A Case of the Evil Eye: Qohelet 4:4-8

Article excerpt

The evil eye-the belief that spiteful looks can damage one's health, fertility, or property-is common in many cultures even today.1 It was prevalent throughout the ancient Near East2 and is frequendy mentioned in rabbinic literature.3 There is no direct proof that the Israelites were concerned about the power of the evil eye in biblical times, but no doubt they too sought means to defend diemselves against all kinds of threatening evil powers. Two silver amulets found in a burial cave in Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem attest to the apotropaic function of the blessing of the priests (Num 6:24-26) in Judah at the end of the First Temple period (ca. sixth century B.C.E.).4 According to the preamble to the blessing, the amulets protected their owners against "the Evil" qualified by the definite article: "May he [or she] be blessed by God, the rescuer and the rebuker of the Evil."5 Later, the midrash explicitly connects the apotropaic character of the priestly blessing with the evil eye: "When Israel made the Tabernacle the Holy One, blessed be He, He gave diem the blessing first, in order that no evil eye might affect them. Accordingly it is written: "The Lord bless thee and keep thee' (Num 6:24), namely, from the evil eye" (Num. Rab. 12.4; Pesiq. Rab. 5).6 Given the evidence for the existence of the belief in the evil eye in the surrounding cultures, the acknowledgment of it in rabbinic sources, and its strong and persistent hold in Mediterranean and Near Eastern societies, it would be odd indeed if mis were not an integral part of the worldview of the ancient Israelites in biblical times, one of various forms of magical powers to be reckoned with.


This belief, however, has left very few palpable traces in biblical literature. Some stories may refer to the evil eye implicidy, and this was picked up by later exegesis. Two examples will suffice. Rashi claimed that the census of Israel which was carried out via the payment of half shekels in order to avoid the danger of pestilence (...) alluded to the danger of the evil eye: "the census is controlled by the evil eye; and it happened in the days of David (II Sam 24:1-10)" (Rashi to Exod 30:12). Another implicit biblical indication of the power of the evil eye is to be found in the story of Balaam. Rashi interpreted Balaam's act of lifting his eyes and seeing Israel dwelling in peace as "wishing to inflict mem with the evil eye" (Rashi to Num 24:2). The story of Balaam indeed connects the act of cursing with high places overlooking the people (Num 22:41; 23:28; 24:2). Balaam himself is designated ... "the man whose eye is open"7 or "true" (Jewish Publication Society Version [JPSV]; Num 24:3,15), and the tiieme of seeing or not seeing is dominant in the account of his confrontation with the ass (22:21-35).8 In such cases, the possible allusion to the evil eye is gleaned from the context, but is not corroborated by any direct mention.

The noun-adjective combination "evil eye" (...) or the construct "the eye of evil" (...) common in rabbinic literature is not attested as such in the Bible. When the substantive "eye" appears together with the verb designating evil (...), it reflects negative characteristics associated with human interactions such as stinginess, greed, and envy, and always refers to a person, rather than to an independent evd power. A case in point is the construction ..., "show ill will" (Deut 15:9 NIV), literally, "your eye shall be evil" (KJV).9 Similarly, in the Deuteronomic covenantal curses, the construction ... ("his/her eye shall be evil") designates "begrudging" (Deut 28:54, 56).10

Wisdom literature features another phrase that resembles the construct and adjectival forms. The book of Proverbs counsels against eating the bread of an evdeyed person (pi) in), lest you vomit the food which in his heart he begrudges you (Prov 23:6-8).n The verse hints at the potential of the "evil-eyed" to harm and cause illness-concepts prevalent in the belief system of the evil eye-yet it does not ascribe explicitly independent demonic power to the eye. …


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