Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:15-17)

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.


Anonymous said...

Ran across this on the fruit:

"The fig tree receives the most first place votes based on the principle of "that which Adam and Eve sinned with, is also that which they used to make right their wrong." Consequently, the original two-legged creatures cover their nakedness with fig leaves (which are very broad). For this same reason, wood from the fig tree was used as fuel for the sacrificial altarthe only fruit-bearing tree that was so used.

The fig is the first fruit mentioned in the Torah. It is included among the seven species that are said to exemplify the beauty and honor of Israel and is eaten on the holiday of Tu b'Shevat. Last but not least, we are told that in the time when the Meshiah comes, everyone will "sit under a (grape) vine and fig tree and that no one will be afraid again (Micah 4:4)."


Just an interesting bit of tradition given the many parallels and reverses between Genesis and the NT.

S and C said...

Interesting comments. Thank you. Actually, though, the tree in question is an archetype, not arbitrarily chosen. For a different approach to this tree, feel free to check out http://biblische.blogspot.com/2006/09/tree-of-knowledge-of-good-and-evil.html
All best wishes,
---S. Cook, Virginia Theological Seminary

Anonymous said...

For a different approach, The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as recast Mesopotamian motifs and concepts regarding primeval man and his relationship in the edin with his gods cf.http://www.bibleorigins.net/EdensTreeofKnowledgeLife.html

Brucker said...

Here, let me make that link live:


I've always been fascinated by the strong similarities between Israelite and Sumerian, er, mythologies (for lack of a better term that would be more suitable for a Bible-believer); I often wish I had the time to read through them all, but they're much more long-winded than the Bible, aren't they? Still, you've got a good resource there for looking at it in summary. (Not that your own site is short on verbosity, but it's surely a quicker read than the Epic of Gilgamesh, eh?) I'll be sure to read more, and maybe even post a commentary on your message here.

Brucker said...

Hmmm, I should make Dr. Cook's link live, too:

It's a much smaller article, but an interesting view on the nature of the "tree of knowledge".

Anonymous said...

God must be a sadist. He must have known that Adam and Eve would eat of the tree yet they were condemned. What good is a choice if the temptation is divinely ovverwhelming?

Brucker said...

I don't know that I have any answer than the one I give in the post: free will. You'll find millions of books and essays on the subject if you care to read more on it, but much of it says more or less the same thing.

Anonymous said...

My fascination with this biblical paradox is with the experience of life before the wisdom of good and evil was known. Some might say it was evil to eat of the tree, but in the absence of knowledge of what good or evil is, how is this possible? The dicotomy of the command ("do not eat") creates a defacto good/evil where there is no knowledge of a good/evil. Perhaps good/evil do not exist but in God's mind? Finally, the utterly fascinating observation.... reveal good and evil after eating the forbidden and what horror is realized in the minds of these previously (ignorant to good/evil) people? They are naked! Now there is an evil for mankind to deal with!

Brucker said...

Recently, as I commented in my other blog, I had a chance to read C.S. Lewis' Perelandra which deals with a lot of these issues in an odd fashion through a science fiction backdrop. In that context, a man and a woman are created on a planet of islands, and God forbids them only one thing: to sleep overnight on one particular island. The main character of the book argues that there is indeed no intrinsic wrong in the island. It is made clear that there is no physical danger on the island, and there is no ban on visiting the island during the daytime. The point of the ban on sleeping on the island is to show God that you are willing to trust Him even in a matter that you can see no clear reason to trust.

I think that what goes on here, in case I did not make it clear (I thought I had, but upon re-reading it seems vague), is that there was a certain rudimentary knowledge of good and evil before eating of the tree, certainly. What the eating of the fruit embodied was an act that would make the eater intimately aware of evil and good and the difference between them.

Look, when I was a kid, I knew that the cigarette lighter in the car was dangerous, and could burn. Nonetheless, one day I was sitting in the car waiting for my mom, and I pushed in and pulled out the cigarette lighter. I looked at it and thought, "Huh, it doesn't look hot..." and proceeded to verify for myself that indeed it was quite hot, and had a nasty burn on my hand to prove it. That was a knowledge of hot that was deeper than the knowledge I'd had previous to doing something I knew in my head was stupid, but did anyway.

