Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Paul and the Yetzer Ha-Ra

W. D. Davies devotes Chapter 2 (“The Old Enemy: The Flesh And Sin,” 17-35) of his classic Paul and Rabbinic Judaism to an examination of the role in Pauline thought of the rabbinic doctrine of good and bad “tendencies” (Heb. yetzer) in human nature. (We should note that Davies uses the term “rabbinic” in a somewhat anachronistic sense since, at the time of Paul, Judaism was still in the Second Temple period and had not yet entered the Rabbinic period. Properly speaking, Rabbinic Judaism become dominant over the period from the 2nd to the 6th centuries AD. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted that the roots of Rabbinic Judaism are to be found in the earlier Second Temple period.)

Davies begins his inquiry from the assertion of some earlier scholars that the Pauline opposition of “flesh” and “spirit” (sarx/pneuma) reflects a Hellenistic, dualist influence that is foreign to Israelite thought. Davies dismisses this argument, noting that in Hellenist thought the body/soul dichotomy is never expressed in terms of “flesh/spirit,” whereas Paul's use of such key concepts as psyche, kardia and pneuma (soul, heart, spirit) closely tracks the usage of the Israelite scriptures: nephesh, leb, ruach. In contrast, in later Israelite writings the Hebrew word for sarx/flesh, basar, is used to express:

man's essential nature in contrast with God or 'Spirit,' to emphasize man's frailty, dependence or incapacity. … it's importance consists in its being the point of departure for the development of the Pauline doctrine of the flesh, with distinct ethical reference. (17-19, quoting H. Wheeler Robinson, The Christian Doctrine of Man, 25)

In line with his thesis that Rabbinic Jewish thought, not dualist Hellenistic thought, is at the root of Paul's thought, Davies analyzes Paul's use of “flesh” and concludes that, in Paul's usage, sarx or “flesh” is not an independent center of human nature that is evil in itself. Rather, Paul views sarx as “morally indifferent;” it is the element of man that is attacked by Sin but it becomes a problem only when man sins by turning away from God and making an idol of his own desires. Davies concludes, after once more citing Robinson, 

we are entitled to say that the ultimate enemy of the Spirit of God is not flesh but the Sin of which the flesh has become the weak and corrupted instrument,

and further that 

the use Paul makes of the term sarx can be adequately explained as an accentuation of the ethical connotation that the term already had in certain late documents in the Old Testament ... (19-20)

While Paul's use of sarx is “a natural evolution of the anthropology” to be found in those later Israelite writings, later Rabbinic Judaism did not adopt this usage of basar/sarx/flesh. This is not to say that the rabbis were unfamiliar with Paul's distinction between the “fleshly” and the “spiritual” man, but this contrast was subsumed under the preferred Second Temple conception of the evil impulse (yetzer ha-ra) and the good impulse (yetzer ha-tov), which Rabbinic Judaism adopted and developed. The man of flesh is the one in whom the evil yetzer prevails whereas the good yetzer prevails in the spiritual man. It is important to note that this doctrine was primarily intended to defend human freedom—the rabbis maintained that every man is free to resist evil impulses and to follow good impulses, and his actions are not compelled by God. Thus, Davies cites Sirach 15:11-14:

Say not: "From God is my transgression,”
For that which he hateth he made not.
Say not: “It is he that made me to stumble,”
For there is no need of evil men.
Evil and abomination doth the Lord hate,
And he doth not let it come nigh to them that fear him.
God created man from the beginning,
And placed him in the hand of his yetzer.

