I find these first chapters of Genesis, endlessly fascinating. They are rich, complex stories that help us wrestle with truths that cannot be explained by mere facts. As fascinating as they are, my purpose here is not to write a commentary on Genesis. But I do hope to encourage you to look at Genesis again with some fresh eyes.
Whenever I study the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), I try to find some Jewish commentaries and resources. After all, Jewish scholars have been living with these stories longer than we Christians have. I may not always agree with a Jewish scholar’s interpretation, but I don’t agree with every Christian scholar I read either. But often, reading in a different tradition helps me ask, what are for me, new and different ques ions and asking new and different questions helps me see more and learn more.
Before we start, re read the text, Genesis 2:8, 15-17 and Genesis 3:1-24. There are any number of things to talk about in this part of Genesis. Instead of quick and superficial comments on many things, I would like to focus on one thing, the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil.
My translation of the Torah calls the tree the “tree of knowledge of good and bad” rather than the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” translation found in the NRSV and NIV. This Torah Commentary says this is an idiom that means “everything”. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 1, in its discussion of this idiom cites other places in the Bible where this idiom is used.* Christians have often understood this tree to represent knowledge itself and the ability to acquire it. Considering these other uses of the phrase, is seems the meaning may also be about the ability to make appropriate decisions, to be able to know what is in ones best interest.
Perhaps the challenge to us found in the tree is not so much about our ability or our desire to know what God knows, although that may certainly be part of it. But the challenge is also, do we rely solely on ourselves and our capabilities to make decisions or should we trust God to guide us? I suspect the tree can be about both, because both options boil down to, as John Calvin claimed, idolatry. One way or the other we are placing ourselves superior to God. We can know as much as God knows, setting ourselves up as gods, and we can decide for ourselves and for the creation we are to care for, as well as God can.
The question remains, when God tells the human not to eat from this one particular tree; what is going on? If the result of eating from the tree is the ability to know right from wrong, or the ability to make good decisions; how can one do that before eating and acquiring the ability? If one doesn’t know right from wrong, how can one know if one is making a mistake? If one doesn’t have the ability to make appropriate decisions, how can one make good decisions? It looks like we are being set up to fall. Why does God put that tree there? Why does God ask us to do what we can’t do?
The answers to those questions can be troubling. God can appear to be at best, a trickster; at worse a deceiver. But those answers aren’t consistent with the rest of the story in Scripture and they aren’t consistent with the experiences of the faithful. So now what? Is God just inconsistent -at least to our limited human eyes? Is this one of those “tensions” theologians talk about; two disparate ideas we somehow must hold concurrently? The God who loves us, who redeems us, also tricks and deceives us?
I don’t think so. If you try- if you think seriously and hard, it is possible to conceive of a God who both loves and judges; who judges and saves. It may be difficult, but we can at least begin to make sense of it.
But if one loves, one doesn’t deceive. That only happens when one mistakes lust, power, and insecurity for love. So what do we do?
Why don’t we ask another question. Why would God tell us not to eat from this tree? Why the prohibition? Is God trying to protect us from something?
When our kids were little, we had all sorts of prohibitions- Don’t touch things on the stove. Don’t put your fingers in the fan. Don’t run out into the street. Sometimes our rules were hard for them to follow. No cookies before dinner. Wait until your brother gets home.
Our rules were not to tempt them. We weren’t trying to trick them. ( A ha! The old plate of cookies on the table trick!) Our rules were to keep them safe and to ensure everyone got to have a cookie.
What if God wasn’t tempting us, but rather protecting us? Trying to keep us from making a mistake. What if it’s the “don’t do that” of a loving parent? Does that make sense with the rest of Scripture? Does that make sense with our experience of God?
It seems to me asking different questions can help us gain a different perspective.
Once again there is much more that could be said about this story. There is a lifetime worth of discussion and contemplation here. These stories are rich, complex, and meaningful. They can be taken seriously, as the Word of God without resorting to a literalism that flattens their depth and without turning them into a fairy tale that trivialized their insight and wisdom.
I hope these few posts have encouraged you to (to borrow a phrase) read Genesis again for the first time.
* Gen 24:50 “one way or the other” NIV; Deut1:39; 2 Sam 19:35 concerning people (too young or too old) unable to decide for themselves what is best for themselves. Similar phrases in 1 Kings 3:9, 2 Sam 14:17 have to do with kings deciding what is best for their subjects. (NIV,351)