And God Saw the Light: That it Was as Good. Genesis 1:4

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These four Hebrew words – vyar Elohim ki​tov. – reveal a deep and engaging paradox.The passage could be rendred as: God saw the lights and therefore it was good, or the opposite: God recognized that the light was inherently good.In the first, God is the exclusive actor and source of reality. The key to this structural ambiguity lies in the connective ‘ki’ which could be translated as “like’ or as ‘because.’ A parallel ambiguity arises in the famous line in Deuteronomy, repeated many times in Christian texts: Love your neighbor like (ki) your self. Does this mean “Love your neighbor as (ki) you love yourself” or rather “Love your neighbor because (ki) she is like you.” The beauty of this phrase is that it packs a powerful message in three Hebrew words, like the four words in our passage. The price of brevity is the resulting ambiguity. Of course, the ambiguity produced in both cases by the connective ki might simply be the way of inducing us to think about the alternative messages.
We have revealed the paradox in Genesis but not resolved it. The first prong is thatGod’s seeing – the gaze itself – makes the light good? This, appealingly, concentrates all power of creation in a single source: nothing exists independently of the Creator’s power. But should we acknow​ledge that God’s mere focusing ‘His’ (‘Her’ ‘Its’)eyes has a creative force? This would run​ afoul of Rambam’s admonition not to take seriously metaphoric references to God’s body. Thinking that God has eyes and actually looks at the light would be – in Rambam’s terms – a form of idolatry. Yet it is hard for human beings to resist suggestive representations – witness the explosion of symbolic statutory images in Catholicism.
How is it possible for God to act in the world without a corporal presence? Learnado’s vision of God’s touching of Adam, as depicted in the Sistine Chapel, makes good sense as art but not as theology.The reliance on speech as the medium of creation offers a solution to how creation might occur without – or with minimal divine presence. Speech, like God, is a fleeting as the wind. The creation of light was, in John Searle’s vocabulary, a classic speech act.God said it and eo ipso it happened. The problem, which will become more intense in a later passage, is whether God is talking to anyone.
If we want to avoid to avoid the problem of idolatry, we could take Genesis 1:4 as a metaphor and reason that God sees without eyes. The idea would be that God recognizes the nature of light as good.The ‘good’ (tov) is one of the central concepts of Genesis. It is critical in the Garden of Eden story where the choice is given between tov and the rah​- the latter usually translated as ‘evil.’ The entire story depends on the principle that the good is the right choice. This does not mean that we understand the nature of the alternatives. Fifty years ago a school of skeptical philosophers argued that referring to something as good was simply an expression of approbation – something like saying “bravo for the good.’This seemingly nilistic approach would be an odd way to approach the biblical text – the source of many of our values.
If the good actually exists as a concept independently of God’s gaze, then we have additional questions: Is this quality of good instrumental or intrinsic? Ins​trumentally is the way Eve described the prohibited fruit – good to smell and good to eat. The instrumental good of light would depend on its utility in other endeavors. To follow Rav Soloveitchik’s theory of Adam the Creator, light enables human beings to engage in productive tasks. (Of course the dark has it value too – it might facilitate the mitzva to be fruitful and multiply.) One way to think of the instrumental good of light is that it appears useful to God in the further work of creation. The instrumental approach, I am afraid, undervalues the significance of creating light and understanding, before anything else happened, that it was good.
The notion of intrinsic good, then,​should probably be our gloss on the passage.The implication is that light is good in itself. Many goods are perceived as intrinsic. Nature lovers perceive the wilderness in this way. Utilitarians understand pleasure as an intrinsic good.The rule of law, democracy, intelligence, language – there is a long list of candidates.
The most interesting claim is that of Immanuel Kant who reasoned that a good will – a will to act autonomously under a universal law – was the only good properly understood as moral.Humans acquire dignity – a value beyond price – by their capacity to act morally. But, for Kant, moral theory was a substitute for religion. Yet perhaps by analogy, his argument helps us understand the claim of Genesis that the light is good. Light is intrinsically good – as morality is good – because it is the origin, ​because it stands (as now verified in physics) as a fixed point of reference – an ideal from which we measure the degree to which other occurrences are compromised.
Kant argued that the possibility of acting morally conferred dignity on human beings – a value beyond prices in the marketplace. Thinking of light in this way provides the act of divine creation the dignity it warrants.
The problem that remains, however, is whether the quality of intrinsic goodness exists independently of God’s creation.Does God tap into this natural category by seeing that the light is good? I wish it were so easy. If there are concepts that exist independently of God, then we must ask whether our language reveals these concepts and if not, how do we know that they exist. We encounter the problem of agnosticism on a different level.The nature of language – as well as the problem of the good – was the major point of philosophical controversy of the 20th century. For Russell, Wittgentein, Chomsky, and many others, the central question was the precisely whether language depended on concepts extrinsic to the usage of words. We are invited therefore to consider, in a future installment on the Tikkun Daily Blog​, whether God’s creation by the use of language is consistent with the philosophical currents of our time.

George P. Fletcher is the Cardozo Professor of Jurisprudence at Columbia Law School.