Richard Briggs writes: What does Genesis 1 say about the goodness of creation? It says it was good, indeed very good. What that does and does not mean is my main focus. It brings with it two related questions: what does this have to teach us about how we live? and secondly, because I can never avoid asking this question, what lessons are there here for how we read the Bible generally? But first: goodness.
‘And God saw that it was good’
Read through Genesis 1 and see what is good. This is an exercise you can do with any major Bible translation, since the regular rhythms and repeated vocabulary of Genesis 1 are well captured by all the main translations. Personally, I find this kind of exercise easiest when there is a table of data to look at. Here it is:
*the wording is a bit different from all the other examples here, literally ‘And God saw the light, that it was good’ – which is actually how the KJV translated it.
**as readers doubtless know, here God sees that it is ‘very good’ – or ‘good exceedingly’ as the Hebrew likes to put it
There is a lot one could say about this, as the vast number of books written about Genesis 1 alone demonstrates. But it is certainly striking that nothing on day 2 is noted as being ‘good’. Day 2 was when God made the ‘dome’, or the ‘firmament’, that separated out the waters above from the waters below, and that later in the verse God calls ‘heaven’ (KJV, ESV), or ‘sky’ (NIV, NRSV). Some commentators think this was a kind of structural engineering detail and not worthy of being called ‘good’. Others wonder if it was simply more significant overall to have seven things listed as ‘good’ in the whole chapter. When the ancient translators put Gen 1 into Greek, in the Septuagint (LXX), they were sufficiently vexed by this issue that they added in another ‘and it was good’ in the middle of v.8, meaning that everything got listed as good. In the process the significance of a symbolic seven notes about goodness was lost.
Even so, overall, we are on safe ground saying that everything in Genesis 1 is good, and arguably that the closing summation in v.31 – ‘behold/indeed it was very good’ – is intended to apply to the whole of the work of creation. Whichever way you look at it, it’s all good.
What Does ‘Good’ Mean?
Here again there is a lot you could say, especially if your interest is in philosophy or in the classic theological question of how original goodness is or is not preserved in or through the fall. I am myself interested in those things, but right now I have a more modest goal: what does the word translated as ‘good’ in Genesis 1 usually mean?
The Hebrew word translated ‘good’ is tob (though pronounced with a soft ‘b’, so more like tov). Versions of this word occur around 300 times in the Old Testament, if you include its related terms. Related terms would be words such as ‘goods’, which in Hebrew as in English can serve as a noun referring to things one has, and presumably things that are in some way good to have.
If you look up tob in a Hebrew dictionary you will get some sort of definition like this: ‘pleasant, agreeable, good’. There is often a certain aesthetic element to what is tob. I might suggest that one engaging way to capture this in English, admittedly a bit loosely, is to say that something is ‘pretty good’. In the Old Testament beautiful things are tob. A wife for example is tob (Prov 18:22): a joy, a delight: good and beautiful. What’s good is, in this particular way, ‘pretty good’ – in the broad sense of ‘pleasing’, whether to the eyes, or the heart, or just in general making your experience of life altogether a better, richer experience. This is not saying ‘whatever makes you feel good is good’. But it is saying that good things should in some way make you feel good. (Small print: like all such statements in the Old Testament, yes of course there are exceptions, and there are days when things feel ‘meaningless, meaningless’ as Ecclesiastes put it, at least in the NIV, and so on … but recognising exceptions and qualifications should not obscure the fact that there is a point there in the first place.)
‘Good’, not ‘Perfect’
Of course, I am suggesting ‘pretty good’ as a way of understanding creation in Genesis 1 because the phrase can do double duty: as a marker of goodness (which will have a moral dimension) and also a marker of beauty (the aesthetic dimension). Everything God makes is both ‘pretty’ and ‘good’! This helpfully points us to something else going on in the first chapter of the Bible: for all the wondrous joy of this claim about goodness, Genesis 1 chooses not to say ‘it was perfect’.
