When people read in Genesis 1 that God describes His creation as "good" or "very good," they often take it to mean that the world was perfect and devoid of all evil. But could this interpretation be a faulty assumption?
Tob m6od, the Hebrew phrase used at the end of the first creation story, explains God's appraisal of His finished creation. On six occasions throughout the creation narrative, God states that His creation was "good" (tob); then on the sixth day He uses the emphatic "very good" (tob m6od).
|Tob in Genesis 1|
|Day #1 tob
|Day #4 tob
|Day #2||Day #5 tob
|Day #3a tob
|Day #6a tob
|Day #3b tob
|Day #6b tob m6od
English Bibles unanimously translate tob m6od as "very good;" tob means "good" and m6od is the equivalent of "very." But the central question remains, in what context is the word tob being used in Genesis 1? In all seven instances, the author associates tob with the verb "saw." Hence, tob seems to be applied to something God can see. This implies it might be something physical—or, at least, that it has a physical component.
In reviewing the context of each use of tob elsewhere in the Old Testament (listed below), it seems that it is used to imply different meanings of "good." This includes both (1) a moral or practical evaluation, and (2) an aesthetic or functional appraisal.
Moral or Pragmatic
The word tob is applied to right actions or moral state—and something that is morally right is good. However, tob can also be also applied to something that is "good" in a practical or pragmatic sense, yet is morally wrong. For instance, when Hezekiah heard that judgment for his actions would be delayed until after his death (Isa. 39:1-8), he saw that it was "good" because he thought, "For there will be peace and truth in my days" (Isa. 39:8, NASB).
Are tob and tob m6od as used in Genesis 1 intended to imply that God saw creation as morally good? One must realize that two types of evil exist in the universe, which we'll characterize herein as real evil and as apparent evil, respectively. Real evil is "true" evil or sin, a violation of God's will and command. Murder is an example of real evil. By contrast, apparent evil is a harsh event or condition that lacks a true moral aspect. Examples include events often referred to as "natural evil," such as a volcanic eruption or a lioness killing her prey (Job 38:39-40), or even a carnivorous plant. Such conditions seem harsh, but they are amoral. Other examples of apparent evil include accidents and the broad category of "bad things that happen to good people." Even in the "very good" creation before the Fall God says it is "not good" (Gen. 2:18, NASB) for man to be without a suitable mate.
Almost all interpreters—the authors of this article included—acknowledge a moral component to tob and tob m6od as used in Genesis 1; the narrative in Genesis 3 strongly suggests there was no real evil in the created order. Some interpreters extrapolate this point of view and assume there was also no apparent evil in God's creation, but the authors find this position problematic, as discussed below.
However, if tob does carry an additional moral connotation in Genesis 1 beyond the issue of real evil—either as a primary or secondary meaning—we believe its purpose is polemic. In ancient creation accounts, such as the Baal Epic or the Enuma Elish, a cosmic struggle occurs between good and evil. These powers are often associated with physical aspects of the created order. For example, the sea—personified as Yam in Canaanite mythology and as Tiamat in Mesopotamian mythology—is associated with evil. By declaring such objects tob, God negated a major concept of pagan thought; these items are not evil, but simply part of His creation.
Aesthetic or functional
Tob is also used as an aesthetic or functional appraisal of something that can be seen. For example, David "saw" Bathsheba's naked body and appraises it as tobah m6od (2 Sam. 11:2). The feminine form tobah is used in that text to describe Bathsheba's physical appearance.1 (It is doubtful anyone would suggest David was appraising Bathsheba's moral character as "very good;" if that were the case, why would he have invited her to share his bed for the evening?) In this instance English Bibles uniformly translate tobah m6od as "very beautiful." The phraseology is similar to that in Genesis, in God "saw" His creation and appraised it as "very good!"
As another example of a functional appraisal, tob describes the goods taken by Abraham's chief servant as the bride price for Isaac's wife (Gen. 24:10). In Leviticus 27:10, 12, tob describes the "value" (NASB) or "quality" (NIV) of an item, specifically houses and sacrificial animals
Of special interest for purposes of this article, tob is also used as an aesthetic or functional appraisal of real estate or physical materials. For example, the description in Genesis 2 of the Garden of Eden's attributes include: "The gold of that land is good; the bdellium and the onyx stone are there" (Gen. 2:12, emphasis added). The purpose of this verse and others in Genesis 2:8-14 seems to be to emphasize the fertility of garden and the quality of the mineral deposits in its surrounding area; no moral assessment seems implied.
Likewise, during the journey to the Promised Land after the Exodus, the spies who surveyed the land of Canaan describe it as tob m6od m6od, "exceedingly good," and as a place that "flows with milk and honey" (Num. 14:7-8, NASB), yet the Canaanite inhabitants were evil. It seems that the spies used tob m6od m6od to describe the physical elements of Canaan, not its moral aspects.
Interpreting tob in Genesis 1
Tob carries both a moral and a physical appraisal in Genesis 1—the former based on supplementary information in Genesis 3, and the latter on the verb "saw." Hence the essential question is how to weigh these two components: is the meaning more moral than physical, or the reverse? Those who believe that the moral component dominates will typically suggest that God's creation contained not only no real evil, but also no apparent evil. Such interpreters usually picture the original creation as being like the popular concept of "Nirvana"—with no vertebrate animal death or harsh conditions whatsoever. There are, however, severe problems with this interpretation, detailed in our previous TNRTB, "What Does a 'Very Good' World Look Like?" (see here and here.)
On the other hand, a strong argument can be made that the good God sees in Genesis 1 refers to the aesthetic and/or functional beauty of His creation. This is not to deny the moral aspect of the word tob in Genesis 1, but to emphasize the pleasing sight that God beheld in His work. There is harmony and structure in the creation narrative that points to the harmony and structure of the cosmos. Furthermore, His laws of nature are working together, and something that works harmoniously is beautiful to behold. Additionally, God may have seen Earth as tob because of its potential as humanity's habitat and the place where humans fellowship with the Creator.
Our belief is that the language of Genesis 1 fits better with the aesthetic/functional interpretation. Although it is true that no real evil was present in the original creation, that is not the primary emphasis. Instead, the primary emphasis rests on the beauty of the created order. This is in harmony with the language and biblical theology (Psa. 104; Rev. 4:11). By contrast, there seems little justification for those who claim there is no apparent evil in the created order.
If we combine the aesthetic and functional concepts of beauty with the moral, one can see why God sees His creation as very good.
Dr. Hugh Henry, Ph.D.
Dr. Hugh Henry received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Virginia in 1971, retired after 26 years at Varian Medical Systems, and currently serves as Lecturer in physics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY.
Daniel J. Dyke, M.Div., M.Th.
Mr. Daniel J. Dyke received his Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary 1981 and currently serves as professor of Old Testament at Cincinnati Christian University in Cincinnati, OH.