Why is "raah" usually translated differently in Amos 3:6 and 9:4, even in a super-literal translation:

6Is a trumpet blown in a city, And do people not tremble? Is there affliction in a city, And Jehovah hath not done [it]?  YLT


4And if they go into captivity before their enemies, From thence I command the sword, And it hath slain them, And I have set Mine eye on them for evil, And not for good.  YLT

  • Possibly relevant: The NRSV translates it "harm" instead of "evil" in 9:4. – Bruce Alderman Oct 27 '11 at 5:32

In part, this seems like a question of the translator's intent, goal or approach. That's not really something we can answer, short of sitting down with the translator and asking them. Some translations do use the same word in both places. In this case, you could substitute either word into the other sentence without really changing the meaning. While I don't have proof, I suspect that the translator used "affliction" in 3:6 in order to avoid the appearance of ascribing evil to God's actions, since that's the word they used in 9:4.

The original word can mean both bad (malicious, wicked) and bad (unpleasant, harmful). Nuances like this are a frequent cause of the same source word being rendered differently in different passages. The NET Bible lists the number of times they translated it with different words. In their case, they translate ra` <07451> as "evil" 236 times and "disaster" 78 times. ("Disaster" is the word they use in both of these verses.) Other common words they use are harm, bad, wicked, trouble, calamity, wickedness and wrong.

Another aspect of this question gets into dynamic vs. formal equivalence in the translation process. Because dynamic equivalence attempts to translate the thought of a passage (concept-for-concept) at the expense of literal (word-for-word) translation, there will frequently be a wider variance in how specific words are handled.

  • 3
    In a word, context. – Kazark Apr 12 '12 at 17:26

Jewish translations make no distinction between the two verses.

Rashi looks at the Amos 3:6 in context with the verses before and after 3:6, pointing out that the roar of the lion, mentioned in verses 4 and 8, is the warning from the prophets. The prophets would prophesize a threat of evil -- i.e. Divine Retribution -- unless there is repentence. So, when the evil actually comes that the prophets foretold, should anyone assume that it came from anyone but G-d?

In that context, Amos 9:4 also makes sense. The evil that comes to those who do not follow the will of G-d, is from G-d and no one else.

These conclusions are consistent with Deut. 30:15-20 where the Hebrews are told that G-d has given them the choice of "life and good" and "death and evil." The former election is assured if the person loves G-d, walks in His ways, and keeps His commandments, statutes and ordinances. However, the person who goes after other gods has chosen death and evil. This may also be read with Isaiah 45:7 wherein G-d states: "I form the light ["for the righteous" according to Rashi] and create darkness; I make peace and create evil; I am the Lord that does all these things." The word for evil in Deuteronomy and Isaiah is the same word and the same intent as in both verses of Amos.

I realize that some Christians are uncomfortable with the concept that G-d, who is all Good, creates "evil." But the creation of evil, if you will, was a necessary evil in order to make Free Will possible. G-d is glorified when his children make correct choices of their own free will, and without free will their choices would mean nothing.

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