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.

Disciplining My Child Through “Criminal Minds”

This is a picture I found online. If it had been a picture of the actual incident, the kid would've been crying like Tammy Faye Bakker.

There are times when fatherhood really bites. Sure, most people want to hear about the glorious poetic moments that make people reach for the Kleenex or look back longingly at their child’s baby pictures, but those moments don’t tell the whole tale. If every part of fatherhood was sunshine and sundaes, men wouldn’t build massive basement rooms into which they escape.

I don’t have a basement, so I just blog about the things that drive me crazy. Like yesterday, when I picked Ella up from school and learned that she had told one of her good friends in class, “You need to shut your mouth.”

Now, my daughter is, by all accounts, quite spunky. I would say sassy, but that can be taken too negatively. She’s bright, highly energetic, and sometimes says things that she shouldn’t (and often she has no clue she’s said anything wrong). So when the teacher told me about the infraction, and about the context of it, I immediately felt my blood rise.

Apparently, Ella sensed it too. She immediately started crying.

I can’t remember who wrote the line, but someone once said that it’s easier to stop an out-of-control train than a woman’s tears. That’s certainly true of Ella – once she gets the water flowing, it takes forever and a day to get her to stop. She’s a sensitive little girl, and it just doesn’t take much to make her cry.

So when she started squalling, there was a part of me that felt bad. I knew she knew she was in trouble, and really, isn’t that what discipline is all about? Teaching your child to have a conscience? But I’m too easy on Ella sometimes, so, determined not to be fazed by the tears, I gave her my “disappointed” look, a gaze that, when trained upon my children can wither steel and crush the human soul, but, when trained upon my wife, earns me a “What? Do you have to fart?” Ella withered. The tears flowed harder.

Did I mention we’re still standing inside the church? We hadn’t even made it to the car yet. There I stand like an unfeeling statue and my daughter is weeping so hard she might choke. I gently placed my hand on her shoulder and guided her down the hall.

“Would you like to tell me what happened today?” I asked.

“No,” she replied.

Ask a stupid question… And, if I may have an aside for a moment, this is something I learned from my dad – asking the guilty child to provide their account of the crime – but it’s only been through watching Criminal Minds recently that I’ve learned just how effective this technique is, actually. You watch Hotch or Rossi in an interrogation, and they almost always nail the bad guy by leading him/her into telling their side of the story, and BINGO! – case solved.

And actually, there’s really something to that idea – part of parenthood is being able to profile your kid, to understand their likes and dislikes, to know their personalities so well that you can almost interpret an action without needing the child to do it for you. Maybe I’m just a nerd who likes that sort of thing, but I have to confess: knowing Ella the way I do (and knowing that I don’t know everything about her) helps me to be a better parent.

So, for all you new parents out there: you can learn much about parenthood by watching Criminal Minds. Just sayin’.

In this instance, I knew it was unlike her to say something so brutal to anyone, let alone a friend. It’s just not Ella’s style or personality; she tends to be more affirming than that, even when she’s being bossy. So, as we hopped in the car, I was pretty sure that if I pressed her for an explanation, I would uncover some extenuating circumstances.

Another aside – this doesn’t mean that I was looking for an excuse NOT to discipline her; I was looking for the answers to know how to discipline her correctly. There’s a big difference, in case you didn’t know. Any fool can punish a child – that takes no imagination and next to no skill; but it takes a honest parent to correct a child and teach them something that helps them learn. I’m not down with just punishing a kid (though, sometimes, I see the merits…) so I push to understand and then correct. It also gives me time to calm down so I don’t just beat a butt in my anger.

OK – where were we? Oh yeah – getting the story from Ella.

As it turns out, her friend had been the subject of some teasing all day (apparently Ella and her classmates have become enamored with the subject of pooping in non-bathroom locations) and Ella’s friend wasn’t saying anything to defend herself. And, if you know preschool kids, they don’t know when to back off. If a poop joke is funny the first time, it’s funny the next 312 times. So naturally they just kept pouring it on the poor girl. Finally, Ella had heard enough and, in an epic FAIL of an attempt to support and encourage her friend, she said, “You need to make so-and-so shut her mouth.”

My daughter, the life-coach.