Among early Christian writings, Davies in this chapter deals almost exclusively with Paul's Letter to the Romans, but it is important to note that this passage from Sirach is clearly paralleled in the Letter of James, which describes man's struggle with the evil impulse while absolving God of instigating evil and preserving man's freedom:

Let no one who is being tempted say,
“I'm being tempted by God,”
for God cannot be tempted by evil,
and He Himself tempts no one.
Each person is tempted when he is lured away
and enticed by his own desires.
Then desire conceives and gives birth to sin,
and when sin becomes full grown it brings forth death. (1:13-15)

James is clearly expressing contemporary Second Temple views of man, who must struggle with the yetzer ha-ra to avoid the spiritual death of those in whom the yetzer ha-ra “becomes full grown.” James goes on to describe the sinful arrogance of those who have allowed the yetzer ha-ra to turn them toward themselves and away from God, forgetting their human frailty:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we'll go to this or that city and spend a year doing business there and making money.” You don't know what your life will be like tomorrow! You're like a mist that appears for a little while and then disappears! What you should say is, “If the Lord wills it we'll live and we'll do this or that,” but in your arrogance you boast. All such boasting is evil. For whoever knows what he should do and doesn't do it is committing a sin. (4:13-17)

We will find these ideas also clearly expressed by Paul in Romans, including the idea of Sin leading to Death. Paul himself gives a highly personal (and metaphorical) account of his own struggle in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, in which he almost certainly refers to the yetzer under the metaphor of a thorn in his flesh. Paul recounts his desire to, in effect, be exempted from the human condition of constant struggle against the yetzer ha-ra, but he is told that there is no exemption from struggle in this life; in his frail flesh—the human condition—God's grace can preserve him:

But to keep from getting puffed up as a result of these extraordinary revelations I was given a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan, to beat me so I wouldn't get puffed up. Three times I begged the Lord to take it away from me, but he told me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness."

In Jewish thought, as naturally also in early Christian thought, the center of these struggles within a man between the good and evil impulses is the heart (kardia). Unlike today, when the heart is used as a metaphor for sentimental emotion, in Second Temple times the heart was viewed as the volitional and intellectual center of man. Thus we find Jesus saying in Matthew:

the mouth speaks from the abundance of the heart (12:34)
from the heart come wicked thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and blasphemy. These things are what make a man unclean, but eating with unclean hands doesn't make a man unclean. (15:19-20)

What's important to understand, and what the rabbis also emphasized, is that the “evil” yetzer is not in itself evil. What is evil is man giving in to the impulse. For the yetzer ha-ra amounts to the natural human urge for propagation and preservation. These are part of God's creation and are good. The evil is in turning to these goods almost as idols and so turning away from God who created us. Davies summarizes Second Temple thought in this regard:

"The appetites and passions are an essential element in the constitution of human nature and necessary to the perpetuation of the race and to the existence of civilization. In this aspect they are, therefore, not to be eradicated or suppressed, but directed and controlled"—through repentance and Torah study. (22) 

Thus, too, in Christian thought, as James pointed out, the desire to do business and make money is not wrong—it is the turning away from God that is sinful. The remedy for the Christian, as Paul will stress, is to lead a life “in Christ” through faith.

Having outlined the current of contemporary Jewish thought, Davies turns his attention to the yetzer in Paul's Letter to the Romans.

In Romans 7, 8, Paul outlines three periods or stages in the life of man—a favorite topic also of the rabbis. The first stage is that of man before the Torah came. In this stage sin is “dead,” or as Davies says, latent. The second stage is that of life under the Torah, when we clearly know what is good, what is required by Torah, but are unable to avoid sinning.

I once was alive apart from Torah, but when the commandment came sin came to life and I died. (7:9-10)

