Frankly, if you've heard any apologetics concerning the first few chapters of the book of Genesis, you've probably heard a lot of what I have to say here. Clicking around the Internet in my spare time and looking at a few sites that are like the SAB, responses to the SAB and sites like it, and others still giving rebuttals to responses, I'm frankly finding it a bit depressing. In that middle category where my blog fits, there seem to be largely two types of folks: absolute geniuses and muddled hacks. I don't think I'm one of the former, but I fear it places me in jeopardy of being grouped with the latter. Hopefully my willingness to admit that I am not a genius in this area will lend me a certain air of credibility for my honesty at least. I'm not a theologian, I don't know all the answers, and admittedly very little of what I write here proves anything. The SAB suggests some problems with the Bible, I suggest some explanations for them, and the Bible is neither proven to be infallible nor utterly wrong, but only ambiguous. Even if I were a highly gifted apologist, the reader would still of course decide for themselves how to take the Bible's claims. It's nice to get that off of my chest.
Okay, it's finally time to get to the topic I'd mentioned twice before: the tree of "the knowledge of good and evil." What is it, and why does God put it in the garden? It seems like putting your children in the backyard to play and saying, "By the way, don't jump in the pit with the spikes lining the bottom that I dug in the back corner by the swing set, okay?" You'll find that my favorite metaphor to illustrate the relationship between mankind and God is the relationship between children and their parents, so expect a lot of this now that we're discussing humanity.
The tree itself is never said to be an apple as is often believed, and in fact, we don't know what kind of fruit it was (but see comments for interesting speculation!). The fact that we often think of it as an apple is interesting, as I think it does the job of my first point, which is that there was nothing particularly special about this tree. Apples are good and healthy; there's nothing deadly about them, nor particularly wisdom-imparting. I believe that this tree was a tree much like any other in the garden, with the singular exception that God points it out as special. In other words, the tree has nothing that intrinsically sets it apart, but God uses it as a symbol.
What is it a symbol of? Well, knowledge of good and evil, of course. God creates man with understanding, obviously, since God is talking with him. If man did not understand, God would have known, and made it clearer. God was giving a simple message to man: "Evil" is the things that you're not supposed to do, "good" is the things that you should do. The only thing you need to know about "evil" is don't eat from that tree. It's a completely arbitrary distinction between that tree and the others, but an important one. It's so important that man's very life is claimed to be dependent on it.
So why make that distinction? Why allow man to die over this arbitrary tree? The answer is "free will". God wants man to be devoted to his Creator; to love Him, follow Him, worship Him, have fellowship with Him, etc. But what does it really mean to say, "I want you to love me and do as I tell you, but I won't give you any choice in the matter, okay?" Is it meaningful for me to say that I know my daughter loves me because she's never tried to run away from home, when she's too small to reach the knob on the front door? Now, that doesn't mean that to be loving I have to leave the front door open and see if she walks out it and goes away, but for God being in this special position, He needs to create something that is an option for rebellion.
Free will to be able to choose or reject God is important to God apparently, and as a symbol of this choice, it is simultaneously more than a symbol, thence its name. While the tree indeed has no magical properties, the act of eating from the tree has a profound spiritual aspect to it. Why would a person need to eat from a "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" excepting that they wanted to know good and evil? Is that so wrong? Maybe, after all, what was there to know? As far as I know, conservative theologians are pretty much agreed that before chapter three, eating the fruit itself was the only evil that there was, and man already had been told by God that it was evil, and essentially that everything else was good. There was nothing else to know!
Eating the fruit of the tree embodied a profound statement; the statement of, "God, I know you say that you know best, and you claim to have told me everything I need to know, but I want to find out for myself." To eat from the tree would be to say that God was not trustworthy, and that's a serious accusation, especially at this point in history. Atheists and agnostics have raised time and again very thought-provoking points about the character of the Biblical God such as why He would allow suffering if He is supposedly good. That argument wouldn't hold water in the garden, as there was no suffering, no death, no Bible to write an SAB about, nothing but a man, a woman and some trees.
So was God lying when He said that man would die "in the day that thou eatest thereof"? I'm going to save that one for chapter three.