Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Ten Kinds of Good

Seven times in the first chapter of Genesis, God calls something he has made “good”. This is not news to the average Christian, who has heard or read the story many times.

Still, it’s an important word for the believing reader, not least because the only way the human writer could have known to use it was that he had heard it directly from the mouth of God. After all, no human beings were present when God brought the world into being.

But “good” has a wide range of meanings, doesn’t it.

A Wide Range of Meanings

When I say “It’s good to see you,” I am not using the word to mean quite the same thing it means when I say “That’s a good fit” or “He’s a good person.” The first means pleasing and the second suitable, while the third describes positive moral qualities. In fact, Dictionary.com lists a mind-boggling 59 different shades of meaning for the word “good” in English.

So when we ask ourselves what God was saying about his handiwork, we are hoping to narrow down that banquet of semantic possibilities to something a little more specific, a task complicated by the fact that God does not elaborate in Genesis beyond using the expression “very good” to describe the totality of what he had accomplished in six days of divine creativity. Context gives us few clues.

From the Text of Genesis

Further, we must be fair to the original writer of Genesis, who didn’t write in 21st century English. He wrote in Hebrew several thousand years ago, and the word he used then is towb. It is not reasonable to read shades of meaning from our English concept back into our understanding of the Hebrew, especially when the author of Genesis only uses his word in roughly 1/6 of its acceptable English senses.

So let’s imagine we don’t have any preconceived notions about goodness from our own language, education or personal experience. Suppose instead we are obliged to deduce the author’s intended meaning from the text of Genesis itself. Would we read Genesis any differently, I wonder? We may not be able to reduce those 59 possibilities down to a hard-and-fast, definitive answer, but we may certainly narrow the field a little.

Ten Possibilities

Here are the ten ways towb is used in the book of Genesis:
  1. Suited to a particular purpose. Genesis 2:9 speaks of trees “good (towb) for food”, which is to say they were appropriately designed to serve a particular practical end.
  2. Morally excellent. The same verse speaks of the knowledge of good (towb) and evil.
  3. Of high quality. The gold of the land of Havilah was said to be “good” (towb). Presumably the meaning there is “pure”, “unadulterated” or “free of contaminants”.
  4. Desirable. We are told that the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were physically attractive (towb). Thus they took as their wives any they chose, something men have been trying to emulate ever since.
  5. Pleasing. Abram said to his wife, “Do to her as you please (towb).” Hagar’s fate was in Sarah’s hands, to do whatever suited and satisfied her.
  6. Healthy and fit. Rebekah told Jacob to “bring me two good (towb) young goats”, so I may prepare from them delicious food for your father.” She was looking for the cream of the caprine crop.
  7. Impressive or exceptional. God tells Abram that he will be buried at a “good (towb) old age”. The sense is that his life would be unusually lengthy, perhaps a sign of God’s favor.
  8. Fair treatment. Abimelech quite reasonably complained to Isaac, “We have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good (towb),” meaning that Isaac’s treatment at his hands had been nothing to complain about.
  9. Preferable. When Jacob promised to serve Laban seven years for the hand of his daughter Rachel, Laban replied, “It is better (towb) that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” Here the term is comparative.
  10. Positive in outcome. Joseph told his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good (towb).” The contrast is between a favorable outcome and a much less favorable one.
From Fifty-Nine to Ten

That’s still an impressive range of possibilities, but it’s considerably more manageable than 59, and it will serve to reasonably limit our enquiry rather than tempt us to engage in fantastical speculations.

Of these, we can quickly eliminate calling God’s creation “morally excellent”, since right and wrong had yet to fully enter the earthly picture. It would be going beyond what is written to suggest that the actual separation of light from darkness, for instance, had a moral component, though we can certainly draw spiritual lessons from it by way of allegory. We can also eliminate “impressive or exceptional”, because there was nothing yet to which anyone might compare what God had done. (I’m happy to revise that if we get to the New Jerusalem and find it full of redeemed aliens from far-flung galaxies, but currently we have no indication that’s likely.) Likewise “preferable” and “healthy”, both of which require some already-recognized negative point of comparison, and “fair treatment”, which would require the same sort of existing standard by which fairness or the lack thereof might be judged. “Of high quality”, in the sense of being pure and contaminant-free, is certainly true of the creation in Genesis 1, but there is no compelling reason for the Spirit of God to especially draw our attention to it. It may reasonably be assumed given what we discover about God later in his word. “Desirable” seems unlikely, since God is not moved by aesthetics in the way we are and sees utility and purpose in things we don’t. “Positive in outcome” is something that has yet to be determined, though thankfully we have the Lord Jesus, the apostles and prophets to assure us it will one day be so.

Suited to a Particular Purpose

That leaves us with “suited to a particular purpose” and “pleasing”, both of which seem like reasonable candidates. All the same, I favor the former over the latter only because it is tautological that anything God creates would be in some way pleasing to him, or else he would surely not have created it. Knowing the end from the beginning, it is impossible that he would fail to do anything he set out to do.

It is, of course, equally impossible that God would fail to create anything ill-suited to its end, but I think more is being said here. When we say that something is “suited to a particular purpose”, it is not just that God was pleased with his work, though he surely was, but that any right-thinking being in the universe, looking at the same object of divine creativity, would have enthused about it along with God. The spectacular suitability and appropriateness of every aspect of God’s creation was evident not just in some hidden, arcane way to its Creator, but gloriously on display to every other created being capable of assessing it. Creation was not just well-conceived and efficient, but praiseworthy in its vast scope, microscopic detail and incredible harmony. Nobody could have topped it, or even imagined how to.

Thus I have little doubt that the volcanic, simmering jealousy God’s marvelously apt creative works provoked in Satan led inexorably to the events of Genesis 3.

More to come on this ...

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