This corresponds to rabbinic thought on the stages of man's life. According to the rabbis, the yetzer ha-ra enters a man at birth. From birth until the age of thirteen the boy leads what amounts to a "natural" life. At the age of thirteen a boy becomes a man, a bar mitzvah or Son of the Commandment. This would correspond to the “age of reason” in Christian thought, but is about the age of puberty. At this point a man must make a positive choice—although the yetzer ha-ra is not in itself sinful, a man must choose God or risk falling into a downward spiral of sin by allowing himself to be guided by the yetzer ha-ra. And this conforms with the tendency to regard the yetzer ha-ra as, at least in significant part, prompting a man toward sexual sin (toward a self centered sexuality rather than toward a God oriented procreative sexuality). (25) Paul speaks eloquently of the dilemma a man in this position faces, and he uses language that is quite similar to that of James 4:17 (above). James wrote: “For whoever knows what he should do and doesn't do it is committing a sin.” Paul, reflecting the situation of a man who is a bar mitzvah, who has attained the age of reason and knows right from wrong, writes:

I don't even choose my own actions, because instead of doing what I want to do I do what I hate. … although I want to do what's right I'm unable to do it, for instead of doing the good that I want to do, I do the evil thing that I don't want to do. (7:15-19)

Paul's third stage of life—in which this conflict is resolved--is life in the Spirit, “in Christ.” Whereas the rabbis held that the remedy for the yetzer ha-ra was Torah study to keep man oriented toward God, Paul directly contests this on the basis of God's revelation in Christ. Paul holds that Torah in some respects actually incites a man to sin (cf. especially Galatians and Philippians in this regard), orients man in accordance with the yetzer ha-ra and away from God. According to Paul, it is life in Christ (8:1ff.) that allows us to fulfill the just demands of Torah. The Torah, it is true, is “spiritual,” yet we are “of the flesh.” (7:14) It is Christ's gift of the Spirit that allows us to truly free ourselves from the letter of Torah observance to live according to the yetzer ha-tov—the good yetzer-- “in Christ.”

Now, the problem we face in interpreting Paul's thought is this. In all this, Paul uses the language of the “flesh,” rather than explicitly using the language of "impulses." Davies (26) cites N. P. Williams (The Ideas of the Fall and of Original Sin) for the proposition that when Paul speaks of 

“sin,” “the old man,” “the sinful body,” “the body of this death,” “the sinful passion aroused by the Torah,” “the mind of the flesh,” these are all “so many picturesque and paraphrastic names for the yetzer ha-ra. It is a likely conjecture of his [of Williams] also that φρονημα της σαρκος almost amounts to a literal translation of the yetzer ha-ra

We find Davies' arguments highly persuasive. It may therefore be worth while presenting the passage in Romans in which two of the three occurrences of φρονημα της σαρκος appear together, to illustrate how seamlessly the rabbinic yetzer theory integrates with Paul's thought. Note the contrast of the “mentality of the flesh” and the “mentality of the Spirit,” which appear to clearly reflect the idea of a man's life either oriented towards idolatry of self or oriented toward God's creation as God intends it to be. In Paul's thought, just as in that of James, orientation toward self—the flesh or yetzer ha-ra—leads to increasing sin and spiritual death.

οἱ γαρ κατα σαρκα οντες τα της σαρκος φρονουσιν, οἱ δε κατα πνευμα τα του πνευματος. το γαρ φρονημα της σαρκος θανατος, το δε φρονημα του πνευματος ζωη και ειρηνη. διοτι το φρονημα της σαρκος εχθρα εις θεον, τω γαρ νομω του θεου ουχ ὑποτασσεται, ουδε γαρ δυναται, οἱ δε εν σαρκι οντες θεω αρεσαι ου δυνανται.
For those who are [living] according to the flesh think the thoughts of the flesh, while those who are [living] according to the Spirit [think] the thoughts of the Spirit. For the mentality of the flesh [yetzer ha-ra] is death, while the mentality of the Spirit [yetzer ha-tov] is life and peace. Therefore, the mentality of the flesh [yetzer ha-ra] is in enmity with God, for it doesn't obey God's Torah, nor can it, while those who are [living] in flesh cannot be pleasing to God. (8:5-8)

