Does the Bible Believe in the Evil Eye?
Walk into a traditional gift shop around the Mediterranean, and you might see a collection of brightly colored necklaces or keychains or pottery items with several concentric circles. In Jewish or Islamic stores, you might even find a hamsa, a hand-shaped amulet, which sometimes has a picture of an eye in the palm. Although largely viewed as souvenirs or fashion accessories by Western tourists today, these charms are intended to protect the wearer from the evil eye, the harmful glance of another, and reflect a belief that dates back to antiquity.
The Evil Eye in Sumer and Beyond
Belief in the evil eye—igi ḫul in Sumerian—can be traced to ancient Sumer (ca. 3000 B.C.E.). In the Lament for Sumer and Urim, for instance, the god Enlil puts “the evil eye on the sons of the loyal men” to decimate them, while in the Lament for Eridug, Enlil “looked maliciously at Sumer; he demolished it.” The Instructions of Šuruppag warns “Do not do evil with your eye” and even describes this as worse than a curse:
Whoever insults can hurt only the skin;
Greedy eyes, however, can kill.
This belief was not limited to Sumer and can be found in cultures across Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. A spell from the Old Babylonian period (ca. 1900-1600 B.C.E), for instance, details the havoc wrought by the evil eye:
The eye is a fearsome snake, the eye of the man is a fearsome snake,
The eye of the evil man is a fearsome snake.
It approached heaven—it did not rain,
It approached the earth—herbs did not grow,
It approached the ox—it broke its yoke,
It approached the cattle pen—its cheese became bad,
It catches the Kasura-fish,
It approached the young man—he lost his strength,
It approached the young woman—she lost her garment,
It approached the nurse with child—her hold became loose,
It approached the vegetables—lettuce and cress became bad,
It approached the garden—the fruit became bad.
The eye of the mountain came out from the mountain,
The wild ram let its shining horns come out. (TCL 16.89)
The Mechanics of the Evil Eye
Belief in the evil eye relies on a physiological understanding of the eye that is quite different from our own. According to modern science, vision occurs when an external light enters into the eye and is converted into electrical signals that the brain can process into recognizable images. In other words, the eye is a fairly passive organ; it cannot act until acted upon by an outside force.
In antiquity, the reverse was thought to be true. The ancient Greeks, for instance, argued that light from within the eye shot forth, connected with objects, and then returned to the eye. The eye’s light collected information about the objects it interacted with, but it could also negatively influence the environment.
Certain individuals, typically widows or strangers, namely, those who did not fit into the normal constraints of society, were thought to possess an eye so powerful that its light could “harm or destroy any object, animate or inanimate, on which it falls.” Whether acquired naturally or through an unknown supernatural force (a deity or demon), they were believed to use their evil eye to take from others what they themselves could not have.
The victims were typically the young or those experiencing a change in social status—a birth, marriage, or death in the family. These individuals were vulnerable to misfortune: premature death, the envy of neighbors, the loss of resources. Those engaged in agriculture were also vulnerable, as lack of rainfall or a sudden change in weather could decimate crops vital for the entire community’s survival.
The evil eye was a way to explain these misfortunes. People believed that they did not lose a child due to high infant mortality rates, disease, or malnutrition; the child died because some envious member of the community cast an evil eye. Farmers did not lose crops due to climate shifts or mismanagement; the field withered because an evil eye caused it to do so.
To protect against these misfortunes, individuals wore specially designed amulets, cast incantations, or applied special substances to their houses or their bodies. The “eye of Horus,” for instance, was thought to protect Egyptians from evil and heal them from illness; the “eye idols” of Tell Brak in Syria likely served a similar function. The Babylonian incantation quoted above likewise offers a verbal counter to the evil eye:
May the evil eye, the sick eye be cut off,
May it split open like a leather bag,
May it break into pieces like the potter’s pursītu-pot on the marketplace.
When it approaches, when it approaches,
When it approaches at the entrance of the street,
It encounters the man without a personal god.
Let the eye turn into wind,
(Even) Asar in Abzu
Cannot undo (this spell). (TCL 16.89)
Such talismans and spells were thought to ward off the evil eye or at least mitigate its effects and can be found in archaeological records across the Mediterranean and ancient Near East.
The Evil Eye in Rabbinic Literature
The rabbis expressed a similar concern about the evil eye. For instance, the Mishnah lists an evil eye as one of three self-destructive characteristics (m. Avot 2:11):
רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אוֹמֵר, עַיִן הָרָע, וְיֵצֶר הָרָע, וְשִׂנְאַת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, מוֹצִיאִין אֶת הָאָדָם מִן הָעוֹלָם.
Rabbi Joshua said: an evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred for humankind put a person out of the world.
