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How do you respond to Judges 9:23?

“…God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the lords of Schechem; and the lords of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech.” (cf. 1 Sam. 16:14; 1 Kings 22:19–23).

Some compatibilists cite this passage to support the view that evil spirits always carry out the Lord’s will (though they contend that God is good for willing it and the spirits are evil for carrying it out). I argue that this conception is unintelligible and the interpretation of this passage that supports it is unnecessary.

We should first note that this passage does not imply that evil spirits always carry out the Lord’s will. We must be careful not to read universal implications into specific historical narratives.

Second, the word “evil” in this passage (ra’) can simply mean “troubling” or “disastrous.” It does not have to be interpreted as referring to a morally evil spirit. Hence this passage may simply mean that as an act of judgment God sent a spirit whose job it was to trouble or bring disaster to Abimelech.

Third, even if we conclude that the spirit in this verse was morally evil, the verse may be interpreted as teaching that as an act of judgment God allowed the spirit to do what it wanted to do to Abimelech (see How do you respond to Exodus 21:12–13?). It doesn’t warrant the conclusion that evil spirits always carry out God’s sovereign plan.

If this were the case, we’d have to accept that God is in conflict with himself when Jesus rebukes demons. Jesus would be carrying out the Father’s will in casting out demons who are allegedly present in a person’s life because God willed it. Yet Jesus said that he couldn’t be casting out demons by Satan, the prince of demons, because a kingdom can’t be divided against itself (Matt. 12:25–38). The same logic forces the conclusion that Jesus couldn’t cast out demons by the power of God if the demons were themselves present by the will of God. God’s kingdom, like Satan’s kingdom, can’t be divided against itself.

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