Good and Evil, Towb and Ra

Jeff Brenner of the Ancient Hebrew Research Center says that the Jews of the OT understood the Hebrew word “towb” (English “good”) to mean “functional” and the Hebrew word “Ra” (English “evil”) means “dysfunctional.” While I think those translations make a lot of sense, I’ve not seen anyone other than Brenner or someone quoting him say that.

Any linguistic archeologists out there with input on this?

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I’m no expert, but from what I understand the original implication and “weight” of “towb” (tov, טוֹב) meant something like “beneficial” or “pleasing” rather than implying “moral good” (a meaning that would attach to the word later. I wonder to what extent our Platonizing of Christianity has pushed us towards the “moral” and away from the “beneficial” (especially, say, when it comes to Genesis 1).

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I think “Beneficial” is akin to “functional.” It appears that the point of Genesis 1:31 is that when God created the world everything worked as designed in order to benefit the animals and, more to the point, the people who were created in God’s image as His representatives on the earth. There was no evil, dysfunction, or non-beneficial forces acting on the cosmos until people thought they could decide what was beneficial and non-beneficial to the ordered universe instead of following God’s ideas of functional and dysfunctional.

One of the first things God said was functional was a man and woman multiplying humanity and spreading out the Garden of Eden throughout the whole land. Given there was only 2 people in the beginning, it is likely that Eden was maybe 2 or 3 acres. The care of 2 or 3 acres would be a handful for only 2 people. God meant for them to reproduce more people so as to increase the size of the garden, which would all be highly beneficial or functional. In that context, homosexuality would be totally non-beneficial or dysfunctional.

Good and evil are thus very practical matters as opposed to our modern Western ideas of morality.

Yes. I wasn’t disagreeing with you. “Functional” seems to fit very well (although by itself it might miss the “beneficial” or even “beautiful” nuance which I think apply). In other words, not just a “mechanical” or “mechanistic” functionality, but a “rightness,” or “appropriateness,” or even…“artful”?

I understood you to agree. I think you just added more depth by using the word “beneficial.” It does indeed bring out the “rightness” or “appropriateness” of God’s design. “Artful” is also brings out some nice nuances missing from “functional.”. Thanks!

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I am a linguist and I work in Bible translation.

Words can have more than one sense, and each sense has a semantic range. That means words can both have different meanings in different contexts and the best word in English to translate a given word in Hebrew might not always be the same English word. Semantic ranges rarely map from one language to another in exactly the same way.

So, yes some interpreters claim the Hebrew word for good has the element of functionality as part of its semantic range. Or maybe another way to put it is that the Hebrew concept of goodness included functionality within the conceptual domain of things that could be called good. That’s different than claiming something like “functional is the best translation of the Hebrew word ט֖וֹב,” because the best translation of a word always depends on how a word is used in a context.

John Walton has written a lot about this concept of functionality when he talks about material versus functional creation.

The work of the six days is to order the cosmos as sacred space and to prepare it to function as sacred space (“it was good”) for people in God’s image.

You also might enjoy playing with this website, which allows you to look at the semantic ranges of Hebrew words in the Old Testament: MARBLE


Thanks for the input. I’ve read much of what John Walton has written and I find it quite valuable. For almost all of my 50 years as a Bible researcher, I made the mistake of interpreting the scriptures with my modern Western mindset. It was only about a year ago that I became acquainted with Comparative Studies, with much of the credit going to John Walton. I think doing that has increased my understanding and appreciation for the scriptures by many many degrees. It seems so obvious.

Not sure how I missed it other than that’s the “normal” way us Westerners think about virtually everything. I suppose, discounting not having been taught as the real cause, it’s because we humans tend to be egocentric. I mean, surely God wrote the scriptures to the Western mind, given our “advanced” level of knowledge. No! A million times no! The Bible was not written last year in New York or LA. So axiomatic!

Anyway, thanks again for your input. Very informative. I already bookmarked MARBLE and the Walton site you suggested.


It is very hard to get beyond your own worldview to try to see someone else’s.
Have you ever read Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes? It’s another helpful resource to start thinking about these things.