When it wants to, the Old Testament can describe things as perfect. It does this for example when describing the sacrificial system, and the offering of things that are perfect (Lev 22:21); or the law of the Lord (Ps 19:7); or the ways of the Lord – famously in Deut 32:3-4: ‘Ascribe greatness to our God / The Rock, his work is perfect’ (as also in 2 Sam 22:31//Ps 18:30). In Song of Songs the enraptured lover is moved to describe his female companion as ‘my dove, my perfect one’ (5:2, 6:9). The word behind all these instances of perfection is tamimor some variation on it – complete, whole, sound, … perfect. Genesis 1 could have said this if it wanted to. But it did not. (For those wondering, the same contrast could be made from the Greek translation of the OT too, the Septuagint, where in Gen 1 all is kalos, good, but other words are used in Deut 32, Ps 19, etc. There is also an interesting phrase in classical Greek to describe good or proper conduct, particularly military action: kalos kagathos – ‘beautiful and good’, or perhaps we might say ‘noble’, but note the link again between goodness and ‘beauty’.)
My experience of explaining all this to classes over the years has been that it comes as a surprise to many. For whatever reason, many people have the impression that in Genesis 1 everything is perfect. I suspect this comes from a general idea that there is a before-and-after narrative around the Fall, in Genesis 3, where the greatness and perfection of what went before contrasts with the lostness and imperfection of what came after. In other words, this idea comes from big picture thinking, and not from reading Genesis 1 carefully.
Hints that all is not straightforwardly Perfect at the beginning of Genesis
Now it is hard enough to explain the Fall in Genesis 3 anyway, without raising the stakes by suggesting that all was perfection a mere two chapters ago, and then wondering how it ever went wrong. And yes I know that Genesis 3 does not use a word such as ‘fall’, but it is clearly a narrative of falling out – falling apart – falling away from the path that God had intended. In Genesis 2:18 it was ‘not good’ for the man to be alone. In Genesis 3 a crafty serpent causes havoc. How do these things happen in God’s good creation? Well, in some sense, the creation being good never did mean that nothing can go wrong.
Armed with these insights into what is not good in Gen 2–3, what happens if we go back to Genesis 1 again and look carefully at whether it was painting a perfect picture – or a picture of perfection at any rate? Perhaps it was not. I would say that there are only hints, but hints there indeed are. There is the strange ‘without form and void’ of 1:2, the tohu wabohu that has defeated scholars, but seems to point to some sort of poetically described lack of life and light before God sets to work on day 1. Then there is the intriguing half-reference to ‘the great sea monsters’ (1:21, NRSV; or ‘creatures’ NIV, ESV; or ‘whales’ KJV) on the fifth day of creation, picked up in later tradition as ‘the beast of the sea’, called ‘Leviathan’ in Job 41:1. Or the ‘dominion’ (1:26) and ‘subduing’ (1:28) that humans are to engage in over the other animals, which are terms that people debate at length, and perhaps have a range of positive or negative connotations, but may at least hint that all is not sweetness and light on the primal earth.
Given that the vocabulary of Genesis 1 means we are not looking for a ‘perfect’ planet in this opening chapter, I suggest that these hints that all was not straightforwardly perfect should not be a surprise. The world as God made it is good – indeed it is very good – and that is enough.
On Learning to Live Imperfectly
I think there is an enormously helpful practical point to make here. Long before we get to the issues of fallenness and sin that come to dominate later Christian thinking, and before they have even arrived in the Bible, we can say this clearly: God wants us to make our home, at peace, in a good world. However, the goodness of our world – God’s world – is not a guarantee that nothing can go wrong, and it is not perfection, and it is not an unchanging sense of all being exactly right. Rather, God gives us a world that is … pretty good, and that is good enough. It was and is a world with space for change, growth, and real (and abundant) life. Perfection was not really the point. And if it had been, I suggest, then Genesis 1 would have said so.
I wonder if this allows us to find joy and delight in the midst of all the obvious ways in which our world today is not perfect. We are invited by Genesis 1 to see God’s goodness all around us, and to hold on to this insight even as the narrative progresses in short order to a second and equally penetrating claim, that our ways of life on God’s earth are broken and persistently falling apart. Eve eats the fruit, Cain murders Abel, and before long the sons of God are having their way with the daughters of men and the rains are coming – the not-called-good dome or firmament of 1:8 will not hold, and the flood is on its way. You cannot miss that Genesis 1–11 thinks there is a lot wrong on earth. But I think we were also not supposed to miss that the earth of which that is true was and is … good.
Reflecting on how to read the Bible
I would like to suggest that this whole reflection has been an exercise in paying attention to what the text says. And does not say. My focus has been on ‘the plain sense’ of the text: what its words are and how they are put together. This is a kind of reading that serves the church well, and if as preachers we follow this approach then we will end up talking about what the text talks about. I hope that will lead to sermons that are themselves pretty good.