Davies (27) explains Paul's preference for “flesh” and “body” metaphors by two facts. First, while Davies speaks of “Rabbinic” Judaism, the fact is that Paul's time is still the time of Second Temple Judaism—we can only speak of incipient or embryonic tendencies that will later find their full development in Rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple. These tendencies exist with other tendencies within Second Temple Judaism: there is as yet not a completely settled or fixed terminology in Jewish anthropology. Secondly, while we have seen that the use of “heart” imagery was dominant in rabbinic thought—and Jesus uses this language freely—there were also currents of thought which regarded the yetzer ha-ra, which came into being at birth, as taking control of all the bodily members. Paul's use of such language then becomes quite understandable, and Davies is justified in concluding: “We may assume that in Romans 7 Paul reflects and possibly has in mind [i.e., consciously] the rabbinic doctrine of the Two Impulses.”

Turning to the beginning of Paul's Letter to the Romans, Davies (27-31) observes that Paul presents “a defined theory of the origin of sin,” one that is very much in accord with prevalent Second Temple and later Rabbinic theories of sin:

They knew God and yet they didn't honor Him as God or give Him thanks; instead, their reasoning became foolish and their senseless hearts were darkened. They claimed they were wise but they became foolish, exchanging the glory of God for an image ...
And so God handed them over to the impure desires in their hearts... They exchanged the truth of God for falsehood, they worshipped and did service to creatures instead of to the Creator, Who is blessed forever, amen. This is why God handed them over to dishonorable passions ... And since they refused to acknowledge God, God handed them over to corrupted reasoning ... (1:20-28)

In the first place, we note that Paul is comfortable here with “heart” language, and that his usage reflects the close association of the heart with volition and reasoning in Rabbinic thought. Indeed, Paul's emphasis throughout this chapter on the ability of human reason to know the Creator from His creation is very typical of Rabbinic thought and was undoubtedly a standard part of the Jewish polemic against paganism, as well as in dialog with pagans who were sympathetic toward Judaism. In fact, in the Acts of the Apostles Paul is repeatedly presented as utilizing this very approach, notably at Lystra (14) and Athens (17). Taken in conjunction with his appeals to this approach in his own letters, it is clear that this Rabbinic “natural theology” approach was standard for Paul.

Secondly, Paul—in common once again with the Rabbinic view—sees idolatry as the source (or essence) of immoral behavior. We have already seen Paul's argument that when man is turned away from God he becomes involved in a descending spiral of sin and degradation: the false reasoning of their hearts led men to deny the obvious truth of God and to embrace creatures in place of God, and so God allowed them to follow the resulting path of degradation. They have become less than human by denying the obvious truth revealed by their God-given reasoning power. Davies offers (30) two examples to show just how closely Paul follows Rabbinic thought, as well as the yetzer theory:

“This is the device of the evil impulse [yetzer ha-ra]: Today it says 'Do this,' tomorrow 'Do that,' till at last it says 'Worship an idol' and the man goes and does it.” According to this, idolatry is the last condition to which the yetzer ha-ra will reduce a man, so that, by implication, where idolatry is all other evils are present. Again another Rabbi said: “He who hearkened to this evil impulse is as if he practised idolatry ...” The thought that idolatry is the root of all evil would easily suggest itself: to fall down to worship Satan would mean submission to the yetzer ha-ra.

Finally, Davies turns (31-35) to the classic text, Romans 5:12-21. Within the context of Romans generally, it becomes clear that, for Paul, Adam is Everyman: when Paul says that Adam sinned first and that all men also sinned, he is establishing no causal connection, as was centuries later read into this passage by Augustine (based upon an incorrect translation of 5:12). Davies provides examples of Rabbinic thought, which Paul clearly follows. “Thus in 2 Baruch 54:15-19 we read,

For though Adam first sinned,
And brought untimely death upon all,
Yet those who were born from him,
Each one of them has prepared for his own soul torment to come,
And again each one of them has chosen for himself glories to come.
Adam is, therefore, not the cause save only of his own soul
But each of us has been the Adam of his own soul.

