And God Saw That It Was Good

The Jewish New Year starts at sundown today. According to rabbinic tradition, this is the day that God finished creating the world. However you interpret Rosh Hashanah, there's something to be glad about on this day. I'm simply glad there is a world!

There could be no better day to say something about my favorite passage from the bible. That happens to be the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. Here's some of it:
20And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.

21And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

22And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.

23And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.

24And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

25And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

Some of my non-believing brethren, like Richard Dawkins, tend to focus on the bits of the bible that would steer us in the wrong direction, morally speaking. See The God Delusion for lots of great examples. But there are passages that are morally inspiring, and this is one of them.

What I love so much is the phrase "and God saw that it was good." Why should we care if tigers go extinct? If the polar ice caps melt, and the polar bears disappear? If lush rainforests, teeming with diverse plant and animal life, are being destroyed?

You'll give yourself a very bad headache if you try to give a 100% lucid explanation why it matters whether or not there are polar bears. The poetry of Genesis is much more vivid and compelling. It matters because they are good. Even atheists can appreciate the way Genesis evokes a deep sense that the world we live in should be appreciated and conserved.

Now of course, poetry can't really tell us exactly how to behave. Genesis says "and God saw that it was good" after each part of the world is created. The earth and the waters, the sun and the moon, the plants, the birds, the fish, the land animals, and finally human beings, are all good. We don't treat all of these things in the same way. We use the earth for fuel. We use plants for food. What kind of exploitation is suitable for each class of things?

The bible is even inspiring on this issue. You probably remember the dominion business:
28And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
Students in my animal rights class are always surprised when I read the very next sentences:

29And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

30And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.

The goodness of animal life is of a special sort. In the beginning, our instructions are not to turn each other into food! You have to read Genesis all the way up to chapter 9 to see why God ultimately allows meat eating...and you'll find that the permission finally granted is highly ambivalent.

Genesis 1 also conveys the notion that human beings are special--they alone were created "in the image of God." Not literally true, in my view, but is there some germ of truth here as well? I think so. Humans are uniquely endowed with certain special capacities, however much it is true that animals have their own marvelous capacities.

In what way do plants and mountains and water and ice caps matter? All hard questions, and obviously the answers are not in the bible. But the message that they do matter is something not to be dismissed lightly or ignored.

To my own mind, the bible is a piece of literature, like those other ancient masterpieces, The Iliad and The Odyssey. But like Homer, it's not just entertaining, and not just a repository of bad moral thinking, but of wisdom as well. Exquisite poetry and story-telling that sometimes points us in the right direction.


Anonymous said...

Hmm. I agree that Genesis sounds nice (did you read the thread on B+W about poetry and Anglican sermons?) but, being as I am into evotion and geology, I can't take from it the fact that (say) polar bears matter. They haven't been around for very long. Why should they matter any more than, say, trilobites, wihich are already extinct? Life on earth has been through 5 major extinction events so far, and we still have good things today, which just happen to be polar bears.

And human activity is pretty unlikely to have much effect on there being mountains and seas and so on; or rather there might be more or less sea for a while, and more or less ice........just as there was at the beginning of the current interglacial, which is hardly any time ago.

BTW, I have another good thought for you about the unexamined life, which is that it is much preferable to the minutely examined life. I got that from Theodore Dalrymple in relation to food fads; I can find the exact ref if it amuses you.

Jean Kazez said...

I knew I wasn't going to get away with this...

Yes, every species can't be sacred, or we'd all be crying about the dinosaurs. The biblical passages just say--the earth is wonderful, treasure it! Sure, what that means in concrete terms has to be worked out.

Re: polar bears. The truth is, I'm for going with my gut. I like polar bears. I want them to keep on hanging out on the polar ice caps.

But if I must sound more rational, there's all that stuff in E. O. Wilson's wonderful books about how the rate of extinctions is increasing. It's reasonable, now, to fear that one day the earth is going to be one big parking lot. If you'll excuse a touch of hyperbole.

The minutely examined life is a little tedious. As I said on TP last night, there's something to be said for "cheerful moral anarchy." As long as I'm not the one getting raped and killed by the cheerful anarchists.

Ophelia Benson said...

To be fair, Dawks does say there's great stuff in the Bible - in fact he even says that even he is shocked by people's ignorance of it.

One of my favorite inspirational bits is the one in Isaiah about the lion shall lie down with the lamb and the child play with the asp and so on. It haunts me. If only nature were like that.

Jean Kazez said...

I love that passage too. Really nice.

I listened to Dawkins on my ipod, thus don't have the book on hand for careful examination. I have to rely on my memory, which is not a good thing. I do remember him saying Ecclesiastes is exquisite (I think so too), and also listing zillions of lovely phrases. Actually, come to think of it, he is rather positive about the new testament and not so fond of the god of the old.