This phrase is explored in a later text, Avot de-Rabbi Nathan A (16.1), which describes an ominous fate for the man who is envious of another’s learning:
עין הרע כיצד שלא תהא עינו של אדם צרה במשנתו של חבירו. מעשה באדם אחד שהיתה עינו צרה במשנתו של חברו נתקצרו חייו ונפטר והלך לו:
The Evil Eye: How so? A person should not look askance at his friend’s learning. There is a story of someone who looked askance at his friend’s learning, and his life was cut short, and he reached his end prematurely and passed on from the world.
The medieval sage R. Jonah of Gerona (d. 1264), in his commentary on the Mishnah quoted above, describes how scientists (חכמי הטבע) have explained that when people look with covetousness at the property of their fellow:
...אויר עולה מן המחשבה ההוא ושורף את הדברים שעויין בהם בעיניו הרע. גם בקרבו ישרף אחר שמתאוה לדברים שאין יכולת מצוי בידו לעשות המחשבה ההיא מקלקלת גופו כי יתקצר רוחו ומציאתו מן העולם.
…an invisible gas (literally “air”) comes forth from one’s thoughts and burns the items that the person is looking up with his evil eye. He also burns himself up, for he desires things that he is unable to obtain. This kind of thinking destroys a person’s body and shortens his life and his time on this earth.
The concept is firmly entrenched in rabbinic sources; does the Bible have a similar concept?
The Affective Eye Metaphor
Around twenty passages in the Hebrew Bible connect the eye to evil in some capacity. While the Bible does not offer any clear description of the operations of the human eye, biblical authors apparently understood that the eye was an active organ, brightening and dimming, especially as individuals aged or became sick. For example, the story in which Jacob steals Esau’s blessing begins:
בראשׁית כז:א וַיְהִי כִּי זָקֵן יִצְחָק וַתִּכְהֶיןָ עֵינָיו מֵרְאֹת...
Gen 27:1 When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see…
Similarly, in describing his failing faculties, Job says:
איוב יז:ז וַתֵּכַהּ מִכַּעַשׂ עֵינִי וִיצֻרַי כַּצֵּל כֻּלָּם.
Job 17:7 My eye has grown dim from grief, and all my members are like a shadow.
In contrast, despite Moses’ old age,
דברים לד:ז ...לֹא כָהֲתָה עֵינוֹ וְלֹא נָס לֵחֹה.
Deut 34:7 … his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.
The Bible also describes how the eye gathers knowledge. A look, however, can be dangerous: if a person sees God, this can be fatal (Exod 33:20, Gen 16:13), and the same is true for those that God looks upon (Hab 3:6).
The Eye Experiences Evil
Most passages that speak of an eye that experiences evil describe a situation that is displeasing to an individual. For instance, when the Israelites in the wilderness complain that the food was better in Egypt:
במדבר יא:י וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה אֶת הָעָם בֹּכֶה לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָיו אִישׁ לְפֶתַח אָהֳלוֹ וַיִּחַר אַף יְהוָה מְאֹד וּבְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה רָע.
Num 11:10 Moses heard the people weeping, every clan apart, each person at the entrance of his tent. The Lord was very angry, and it was evil in the eyes of Moses.
The reverse is also true: a situation that is pleasing is “good in the eyes”:
ירמיה מ:ד וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה פִתַּחְתִּיךָ הַיּוֹם מִן הָאזִקִּים אֲשֶׁר עַל יָדֶךָ אִם טוֹב בְּעֵינֶיךָ לָבוֹא אִתִּי בָבֶל בֹּא וְאָשִׂים אֶת עֵינִי עָלֶיךָ וְאִם רַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ לָבוֹא אִתִּי בָבֶל חֲדָל רְאֵה כָּל הָאָרֶץ לְפָנֶיךָ אֶל טוֹב וְאֶל הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת שָׁמָּה לֵךְ.
Jer 40:4 If it is good in your eyes to go with me to Babylon, come, and I will look after you. And if it is bad in your eyes to come with me to Babylon, you need not. See, the whole land is before you: go wherever seems good and right in your eyes.
Biblical authors use similar metaphors to describe God’s emotions:
בראשית לח:ז וַיְהִי עֵר בְּכוֹר יְהוּדָה רַע בְּעֵינֵי יְ־הוָה וַיְמִתֵהוּ יְ־הוָה.
Gen 38:7 Er, Judah’s first-born, was evil in the eyes of YHWH, and YHWH took his life.
Unlike Enlil’s evil eye that destroyed Sumer, YHWH’s evil eye does not kill Er; YHWH must do this as a separate action.
The Expression in Proverbs
Proverbs, a collection of wisdom texts, refers to individuals who are stingy or miserly as having an “evil eye” (רַע עָיִן; Prov 23:6, 28:22), always hoarding goods and longing for more:
משׁלי כג:ו אַל תִּלְחַם אֶת לֶחֶם רַע עָיִן וְאַל תִּתְאָו לְמַטְעַמֹּתָיו.
