseh shalom u'voreh ra – also just four words in Hebrew

"I am the LORD, who does all these things." Ani Adonai oseh kol eleh - just five words.

Isaiah and Allusions to Genesis 1 and 2:

The word "create" is the same word used in Genesis 1:1

There is no question that Isaiah is alluding to Genesis 1 and 2. This verse and the one after it are full of evocative and characteristic words from that creation story. Just so we're clear on this point, each of the following words appear in Isaiah 45:7,8 and also appear in Genesis chapters 1 and 2:

  • יוצר – "formed” found in Genesis 2:7, 8, 19
  • ברא - “create” Genesis 1:1, 21, 27 (3 times), 2:3, 4
  • אור - “light” 1:3 (2 times), 4 (2 times), 5, 18
  • חשך - “darkness” 1:2, 4, 5, 18
  • עשה - “does/makes” 1:11,12, 26, 31, 2:2 (2 times)
  • שמים - “the heavens” 1:1, 8, 9, 14, 15, 17, 20, 26, 28, 30, 2:1, 4 (2 times), 19, 20
  • מעל - “above” appears two times
  • ארץ - “land” appears 29 times
  • פרי – “fruit” this root appears twice
  • צמח - “sprout” this root appears twice

Drawing upon language from the primordial creation, Isaiah establishes God as the creator of all things and describes righteousness and justice as being part of heaven's bounty.

Isaiah uses this same technique in 42:5-6. In those verses Isaiah calls upon imagery from the Genesis creation to describe God's creating a just society to help the miserable and be a “light onto nations.”

Good and Evil in Isaiah and Genesis 1:

...it seems to me that "darkness" and "calamity" are not so much things in themselves as the absence of something else ("light" and "shalom")

You might be right philosophically speaking. However, Isaiah is addressing himself to a different question than the one you're concerned with. According to Zoroastrian theology, light and darkness and good and evil are created by two separate deities who are constantly in competition with each other. The creation story in the book of Genesis is parallel in many ways to the Zoroastrian creation myth, and is also a polemic against the notion of more than one God and the notion that some of God's creations are “evil.”

Excerpt from my blog post:

The Bundahishn, an encyclopedic collection of Zoroastrian cosmology and creation myth, describes the “bounteous creations” of Ahura Mazda (aka Ohrmazd), Zoroastrianism's deity of good. Creation in the Zoroastrian tradition happened in six stages: the sky, water, earth, plants, animals and mankind. The Bundahishn also teaches that Angra Mainyu, an evil spirit “with backward understanding and desire for destruction,” created “many daemons and fiends” to undermine the good creations of Ahura Mazda. Similarly, in the first Fargad (chapter) of the Vendidad, Angra Mainyu creates one place of evil in the world which corresponds to every place of good created by Ahura Mazda.

In Genesis 1 every part of creation is summed up with the conclusion “and God saw it was good.” Even the creation of creeping things, sheratzim, which in Chapter 11 of Leviticus the Bible will declare impure and forbidden to eat, are summed up with: “...and God saw that they were good.”

God as the creator of everything is one of the enduring messages and underlying themes of Genesis 1. In saying that God is the creator of both light and darkness, well-being and calamity, Isaiah is echoing and reformulating that same message.

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The problem with this analysis is it overlooks the mistranslation of the Hebrew word "ra". It is a critical omission. See my post. –  Bruce James Mar 19 '13 at 9:09
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The answer isn't difficult if you get the translation right. The translation used in the question is skewed to fit with the Christian image that G-d only creates good. That is not Isaiah's lesson. He is teaching that there is only one G-d and that G-d creates all things.

The question here makes that analysis difficult because it mistranslates a single, simple Hebrew word. Rather than "calamity" the translation should say "evil" as the Hebrew text uses the word "ra" (spelled resh ayin). The word "ra" means "evil" -- often evil that men choose to do. It is used in Deuteronomy 30:15, where it is written, "See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil [Hebrew: "ra"]." Following that verse, the the next four verses tell the people how to choose life and good by walking in G-d's ways, keeping His commandments, statutes and ordinances, and avoiding sin, especially idolatry. The key part of that lecture is that man has choices to make between good [tov] and evil [ra], and he can make those choices because he has free will, and with the correct choice, i.e. good, he gets life, whereas choosing evil gets him death (whether in this world or in the afterlife is another discussion).

To make these choices possible G-d had to create both alternatives, good and bad. That is part of what Isaiah is saying.