In terms of detail: I think no writer of scripture wrote casually. There is a long tradition going all the way back to the rabbis that one is to read with precision: Why this word and not that? Why this particular way of saying something? That does not mean we will never end up having an argument with a scriptural passage once we have heard it properly, but it does mean that if we do not pay attention to words and details then we will not be doing justice to the contribution scripture wants to make to our thinking. Word studies are a bit of a minefield, because how authors use words can vary, and sometimes context is more important than specific word choice, and so on. But in my view, we are most interested in what the scriptural text does, in interaction with all the other scriptural texts, and only secondarily in what the various authors thought they were doing (for which usually our only evidence is the text anyway). So in practice word studies work pretty well, as long as we keep our wits about us. And attention to the actual words used in scripture leads us on to paying theological attention to the claims being made – or as we might say: theological reading of scripture is nourished by taking care to attend to the specific words used.
In one sense, then: our task is simply to read what the text says. On the other hand, it turns out that this is often not easy to do. Lots of readers seem to have thought Genesis 1 was saying something more than ‘good’, but as I have tried to show, it was not (except perhaps ‘very good’). It is always worth taking time over details and letting our imaginations be shaped by where the specifics of the text are pressing us to go. I find this point is often overlooked both by those who criticise scripture and also those who seek to defend it. Counsels of perfection are unhelpful here too. Perhaps in another posting I might go on to defend the doctrine of ‘the goodness of scripture’: that God saw all that he had caused to be written and behold it was very good. Let readers of Genesis 1 understand.
Revd Dr Richard Briggs is lecturer in Old Testament at Cranmer Hall, St John’s College, Durham and an associate vicar in two parishes just east of Durham.
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22 thoughts on “And God Saw That It Was…Pretty Good (Gen 1)”
This is a good argument from the purely theological perspective. Maybe I am wrong I have always looked at Genesis with geological eyes – partly as I became a Christians weeks before graduating in geology and then working as a geologist for a few years. Geology forces two issues, first of time with billions of years and secondly how being “good” ties in with animal death for 4 billion yerars.
I don’t see a way of harmonising the generally accepted understanding (GAU) of the chronology of creation and life on earth (big bang, death, disease and predation before the appearance of mankind etc.) with a wholly trustworthy Bible. As I see it, there are two big problems: predation before the Fall in the light of Genesis 1:29-20, Genesis 9:2-3, Isaiah 11:6-9; and there is no place in GAU for subjection of creation to the slavery of corruption, in the light of Genesis 1:31 – “very good”.
Phil, I agree that the GAU includes predation before the fall and, if the GAU is accepted, there is then a difficulty with Genesis 1:29-30. There is less problem with Isaiah 11:6-9, which seems to describe the perfect world that will exist after the return of Christ.
For those of us that accept the GAU, it seems clear that the creation has become a lot *more* spoilt since the Fall. In modern times through the degradation of the environment. But even for prehistoric times, Richard Dawkins and many other secular scientists have drawn attention to the mass extinctions in the animal fauna of Australia and North America that followed swiftly (within a few millennia) after Homo sapiens – even “primitive” Homo sapiens – arrived in these two continents.
[Everyone, this comment includes praise for Professor Dawkins’ scientific insights, it is not intended as a comment on his religious views which are irrelevant to the point at issue.]
Jamie thanks for your reply.
I think Isaiah 11:6-9 is a difficulty because in Isaiah 11:6-9 hurt and destruction is clearly not good, and is removed as part of Messiah’s work. If hurt and destruction (predation) were present before the appearance of man, it was simultaneously (very) good and a blessing and not good and removed by the Messiah. This contradiction cannot be.
You did not mention Genesis 9:2-3 which is part of the predation difficulty.
I am not sure what point you are making in your statement: “For those of us that accept the GAU, it seems clear that the creation has become a lot *more* spoilt since the Fall. In modern times through the degradation of the environment. But even for prehistoric times, Richard Dawkins and many other secular scientists have drawn attention to the mass extinctions in the animal fauna of Australia and North America that followed swiftly (within a few millennia) after Homo sapiens – even “primitive” Homo sapiens – arrived in these two continents”. Is it a comment on my point about “subjection of creation to the slavery of corruption”? Is your point that the mass extinctions are the “subjection of creation to the slavery of corruption” and after the Fall (of “primitive” Homo sapiens)? But my point is that in GAU there is an essential observable sameness (despite mass extinctions) throughout the history of the universe, the earth, and non-human life on earth. There is no room in GAU for the discontinuity which “subjection of creation to the slavery of corruption” must surely have been.
