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The strange view about a diabolical evil inclination
The belief in an evil inclination that is independent of the human body and that works to incite behavior that is detrimental to the body, like the similar concept of evil angels, is so widespread today among Jews and non-Jews that it is hard to accept that this curious notion does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. The concept first appeared around the beginning of the Common Era in books that the Jews rejected from their canon.
Thinking people today consider the evil inclination an unconscious natural human urge to do an act that is harmful to a person or society. These people would cringe at the idea that it is a spirit or being, a kind of devil, demon, imp, or other mischief-maker who prowls in the darkness with a divinely inspired mission to incite humans to act detrimentally. They would be shocked to think that a merciful divinity would construct such a destructive monster to ruin the divine creations. Yet this was the view of many ancients and remains the opinion of many people today.
The First Appearance of the Evil Inclination
Some people, including the Bible commentator Rashi, Midrash Genesis Rabbah, and the Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 3, 5, of the fourth century, saw the provoking and instigating evil inclination hinted at in Genesis 8:21 in the term yetzer. After the flood, God thinks: “I will not curse the ground again because of man, even though the yetzer of man’s heart is evil from his youth, neither will I smite any more everything living as I have done.”
However, this reading of the later notion of an independent goading evil inclination into the word yetzer in the biblical text is anachronistic. The plain meaning of yetzer is “nature,” as Saadiah (882 or 892-942), Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167), Chazkuni (c. fourteenth century), and others state.
The first explicit appearance of the concept of an evil inclination is in the approximately second-century BCE documents called The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. The Testaments are the purported records of the last words of the twelve sons of Jacob. The Testament of Asher advises: “If the soul takes pleasure in the good inclination, all of its actions are righteous…. But if it inclines to the evil inclination, all of its actions are wicked.” People can overcome the yetzer by their “spirit of understanding,” according to the Testament of Judah, or their good works, according to The Testament of Asher.
The book Ecclesiasticus, of the same period, also reports on the existence of the malevolent yetzer: “God created man at the beginning and put him in to the hand of him that could spoil him: He gave him into the hand of his inclination” (15:14). However, “he who keeps the law can master his thoughts” (21:11).
Both of these early documents can be read to say no more than what modern science recognizes, that people have good and bad drives, but this is not how they are interpreted.
The Targum Pseudo-Jonathan: More Explicit
These somewhat innocuous statements are expanded into diabolical depictions in the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan. This Targum, or translation, is one of three extant full Jewish Aramaic translations of the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch. The precise date of its composition is unknown, but it was probably written between the seventh and ninth centuries. It is more than a translation; it is spiced with a wealth of midrashic material, including folk mythology, much, but not all, of which it derives from rabbinic Midrashim and the Talmuds. It mentions the evil inclination frequently. It does not contain a complete and organized theology on the yetzer, but only incorporates material that the translator felt the biblical words he was translating suggested. The following are some examples:
The concept that there is a vicious drive either within or outside humans that is seeking to lead them astray and even harm them – the concept of an evil inclination – is not explicit in the Bible, although some writers attempt to see it in Genesis 8:21. However, others define the term yetzer in the passage as “nature.”
It was not until the second century BCE that, because of outside pagan influences, the yetzer was first conceived as an independent evil force with a sinister mind of its own. The notion spread swiftly and became a basic belief of not only the uneducated folk, but of such prestigious Bible commentators as Rashi and Nachmanides. In fact, there were soon few books on Jewish thought that did not mention the evil inclination and warn people about its power.
In the midrashic Aramaic Bible translation Pseudo-Jonathan, what was once seen as an inner urge burst forth as an independent diabolical force. The urge was fused with the concept of Satan, another pagan notion that had become part of folklore, and the evil inclination and Satan became one.
The Pseudo-Jonathan translator understood virtually every wrongdoing committed by humans in the Bible – whether by individuals such as Eve or by the masses of Jews in cases such as the worship of the golden calf – as being the result of the incitement of Satan. Satan, thought the translator, was not satisfied with his nefarious twisting of the human mind; he also attempted to persuade God to harm the Jewish people. But, the translator offered hope. The evil inclination in all of its forms, he asserted, will be destroyed in the messianic age.
This non-scientific folk view that anthropomorphizes and personalizes the natural human urge, turning it into a substitute of the demon, is anathema to Maimonides, who insisted that people work hard to understand the true nature of the world and labor daily to improve themselves and society. The yetzer concept encourages people to be passive in the face of what they are told is a divine evil force against which they have no real power. It bolsters the notion that evil will cease in the future by a miraculous supernatural event that will transform nature and prompts people to adopt childlike acts and magical rites to overcome daily problems, like those I mentioned in the past when Jews attempted to fool Satan and ruin his diabolical plans.
 While this verse is generally understood as saying that people are born with an evil inclination, this notion is contrary the explicit biblical statement in Genesis that God saw all that was created and saw that it was good. A better understanding is one that fits the context where the statement is made. During the days of Noah, before the flood, God saw that while all that was created is good, the people of that generation perverted their nature even from an early age (not birth).
 Which should not be confused with Ecclesiastes, which is part of the Bible. Ecclesiasticus, like the formerly mentioned books where written during the period between the last book of the Hebrew Bible and the first book of the New Testament, and were not included in in the Hebrew Bible.
 According to the mystic Bachya ben Asher (in his commentary to Genesis 8:21) and others, the evil urge enters the male body at birth, while the good urge does not enter until age thirteen. This, according to them, is the reason a male child is not punished for the wrongs he commits until age thirteen. Ben Asher does not address the female child. This notion of an evil inclination entering at birth is contrary to Maimonides’ view of humans and nature generally, that all God’s creations are good. The notion is in all probability an outgrowth from an unconscious absorption of Christianity’s idea of “original sin.”
 The ancients were convinced that the heart is the source of thinking, not the mind. This verse should be understood as saying, God (meaning the laws of nature) hardened Pharaoh’s previous ideas concerning the Israelites (because he had developed habits of thinking in this way and acting upon these foul thoughts).
 This idea and notions similar to it depict God as a weak-minded monarch who can be easily deceived. While this is outrageous, it is the way many ancients thought.