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In Exo. 32:12–14, it is written,

12 Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever. 14 And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.

The word evil (bad, wrong, mischief, wicked) is used in reference to God’s action against the Israelites after they had made a golden calf. I’m trying to understand why the author used that word.

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On Bible Hub few and mostly older versions put "evil". e.g. "evil" KJB.

"Turn from Your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to Your people". Exodus 32:12 NKJV.

Berean S.B. NKJV and NASB 1977 put "harm".

NIV and ESV put "disaster".

ISV "calamity".

I think there are two catgories of "harm/evil" mentioned in Isaiah:

  1. Isaiah 1:28. "those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed". Where this is on an on going basis, where there is no redemption, this will lead to utter destruction; Isaiah 1:31 "And no one shall quench them".

  2. Isaiah 1:17. "Learn to do good". God teaches Israel and some lessons are painful.

Isaiah 1:25. "I will turn my hand against you," [painful]. "And thoroughly purge away your dross, and take away all your alloy". [Restoration as after captivity].

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Young's Literal Translation, Exodus 32:

12 why do the Egyptians speak, saying, For evil [H7451] He brought them out to slay them among mountains, and to consume them from off the face of the ground? turn back from the heat of Thine anger, and repent of the evil [H7451] against Thy people.

Strong's Hebrew: 7451. רָע (ra') — 667 Occurrences

This word has a wide range of meanings and usages, Strong's Exhaustive Concordance:

adversity, affliction, bad, calamity, displeasure, distress
From ra'a'; bad or (as noun) evil (natural or moral) -- adversity, affliction, bad, calamity, + displease(-ure), distress, evil((- favouredness), man, thing), + exceedingly, X great, grief(-vous), harm, heavy, hurt(-ful), ill (favoured), + mark, mischief(-vous), misery, naught(-ty), noisome, + not please, sad(-ly), sore, sorrow, trouble, vex, wicked(-ly, -ness, one), worse(-st), wretchedness, wrong. (Incl. Feminine raaah; as adjective or noun.).

It could mean as trivial as mischief to as serious as evil.

NIV often provides a modern balanced translation of verses, Exodus 32:

12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.

In this case, NIV opted to translate the same Hebrew words into two different English words to suit the respective immediate contexts. The word "evil" is used for what the Egyptians say and the word "disaster" is used for what God does to the people.

Exodus 32:14 King James Bible,

And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.

New King James Version

So the LORD relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.

Even the King James translators modernized their old King James' "evil" to the new King James' "harm".

In what sense is the word evil used in Exodus 32:12–14?

Most versions agree that the Hebrew word means harm or disaster when it is applied to God.

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Evil had both a MORAL and a COSMIC sense.

Here are some scriptures where EVIL is used in a MORAL sense:

Gen 6:5 And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only EVIL (WICKEDNESS) continually.

Matt 7:17 Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth EVIL (CORRUPT) fruit.

Here are some scriptures where EVIL is used in a COSMIC sense:

Gen 19:19 I cannot escape to the mountain, lest some EVIL (HARM) take me, and I die:

Psa 23:4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no EVIL (HARM / CALAMITY)

Matt 6:13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from EVIL (HARM / MISFORTUNE / CALAMITY / DISEASE)

The love of money is the root of all EVIL (not sin or moral wickedness, but rather harm, misfortune, calamity).

Isa 45:7 I form the light, and create darkness: I make PEACE, and create EVIL: I the LORD do all these things.

This is cosmic evil because clearly this 'evil' is contrasted to 'peace'and not to ‘good’ or ‘righteous’. Cosmic evil refers to calamities of nature like earthquakes, hail, fire, tsunamis, hurricanes, etc.

The most explicit of scriptures to show this difference in usage between cosmic evil and moral evil is Jonah 3:10

And God saw their works, that they turned from their EVIL (moral) way; and God repented of the EVIL (cosmic), that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.

The evil of the Ninevites was moral wickedness, whereas the evil that God intended to do was to overthrow Nineveh in some form of calamity.

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