Through much of my theological education I was taught that the phrase “it was good” in Genesis 1 had implications of perfection. That is to say there was no death or decay prior to the fall. Everything was perfect. How could death ever be described as something “good”? I understand there are other arguments that augment this (such as death is the result of sin so it could not have preceded the fall). But for today’s post I want to look only at the one phrase to see if it can carry the weight of the argument. In Death Before the Fall (IVP Academic) Ronald Osborn writes,
“As unsettling as it may be for some readers to discover, nowhere in Genesis is the creation described as ‘perfect.’ God declares his work to be ‘good’ or tob at each stage and finally ‘very good’—tob me’od—at its end. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible tob me’od describes qualities of beauty, worthiness or fitness for a purpose but never absolute moral or ontological perfection. Rebekah is tob me’od or ‘very beautiful’ (Gen 24:16 NASB). The Promised Land is tob me’od or “exceedingly good,’ is fierce inhabitants and wild animals not withstanding (Num 14:7 NASB). When Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery the result is great hardship and pain for Joseph over many years, yet he declares that God providentially ‘meant it for tob in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive’ (Gen 50:20 NASB). According to the book of Ecclesiastes, ‘every man who eats and drinks sees tob in all his labor—it is the gift of God’ (Eccles 3:13 NASB). In Lamentations, the prophet asserts that ‘It is tob for a man, that he should bear the yoke in his youth’ (Lam 3:27 NASB).”
“In fact, Mark Whorton writes, nowhere else in Hebrew Scripture is tob or tob me’od interpreted by biblical scholars ‘as absolute perfection other than Genesis 1:31, and in that case it is for sentimental rather than exegetical reasons.’ There are other words in biblical Hebrew that are closer to the English sense of ‘perfect’ than tob me’od and that might have been used instead. The book of Leviticus commands that burnt sacrifices be tamim, ‘without defect’ (e.g., Lev 1:3, 10; 3:1; 4:3; 5:18; 14:10). Elsewhere in Genesis, Noah is said to be tamim or ‘blameless’ (Gen 6:9). In Deuteronomy 32:4, we read that God’s ‘work is tamim’ or ‘perfect,’ for ‘Is not He the Father who created you, fashioned you and made you endure!’ (Deut 32:6 NJPS). Even in these texts, however, the biblical understanding of perfection or blamelessness lends little support to modern creationists.” (p. 29)
The most compelling verse here for me is Numbers 14:7. Clearly, the land had elements of death and was occupied by potential enemies which posed a threat to the people as they entered. Yet, the land could be described as good. The case for no death before the fall may still be made but appeal to “it was good” does not seem so satisfying.