The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

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)

11 thoughts on “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

  1. A component of this is also the incredible generosity of God – the whole garden is theirs, with only this exception. How much more must we have? Sort of like the Commandments … you’ve got six days to work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. How many more days do we need?

    And I wonder, would that tree have become available – at God’s invitation rather than our own volition? Might it have been a partnership – God and humankind splitting the “apple” and both enjoying it?

    A ceaseless desire … e.g. modern consumerism … how to show restraint? “To be content with what we have and don’t have.”

    Or boundaries … Moses went only so far, and then had to stop and give it to Joshua.

    Just a few thoughts …

  2. Thanks Tom. I think you are right about the generosity of God and our ability to focus only on what we can’t have. The stories of Genesis are amazing in how honestly and accurately they portray human behavior.

    And even today, when we read the story, we tend to -like Adam and Eve- focus on the limits and not the generosity.

  3. Knowledge of good and evil. Interesting name for a tree. Tree’s have
    no knowledge. If the tree was a hook, and adam the bait, than satan
    was the fish. An experienced fisherman knows the best bait to use.

  4. Nancy,
    It’s good to see someone displaying some understanding toward God. It would be impossible to write a complete book about the knowledge tree. The tree contains all the books that could ever be written. The fruit leaves us, “Ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth,” (2 Timothy 3:7) unless we become willing to trust Jesus.

  5. I’ve done a study on the Garden.. there are many scriptures that reveals the truth of the matter about the Tree of Knowledge…1st thing it wasnt a apple type fruit as many refer it as… The truth to this unknowing revealation (to many) is….They commited Fornication with Satan…Many that may read this post will not believe this, but plz remember what Jesus told his disciples in (Matt. 13:11; Mk. 4:11)
    Scriptures to study to see this truth!!! Ez.28:12-19 (key vv.13); Heb. 13:2; 1 Cor. 11:14; Gal.1:8; 1 Cor.2:7, 10-14 (key vv.14)

  6. So living naked and naive is better than things like space travel, consumer technology, and general pursuit of knowledge?

    Id much rather understand my actions and question the universe than go bumbling around without an advanced thought complex.

    Then again ignorance is bliss, maybe that’s what god intended, and maybe Satan told him we would choose knowledge over immortal foolishness, given a choice in the matter.

    We have a long way to go, and a lot more growing up to do, for instance we still forget the lessons of our past and still allow other people and organizations to control us, however progress has been made and that’s all that is asked. Further humankind’s knowledge, enjoy your life. It’s quite simple.

    In my opinion we made the right choice.

  7. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil…what a fascinating, endlessly provocative, evocative title, and story. No wonder it is one of the wonders of the world, regardless of how you view it. Wondrous as a foundation of understanding what it is to be human.

    And what does it mean [as everyone asks]? It seems that evil existed before Adam and Eve, was independent of them, which lends credence to the legend[?] of the Fall of the Angels [Satan] – i.e. even created beings such as those had free will, as is assumed of Adam and Eve themselves. To be human = to be related to God, and to be free [as in our experience with everyone we know – including our parents/authority figures, regardless of their profound influence-control]. You are related to Eternity, and capable of finding out what its “negation” is [i.e. death, non-existence]. What an opportunity! Who could resist it? The “happy fall” of Christianity – to disobey, and incur [dire] punishment, and to ultimately be restored, through trial, and often fire, and the self-sacrifice of the One whom you have grievously offended. Prodigal kids – ever/overloving parent[s]. Not to be too anthropomorphic [metaphors, symbols – Jesus used them]. We are ultimately saved from ourselves, and all that would harm us. Who wouldn’t want to be human in this story?

    The greatest story in the world. The only story.

    1. It is an endlessly fascinating story! Some do think of this story in terms of a “fall up” or even a growing up of humanity. Thanks very much for reading and commenting.

    2. I agree as with any great mind has figured out and let go, that the issue is control. Things that are spirit are gonna be hard to define because they are a mystery but yes God was trying to save us from self. It was simply a matter of obedience. God was trying to
      Protect us from making the the mistake of controlling ourselves. Until this point they were completely dependent on God. This is where we are always trying to get back to.
      Walking in the Spirit allowing God to lead and control. Selah

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