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In my previous posts I talked about the world as God intends and how we can begin to discern those intentions from the creation narratives in the book of Genesis. However, I didn’t consider what those narratives told us about God’s intentions in particular. However, I did propose three ways of identifying an essential feature of God’s intentions.
On the basis of our first two criteria – it is a recurring general characteristic of creation – we arrive without difficulty at our first essential feature: the goodness of creation. While this is an apparently straightforward concept, we need to do a little more analysis to discern precisely what is meant, since “good” can have many different meanings – virtuous, beautiful, high quality, enjoyable and proficient – to name but a few.
God repeatedly pronounces his work “good” (ṭôb) (Gen 1:10, 12, 18, 21 and 25). Earlier in verse 4 God sees that the light is good, and later in verse 31, God declares the whole of creation to be “very good” (1:31). There are three potential meanings for this term “good” (ṭôb).
(1) Goodness is moral virtue. A first possibility is to take ṭôb in a moral or ethical sense. Perhaps the Creator saw his creation and judged it virtuous or morally upright. Noting that a consequence of the Fall is the introduction of sin into the created order (Rom 5:12), it could be that God viewed his handiwork, prior to Adam’s sin, and asserted its moral perfection.
However, on a closer inspection of the text, this interpretation founders because of what is described as good: light (Gen 1:4), land and seas (1:10), plants (1:12), sun and moon (1:18), sea creatures and birds (1:21), and land-dwelling animals (1:25). In each case, the entity described as good is incapable of displaying either virtue or sin. One cannot say: “this light (or land or plant) is virtuous, while that light (or land or plant) is sinful”. Moreover, since evil is not yet a potential part of creation, we must reject the goodness of creation as lying in creation’s virtuous or sinless state.
(2) Goodness as an aesthetic quality. Brueggemann agrees that ṭôb does not refer primarily to a moral excellence. Rather, he sees it as indicating an aesthetic quality. He writes: “It might better be translated ‘lovely, pleasing, beautiful’ (cf. Eccles 3:11). [… God] rests not because the week ends, but because there is a satisfying, finished quality about his creation.” (Brueggemann, Walter; Genesis; p. 36.) There is a certain sense in which this reading is right inasmuch as the Bible does affirm the beauty of God’s creation. For example, the writer of Ecclesiastes declares that God “has made everything beautiful (yāpeh) in its time” (Eccl 3:11), although here the word ṭôb is not used. This beauty of creation bears witness to God’s glory, as the Psalmist frequently testifies (for example, Psalm 19:1-2). Later, beauty was given a theological importance in the writings of the patristic and medieval theologians. Indeed, it has been said that creation’s purpose involves giving delight. (Oppenheimer, Helen; Making Good; p. 66.) Even in contemporary evolutionary biology, the aesthetic has come to be regarded as fundamentally important inasmuch at “prettier” animals have a greater chance of finding a mate and passing on their genes. As Etcoff puts is: “beauty is deeply rooted in our biology”. (Etcoff, Nancy L.; Survival of the Prettiest; p. 234.) Yet however much beauty may integral to creation aesthetic loveliness is not the primary meaning of ṭôb in Genesis for three reasons.
First, it is not the most commonly attributed meaning. Second, in Genesis 2:9 the tree is described as “pleasant” (ḥemed) to the sight and “good” (ṭôb) for food. Now if it were the case that ṭôb has a sense of the aesthetic, then adding that the tree is ḥemed would be superfluous.
Third, as we saw above, salvation involves restoring the world to the state that God originally intended. Yet we do not find any indication that Jesus’ mission was one of re-establishing beauty in place of ugliness. Indeed, although Isaiah writes of the Lord “bestow[ing] on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes” (Isa 61:1-3), when Jesus quotes this passage in the Nazareth manifesto (Luke 4:18 ff), the words about beauty are specifically omitted. Certainly Jesus did restore beauty – a whole arm is more attractive that a withered one (Matt 12:10 etc.) – but the point behind such accounts is never primarily about the gift of good looks. Thus, while ṭôb may have connotations of beauty there is more involved than simply aesthetics.
(3) Goodness as proper functioning. The word ṭôb can indicate, finally, “a state or function appropriate to genre, purpose or situation.” (Gordon, Robert; #3201, “good” in NIDOTTE, Vol. 2; p. 353.) While dismissing the stronger claim that goodness relates to perfection, Rogerson allows that “good” means “good for achieving its purpose”. (Rogerson, J.; Genesis 1–11; pp. 60-61.) In other words, a thing is “good” if it is working as it should; that is, if it is functioning properly. By “properly”, Arnold makes reference to God’s will, and thus interprets ṭôb as “precisely what God had in mind”. (Arnold, Bill T.; Genesis; p. 40.) He continues: “The cosmos fulfils its purpose for creation, and all its features function just as God intended.”