Prov 23:6 Do not eat the bread of a man with an evil eye; do not desire his delicacies.
משׁלי כח:כב נִבֳהָל לַהוֹן אִישׁ רַע עָיִן וְלֹא יֵדַע כִּי חֶסֶר יְבֹאֶנּוּ.
Prov 28:22 A man with an evil eye hastens after wealth, and does not know that want will come upon him.
In contrast, a person who is generous has a “good eye” (טֹוב עַיִן):
משׁלי כב:ט טוֹב עַיִן הוּא יְבֹרָךְ כִּי נָתַן מִלַּחְמוֹ לַדָּל.
Prov 22:9 He who has a bountiful [lit. good] eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.
The point is not to avoid those who physically harm others with their eye; rather, the point is to avoid those with specific dispositions: those who are greedy. The connection of evil to the eye here is metaphorical, and the biblical authors rely upon concrete experience to convey their meaning. In this case, the belief that the eye has the ability to physically affect the environment became associated with emotional experiences and influence the way such experiences are described.
The Curses in Deuteronomy
The idiom in Proverbs helps us understand the reference to doing evil with the eye in the curses in Deuteronomy 28. At first, this text sounds like an example of the evil eye at work. The full context of the verse, however, shows that the eye is not what causes the damage directly:
דברים כח:נד הָאִישׁ הָרַךְ בְּךָ וְהֶעָנֹג מְאֹד תֵּרַע עֵינוֹ בְאָחִיו וּבְאֵשֶׁת חֵיקוֹ וּבְיֶתֶר בָּנָיו אֲשֶׁר יוֹתִיר. כח:נה מִתֵּת לְאַחַד מֵהֶם מִבְּשַׂר בָּנָיו אֲשֶׁר יֹאכֵל מִבְּלִי הִשְׁאִיר לוֹ כֹּל בְּמָצוֹר וּבְמָצוֹק אֲשֶׁר יָצִיק לְךָ אֹיִבְךָ בְּכָל שְׁעָרֶיךָ.
Deut 28:54 He who is most tender and fastidious among you shall do evil in his eyes to his brother and the wife of his bosom and the children he has spared 28:55 to share with any of them the flesh of the children that he eats, because he has nothing else left as a result of the desperate straits to which your enemy shall reduce you in all your towns.
The siege causes starvation, and the man looks with an evil eye at his family, meaning that he decides not to share any of his food (in this case the flesh of his dead children). The siege causes the person to act in uncharitable ways, but the act of looking is not itself the cause of the evil. Thus, Deuteronomy expresses in a harsh way the same image that we saw in Proverbs.
Saul’s Evil Eye?
The closest example in the Bible to the classical “evil eye” that can affect the surrounding environment is the description of how Saul’s watchful eye causes him to be overcome by an evil spirit:
שמואל א יח:ט וַיְהִי שָׁאוּל עון [עוֹיֵן] אֶת דָּוִד מֵהַיּוֹם הַהוּא וָהָלְאָה. יח:י וַיְהִי מִמָּחֳרָת וַתִּצְלַח רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים רָעָה אֶל שָׁאוּל וַיִּתְנַבֵּא בְתוֹךְ הַבַּיִת וְדָוִד מְנַגֵּן בְּיָדוֹ כְּיוֹם בְּיוֹם..
1 Sam 18:9 From that day on Saul kept a jealous eye on David. 18:10 The next day an evil spirit of God gripped Saul and he began to rave in the house, while David was playing [the lyre], as he did daily....
This passage is the closest we get to the evil eye in a biblical text. Indeed, Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki, ca. 1040–1105) glosses the term עֹוֵן as עין רעה “evil eye.” However, the person affected is Saul himself. The story certainly foreshadows trouble for David, but he is only endangered by Saul’s repeated attempts to kill him, not by his evil eye.
Evil Eye? Not in the Hebrew Bible
Did the people of ancient Israel and Judah believe in the evil eye, that certain people could physically harm others just by looking at them, as was the common belief in the ANE and ancient Greece, and was accepted in rabbinic Judaism? We have no clear evidence for it. The Bible does not reference evil eye in this way explicitly, and there is little evidence for amulets and incantations designed specifically to ward off the evil eye from this period.
The Bible does associate the eye with an ability to affect the environment and the individual, but in biblical texts, when someone casts an evil eye upon another, that is a description of the person’s emotional state, not a magical attack requiring talismans to thwart.
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Dr. Nicole L. Tilford is an independent scholar living in Atlanta, GA. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Emory University. She is the author of Sensing World, Sensing Wisdom: The Cognitive Foundation of Biblical Metaphors (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017) and has published articles on sensory criticism of biblical metaphors and the reception history of the Bible.
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