Bereishit: Is It Good?

And God saw all that [God] had made, and hey!—[It was] very tov.  And it was evening and it was morning, day six.  (Genesis/Bereishit 1:31)

tov (טוֹב) = good.

First Day of Creation, 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle

In the first creation story in this week’s Torah portion, Bereishit (“In a beginning”)—chapter 1 of the bible—the God-character sees that seven things “he” has created are “good”: light (day 1); the separation of dry land from waters (day 3); plants (day 3); the sun, moon, and stars (day 4); swimming and flying animals (day 5); land animals (day 6); and the whole world including humans (also day 6).1

The underlying message is that our world or universe is fundamentally good.  But in what way?  Like the English word “good”, tov can mean a number of different things, which fall into four categories:

  • Morally virtuous. (When we classify people as “good” in the moral sense, we mean that they consistently act in ways that benefit other people  and/or other living things.)
  • Acceptable to, or approved by, an authority. The authority might be an individual, a social group, or a doctrine (a set of beliefs and principles).
  • Pleasurable, beautiful, enjoyable.
  • Beneficial, helpful to achieve a specific purpose.

Moral virtue cannot be attributed to such things as “dry land” or “the sun”.  And in the first chapter of Genesis there is no authority other than God.  Therefore God calls the world tov either because God finds it beautiful, or because it is helpful for furthering a divine purpose—probably a purpose concerning God’s final creation, the human being.

The word tov appears again in the second creation story, in the Garden of Eden.

Adam and Eve under the Tree of Knowledge (Rembrandt)

And God made sprout from the earth every tree pleasant in appearance and tov for eating, and the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden and the Tree of the Knowledge of Tov and Ra.  (Genesis 2:9)

ra (רָע) = bad; evil, ugly, useless.  (The opposite of tov.)

Which of the four definitions of tov (and ra) apply to the name of the Tree of Knowledge?  Genesis 2:9 says that all trees in the Garden of Eden are “pleasant in appearance” (i.e. pleasurable, beautiful) and have fruit that is “tov for eating” (i.e. beneficial, helpful for the purpose of nutrition).  The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Tov and Ra are distinguished by qualities that none of the other trees in the garden possess.

We learn later in the story that eating fruit from the Tree of Life makes one immortal.  After the male and female humans have eaten fruit from the Tree of Knowledge,

God said: “Hey, the human has become like one of us, knowing tov and ra!  And now, what if he stretches out his hand and takes also from the Tree of Life and eats, and he lives forever!”  (Genesis 3:22)

This remark also confirms that eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Tov and Ra results in some type of knowledge of good and bad that God (and some other unnamed beings) already have.  It cannot be knowledge of what is pleasurable or of what is beneficial, since all the trees in the garden are “good” in those ways.  Nor can it be knowledge of what is acceptable to an authority, even if one interprets Genesis 3:22 above as meaning that God already knows what is acceptable to God (and so do the unnamed beings). Earlier in the story,

God commanded the human, saying: “From every tree of the garden you may/will certainly eat.  But from the Tree of the Knowledge of Tov and Ra, you should not eat from it, because on the day you eat from it you may/will certainly die.”  (Genesis 2:16-17)

If the Tree of Knowledge of Tov and Ra gives humanity some insight into what is “acceptable” and “unacceptable” to God, then in this passage God is both

  • urging the human to be acceptable by avoiding any knowledge of what is acceptable, and
  • holding up death as a reward for learning how to be acceptable to God.

The God character in the first Torah portion of the book may be devious, but this explanation is too convoluted to be credible.  Therefore, by the process of elimination, “the Tree of the Knowledge of Tov and Ra” must mean “the Tree of the Knowledge of Virtue and Vice”—in other words, “the Tree of Moral Knowledge”.

Moral Knowledge

Cain, by Henri Vidal

Humankind does not emerge from the Garden of Eden with complete knowledge of the morally right action in every possible situation.  This is obvious in history, in our own lives, and in the Torah, starting when Cain thoughtlessly kills his brother Abel.2

Then what kind of moral knowledge does humanity acquire in the Garden of Eden, rather than through experiences in the real world?  What kind of moral knowledge are humans equipped with at birth?

Perhaps we are born with an instinctive feeling that some actions are virtuous and some are wicked.  Perhaps empathy is hard-wired in our brains like our instinct for personal survival.3  (The exception might be psychopaths, estimated at 1 to 4% of the human population.)

In the 21st century, experiments have demonstrated that even infants make basic moral judgments, distinguishing between acts of kindness and cruelty.4

Toddlers see themselves as moral agents who can help or hurt other people, and when they feel secure they volunteer to help.5  They also understand the basic idea of fairness.  Other research shows that human beings with normal brains have an instinctive aversion to killing people.  They can only bring themselves to do it after their natural aversion has been overcome by a barrage of information (or misinformation).6

Thus the majority of human beings are born with a taste of the knowledge of moral good and evil.  During the rest of our lives we expand our moral knowledge through thinking about our experiences, developing our feelings, and learning from other people:  their examples, their teachings, and their writings—perhaps even the book of Genesis.

According to the story of the Garden of Eden, if the first humans had never eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Tov and Ra, humankind would have had no sense of morality.  We would have been a species of psychopaths, acting exclusively for our loveless self-interest, unable to balance our natural selfishness with social cooperation and affection.  Without the interplay between selfish and generous desires, humankind probably would never have developed a high intelligence, and we certainly would have been incapable of any form of civilization.7  Would there be any point in the existence of such a species?

The humans in the Garden of Eden had to eat the fruit of that tree.  Otherwise there would be no story—no stories at all.

  1. Genesis 1:4, 1:10, 1:12, 1:18, 1:21, 1:25, and 1:31.
  2. Genesis 4:2-8.
  3. Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2014, pp. 75, 179-180.
  4. Paul Bloom, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, Crown Publishers, New York, 2013, p. 31.
  5. Ibid, p. 13, on an experiment in which toddlers open a door, unprompted, to help someone whose arms are too full to open it.
  6. Ralph D. Mecklenburger, Our Religious Brains, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 2012, p. 122.
  7. E.O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence, 2014, pp. 21-22, 179-180.

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