I have no answers and your point is well made. For example, is the current ecological catastrophe different in kind from the end-Permian mass extinction of about 250 million years ago? – it would be very hard to justify a “yes” answer.
Thankyou for your gracious reply.
Love this! This is crucial for our understanding of Genesis – and as Denis Alexander points out in “Creation and Evolution – Do we have to choose?” we effectively take too much of our Genesis theology from Paradise Lost rather than Genesis itself (ok, perhaps I overstate, but only to make the point…) If creation was “good” rather than “perfect” we then have to ask what was the point of it, and that gets us into interesting discussions about what needed “subduing” in the earth and what the point of that was, which then takes us neatly to Irenaen theodicy and the idea of this life being about “soul-making” and hence a gateway into seeing how evolution and Biblical theology (might just) fit together… it seems to me possibly.
It is also the foundation for the Goodness, perfection of God, is it not?
As opposed to humanity, that spirals downwards after rejecting, denying God’s Goodness ignoring Him and being sustained by feeding on knowledge of good and evil (which is endemic today) leaving out God and His Goodness, in Gen 3-11 with the and ” he died” refrain, the consequences of the curse, with the stand out exception of Enoch.
Jonathan Edwards saw much about the Beauty of God.
Somewhere Kierkegaard says something along the lines of “in the beginning God said it was good; on the cross He said it was perfected”
“Perfect(ed)” is from the Greek “tetelestai” — in the highly unusual perfect tense, a pun and a digression — a word usually translated as “completed” or, in this instance, “finished”. But “perfect” makes more sense in the light of Genesis’ “good”.
Thank you Richard and Ian. This was a very helpful encouragement / warning not to expect things to be perfect, instead to be content with what is good, or good enough.
And I was reminded of EF Schumacher’s great small book, “A Guide to the Perplexed”, and its theme word “adequateness.” He recommends applying an equivalent logic to the decisions we make day by day. Don’t expect to be able to make decisions that are perfect, he says. Just aim to make decisions that are good enough.
Thanks for this interesting blog , Richard. Over the tears in the course of regularly preaching and teaching on Genesis 1 I’ve argued that ‘good’ means fulfilling the purpose for which it was created. That I think means that there is the potential, indeed the necessity to develop. This better expresses the whole picture of a creation which is already good but developing into something even more glorious .
This is not derailed by the Fall for God’s purpose is to renew creation and for humanity to fulfil the original purpose of being vice-regents. The new creation will continue to grow more and more as God intended it to be. C.S. Lewis catches this wonderfully in the las sentence of “The Last Battle”.
Just love the “tears” typo.
Is “good” being used to suggest a slightly flawed reation? – as if there was something faulty about God’s work. Not at all. Here’s my own take on why “good” was used, then why “perfect” was not used. I based both on usage within the context rather than on the lack of use.
When we look at the use of “good” beyond Genesis 1, we find that it is soon set in contrast to what is “bad”, with a tree offering to give humanity the knowledge of “good and bad/evil” [Genesis 2:9,17; 3:5,22]. The disobedience of the fall causes us to “know” (experience) “bad” as well as “good”.
Generations pass and we reach Genesis 6:5, where God sees “only bad/evil continually”. The deeds of humanity are now in stark contrast to the deeds of God in creation. That’s why he has in mind to use a flood to undo day 6 of creation. He then starts afresh in Genesis 9 with a new blessing that echoes the one in Genesis 1:22 and a redeclaration of his first command to “be fruitful and multiply”. We shall come back to this later.
So, in context, it is clear that “good” is being used to contrast what is of God and what is not of God. Such comparing and contrasting of words and ideas are often used in the Old Testament and quite often in the New Testament too. In the New Testament, we find trees that grow “good” and “bad” fruit [Mat 7:17-18].
“Perfect” (tamiym) was not an appropriate word to use in Genesis 1. This word implies completeness, wholeness, rather than steps within the making of something. So might we expect to find it in Genesis 2 beside the seventh day when all is complete? It seems that the author had other plans: God may have “finished” his creative work [Genesis 2:2] but don’t forget that humanity has just been commissioned with a task: “Be fruitful and multiply” [Genesis 1:28]. Perfection is to be found in our obedience to God’s command, which continues the creative act. Note, then, that the Bible’s first use of “perfect” is found at Genesis 6:9. While the world had gone ‘bad’, Noah is described as the only one “perfect in his generation”. As we continue into the account of the flood, we repeatedly find Noah listening to God and obeying his instructions. That’s what makes things ‘perfect’. Obviously, the New Testament has more to say to enlighten us on this subject.