The other part that Isaiah is saying is that there is only a single G-d. In his day, religions had multiplicity of gods who were either did good or bad, or sometimes both. In the days of the early Christian Church, there were Manacheasim and Zoroastrianism which each shared the view that there were essentially two gods, one who was all good and one who was all bad, both were in constant conflict, and neither showed a stronger hand. That POV would be unacceptable to Isaiah and to later Jewish religious thinkers. However, the early Church was highly influenced by the dualistic religions. Augustine converted to Christianity from Manacheaism and its influences are seen in now central Christian tenets such as the greater role of Satan in Christian writings. In Jewish writings, especially Job, Satan is merely a prosecutor and accusor -- his name means "adversary," but he is not an adversary to G-d, but rather takes direction from the Creator (see Job 2:6). However, the Church gave Satan a central role, not just as a tempter, but the Devil or Lucifer, the ruler of all things evil and fallen angel. Paul even called him "the god of this world" (2 Corinthians 4:4). The idea that there are any gods besides the G-d of Abraham is completely contrary to Isaiah 45 where G-d sums it up saying, several times, "I am the Lord, and there is none else" (Isaiah 45:5, 6, 18).

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Zoroaster lived and taught long before Isaiah’s times (ca. 1000 BCE, vs. 700 BCE); the prophet may have been reacting directly to that philosophy. (Source: Rav Schwab on Yeshayahu.) –  J. C. Salomon Mar 19 '13 at 23:40
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Though popular typology adopts Zoroastrian theology where light and darkness are good and evil, if we let scripture speak for itself, another picture emerges.

Gen 1:1 bereshit bara elohim...

The word 'bara' means 'create'. Playing with puns as Matthew did, 'bar' as son is in 'bara'. Bar Elohim is the Son of God.

In the verses following Gen 1:1 whenever god creates he speaks his creation into existence. Therefore the rabbis say that 'bara' is the word which creates. You won't find it in a Hebrew dictionary, but you will find various rabbis use it in such a manner. We will just say "Word".

When John wrote his gospel, he began with Gen 1:1 (not Greek philosophers as some surmise).

Bereshit means 'the begininng'. In bereshit is the word bara. Vowels didn't exist in the original, so don't let vowel shifting bother you. John could say, "in the beginning was the Word".

Bara is next to the word elohim, so John could say, "The Word was with God".

Bara describes God as the creator, so John could say, "The Word was God".

Elohim has a pun "l'chaim" meaning life, so John could say "In him was life".

Elohim has another pun "alo khoom" meaning 'not dark', so John could say, "and the life was the light of men."

The Light was self-existent as Elohim, and yet it was created when God said, "Let there be light". This is a riddle. We know that Christ is the Light. So the riddle is easy. He was God, and yet he was a created man in the flesh. Please don't assume I am talking about anything other than fundamental theology of Christ being both man and God.

John attributes the condemnation of man to the Light, while at the same time saying that Christ did not come to condemn:

Joh 3:17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. Joh 3:19 And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world,

Riddles are intended to make us consider details of what is being said. Jesus was sent to save us. However, he faced the same temptations as we do, but he did not sin, thereby removing all our excuses to sin, and putting us to shame. His perfect life required for him to be the lamb without blemish, is the final judgement of man.

So Light represents Jesus's holiness, the holiness of God, which puts us to shame.

John continues:

and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

This is an ambiguous statement. It does not say that darkness is evil. It says that evil men love darkness. Considering that I am an evil man, I love the grace of God and I hide my sin in it. The opposite of holiness is not evil, it is grace.

Holiness condemns us, and grace gives us life.

The fact that there was darkness before creation does not mean that there was evil. It means that God existed in grace/love. The darkness implies that God is more than one person because love cannot exist unless there is someone outside of yourself to consider first.

But the light, though it existed hidden in Elohim could not be expressed because with holiness comes separation. There was no separation between the members of the Trinity. Only after creation could holiness be expressed as God being separate from his creation.

The two trees in the garden fully expressed the holiness of God and the grace of God. The tree of life was fully accessible, and the tree of death was set apart for God's purpose. Man was not to eat of the fruit. Eating the fruit violated God's holiness which required a greater separation in penalty and training.

Man has lived in darkness or grace since the fall. It is only because of grace that it hasn't all been destroyed. As we come to Christ we are to walk in the light. "Go and sin no more' "Be ye therefore Holy" declares the Lord.