I am currently working on a conference paper with a colleague on mental models of Bible translation and the underlying values that come from them which affect our assessments of “quality.” Our whole hermeneutic approach is often shaped by the metaphors we use to conceptualize what we are doing with God’s word when we translate it. Most of the global Bible translation enterprise has worked with a Western-influenced mental model that translation is a science. So our Western understanding of what the text says is already pushed in a direction by the values that have undergirded the translations we read. It’s interesting to think about. Other cultures that approach the text and the translation task with different mental models (it’s a work of art/performance, it’s a journey, it’s a mission, it’s a dialogue, it’s a craft) produce different kinds of texts.


This made me think of a course on Plotinus where one of the constant questions put out by the professor was, “How do we remove these ideas from our exegetical glasses?”

Oh, there are lots of people saying that to one degree or another. One of my Hebrew professors used to ask, “Yes, God made that, but what did He make it for?”

I think my first real glimmer of the functionality emphasis was in reading the first Genesis Creation account in light of the fact that it closely follows the ancient Egyptian order of things, but it adds rhythm to the account by the use of days, and then within that rhythm systematically turns everything the Egyptians considered a deity to a servant of YHWH-Elohim with a job to do: sky wasn’t a god, sky was something with a task; sun wasn’t a god, indeed sun didn’t even get a name, just a job; earth wasn’t a god, indeed earth wasn’t even something for its own sake, it was a feature with a task – and so on. So when I ran into John Walton and his emphasis on functionality, it seemed familiar even though new in its directness. I still think he’s overemphasizing, though not by much; the account involved making material things, but it never talks about those things in themselves, it always talks of the job they are here to do.


Yes, I think a lot of old school professors believe you can actually completely take off “the lenses” of your own social location and culture and be objective interpreters. I don’t think that is actually possible. But we can increase our empathy for the other culture’s perspective and correct the wrong inferences that come from our own unexamined cultural assumptions.


If it’s possible at all, like it only taking a single instance of a person acting without cause for determinism to be false, is what makes or breaks a postmodern worldview.

I have no idea what you mean. People have postmodern worldviews because they are encultured in postmodernity, not because they decided at some point it was the worldview that makes the most sense. You can’t break someone’s worldview. You can only challenge it in areas where it is inconsistent with reality and then people will adjust to accommodate their learning and experience and make it fit with the rest of their worldview. But no one ever swaps out one worldview for another because they are “convinced.” That isn’t how brains or enculturation actually works.


If I’m not mistaken, logical positivism suffered a crushing defeat.

Should I explain it, or was I summarily dismissed?

I’m just saying that you are not using worldview the way the other people in the conversation are using worldview. You don’t have to understand anything about philosophy or logical postivism or determinism to have a postmodern worldview. You just need to have been born and raised in postmodernity, like myself. Nothing you say about philosophy is going to “break” my worldview. It’s deeply ingrained in my subconscious and affects how I process reality. When I say people can’t escape their social location and enculturation I am not asserting a postmodern philosophical principle, I am expressing my deeply ingrained view of reality and something I think is obviously true.


Maybe, but I am following the conversation. James Smith and Christopher Watkin have meaningfully written about this. If you have any suggestions, or specific points of clarification, I would be interested.

Of course not, but those worlds, determinism and logical positivism, are not immune to objective criticism.

I don’t see how any of this relates to Bible interpretation, translation, or lexical semantics.

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“You (plural) will be like God, knowing (determining) good and evil”?

Thanks for this reference! I had been thinking of Genesis from a modern materialistic view, so had to deal with all the reconciliation involved with that. And I had also come to the conclusion that God’s view of this created universe is from outside of space and time, so that the claim that “It was good” did not refer to just that point in time when He was finished - rather, that this universe that He created is, was, and will be (from our internal to the universe, at this particular point in time; not like God, looking at the entire duration of the universe from before, during and after) supporting His purposes for creating it. I had realized that this interpretation is consistent with God saying that “All things work together for good for those who love God.” I think my interpretation fits much better with a functional interpretation of Genesis 1 than with a materialistic interpretation.