Lim is of a similar opinion but has a more anthropocentric viewpoint in that he takes the goodness of creation to mean that “it achieves its purpose for providing a stable and viable setting for human life”. (Lim, Johnson; Grace in the Midst of Judgement: Grappling with Genesis 1–11; pp. 113-14.) Likewise von Rad argues that there is less an aesthetic judgement than the “designation of purpose and correspondence”. (von Rad, Gerhard; Genesis: A Commentary; p. 52.) This is the best interpretation for four reasons.
First, there are textual reasons based on the use of ṭôb in the Genesis passage. Consider:
The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seeds according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:12 NIV)
Now, this raises the question of what the “it” refers to when God saw that it was good. Textually, the most plausible answer is found in the preceding phrase which describes the vegetation producing fruit and seeds “according to their kinds”. In other words, the plant life is doing precisely that thing which is proper for its nature. Horse chestnut trees produce conkers and oak trees produce acorns, and not vice versa.
When it comes to birds, fish and livestock, their goodness could lie in their having been created “according to their kinds” (Gen 1:21, 25). Equally it could refer to their movements in the water or through the sky. In either case, we find a description of the creatures behaving as they ought to behave.
Again, consider the goodness of the sun and moon:
God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:17-18 NIV)
Taking the goodness as relating to the previous phrases, we find that the text describes the functioning of the sun and moon: they (a) give light, (b) govern day and night and (c) separate light from darkness. Thus, they underline the passing of time and make it possible to calculate longer periods of time (Laffey, Alice; The Pentateuch: A Liberation-Critical Reading; p. 9) and also fix the liturgical calendar for the marking of festivals. (Blenkinsopp, Joseph; The Pentateuch; p. 62.) In each case, they operate and serve in precisely the way that sun and moon should operate, appropriately for their kind.
The final two occurrences of “good” come in verses 4 and 10 immediately after acts of separation: light from dark, and land from seas, respectively. Here the goodness is textually linked with the act of setting boundaries, suggesting that God intends that these elements do not trespass upon inappropriate regions, but function properly when they act within their limits.
The second set of reasons for taking ṭôb to indicate proper functioning come from considering how the word is used elsewhere in the Bible.
Thus, from this very brief survey, we see that while the word ṭôb does not exclude moral and aesthetic characteristics, a preferable interpretation takes it to mean functioning properly or appropriately.
There is a third reason to take ṭôb to indicate proper functioning. While we cannot exclude the moral and aesthetic, proper functioning certainly embraces them. Moral behaviour could be seen as proper and appropriate functioning for a person, and visual splendour could be identified as the proper functioning of creation testifying to God’s glory. (McGrath notes that scientists have increasingly recognised beauty as evolutionarily important. Since the prettiest do best reproductively, it could be said that attractiveness is part of their proper functioning. See: McGrath, Alister; The Open Secret; pp. 267-68.) So when Brueggemann writes of “a satisfying, finished quality about creation” (Brueggemann, Walter; Genesis; p. 36) there is no difficulty in understanding this in terms of creation’s functioning as it should. Moreover, the implication runs in both directions. Not only might beautiful things be seen as functioning properly, but also things that are working as they should are often wonderful be behold, as any lover of steam trains will testify.
Finally, we note briefly that describing God’s acts of creation, the writer of Genesis 1 comments “and it was so (kēn)” (Gen 1:7, 9, 11, 15, 24 and 30). Olivier explains the meaning of this term: “The particle kēn is used to indicate the affirmative (cf. Josh 2:4; Amos 5:14) and as an indication that something is rightly expected, thus conforming to some known or normal standard (Judg 12:6; 1 Sam 23:17).” (Olivier, J. P. J.; #4026, “right, sound, normal, honest” in NIDOTTE, Vol. 2; p. 664. Italics mine.) Thus, when we read that “it was so” we understand, as God the evaluator does in declaring creation “good”, that everything is of the appropriate kind, function or standard.
For these reasons, then, we interpret the goodness of creation to lie in its functioning properly, appropriately and as it should. Thus, we arrive at our first essential feature of the world as God intended it: that each part of the creation should function properly according to its kind.
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