John Ziesler (Pauline Christianity, 52-57) expands this analysis by examining Paul's use of the Adam typology in 1 Corinthians 15, comparing it to the same typology in Romans. Ziesler takes Paul's view of Adam and Christ:

Adam, the first man, became a living being;
the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.But the spiritual isn't first;
first comes the physical, then comes the spiritual.
The first man was made of dust,
the second man came from Heaven.
Those who are of the dust
are like the man of dust,and those who are of Heaven
are like the man from Heaven;
and just as we've borne the image of the man of dust,
so too we'll bear the image of the man from Heaven. 
Ziesler then observes, “One thing is obvious at first glance: Paul is talking about two different ways of being human. … Adam and Christ are thus representative figures. … Hitherto there has been only one way of being human, the Adam way: this leads inexorably to death and is purely natural humanity, hence 'a living being' which quotes Gen. 2:7, and hence the 'man of dust.' which quotes Gen. 2:7a. There is no talk here of sin ... The stress is rather on the limitation, the mere ordinary humanness, of the Adam-type humanity."

So, here we see the logical progression of Paul's Good News. First we have “natural” man, following the purely natural urgings of the yetzer ha-ra and spiraling downward in sin and idolatry. But God gives man the gift of Torah, placing man under the governing letter of the law. Although the law is spiritual in its conclusions, still man flounders under the tutelage of the Torah. And then God gives the definitive answer to man's plight—his own Son who, having died for our sins on the cross, replaces the gift giving of Sinai with the gift giving of the Spirit in place of the Torah at Pentecost. From being mere wards of the law we are, by faith and “in Christ,” transformed into children of God, brought into a new relationship (“justified”) by faith and maintained in that relationship by the Spirit “in Christ.” And this, as it happens, is the framework of Paul's theology of revelation. Paul, to be sure, worked within the limits of the traditions he inherited—especially in his approach to scripture--but his overall theory of revelation is there for all to see.

UPDATE: This update is by way of a response to the first comment, below.  Since comments are limited as to length, that response is being added as an "update":

Paul's overall view is that the covenant with Abraham rested on faith--a matter of the spirit, not the letter. Paul maintains that Torah observance cannot abrogate that covenant of faith. The purpose of Torah was educative, but Paul likens that to slavery--the child (Man under Torah) is like a slave and is taught obedience by being required to perform written legal requirements that have no real moral significance. Thus, in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 re the eating of food that had been previously offered to idols, Paul enters upon a highly rationalistic, almost deconstructive, analysis in which he maintains that eating or not eating certain foods cannot commend us to God. Paul's point is that by "knowledge" we know that we are free from Torah observance, but that freedom by knowledge, while superior to mere legal observance, should be exercised in charity, not arrogance. Nevertheless, the freedom of the New Covenant is seen as intrinsically superior, since it rests on Man's higher capabilities that God has given.

In 2 Corinthians 3:4-4:6 Paul is concerned with the superiority of the New Covenant of the Spirit. This is a relatively brief argument that Paul presents, and is best read in light of Galatians. However, what comes across, just as in 1 Corinthians, is the inherent superiority of the New Covenant in the Spirit ("the Lord is the Spirit") over Torah, which was only intended as a "transitory" measure.

Galatians is, with Romans, Paul's most systematic treatment of Torah v. New Covenant. The tone is set early on when Paul writes:
But not even Titus who was with me and is a Greek was required to be circumcised, although it was urged by some false brothers who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and wanted to enslave us. (2:3-4)
The rest of the letter is an extended argument for the inherent superiority of life in the Spirit--in "the freedom we have in Christ Jesus"--over the life of Torah observance. Now, it's true that Paul doesn't denigrate Torah observance per se. As human custom it is morally neutral, and when understood in its real essence (5:14) it is noble. However, Paul's larger point is that life in the Spirit encompasses all that is positive in Torah but takes man to a higher level, the level intended by God when He created human nature: that of freedom and spiritual fellowship with God. That higher level is what Jesus inaugurated.

