Tov – A Word Study
What does “good” [tov] mean? The first use of this word is in Genesis chapter one where YaHuWaH calls his handiwork “good” [tov]. It should always be remembered that the Hebrews often relate descriptions to functionality. The word tov would best be translated with the word “functional”. When YaHuWaH looked at his handiwork he did not see that it was “good”, he saw that it was functional, kind of like a well-oiled and tuned machine. In contrast to this word is the Hebrew word “ra”. These two words, tov and ra are used for the tree of the knowledge of “good” and “evil”. While “ra” is often translated as evil it is best translated as “dysfunctional”.
Let’s take a look at the Paleo Hebrew definitions from the AHLB and Strong’s for better understanding:
From H2895; good (as an adjective) in the widest sense; used likewise as a noun, both in the masculine and the feminine, the singular and the plural (good, a good or good thing, a good man or woman; the good, goods or good things, good men or women), also as an adverb (well): – beautiful, best, better, bountiful, cheerful, at ease, X fair (word), (be in) favor, fine, glad, good (deed, -lier, liest, -ly, -ness, -s), graciously, joyful, kindly, kindness, liketh (best), loving, merry, X most, pleasant, + pleaseth, pleasure, precious, prosperity, ready, sweet, wealth, welfare, (be) well ([-favored]).
Tov is an almost ludicrously small but infinitely expansive Hebrew word. Today’s native English speakers may be vaguely familiar with tov only because of hearing the Jewish/Yiddish saying “Mazel Tov”, but it’s arguably one of the richest words out there. The explosive power in tov can be felt right from the beginning.
Tov first arrives on the scene in the creation story—the first story detailed in scripture. It’s the word YaHuWaH uses to describe what YaHuWaH sees after completing various acts of creation. YaHuWaH’s use of tov in Day 3 of creation does a spectacular job of unveiling for us what tov is.
And Elohim said, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the plant that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth.” And it came to be so. And the earth brought forth grass, the plant that yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in itself according to its kind. And Elohim saw that it was good [tov].” (Genesis 1:11–12)
In these two verses, there is a beautiful progression of movement: YaHuWaH calls forth the seeds he has embedded in creation, creation brings forth those seeds with the seeds of future life in them, and YaHuWaH sees the process as tov.
Metaphorically speaking, if we are trees and we drop seeds but none of them grow…no tov. If we drop seeds and some of them grow and become trees of their own but none of them have seeds of their own…no tov. The reason why the plants and trees must have seeds inside of them is so that in due time those plants and trees will drop their seeds into the earth and further the cycle of creating life and produce life.
So what would YaHuWaH call good? Anything that produces life and contains the potential for more life within it. Think of a seed becoming an orchard. Or, more practically speaking, think of a conversation or story that stirred you to bring forth life from inside of you and offer it in a way that had the potential to call forth life in another.
The Hebrew word tov does not mean merely ‘pleasant’ or ‘pleasurable’. It means capable of, presently engaged in the process of, and destined for, completely fulfilling the Divine purpose for which it was created.
The difference between how modern society uses the word good and how YaHuWaH uses the word good is staggering. In our day and age, it’s not uncommon to hear good being used to describe a new craft beer or an entertaining sitcom or the latest pithy tweet by a celebrity.
Scripture, on the other hand, is significantly choosier when it comes to applying the label “good” [tov] to something.
Let’s explore the story of Solomon receiving the gift of extraordinary wisdom and exercising it with the two-prostitutes-and-the-one-living-baby predicament. This story fleshes out what tov in action looks like. In the first part of 1 Kings 3:9, Solomon says to YaHuWaH, “Shall You then give to Your servant an understanding heart to rule Your people, to discern between good [tov] and evil?
What frequently gets translated as “an understanding mind” is לֵב שֹׁמֵע in Biblical Hebrew (pronounced “lev shomea”), which is “a hearing heart” if translated with simple literalness. The purpose behind YaHuWaH giving Solomon a hearing heart is so Solomon can govern YaHuWaH’s people and discern between good [tov] and evil.
Shortly after the exchange between YaHuWaH and Solomon, two prostitutes show up on Solomon’s doorstep with a baby they both claim to be their own son. Solomon devises a test intended to reveal which woman will choose tov. Based on the women’s responses in the face of a death threat to the child, Solomon discerns who the true mother is: The woman who cares more about the life of the child than her own desire to rear the child.
Scripture abundantly speaks of tov. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph states the following to his brothers: “And you, you intended evil against me, but Elohim intended it for good, in order to do it as it is this day, to keep a great many people alive. In the first part of Psalm 23:6, David declares to YaHuWaH, “Only goodness [tov] and kindness follow me All the days of my life.”
Tov is talked about throughout the Tanakh, and the concept of assessing the fruit one brings forth isn’t only addressed there. We know from the Brit Chadashah that we are to judge a tree, not by its height, the number of leaves it produces, or its visually aesthetic appeal, but by its fruit. (Mt. 7:16; Lk. 6:44)
In Genesis 1, we see that creation is far-reaching and encompasses everything from the textured dirt into which we dig our toes to the core fibers of our very beings. YaHuWaH speaks seeds of life into the earth, and in Genesis 2:7 we read about YaHuWaH breathing seeds of life into us as well: “And Elohim formed the man out of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils breath of life. And the man became a living being.”
Now it’s our turn to bring forth the seeds of life within us—seeds of encouraging, teaching, interceding, healing, designing, building, creating, and so on. We’ve heard it said that people who don’t find meaning and fulfillment in their lives aren’t bringing forth what YaHuWaH planted inside of them and intended for them to bring forth. We can choose whether to have a hearing heart like Solomon, and we can choose whether to partner with YaHuWaH in bringing forth the seeds of life inside of us.
YaHuWaH’s invitation is on the table, so here’s wishing you much tov.