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B'resheet/Genesis 1:31 And G-d saw all that He had made, and behold: very good!
These words come at the end of the tally sheet for the sixth day of creation. It had been a busy day: starting with all the living things on the earth - cattle, wild beasts and creeping things - G-d had moved swiftly on with the only creature He made in His image, mankind. To wrap up the proceedings, He gave mankind their mandate to "fill the earth and master it and rule" (B'resheet 1:28, NJPS) over all the other forms of life of the earth, then designated appropriate food for mankind, the animals, the birds and the creeping things. The text closes the day's activities with a typically short acclamation: "- and it was so" (v. 30). Creation simply obeyed the voice of the Creator and it happened. Naturally; of course!
Taking a few steps back from His work, G-d then paused to look around at the results of six days of unique and unparalleled craftsmanship. G-d had just spoke an entire universe and its inhabitants into being. Umberto Cassuto observes that, "G-d saw everything that He had made - the creation in its totality, and He perceived that not only were the details, taken separately, good, but that each one harmonised with the rest; hence the whole was not just good, but very good."1 RabbiHirsch points out that, "we have seen the phrase on the other earlier days of creation, but always introduces us something we have not yet seen, so that here there must be in addition some new thought. This must be the word , 'all'; all is not only good but very good. Everything created, everything in existence, looked at in connection with everything else, is very good." The Sforno adds, "the end result of existence in toto was far greater than the end result of each particular part which intended for the general purpose."
Targum Onkelos changes the last two words in the text, to which with the aid of Jastrow we can translate as "well established" or "very orderly"; the created world was more than simply pleasing: it was firmly established, implying order, rules and processes for a stable system that would operate in a steady state. Nachmanides comments on this, saying, "This signifies their permanent existence, including both good and evil. Onkelos said here, 'And, behold, it was very orderly,' meaning that the order was properly arranged since evil is necessary for the preservation of the good, just as it is said, 'To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven' (Ecclesiastes 3:1, NKJ)." The philosopher Maimonides concurs, commenting on the Hebrew words, "'Very good' means that the creation fitted its purpose and would never change or cease being, for the laws of nature were permanently fixed during the six days of creation."
The ancient rabbis even held that death had a positive place in creation. The Midrash explains that, "In the copy of Rabbi Meir's Torah was found written: 'And, behold, it was very good: and behold, death was good.'2 Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman said: 'I was seated on my grandfather's shoulder going up from my own town to Kefar Hana via Beth-Shean, and I heard Rabbi Simeon ben Rabbi Eleazar as he sat and lectured in Rabbi Meir's name: "And, behold, it was very good: and, behold, death was good" because it is a potent force for repentance'" (B'resheet Rabbah 9:5). Following on that theme, the contemporary scholar Richard Elliott Friedman writes that, "The initial state of creation is regarded as satisfactory. Things will soon go wrong, but it is unclear if that means that the 'good' initial state becomes flawed, or if there is hope that the course of events will fit into an ultimately good structure in 'the length of days'. The parasha ends not with G-d's mournful statement that, 'I regret that I made them,' but with a point of hope: Noah found favour in the divine sight (6:8)."
Many believers today take a semi-Gnostic view of the world in which we live. Based on verses such as, "For the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble. The earth is utterly broken, the earth is split apart, the earth is violently shaken" (Isaiah 24:18-19, ESV) and "the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved" (2 Peter 3:10, ESV), many think that this world is simply a fallen and broken planet, holding on until the time comes for it to be destroyed and replaced by a brand new heaven and earth as Isaiah predicts, "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind" (Isaiah 65:17, ESV), echoed in John's vision, "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had passed away, and the sea was no longer there" (Revelation 21:1, CJB). On this basis, there is no need to take any particular care of the earth or the environment; the earth is simply a resource to be exploited and used as best suits man's current need because it is only temporary.
Taking that one step further, many Christians have a dark view of all the people who are not believers. Seeing mankind through the lens of verses like "following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience -- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind" (Ephesians 2:2-3, ESV), Christians condemn unbelievers to be controlled by the devil and, to a greater or lesser extent, hopelessly mired in and constantly committing sin. Association with non-believers is at best risky, lest they should drag the believer back down into sin. I suggest that both these positions are wrong and open to challenge on the basis of our text and subsequent verses.
Mankind is given a mandate of stewardship over the earth. The second account of creation tells us that "The L-RD G-d took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it" (B'resheet 2:15, NJPS). Man was given a job to do, to work the garden in a symbiotic relationship. Although the Fall happened, G-d still told Adam that "your food shall be the grasses of the field; by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat" (3:18-19, NJPS), declaring that although the work would now be much harder, mankind would still have to take care of the earth so that food should be grown. After the flood, G-d reminded Noah that mankind was still made in His image (9:6) and re-issued the divine command to "Be fertile, then, and increase; abound on the earth and increase on it" (9:7, NJPS). Immediately, Noah planted a vineyard and tilled the soil, with such success that he was able to produce sufficient wine to become drunk. Rav Sha'ul tells us that G-d continues to use creation as a means of displaying His existence - "For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made" (Romans 1:20, ESV) - and portrays creation eagerly waiting its day of redemption from mankind's sin so "that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (8:21, ESV). Our mandate of stewardship remains and we still have a duty to care for and preserve the earth. I venture to suggest that our stewardship is one of the ways in which we will be called to account, as nations, corporations and as individuals.
In the same way, although mankind has fallen and the original image of G-d has been tarnished, it is still visible and capable of restoration in each man, woman and child. James affirms this, speaking of "people, who were made in the image of G-d" (James 3:9, ESV). As King Zedekiah swore to Jeremiah, "As Yahweh lives, giver of this life of ours" (Jeremiah 36:18, NJB), G-d is still the author and giver of life and He still creates all men in His image. He is still in the business of rescue and restoration today, conforming us to the image of Yeshua who is Himself, "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" (Colossians 1:15, ESV.
So looking around us in these days, do we see good or bad; do we see only good or only bad? It is easy to say that we see the darkness gathering - "a day of darkness and gloom, a day of densest cloud spread like soot over the hills" (Joel 2:2, NJPS) - and to feel that we must make sure that we have plenty of food, water and fuel stored up against the coming tide. Certainly bad things have happened: shooting massacres, terrorist attacks and geological phenomena such as hurricanes and earthquakes. But I suggest that an attitude adjustment is required so that we start to see creation and our fellow man as essentially good unless proven otherwise and exercise appropriate stewardship and duty of care towards them.
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part One - From Adam to Noah, Magnes Press Jerusalem 1978
2. - It is not clear whether this was actually in the main body of Rabbi Meir's text or whether it was a marginal note. It might even have originally arisen as a scribal error when copying the text.
Further Study: Acts 10:15; 1 Timothy 4:4
Application: If you have been used to seeing a starkly divided earth and mankind - either good or bad, in or out of the kingdom, and if out then evil - then perhaps it is time to reconsider how we judge what G-d has declared to be very good. Ask Him to help you adjust your vision to match His word.
5:39am 1Oct18 Diana Brown: Disengagement from the earth and our care of it and isolating ourselves from others is scripturally unsound. I agree. We are to occupy, hold fast, until He returns to rule and reign according to Isaiah 40:10.
© Jonathan Allen, 2017
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