Now, from all this we can see that part of the difficulty in understanding Paul's discussions of Torah has to do with the varying contexts of his letters and the varying ways in which he understands Torah. Which is to say, that Paul's letters are highly context driven, rhetorical in their approach, and even at times polemical.

So, the earlier letters that I cited above are negative in tone because Paul is dealing with backsliding in the churches. In these letters, Torah is treated in its whole literal sweep, for the most part (Paul hints at a more refined understanding by quoting Jesus at Galatians 5:12). That means that Paul includes, even emphasizes, aspects of Torah that in other contexts he would regard as cultural aspects, human traditions (cf. Jesus' remarks re purification). Romans, on the other hand, is far more irenic in tone, intended as it is from the beginning to set out an understanding of the essential equality of the entire human condition, embracing both Jews and Gentiles (not coincidentally, along the lines of Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard). His purpose here is not to address backsliding but to give a positive presentation of "his" gospel, central to which is the unity of Jews and Gentiles "in Christ."

It thus suits Paul to treat Torah not in its entire sweep but in its essentials. Thus, he maintains--in common with the Jewish understanding of the Torah as reducible to a mere handful of commandments (the "Noahide" law)--that the Gentiles were able to understand by reason the essentials of Torah. But, his main point as ever is the inherent superiority of life in the freedom of the spirit of Jesus (life "in Christ"). And the reason for that superiority is that it leads to dikaiosune, true fellowship with God "in Christ," which no amount of Torah observance or of Gentile philosophizing (no matter how noble in spirit) can give us.


  1. I like this article very much. Augustine's doctrine of original sin does not adequately understand the nuances in Genesis and Romans. It seems to me Augustine's teaching of original sin developed along the line of his metaphysics [Platonic} more than along the line of Torah.
    The one issue I would take with this article is the interpretive twist which the author takes. He states:
    "It is Christ's gift of the Spirit that allows us to truly free ourselves from the letter of Torah observance to live according to the yetzer ha-tov—the good yetzer-- “in Christ.” " I don't think Paul is questioning the letter of Torah observance or freeing himself from the letter of Torah observance. It is not Torah observance which is the source of 'wretchedness'. Isn't it the law in his members [7:23] which wars against the law of his mind which brings him into captivity to the law of sin that causes his sense of wretchedness, his sense of condemnation? The Spirit of the life in Christ Jesus, i.e. the power of the resurrection, the end of the reign of death has freed Paul from the wretchedness. The Spirit of life in Christ Jesus-because Christ condemned sin in the flesh-i.e. sin is now itself under condemnation-has freed Paul from the law [nomos in Greek] of sin and death. Consequently the righteousness of the Torah might now be fulfilled! The Torah is holy and the commandment holy.

  2. Thanks for your careful reading and encouraging comment.

    In general, I would say that Paul cannot be understood by taking any of his writings in isolation--not even Romans, his most extended theological effort. I would urge that Romans be compared to several very relevant passages in other major letters, especially 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians and Galatians, in line with the comments that I've offered in the "update."

  3. No need to post this comment. I just wanted to say that after several years of personal study of jewish thought I yearned for an understanding of how Paul's metaphors compared to the yetzers. I have never come across this topic in Christian literature. Finally today I did a Google search and presto - this article appeared and like water to a thirsty soul answered so many questions. It so makes sense! Thank you so much!

  4. You're very welcome. Sadly I've found myself unable to keep this blog more up to date.

  5. Do you have any information concerning Jesus' humanity and yetzer hara / yetzer tov?
    Especially concerning his temptation?

  6. Good article - thank you.
    Do you have any information, or know of any academic writer who has dealt with Jesus' humanity in relation to yetzer hara and yetzer tov?
    Also these aspects in relation to his temptation in the wilderness? Thank you.