…GOD CREATED Heaven and Earth... (Genesis 1:1)
So begins Sacred Scripture. According to the familiar structure of the Creation account, God creates the firmament, dry land, the seas, and so forth:
And God said: Be light made. And light was made. And God saw the light, that it was…What?
Recently I gave a talk, and quoted a similar line from Genesis. The people in the audience immediately answered back ‘good’. Well, that is what nearly all English language Bible translations say (one says ‘pleasing’). Good is a good word, evocative of goodness, but it might not be the best translation, not capturing its full or highest meaning; would you rather be told that you did a good job or an excellent job? Perhaps a better or more evocative or powerful translation might be And God saw the light, that it was beautiful, or perhaps that it was good and beautiful.
Here is the Hebrew text: וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאוֹר, כִּי-טוֹב; And also consider the ancient translations of the Greek Septuagint and Saint Jerome’s Vulgate Latin, which were made close to the original source and culture:
καὶ εἶδεν ὁ θεὸς τὸ φῶς ὅτι καλόνThe Hebrew word for ‘good’— highlighted above in red — is טוֹב or ’tov’; the Greek equivalent is καλόν, ‘kalon’ and the Latin translation is bona.
Et vidit Deus lucem quod esset bona
The Hebrew adjective tov is undoubtably well known in the phrase ‘mazel tov’, usually translated as ‘good luck’ but literally is something more like the Latin rorate coeli; a thanksgiving for divine grace, which is likened to dew dropped down from Heaven. While tov is usually translated as ‘good’, it can also mean kind, thoughtful, moral, pleasing, appropriate, fitting, or successful.
Likewise, καλόν means beautiful, fair, shapely, beloved, of fine quality, auspicious, moral, noble, honorable, excellent, virtuous, or favorable; while bona means moral, honest, of good standing, excellent, comfortable, fine, honorable, artistically valuable, favorable, prosperous, lucky, fortunate, kind, noble, auspicious, or beautiful. All three words here are far broader and nobler than the typically tepid use the of English word ‘good'.
Tov is also one of many Hebrew words for ‘beautiful’, and this meaning, along with goodness, is said to be closer to what is intended in Genesis. From what I’ve read, of all the words for beautiful, tov means the most inner and modest, or hidden kind of beauty, like the beauty of wisdom that can be found in the face of an elderly person, or the beauty of soul of a saint. This word also includes the notion of pregnancy; consider that a fetus is a goodness hiding unseen inside the womb. This beauty has unitive and procreative aspects: a man is drawn to a woman’s beauty, while a woman receives a man if he is good, which leads to pregnancy. By analogy, goodness and beauty draws Man and God together, and Creation is pregnant with God’s truth, goodness, and beauty, even if we can’t always see it.
In Judaism, the hidden beauty of Creation can be found in the Torah with God’s law. But for Catholics, we can also find this kind of beauty foreshadowing the Incarnation, the Blessed Virgin, the Church, the Eucharist, and the world to come. The beauty of nature can also inspire Catholic artists, following the example of the Jewish Temple, which was richly decorated with representations of Creation. In accordance with long artistic tradition, artists also can intuit the hidden, beautiful symbolism found in nature.
That Creation is good, fitting, noble, valuable, auspicious, and beautiful means that artists can imitate or represent nature in ways that are also good and beautiful, despite our world being fallen, and that this beauty and goodness can draw us closer to God.