So: just as Christian teaching communicates it, Genesis 1 is describing a faultless creation. It is saying that God did nothing wrong (bad) in his design and execution. Genesis 3, just as Christian teaching communicates it, is saying that the problems (bad) of the world are caused by our disobedience to God (aka our sin). It does not intend to communicate that God created anything that was flawed, or that any “bad” is down to problems with his creation.
Thanks for this Ian. I’ve been teaching the same for years.
One thing missing from your piece is the trajectory that the “imperfect” Creation is therefore set upon. It’s “imperfection” screams out for a future perfection and it is telling that the New Creation language of Revelation is teeming with such vocabulary, made no less powerful by the apocalyptic nature of the genre.
Thank you for comments on aspects of Gen 1 near and far to the point(s) I was making. I might just add that there is so very much worth saying about Gen 1 that I in no way meant to suggest that what Gen 1 is fundamentally about it goodness-not-perfection… just that it is one aspect of its rich picture.
God’s creating work is not flawed – I would say – but the resultant creation looks less than flawless. I don’t (personally) think Genesis explains this, but it does commit to it being true. So it’s worth sitting with that, as Genesis does, and learning from it.
Just listened to a talk by Dr Sinclair Ferguson which I’ll link when I get onto the computer, in which he points out the number of “Goods” as 6 in Genesis one.
But to that is added, almost as footnote as it were, a ” not good ” in Genesis 2 – it was not food for man to be alone. v 18.
God had created a garden within the world for humanity and as Ferguson memorably puts it, “everything was good but everything was not garden.”
Interestingly, Ferguson goes on to root legalism and antinomianism in Genesis; the source is the when the commands, instructions of God are separated from the character of God, his kindness goodness.
This is from a series of short talks on “The Whole Christ” a book he has written.
It is rare and challenging teaching, beneficial to the whole church, not only Anglicans.
I’d look to press the point Bob Fyall raised, but didn’t develop in the constraints of the comments, that is, the purpose of creation, the why question.
Does that not revolve around the pre-creation Triune God, a relational God, a Fathering God, who by the Spirit, Fathers, Adam, a son. (This is by no means an attempt to explain the Trinity.)
The ultimate purpose being that the son glorify the father and the father glorify the son.?
And the garden is the created place of living in relationship with God, or as others such as Beale have identified it, as the sanctuary, temple, a place where God dwells with his people, in “The Temple and the Mission of the Church”.
The purpose: to cover the whole earth where God dwells with his people, in Glory.
“Everything was good, but not everything was garden.” Sinclair Ferguson.
This is the link I mentioned above.
In Gen 1 there are 6 “goods” representing incompleteness, and one “not good” Gen 2:13
If that link isn’t effective it is number 4 “Danger! Legalism!” in the series “The Whole Christ”. There are 10 or so talks in the series, so some have yet to be put up.
Gen 2:18, not 13
You write the following: There is also an interesting phrase in classical Greek to describe good or proper conduct, particularly military action: kalos kagathos – ‘beautiful and good’
based on the english gloss you have, shouldn’t the tranliterated Greek reak “Kalos kai agathos”?
That is because of the common elision of kai with following words that begin with a vowel, known as crasis. The most common example in the NT is the elision of kai with ego into kago, eg in Matt 2.8, Luke 11.9, John 1.31. Occurs a lot in John, only once in Mark.
God desired what he wanted to create, what it will be created out of, and why(PURPOSE) for creating that thing. After creating it, He SAW what he created and It (that) thig was GOOD.
I believe that when God SAW a thing he created, He was looking at the thing and every used of it to its detail. For instance, he saw a tree and saw and house, furniture, door, guitar, paper,
used of paper etc… hidden in the tree and declared it good or complete. It was up to man to use God given intellect as an image of God to DISCOVER the goodness of tree and use it to create a new product for himself. God already saw that product man is discovering it, and also by products as well, same for water- power, electrify, etc,,
God created earth and everything in it for Humans benefit.
He told the man to look after and use it.
If I am wrong with thoughts shared correct me,