When I was a child we used to go for summer vacations to the small New England village where my grandfather owned a house not far from the ocean. During one walk along the beach, I found a nice piece of driftwood. With one of my grandfather’s sharp knives I whittled it into the shape of a boat, added a mast, and glued on a small block as a cabin. My parents said it was wonderful. My grandfather, an old-world craftsman whose ideas of child rearing were from the century before last, picked up the boat, looked at it critically for a while, and then gave it back to me. “Does it work?” he asked. So we went to the shore and put the boat in the water. It floated. It didn’t capsize, and it moved. He picked it up, nodded and pronounced “Good. Good work”. That was the praise that stuck with me, the praise that meant the most.
But what did he mean when he pronounced my handiwork as good? Did he mean that it was the opposite of evil, that my small wood project had some inner moral quality? Of course not; he meant that it worked well, as intended.
What does God mean when he describes His own (slightly more elaborate) creative efforts in Genesis 1? The text repeats, again and again, that God saw that what he had done was good. Does that mean that the world He had made and populated with fish, birds, animals and people was morally good, without evil?
The first time God declares that something he did was good involves the creation of light. God saw that the light was good. I don’t see how light contains the quality of moral goodness. The next time God pronounces His work as good is when he divides the land from the sea. That was a very useful thing to do for the sake of future humans and all the other animals who will breathe air and live on land. But I don’t see why having dry land rather than just ocean is better in the sense of essential goodness.
God then pronounces His successive creation of plants, the moon, sun, stars, fish, birds and animals to be good. Again, does this mean that the living creatures of the Earth and the components of the cosmos are the embodiment of goodness, or was God saying he had done a good job? Unlike the case for life and dry land, one could argue that God had made the lions, wolves, and bears to be gentle animals who were naturally good. That is the interpretation we often hear in discussions about what things were like before the Fall. Or does the text mean that all of the creatures He created were good for something else, still to come?
God then makes humans. God does not say that humans are good. Not specifically.. The text does say that God looks at everything including humans and pronounces it all as very good. It doesn’t say everything was very good except for people. But there is no mention of the creatures God made in His own image being good. Why is that? Is He not sure?
I think the answer is clear. The meaning of “good” (tov) in Hebrew is exactly what it is in English – all of the meanings. When God saw that each of his creations was good, he saw them in the same way my grandfather saw my boat – he saw that they worked. And what does God’s creation work for? For us. For the coming of a conscious, intelligent, spirit-bearing, God- praising creature that God created everything for. The light, the land, the sun, moon and stars, the plants and other animals, all of this was good for us.
That is why he didn’t pronounce humans to be good- that would make no sense. Of course humans are good for humans. But the whole of creation, everything that was made, was very good. Very good for us. Because God’s design of this universe, of this planet, of the laws of physics, chemistry and biology that govern it all, all of that is good for our existence and our thriving. And as we study our world and learn its secrets, all we can do is agree and worship the One who made it possible for us to be here, to live, love and praise His glory.
If anybody reads this who actually knows something about theology, I would love to see your comments. Clearly this is not my field, just my thoughts.
Interesting. I’d never noticed how man isn’t called good, except as a part of the all. Your theory makes beautiful sense, and now I’m eager to read more comments about it.
Thanks Sheila. I dont know if any real theologians will see it, I am hoping your old friend, Dr. Garvey might come by. He wouldnt claim professional theologian status, but he is way more knowledgable than I am.
I just dropped by…
Yes, I think that’s an interesting and useful insight, Sy. Theres a strong sense in which the creation story is anthropocentric: it’s all for us, in the sense both that we are created to govern it, and that God governs it to “manage” us.
And it’s a theological commonplac e that “good” should be used of creation’s “fitness for pupose” rather than some kind of physical or moral perfection – those are reserved for the new creation.
I’m doing some work on that at present – throughout the Bible the natural creation is the means by which God both blesses and judges men: it’s being used as an instrument. It’s not described in terms of its own intrinsic puposes or freedoms (contra certain schools of thought!) That’s how it remains good even when it works against sinful people (and after the fall – maybe your readers aren’t familiar with my contention that “the fallen creation” is a myth just a few hundred years old).
That’s not to say God doesn’t care for creation in its own right, and for its own sake – a number of passages show his tender care for the creatures. Nor does it mean that it doesn’t have other purposes unrelated to man – the Bible, after all, tells *our* story, not that of angels or of other civilizations.
I am quite pleased to read that I got the meaning of “good” right. I did ask my pastor and a couple of other local knowledgeable folks about this, and got no answers. So, the whole idea that there could not have been any suffering before the “Fall” is not actually viable. I understand you didnt think so anyway, but what I am talking about are statements like these “There could not have been any death or sin or evil before the fall, because God created a good world in which nothing bad ever happened until corrupted by human sin” This seems to be a major argument against evolution by some American YECs.
As you state it, it’s also an unanswerable argument that all worlds are fallen – what in the world can’t count as suffering or evil? Our vegetarian animals get hungry on the way to the tree, or thirsty on the way to the waterhole – evidence of a fallen world! We can’t have the deer fighting for mates – they must be monogamous for life, AND they’re born in exactly a 50:50 sex ratio lest the odd batchelor or spinster suffer. And so on.
I can understand why YECs might have trouble with death before the Fall, in that Scripture “clearly states” that death came through sin. I had that question myself before it became clear to me that both eternal life and the death that came from losing it are, quite explicity, stated to be human issues in the Bible.
“Good” as “fit for purpose” emerges quite clearly as one sees how God uses the Creation in the rest of the Bible, but since that impinges on a current project of mine, I won’t elaborate further!