This famous verse from the first chapter of Genesis, referring to parts of Creation, appears therein, with variations, six times. It appears a seventh time as the act of Creation is drawn to its conclusion:
“And God saw everything that He has made, and, behold, Tov Meod (“it was very good”)” (Genesis 1:31).
These translations from the original biblical Hebrew, and as the original verses have been universally interpreted over the generations, both within Judaism and outside, are probably incorrect on three counts:
- They are inherently illogical and inconsistent;
- They constitute desecration of the Divine and defamation of God’s name;
- They are inconsistent with numerous other verses in the Hebrew Jewish Bible, where Ki Tov is interpreted differently, however with a unique and consistent meaning.
In this post, we first explain these three seemingly outrageous claims. Later we detail our own personal understanding of what these verses of Genesis 1 really mean. Finally, we address the astounding lesson that the Torah attempts to convey to us in its detailed tale of the Divine act of Creation, accompanied by “God has seen Ki Tov” or “God saw… and behold Tov Meod”.
We start with the first claim: Why are traditional interpretations of these verses illogical and inconsistent?
To understand this, we need to perform a formal analysis of what “Good” really means. First, note that Genesis “Good” is devoid of any moral judgment. “God saw the light that it was good” (Gen. 1:4) does not carry any moral perspective; Rather, “Good” here resembles, and is indeed compatible with, the definition of “Good” as used in quality engineering (which is my profession). To declare a produced item (or delivered service) “Good”, we require that two conditions/requirements be met:
- That the item conforms to certain pre-conceived and precisely-articulated technical specifications;
- That said specifications conform to all requirements that the product has been designed to fulfill.
When at least one of these conditions is violated— the item at hand cannot be denoted “Good” (though in traditional quality-control parlance it may be called “conforming” if it satisfies the first condition). With regard to both requirements, denoting “something” as “Good” is senseless, and inherently illogical and inconsistent, if there is no standard to compare it with.
Does God have a standard for “Good”, so that He can declare, regarding His creation— Ki Tov (“that it was good”)?
This is a preposterous suggestion. Our very concept of God implies that God is source for all “Goodness”. This is clearly validated, in an extreme fashion, in the Torah, as God responds to Moses request: “Show me your Kavod” (“Show me thy glory”; Genesis 33:18). The Divine response:
“…I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of Jehovah before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and show mercy on whom I will show mercy… (Exodus 33:19-20)
“God”, by definition, does not have a standard by which to judge whether “something” He has created, or has done, is good or otherwise; Especially so given that all that exists is, per Genesis, the result of Divine creation. Interpreting, indeed translating, from biblical Hebrew that “God saw that it was good” is therefore senseless and utter nonsense!!
This brings us to the second claim, tightly connected to the first: If our concept of God as source of all goodness holds true, then the idea of God judging the created as “Good” constitutes, by an inescapable logical conclusion, desecration of the Divine and defamation of God’s name.
We will address the third and last claim, articulated earlier, while working out what we believe is the correct interpretation of the current (wrongly translated) “Elohim saw that it was good”. To do that, we look for other verses in the Jewish Hebrew Bible that are carrying formal resemblance to the verses in Genesis, or use the exact same non-conventional combination of the Hebrew words— Ki Tov.
We start with analyzing what “God Saw” really means. We first note that interpreting “God saw” in Genesis as a standalone, linguistically separate from what follows (Ki Tov; Gen. 1: 10, 12, 18, 21, 25), this phenomenon is not at all rare in the Jewish Hebrew Bible. It appears in multiple other verses, where a certain human action is attributed to God without specifying the object of the action. Examples:
- “…I will now go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry that has reached me, and if not, I will know” (Genesis 18:20-21); Know what?
- “And God saw the children of Israel and God knew.” (Exodus 2:25); Knew what?
In these verses and others, human actions are attributed to the Divine without specifying what was the object of the Divine action. Therefore “God saw”, without qualifying words of what God saw, is consistent with other verses in the Bible.
