Thoughts On Tov
A couple weeks back, in reviewing the creation story of Genesis, Cory introduced us to the concept of tov. Tov is the adjective God assigns to each of his creations—it is usually is translated “good” or “beautiful”—and once God calls these “good” things into existence, they are complete, working the way He intends them to be.
So in Genesis, when God creates, and when His work is finished, He has not only created physical elements that exhibit tov, He has also achieved completeness that indicates a tov embedded in his acts of completeness. It is this completeness that seems to elude us currently as humans on this earth. Essentially, when tov is absent, and imbalance becomes its replacement, we experience the absence of tov in much the same way as theologian Cornelius Platinga’s description of sin: a culpable disruption of shalom.
Now, I’m a literature geek. And as Cory spoke about tov, I couldn’t help but think about the great American masterpiece by Herman Melville: Moby-Dick. This novel reflects many of these same ideas regarding tov, especially the importance of balance—another form of harmony. Ishmael’s narrative immediately indicates he is experiencing a lack of tov (or a culpable disruption of shalom) when he “calls” himself Ishmael (alluding to the Biblical orphan Ishmael) as well as confessing to the reader his suicidal thoughts. His solution, at this beginning point of the narrative, is to seek out water (which often functions as a symbol of a new beginning).
Before Ishmael casts off and embarks into the unknown vastness of the ocean, he encounters Queequeg—a character who is both his literal and figurative opposite, as Queequeg is a pagan cannibal from the (fictional) island of Kokovoko. At first, Ishmael believes Queequeg will be a “culpable disturbance” on his journey to recapture tov. However, what he really uncovers is that Queequeg is the indispensable opposite he needs in bringing back balance and reclaiming tov. In chapter 11, “The Nightgown,” Ishmael is snuggling in bed with his new best friend, and admits, “[…] there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.” He realizes true warmth is physically possible only if it is tainted by it opposite, coldness. This is true balance.
Similarly in Genesis 1, the language reveals that balance leads to completion: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Illustrated in every line about creation is the inclusion of opposites leading to completion: “night/day” “light/dark” “firmament/waters” “morning/evening” “earth/sea” and finally, “man/woman.” What is also interesting about this concept of opposites is that by creating them in connection with one another, life is the ultimate result. In other words, when tov happens, so does life.
A connection with an opposite yields “harmony,” “beauty,” and “goodness”—it is a way for “things to be as they should.” But it is certainly not the end. The Bible connects the existence of tov with the word “multiply.” The beasts of the earth are given existence and then are encouraged to multiply. So in essence, tov is not something that is just about completion. It is not an end to something or a confinement simply because the work is done. God creates, blesses, and instructs his creations to: "Be fruitful and increase." I think this is exactly what is intended for us as followers of Christ—to be tov, and by doing so, let it multiply in our lives. God’s work and creation may be complete, but ours is not. We must work to enact and multiply tov in our lives and the lives of others. In the words of Queequeg, “It’s a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians.”
Because of this mutuality (or reciprocity) inherent in tov, our becoming is never complete. In fact, it is a constant and recurring practice that happens in moments we sometimes never even notice—or, in a similar way to Ishmael’s, it happens when we do our best to resist it. It is Queequeg’s conspicuous otherness that instills apprehension and anxiety in Ishmael. However, once Ishmael binds himself with his opposite, and accepts the otherness of his companion, he experiences true tov-ness, and “never slept better” in his life.
In contrast to Ishmael is Ahab, the monomaniacal and bloodthirsty captain of the Pequod. Here we have a character whose sole aim is to reclaim what he once lost: his leg. And what props him up and sustains him in his quest for revenge is a surrogate leg cast from the jawbone of a whale—the very "bones" of the hated animal that “dismasted” him. Both characters seek something that will bring about completion of the self. In the case of Ishmael, his acceptance of the other (a sort of abiding by the natural order of God’s creation) moves him closer to the experience of tov. While Ahab’s pursuit of tov eludes him—and lingers tauntingly just beyond his harpooner’s reach. The reasons appear to be obvious, but not only because Ahab loses his life in the final battle with the while whale.
Throughout the text Ahab is never a character concerned with balance and harmony. To a certain extent, Ahab’s reliance on his prosthetic leg to keep him balanced and upright is a clear indication that his sin, and his vengeful quest for retribution, can and will only lead him to a false reclamation of his former self. He has never accepted his out-of-balance posture, and therefore does not recognize this in himself. There is no solution for Ahab in Melville’s narrative—because even though he is an engaging, relatable and commanding character, his true posture in the book is to stand (with one false leg) in opposition to Ishmael’s introductory experience of tov. He is the counterpoise which brings balance to the narrative as a whole.
Captain Ahab represents the wild, uninhibited self-reliance of humans who operate outside the natural order of God’s Genesis creation—which makes him sound evil, but nonetheless makes him a necessary component to our contemplation if we are to understand the meaning behind tov: That we do have a right to reclaim, to rediscover and uncover the tov-ness present in our world; but if we are ever to return, we must first be lost—orphaned, cast aside, forgotten. And the first step in regaining what is gone is to admit to ourselves and to others exactly who we are. To confess to everyone (and our God) three simple words: “Call me Ishmael.”