In a sense, though, you are close to the matter philosophically. Good and evil were not only in God's mind, but the possibility of the existence of evil was created (indirectly) by God's command to Adam and Eve. In Romans 7, Paul talks about how sin in some manner cannot exist without the moral law to define it.

Anonymous said...

I'm still studying this, but if Jesus is the "Tree of Life", then wouldn't Satan be the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil"? If the Word of God states that Jesus is the "Tree of Life" and it was in the midst of the Garden, then it stands to reason that the fruit that gives death would be the fruit brought forth by the Destroyer of life (Satan himself, the Deceiver).

Man was instructed not to indulge in the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Doctrine of Satan, which is his fruit) that leads to both deaths. The physical and spiritual deaths. We were never to give place to Satan and fall away from God. Satan deceived one third of the Angels to follow him, thus causing a rift in God's Kingdom. This, of course, is what happened through free-will. You might question then, Why would God give anyone free-will, if we are to follow His commandments? LOVE. There is no True Love without Free-Will (CHOICE). There is no love from Drones or Robots. The Lord wants to be loved by man, but man has done nothing deserving of His Love. That is why Jesus Christ is so important to man. It was through God's Love that He gave His only Begotten Son to die in the place of man (because of our sin - which cannot come before a Righteous God), so that if man would believe that God loved us enough that He would sacrifice His Most Loved Possession and that He was resurrected from the dead (overcoming death), that we could be saved from the Second (Spiritual) death. It is appointed unto man , once to die. Once, not twice unless we choose to die the second death.

We cannot use our physical minds to understand the Mind of God. We need the Holy Spirit to understand the things of the Spirit.

Brucker said...

I think you're on the right track in a symbolic sense about the trees, but I don't think that either tree is literally a person (so to speak). In any case, the rest of what you're saying is pretty well spot-on theologically.

Unknown said...

Reading the discourse of this blog has been insightful. Thanks for those who have contributed and may I be so bold as to invite myself into the discussion.

I've been studying this topic off and on over the past year and half. The journey began when I began to understand the narrative fashion of communication the writers of the Old Testament used (because it was the norm in those days). We who have known nothing but organized schooling through propositions and arranged outlines know little of the relaying of a message through narrative. This is, however, how much of the world and most of history taught--through organized and deliberately arranged stories.
This is precisely what we find when we open to the fist pages of God's Word. In light of this, may I suggest 2 thoughts into this discussion.
1--our purpose should not necessarily be to have all our theological questions answered, but to listen to the message of author (Author)
2--the key to accomplishing this goal is to look closely at the author's intentional arrangement of the story and key terms that convey his message

I believe doing so will calm down our natural responses which the author never intended on addressing (such as seeing God as a sadist or running to explaining away theological schemes such as "free will") and open our hearts to hearing the message of the text.
Brucker's point that the tree is used as a symbol is right on this line of thinking. It appears that the author portrays this tree as a symbol of trust in the Creator. To trust Him is to allow Him to be the One Who decides what is "good for us" or "evil for us." Whether we understand His choice or not, we bow to the reality that it is best (Isa. 55)
Eating of that fruit was a symbol of man's desire to live autonomous of his Creator and decide what is best for himself. Sound familiar to your life? It does mine. This seams to be the resonating message of this story (and the story of the Bible). Hope is realized when we see the other tree, however. The tree of Life shows up again at the other end of the Bible when all God's people are gathered in the new and glorious kingdom of Heaven living their new lives in complete trust and obedience that He truly is the One worthy to decided what is good and evil.
I will end these thoughts with a quote from Brueggeman from his "Theology of the Old Testament" (460) where he explains the same idea from the angle of explaining how the OT seems to be portraying humanity: "I will consider the human person as one who listens (obeys), discerns, and trusts. These three disciplines of humanness together provide a foundation for a life of buoyant freedom, free of fear and cynicism, a life rooted in complete commitment to Yahweh, full adherence to Yahweh's sovereignty, and full confidence in Yahweh's reliable ordering of reality."