Secondly, addressing the “humanized” Divine seeing, we recall at least four instances where “God saw”:
- “Va-Yar Jehovah (and Jehovah saw) that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that all the impulse of the thoughts of his heart was evil all day long” (Genesis 6:5);
- “And Jehovah came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men were building” (Genesis 11:5);
- “And Jehovah said, because the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great and because their sin is very grievous, I will now go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry that has reached me, and if not, I will know” (Genesis 18:20-21);
- “And Jehovah said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry…” (Exodus 3:7);
In these particular verses, God is looking over the affairs of humankind, ultimately resulting in Jehovah’s intervention to correct that which had been twisted by human actions. These verses are obvious examples of Divine Providence, the Divine watching to see what transpire in His creation, and as needed intervenes.
Why should “God saw” in Genesis Creation be interpreted differently, even though this time Divine Providence applies not to human actions but to parts of Creation of Heaven and Earth and, finally, to Creation as a whole?
Thirdly, and most importantly, we search for other instances where the unique combination Ki Tov appears. The latter appears in the Bible (apart from Genesis 1) sixteen more times, all in a single idiom, with variations. Examples:
- “O give thanks to Jehovah Ki Tov (“for He is good”); for His steadfast love endures forever.” (Psalms 107:1; 136;1; Chronicles 1 16:34);
- “And they sang responsively in praising and giving thanks to Jehovah Ki Tov (“for He is good”); for His steadfast love endures forever…” (Ezra 3:11);
- “ ..and praised Jehovah, saying, Ki Tov (“for He is good”); for His steadfast love endures forever…” (Chronicles 2 5:13);
- “ ..they bowed themselves with their faces to the ground upon the pavement.. and praised Jehovah, saying, Ki Tov (“for He is good”); for His steadfast love endures forever” (Chronicles 2 7:3);
- “Halleluiah (“Praise God”) Ki Tov (“for He is good”), sing praise to our God for it is pleasant…” (Psalms 147:1).
We realize that when the combination Ki Tov appears elsewhere in the Jewish Hebrew Bible, preceded by a mention of “God”, it invariably has one meaning: “For God is good”. Furthermore, in all these instances Ki Tov appears in a sentence having common structure, namely, a first part relating to God, a second part comprising only the two words— Ki Tov. And these qualifying words refer to the present goodness of God. Consistently.
Why should Ki Tov be interpreted differently in Genesis creation story?
The implication of the new interpretation is staggering. Let me explain why.
Jewish scholars have consistently and insistently preached, throughout centuries of Bible-based Jewish scholarship, that there are two sorts of leadership by which God leads His world:
* Via Law-of-Nature (Genesis 8:22; This leadership is denoted Elohim);
* Via Divine intervention (looking over what transpires in His world and occasionally intervenes in real-time, as the above four examples about Noah’s flood, Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorra and Exodus testify; This leadership is represented by Jehovah).
Furthermore, Jewish rabbis have continuously insisted that Divine leadership is ever-present in the created, and if Elohim-Jehovah stopped sustaining His world— all would return to “nothingness” in a blink of an eye. Put differently: God is sustaining creation every single moment, and if He ceased “seeing” His creation, the whole world would collapse at once into Tohu va-Vohu (“without form and void”). Wikipedia, in entry “Divine Providence”, asserts that rabbinic literature, and in particular classical Jewish philosophers, “maintain that divine providence means that God is directing (or even recreating) every minute detail of creation”. The new interpretation of Ki Tov in the first chapter of Genesis obviously is consistent with that credo and support it.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Jehovah is not mentioned explicitly anywhere in describing Genesis creation— God appears therein explicitly only as creator (Elohim). But Jehovah is always there, looking over his creation. With the new interpretation of Ki Tov in Genesis 1 (the only logical and self-consistent possible), a new insight is gained and a powerful lesson:
“God saw, Ki Tov” testifies to the ever presence of Jehovah-Elohim, looking over His creation from the beginning (Be-Reshit), and ever thereafter, because of His goodness (Ki Tov). And when creation is taken in its totality, “behold, Jehovah-Elohim is Tov Meod”.