With that background, the question can be addressed:

How does God form light?

In Isaiah 45:7 (ESV):

I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.

Ge 2:7 And the LORD God formed man [of] the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Gen 2:7 is a picture of the incarnation of Christ. Since the physical life of Christ is the light, God formed the light of the world.

How does God 'create grace' Man was created in God's image and likeness. As such we have been commanded to forgive as He forgives. He has created grace in and through us.

The phase "I form light and create darkness" can be understood as a parallel passage to "Let us make man in our image and likeness..." Christ was made in the image of God, and his bride was made to be 'like' him.

How does God create calamity Rom 1:18 ff tells us that God is angry because men do not acknowledge him as God, nor give Him thanks. He has created the algorithms of life such that when He gives you what you want... the freedom to choose your own path, you also get to wallow in the consequences brought upon you by his system. Sin causes calamity because God created a system where choices have consequences.

When we sin, it is like jumping up and down in a swimming pool, as the ripples of destruction caused by our sin spread out across the pool. The consequences of my sin collide with the consequences of your sin and with those of everyone else. Sometimes I receive calamity and I can trace it back to my particular sin. Sometimes I can trace calamity to your sin. And sometimes I get hit upside the head with calamity and it is the perfect storm of waves which are untraceable to anyone in particular. But all calamity as a result of sin can be claimed by God, since he created the system whereby our jumping up and down causes waves.

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The key point to understanding this verse is to understand the theological problems that the prophet (strictly speaking Deutero-Isaiah, rather than the "original" Isaiah) was facing. Isaiah 40-55 was written during the Babylonian exile. This was a period of intense suffering from the nation of Israel. Pre-exilic theology would have considered the disaster of the exile to have essentially a failure of Yahweh's power. He was Israel's god and no-one else's, so if the nation was destroyed, then that demonstrated a failure of Yahweh's power.

The theological response to this, therefore, was to expand Israel's conception of their God. For the first time, Israel became genuinely monotheist. Ideas of monotheism and, more commonly, monolatrism appear throughout the Old Testament, but the strict idea that there is only one God, Israel's God, and that the other nations' gods are not gods at all, has its origins in the Exile. If the exile is to be understood as anything other than a failure of Yahweh, it must be understood as a deliberate act of Yahweh. He must, therefore, act through the actions of other nations. Even Nebuchadnezzar, the totemic figure of evil, becomes a tool of Yahweh's will.

And this idea is what the verse you point to is about. Yahweh is not a god who goes around giving Israel good things when he can manage it. He is Lord of everything, even darkness and suffering. Whether or not the prophet intended the connection between this and Genesis 1, it is hard to say: what is clear, however, is that this is the consequence of a profound shift in Israel's theological thinking, to make their God a universal, all-powerful, all-creating God. Darkness isn't his failure, but his creation.


NB This is currently completely devoid of references – I don't have any commentaries to hand. I will try to update it with references when I can, but this is all fairly entry-level exilic theology.

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References would be nice, however. I believe there is some disagreement over the idea of Deutero-Isaiah, the dating of the text, and the idea that Israel was not monotheistic in its early history. –  Jon Ericson Oct 11 '11 at 23:39
    
It certainly makes sense to expand God's dominion to things like calamity in the context of oppression by a foreign power. If darkness is under God's command as light is, you don't have to fear the darkness itself. Isaiah 45:12 is certainly a reference to Genesis 1 and 2. –  Jon Ericson Oct 11 '11 at 23:45
    
Three things: I have never heard any modern scholar suggest any controversy over the "three Isaiah" concept or the dating of 40-55; when Genesis was written/codified is actually more in doubt; I'm not saying that Israel was polytheistic, merely that monotheism became, in the exilic and post-exilic era, dominant in Israelite theology in a way that previously it had not been. –  lonesomeday Oct 12 '11 at 9:28
    
Well, here's one dissenting opinion: biblica.com/niv/study-bible/isaiah But more to the point, I don't know how much any of these theories on the date and authorship of Isaiah are required to understand the text. The one possible exception seems to be the idea that Isaiah is reflecting (or forming) Israel's rejection of the existence of competing gods. That's a good suggestion and worth thinking about, but the extra (not so easily accepted) bits of this answer cloud that insight. –  Jon Ericson Oct 12 '11 at 18:05
    
You know, I'm not even going to touch that one. –  lonesomeday Oct 12 '11 at 18:22
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