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.
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