What Is an Evil Eye?

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By Raymond Harris
Regarding History: Luke 11.34-35

Note to the Reader – I encourage you to invest additional time reading the Book of Luke in conjunction with this article.

What Is an Evil Eye?

As this author was reading through the book of Luke this week, I found the passage of Luke 11.34-35 regarding the ‘evil eye’ (which lent itself to the article’s title) interesting. And I found myself asking, “What exactly is an ‘evil eye’?” As my readers are probably aware, I like to examine Biblical Hebrew culture in order to best understand the statements of the Scriptures. While reading an English translation of the Scriptures is fairly easy, sometimes it is difficult to completely understand because some of the phraseology, terminology, and idiomatic expressions are purely Hebrew (Semitic, or Jewish). As I did a little research of the verses, it was interesting to me the vast understandings of them. So, I thought I would present some of the findings, provide some of my thoughts, and leave the information in your hands.

A Difficult Passage
While many lessons have been taught from these two verses of Luke eleven, it takes some courage to admit that the passage is difficult and that one’s personal understanding is uncertain. A European commentator said the following:1

    The meaning is not easy to grasp, but probably it is this. The light of the body depends on the eye; if the eye is healthy the body receives all the light it needs; if the eye is diseased the light turns to darkness. Just so, the light of life depends on the heart; if the heart is right the whole life is [illuminated] with light; if the heart is wrong all life is darkened. Jesus urges us to see that the inner lamp is always burning. [Italics in original]

While the application seems appropriate, one must hear the words of the commentator, “the meaning is not easy”. Upfront he admits that his knowledge and understanding are limited, and then indicates that he may be incorrect by using the word “probably”. This is no insult to the commentator, he is doing the best he can with the knowledge that he possesses. None should fault him. Yet, he freely admits the potential for his lack of specific knowledge.

An American commentator had this application for Luke 11.34:2

    As the lamp is made for light and its useful purposes, so the eye was made for vision, needing therefore to be in perfect condition so as to fulfill its functions well. In like manner the moral light of God comes into this world through Christ to be accepted by men honestly and with unprejudiced mind. For as a blurred eye dooms the whole body to darkness, so does a prejudiced, worldly heart shut off the light of God and doom the miserable man to the darkness of delusion and death. The “eye is single” when it is undimmed and has its natural and proper powers for straight and clear seeing; when the eye is evil, that is, it lacks its powers of clear and correct sight, the body is full of darkness.

This commentator also provides an interesting thought to the passage, and the lesson is of value. It is interesting to note that both Western commentators are attempting to explain the passage’s meaning but they have differing approaches. While it is probable that both are providing truisms and spiritual insight, the question is: Is it possible that narrative context and a Middle Eastern (Eastern) social context could change the application?

Contextual Considerations
While the next statement is intended as light-hearted satire, it contains some validity. Sometimes, we as American readers, think the Scriptures cannot be understood until read in the original English. Yet, we must remind ourselves that our American culture and language and the Bible’s culture and languages differ. Consequently, to best understand the Scriptures, we must hear any passage in its proper context. Knowing this, there are many things to consider as one reads the Scriptures. One item to consider is what I call “narrative context” or the setting. For Scripture readers to simply quote verses and make application runs the real risk of quoting out-of context, which can cause misapplication, or worse, being misleading, although unintended. So, the first item we must address is narrative context.

The narrative context of Luke 11.34-35 is determined, in part, by the change of scenes within Luke. This Gospel narrative context seems fairly easy to identify because of statements like, “it came to pass”. Yet, within those settings phrases like “he was [doing a miracle]” or “he was teaching” help refine a setting. Knowing this, it seems that our article’s setting begins as early as 11.1 and extends as far as 12.59, possibly further. But it seems that our article’s narrative context begins at 11.14 and goes to, at least, 11.54.3 If correctly identified, then it represents a tremendous section that needs to be taken in its entire context, of which the narrative context will contain many sub-points. We must keep in mind that the sub-points are supporting points and are secondary in meaning. Furthermore, the use of supporting points helps establish the primary meaning of the overall narrative context.

Our narrative context begins with a miracle, and continues because of an accusation against Jesus. Jesus then answers the accusation, when he is interrupted by a woman in the crowd, his response to her invites the crowd to draw in closer to hear his words. He then begins a critical assessment of the evil generation4 within which contains verses 34 and 35 that contain information about the ‘evil eye’. Following that, Jesus states grievances against the Pharisees and the lawyers/experts in law (Torah).5 It seems that Luke 11.34-35 is within the narrative context of an accusation against Jesus’ miracle, and Jesus’ critical assessment of an ‘evil generation’ having an ‘evil eye’ against which he utters grievances.

Now having a narrative context, what does it mean within the Bible culture to have an ‘evil eye’? For this answer we turn to a Near Eastern commentator.6

         Beesha is the Aramaic word for “evil.” It has many meanings; therefore, context determines its interpretation. In this verse of scripture, if refers to a “diseased eye.” “If your eye is diseased, your whole body will also be dark” is the intended meaning. Semites also use beesha to express envy and jealousy. …
         A diseased eye also refers to one who is covetous and desires property that does not belong to him. In such a case, the term means all his actions are poisoned and the whole body is dark. A person without envy or covetousness is known as having a “good eye.” This refers to a person of pure character whose words and actions bring blessings to others.

While this Near Eastern commentator and the Western commentators are approximately the same in application, the Near Eastern commentator’s statement about the ‘evil eye’ being diseased and covetous certainly seems to better clarify our narrative context. In our narrative context, accusations flew against Jesus for performing wonders, and he eventually retorts by saying that the evil generation sought a sign.7 However, shortly following that statement, there appears a list of grievances, of which can be attributed to the diseased and covetous behavior (the ‘evil eye’) of the evil generation, the leaders. These are cutting, and harsh words (if not slanderous words) from Jesus against the leadership. While it can and does have a personal application, the ‘evil eye’ statement seems best understood to be about the leaders. Knowing this, it leaves the Gospel reader with little wonder as to why they laid traps to catch Jesus.8

We saw three different commentators, an American, a European, and a Near Easterner. The two of the West attempted to explain the passage, while the Near Easterner provided insight. It is of interest to see that the Western commentators do not necessarily conflict with the Near Eastern, but both Westerners seem to rely on a philosophically based theology to draw their conclusion. However, the Near Eastern commentator provides greater sociological insight into a specific cultural expression that assists the passage and narrative context. So, while the reader’s considerations and thoughts for this ‘evil eye’ passage may or may not remain the same, it is interesting to see how narrative context and cultural context play major roles in Scripture interpretation. At the very least, it is interesting. May Jehovah bless us all.

1. “The meaning is not easy.” The Daily Study Bible Series, The Gospel of Luke, Revised Edition; William Barclay; Third Printing, 1977; ISBN 0-664-24104-4; p. 153.
2. “Luke 11.34 application.” A Commentary on the Gospel According to Luke; H. Leo Boles; ISBN 0-89225-003-8, pp. 238-239.
3. “Narrative context.” Luke 11.14-54.
4. “Evil generation.” Luke 11.29.
5. “Grievances against Pharisees and Lawyers.” Luke 11.37-52.
6. “Evil eye.” Aramaic New Testament Series – Volume 2, Aramaic Light on the Gospels of Mark and Luke, A Commentary on the Teachings of Jesus from the Aramaic and Unchanged Near Eastern Customs; Rocco A. Errico and George M. Lamsa; pp. 186-187.
7. “Evil generation seeks a sign.” Luke 11.29.
8. “Leaders Response: Entrap Jesus.” Luke 11.53-54.