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Moral Authority

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The Bible, as you could imagine, says quite a lot about good and evil. I'd like to consider, briefly, where it teaches we can find the basis of good and evil. Is there objective goodness and badness somewhere? What is the standard? How can we know what is good and evil (or right and wrong) today?

In the beginning...

I love musing on the creation of the world. It's stunning to think what that experience would have been like, were a mortal such as I capable of existing during the first days of creation to witness the forming of the earth, the sky, the lands and seas, etc. It must have been incredible. Equally fascinating is how the Scripture describes the creation week. God calls forth into existence each element of the cosmos with His Word(s), leaving us with the particular impression that the most powerful force in all the universe is the Voice of God.

"And God said ... and it was so."

the text repeats again and again, until all of creation is complete. Awe-inspiring!

It was good

But there is another phrase repeated throughout the text1 that evokes a powerful sense of rightness as we read it.

"it was good."

Every single thing God makes is good! Nothing was mediocre, half-baked, twisted, immoral, unrighteous, calamitous, deviant, or bad. It was good. And after God caps off the creation week with the making of mankind, male and female, the text says "behold, it was very good!"

Qualifying the Qualitative

Thus we are introduced, at the very beginning of everything, to the concept of goodness. One thing is for sure, "good" is the original, natural state of the universe. That is the undisputed meaning of the text. But we still might be looking for a more specific definition of "good." I don't think that's wrong on our part.2 After all, words mean things. And we gain nothing in our speaking if we aren't even sure what we're saying. So when Scripture says "good," what does it mean?

First of all, let's make sure we don't go beyond the text and its idioms. There are dozens of words in any language that approximate "good" and can be used in context-specific ways to indicate whether it is quality or morality or reliability or adequacy etc. that the author is aiming at. But there is also, in each language (generally), one word (usually) that is just plain, old "good." You can guess which one it is in English, and in Hebrew, the original language of Genesis, the word is "tov" (תוב).

Now if you thought we were about to go on a deep excursion into Hebrew linguistics and what not, well, then maybe I've miscommunicated. "Tov" means "good" and "good" means...good! Such a word in a context of morality would speak of morality. In a context of quality it would speak of quality. In a context of adequacy it would speak of adequacy. It's a simple, but flexible, word that represents one of those most basic building blocks of human communication and experience: goodness. You could define it by it's opposite, "badness," but that wouldn't get us much further in Genesis because such a concept is conspicuously absent from chapter 1.

So does the statement "it was good" refer to the morality of the creation or the quality of the creation or some other flavor of "good"?

Yes.

Foundational Goodness

What I am saying here is that the goodness being pronounced in the beginning, while it may be referring to the quality of the land or the "rightness" of the beasts reproducing after their kinds, is a foundational goodness. What God has made here is thoroughly good. It is of high quality. It is sufficient for its ends. It is moral. And if it didn't measure up in any of those categories of "goodness," on what basis could it be "very good?"

So God starts everything off by building his creation on a foundation of goodness. All things are excellent, functional, pure, and righteous.

From Whose Perspective?

But who declared it "good"? The answer to that is found in the part of the phrase that I (intentionally) left out:

"And God saw that it was good."

This detail has massive implications for our understanding and experience of goodness (and badness). There were no third party appraisals given, no standards of goodness appealed to, no benchmarks compared against for this pronouncement to be made. It was God's opinion of what he had made. His eyes, his judgment, his perspective. We like to imagine that there may have been angels present at creation singing his praises while he wrought the cosmos, but even if that were true, they are not involved in the evaluation according to the text. God did this on his own.

So why was the original creation "very good"? Was it because the grass was so green? Was it because everything lived and grew in harmony? Was it because man had not yet disobeyed? Was it because God had given the creatures things that they liked or believed in? Genesis 1 would say no, goodness is a thing determined inherently by the perspective of God, and when he saw his creation, it was good.

Subjectively Objective

So is "good" subjective or objective? Again we end up with a kind of awkward Yes. From God's perspective, it is subjective, in that it is rooted in whatever he determines it to be! But from any other creature's perspective, "good" is as objective as 1 + 1 being 2, because our Creator has already made the determination, and he does not change (I Samuel 15:29, Psalm 102:27, James 1:17, Hebrews 13:8).

God makes this clearer in chapter 2, when he makes another declaration, "it is not good for the man to be alone," demonstrating that he sees and knows and determines the full spectrum of good and bad. Furthermore, he forbids Adam from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, sending a message that creatures were not made to trifle in the realm of determining what is good and bad, rather they ought to take their moral and qualitative cues from God, whose perspective alone carries weight.3

Trials and Temptations

I'd like to conclude this article standing, with Eve (and Adam, somewhere...), in front of the snake. He is whispering to us that God is a liar, that by eating the fruit, we can actually be like God, knowing good and evil. After all, it's in the name of the tree, right? What is it that he is enticing us with? What did Eve perceive about it?

"When the woman saw that the tree ... was desirable for making one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate it."

There is a kind of fruit being offered to us by the snake even today. A fruit that promises wisdom. What is particularly tempting in this fruit is that our own subjective perspective can become, primary, important, determinative. We can declare for ourselves (and others?) what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong. Perhaps it is even the image of God in us that makes us "realize" how great it would be to call the shots! Just think about it, what's good is obvious to you, it's the things you like! And evil, that's easy to spot — it's the things you don't like! With some nuance, of course, and hey, nobody's perfect, but we can figure this thing out! Well, I can figure this out, and if you trust me, it will work out for you too.

Don't fall for it!

Believe in a goodness that is rooted in something more solid than your ever-changing mind and experiences. Have faith that the same God who spoke a very good world into existence can tell you what is truly good for you, and it will be so.

"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."

— Proverbs 1:7


Footnotes

1Several, actually. Most are outside the scope of this brief commentary, but the text is worth reading in view of its repetition. It is a primary literary tool the author uses to communicate the big ideas in the opening page of Scripture.back

2The keen reader may have picked up on the irony of this statement and will be asked to please bear with the author in this endeavor. We are mortals after all, and without a starting place we can never begin.back

3This is not important to the purpose of this text, but I want to point out an interesting practical application of this reality. When we consider the laws of God, and we find them to be good (subjectively, from our own perspectives), what we are running up against is the orderly and consistent and righteous nature of God. Of course, he has empowered us to perceive what is good, but the natural gift we have (often broken and twisted by our own sin) is never meant to override the true subjective (from God's perspective!) nature of goodness. In other words, we praise God for his goodness in his laws, not because we found them to be good via independent appraisal, but because we believe God, who is true and righteous, who told us they were good. If for some reason we cannot see how some of his laws are good, it is because we have abandoned our only objective standard of goodness: the subjective declarations of God. Perhaps many may find this difficult to swallow, but this is the stuff of true faith, and the only sure foundation of useful philosophy.back