The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

GustaveDore-TreeOfKnowledgeOfGoodAndEvilYeah, yeah, yeah…I know. I’m boring you with all my blogs lately. Too “deep.” Too “thinky.” Too “much hot air, like a leaky balloon.” I get it. But it’s how I’m wired, man. This morning, I can’t stop thinking about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

In fact, everything that I’m ready or studying lately seems to be converging on the themes of God’s sovereignty, morality, and the struggle of man with good and evil. It’s so prevalent for me, I couldn’t even enjoy watching The Three Amigos last night without considering the transformation of the Amigos into heroes once they understood the existence of real evil in Santo Poco and their ability – their moral duty – to stand against it.

When you think like that about The Three Amigos, you know you’re in trouble.

I digress.

Back to the tree of knowledge of good and evil: like yesterday’s post, this one is going to be outside of the box, and I’m not sure I can dig all the way down in just a few thousand words (give or take). But it’s just taking up so much space in my brain, I feel like I need to get it out there and let it run around for a bit. If it gets Tasered by people smarter than me, so be it (it might turn out to be fun, like yesterday’s post).

I’ve grown up believing that the tree of knowledge of good and evil imparted moral wisdom to Adam and Eve. That, until they ate of the tree, they didn’t know that such a thing as “good” or “bad” existed. I’ve never questioned it, and have, in fact, preached it as sound on numerous occasions. I don’t dispute that such an interpretation is wrong at all. I’m merely posing something to think about that enhanced my understanding of this doctrine.

The Hebrew words “good” and “evil” used in Genesis 2:9 and 2:17 are the words טוב (towb) and רע (ra`). Here’s where it gets interesting: towb/good is primarily translated as pleasant, agreeable – it’s an adjective. Ra/evil is primarily translated as an adjective too – it means bad, disagreeable, malignant. The two words describe the knowledge gained by eating of the tree – the ability to know that things can either be agreeable/good or disagreeable/bad.

So far, so orthodox. That’s good, right?

But here’s the thing: Adam and Eve both already had moral knowledge before eating of the tree. They didn’t have to eat from the tree in order to learn that some things are bad and some are good; God had already given them that information in Genesis 2:15-17, when He commanded them not to eat of the tree.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

God gave a command and explained the penalty for transgressing that command. He issued a moral standard by which Adam (and Eve) should live. In hearing that command, Adam (and Eve) knew that there was such a thing as right and wrong. Morality was defined for them from the lips of God, and they understood its implications.

So the tree didn’t impart that to them. God did. Morality comes from God.

Then the serpent came along and questioned the paradigm. He suggested that God had kept them from moral knowledge by prohibiting them from eating of the tree. It’s subtle, but it’s significant: the serpent shifted the locus of morality from God to the tree. Instead of trusting God to tell you/show you what’s right and wrong, Eve, you should eat the fruit of the tree and let it open your eyes on those matters. And by eating of the tree, what it possesses becomes yours too.

Boom. In just a few words, the human condition was tainted. Instead of trusting God to reveal His goodness to us, we now opt to define it for ourselves. The problem is that the innate perfection and holiness required to determine good and evil is found only in God; without Him to guide us, we can no more choose right from wrong than a colorblind person can pick out their favorite shades on a color wheel. By seeking to possess something God had already given us in Himself, we destroyed ourselves and that knowledge.

And if you’ll give me a second to chase a really weird rabbit trail: If the tree was the container of moral knowledge, that takes away from God’s character, does it not? God is diminished because the tree and its fruit holds the essence of the moral law. But we reject that idea on it’s face – God Himself is the moral lawgiver, and morality finds its foundation within Him. So why did the tree have to exist at all? What was it’s point?

To bring God glory. To show us that we could never possess the ability to determine morality for ourselves. To teach us that we would ever have to be in relationship with God in order to know what truly is right and wrong, real and illusion, good and evil.

After typing this all out, it seems fairly basic. Obvious, even. And that just means that I’m chasing windmills here, exploring a trail someone else has blazed. But there’s so much about morality and goodness and evil that I’m just beginning to understand, it seemed significant that our knowledge of right and wrong was given to us long before Adam and Eve ate from that tree. It was a gift freely given by God – not a treasure withheld because we couldn’t handle it. That changes things for me in a way that I simply cannot articulate at this time. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to spell it out.

So what say you? I welcome your thoughts in the comments below.

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

  1. I think the issue with God was obedience – period. Not so much knowledge of good and evil. It is so hard for us humans to grasp (especially as adults) that when God says something – that’s it – no negotiating – no glossy coating – and He does not have to explain himself. As he said to Job – “Were you there when I laid the earth’s foundations …….”. I have never thought of Satan’s actions as you described them, but after thinking about it – I believe I can accept that as logical thinking. The more I study God’s Word the more I see all sin is just us trying to be in control rather than God – in any and every situation! Keep Writing Jason – it’s a good thing!!

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  2. Hmm. Interesting, for sure. But what about the giving of the tree, along with the restriction, as an opportunity for human beings to exercise moral freedom? Giving them a chance to choose to obey. I don’t understand why God did that when He knew everything that would “fall” out of it (excuse the pun). But then I wasn’t there when he laid the earth’s foundations, so my ignorance shouldn’t be surprising.

    On another tack, did you know that the Gaia interpretation of this story makes the serpent the good guy and God the “immature parent who pouts when his children grow up and want to leave home and go out on their own”? That would make quite another great discussion.

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    1. I’ve heard the Gaian interpretation before. It’s interesting, that’s for certain. I would have to do a lot more digging before taking that blog on! Thanks for the comment – I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts.

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  3. This is very interesting indeed! I am actually taking a humanities course where we are talking about religion as a whole and its ‘purpose’ in this world/society. There was one time when we talked about this problem of the existence of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We didn’t really ponder too much on it; however, it did catch my attention. I did some research on it and the verses that I found were pretty strange:

    “.. Adam sinned by breaking the command God gave him. God did not fail or make a mistake with Adam. He knew Adam would disobey because he was flesh and blood, made from the earth and his heart and mind was on the way of the flesh.” (James, 6)

    “He knew what it would be before the world began and He knew the type of people that would be because he created some of the people for different purposes. He created some for vessels of mercy and some for vessels for wrath. He did all these things. He explains that He is the only one that can do it and nobody else.” (James, 21)

    What does these two verses mean? I am quite confused but trust me, my faith is still as strong and solid as a rock. I just want to know why these were mentioned and well, in general, why there seem to be flaws.. Just some thought I wanted to share.

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    1. To be clear, neither of the quotes you provided are actually from Scripture. They both come from a book by E.A. James, “God’s Revealed Word of Truth.” James’ argument seems to be something that I referenced at the beginning of my post: that God is completely sovereign in the affairs of existence, and that the world exists for his purposes. James posits (at least as much as I was able to read) that it was necessary for the tree to exist in order that mankind would have legitimate freedom of choice to either love him or reject him.

      I think this is in keeping with orthodox teaching, though something we’ve shied away from in the past few decades, especially in America where we tend to value the individual’s sovereignty over God’s. Thanks for commenting – and thanks for the link to your blog. I look forward to reading some of your posts!

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      1. Thank you for making that clear. I wouldn’t have known! I should look at my references more clearly. And I would like to thank you for these ideas that are sometimes forgotten, we need more thoughts like these to remain grounded. That would be great! Thank you in advance for reading. 🙂

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