Anonymous said...

Referring back to the post suggesting that the trees could be represented by Jesus and Satan - could I offer a possible alternative? That the Tree of life is 'grace' and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is 'the Law'. When we try and get to God by our deeds, we are operating under the Law, and thereby eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil - but when we realise that the only way to God is through the gift of grace through Jesus' sacrifice - then we are eating from the tree of life.

I would go further to say that even as believers, we can still fall into the trap of eating from the 'wrong' tree - through legalism. Thinking in any way that we can 'earn' anything from God will indicate that we are not eating from the tree of life. When we eat from the tree of life, is when we are completely humble, knowing that any favour we have with him is unmerited and undeserved. This is true freedom.

Brucker said...

You may have something there, but I think saying the tree of knowledge is "the Law" seems somehow wrong to me. After all, while righteousness is not attained through the Law, God still commanded the Israelites to follow the Law, while He told Adam to avoid the tree.

The idea that the tree represents "works" however, is a much more satisfying possibility to me. After all, the story is about Adam & Eve being tempted to do things their own way instead of trusting in God.

The fruit of the tree caused Adam and Eve to be cut off from the Lord, but the Law, while not granting righteousness, is still intended to point us to God. No, I think if anything in this story is the Law, it is the actual law given by God, "of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it". Consider it theologically: would NOT eating the fruit have made Adam righteous? Yet obeying this command would have turned him to God, rather than away.

Shirl said...

Wow, prompt reply! thanks! I see what you're saying there - and this has been my view for many years too - but as I looked closer at Galations in particular - I was struck by scriptures like "All who rely on observing the law are under a curse ..." Gal 3:10 - and then I started to think more on the tree, which is the knowledge of good AND evil. I think I used to presume that it was the knowledge of evil alone. But when I started to wonder why it was called the knowledge of good AND evil - I began to think that perhaps this tree gave man the opportunity to know right AND wrong - which is what the Law does. But God knew that as soon as man ate from that tree, he would 'be like him' knowing all things - and YET unable to fulfill them.
God had to tell the Israelites to follow the Law, because this was the path which had in a sense been chosen in the garden. He told Adam to avoid it, because his first and best plan was for grace, and the tree of life.

I'm working this through, I trust you understand - not putting this forward as cast in stone :o)

I'm not sure of your last sentence - can you explain it differently please?

Brucker said...

"All who rely on observing the law are under a curse ..."

Hmm, I never thought of it that way, but indeed, the curse may be the curse of Adam; it makes sense. Still, as even this short discussion shows, the concept of Original Sin is a complicated one.

As for my last sentence, hmm, how can I put it? Many years ago, I was a regular contributor to an online discussion board on Christianity. One of the popular topic of discussion, usually between Catholics and Protestants, was the dichotomy of faith vs. works. There is certainly an abundance of scripture to support either position, and the debate raged on and on. Finally one day, a member of the forum (I think it was one of the Catholics, but I'm not sure) said, "Look, we can argue all day and night about whether salvation comes by faith or by works, but whichever you happen to believe, I think there is one thing all of us Christians can agree on: Ultimately, salvation comes by the grace of God." We all could agree on that.

What I'm saying is that Adam, even in his pre-sinful state, was entirely dependent on God's grace. If Adam and Eve had not eaten the fruit, then their relationship with God would have been radically different, but it still would have required them to lean on the grace of God.

Sinful man still gets grace, but it's grace with a barrier. Adam and Eve are covered by clothes made for them by God through sacrifice, and Cherubim stand between God and man. After giving Israel the Law, the priests are made to wear special garments to perform sacrifices, and God's presence is behind a curtain embroidered with Cherubim. Finally, Jesus comes to earth to be Immanuel, "God with us", and is stripped of his clothes and put on a cross to become a sacrifice for our Sin, and the curtain in the Temple is miraculously ripped open.

Without sin, Adam could have simply turned to God and, as you implied above, lived in grace then and there, but instead, with sin, mankind took a detour of several thousand years by way of the Law and the cross. And of course the cross only dropped the barrier, it did not make every sinful man return through it.

