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.