Am I making more sense, or less?

Shirl said...

Absolute sense - thank you for that!
I read what you said about the law - and after reading up some more on it - I agree that the law is actually more likely to be the law he gave with regards to the instructions on the tree - thanks for the enlightenment!

I got so much from the threads you gave of the cherubim and then how they were on the curtain, and the clothing of Adam and Eve and how Christ was so awfully stripped of his. Amazing insights.

I had another thought on the idea that someone else had sent through on whether Christ was the Tree of Life ... I read Rev 22:1,2 where it talks about the Tree of Life appearing on BOTH sides of the river. This would mean that the reference is to more than one tree of that 'type' (the tree of life). This rules out the possibility for me that Christ is the tree of Life. I would prefer to see the tree of life as a symbolic picture of the life we receive when we choose to believe in him and the perfect sacrifice he made on our behalf because of the grace of God.

Brucker said...

The question of the "tree of life" in Rev. 22 is an odd one, and I've heard many interpretations of it. Note that it "bare twelve manner of fruits", which suggests to me that, like the forbidden tree, it's not a specific tree so much as a group of trees that have been made supernaturally special.

If indeed it even is a tree! Revelation is full of a lot of symbolic language, and the whole picture here is odd. Why is there a river coming out of God's throne? Where does this river flow to if there is no sea? (Rev. 21:1) How do leaves heal "nations"? Perhaps Christ is the tree after all, as He seems to me to be, in a sense, both the one on the throne, and the river flowing out of it, why not yet another thing? While I don't think the Bible is so difficult to understand on a basic level for the most part, there's a lot going on in theological subtext that may be beyond any of our understandings. "For now we see through a glass, darkly;" as Paul says. It is exciting to catch a glimmer of the light on the other side, though, don't you agree?

Shirl said...

May those glimmers grow increasingly brighter and brighter as we press into him!

I read this this morning"The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day" Prov 4:18

Anonymous said...

Romans 7:7 - 9 (KJV) 7What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. 8But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. 9For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.

T_Ray_TV said...

The book suggest that the deity is concerned that if the humans eat of the tree of life they will live forever. The deity also tells the man that if he, Adam, eats of the tree of knowledge of good and evil he, Adam, will surely die the same day. But Adam lives another 900+ years. I don't know if god lied or was wrong. He may also have been wrong about the tree of life. In Gen 3:7 eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil does cause the humans to be aware of their nakedness, so it had at least one magical property. This specific shift in perception seems to be just the most immediate indicator of a more systemic shift or growth in perception.

Regardless of what was or wasn't magically learned in the tale, your essay does not explain how two people living in a consequence-free environment could possibly have been expected to act otherwise.

Sometimes it's easier to understand a story by understanding its source.

Brucker said...

Here, let me make that a live link:

It looks like a very interesting article, if a little long. Unfortunately, I'm in graduate school right now and don't have time to read through it all just yet. Care to summarize?

Oh, and in response to the issues you've brought up about what I wrote: You're right, I don't fully explain much here. I've tended to make these posts very short, as I'm worried that if they're too verbose, nobody will read them. However, I think I have addressed some of your concerns in other posts, and I should put in links to them. I'm going to go back and edit the post really quick, and maybe if you come back to read it again, you might consider following the links to further clarification.

Na said...

I don't think you can say that they had no opportunity to rebel. As long as they had freewill, some understanding of good and evil (as you say they did), and an ability to communicate, they could at any point told God anything they wanted, they could of lied about what they seen or done on any given day, they could of told God that he is boring and smells and just been generally unpleasant to him. They didn't need a tree for any of this.

You say that "Eating the fruit of the tree embodied a profound statement", I from what you go on to say I agree, but I think the statement is a profound statement about God. That he wishes these people to suppress there curiosity and to choose ignorance, and punish them if they do not. It sounds like to God, freedom is only the freedom not to know, how very Orwellian.

Also this does make "good" and "evil" just the arbitrary subjective musings of God, that can change at any time. After all why didn't God do the tree thing straight away? Didn't he previously perceive the problem?