Suffice it to say, after hearing this, I felt differently. First of all, what she said made more sense than what the teacher had reported. Let me pause for a second and say I support the teacher 100% in telling me what she heard and how she handled it. She did it the absolute right way and I got her back. Just because it didn’t sound like something Ella would say doesn’t mean Ella didn’t or wouldn’t say it; in point of fact, she said something pretty darned close, in both verbiage and meaning.

But I felt differently because I now understood that Ella didn’t mean to attack her friend, she meant to help her. And honestly, I see how she comes to this: it’s a bizarre and perfect mix of her mother’s and my personalities. I tend to be the more compassionate, side-with-the-victim person in our family, and Rachel tends to be the shut-up-and-fix-it person. Ella somehow meshed both into one statement and simultaneously encouraged and berated her friend.

That’s a little thing we like to call talent.

Anyway, long story short, I did what any good parent would do:

“Well, thank you for the explanation. We’ll have to see what your mother says when we get home.”

That’s right – I shifted the burden to Moms. Well, part of the burden. When we got home, I gave Rachel a quick rundown and then had Ella recount her crime for her mother. Rachel seemed satisfied with the mea culpa, and worked out a plea bargain for Ella: Ella would have play quietly in her room instead of being able to watch a movie, and she would have to apologize to her friend at church last night. Ella nodded and slinked away her room, halfway between relief and devastation. I watched approvingly.

If it had been an episode of Criminal Minds, we would’ve quoted some author everyone says they’ve read but no one really has. And we would have been on a private plane. But this is life, and real drama isn’t so tidy.

Postscript – Ella apologized to her friend last night before their Bible class. Her friend looked at her, said, “What are you talking about?”, and then skipped away to play with a puzzle. Again, not as tidy as a TV ending, but ultimately good for my kid.

My Daughter, Morality and Osama Bin Laden

The popular sentiment with most people not named Ella. Courtesy of Pulitzer Prize-winning AJC cartoonist Mike Luckovich.

I’ll admit that last night, amid the breaking news report that Osama Bin Laden was dead, my first reactions weren’t the greatest. They ranged from “Really? Why is this news?” to “Wow. Desperate ploy to manipulate the American people.” In short, I was a selfish brat last night, and myopic to boot. Some gracious people set me straight (both of whom I’ve invited to guest write a post for the blog) and I’ve learned my lesson, which – handily enough – Mark Twain* espoused so succinctly:

“Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

*The quote is attributed to Twain in at least four different versions, and has also been attributed to Abraham Lincoln and Confucius. The overall thought seems to come from Proverbs 17:28.

Suffice it to say, I won’t be offering many further musings on the geopolitical ramifications of the death of Bin Laden (and I’ll follow the lead of the esteemed New York Times and not refer to him as “Mr.” either). Instead, I’ll just leave you with my parenting conundrum from my car ride with Ella this morning.

I was listening to the radio, trying to hear what I could about the overnight developments in the Bin Laden story. I shushed Ella two or three times, and finally she couldn’t take anymore.

“Why do you keep shushing me, daddy?”

“Because, Ella, I’m trying to listen to the news.”


“Because there’s a very important news story happening right now, and I would like to hear the details.”

“What’s the story, daddy?”

Now, if you’ve read this blog long enough, or if you happen to know me in general, you know that I typically don’t duck tough questions from my kid and I normally don’t “kid-friendly”* the answers to tough questions. This morning, I wanted to. But, since I had snapped at her an been a bit of a jerk I decided she deserved an honest (albeit complex) answer to the question.

*By kid-friendly, I mean those people who lie to their kids instead of answering the question honestly. I soften my answers for her age-level, as I believe is appropriate, and try to make sure I thoroughly explain my answer to her satisfaction. And I try to do this with all kids, not just my own, so beware if your kid decides to ask me a question…

“The story is about a man who killed a lot of people. They’re trying to tell us that he’s dead.”

“How did he die?”

“Well, some very special soldiers tracked him down and killed him.”

Probably could’ve used some more time to polish that answer, in retrospect. And I certainly should’ve known that the inevitable “Why?” was coming. But as I mentioned above, I wasn’t exactly on my game with regard to this issue, and Ella caught me flatfooted with her next question:

“Why was it okay to kill him?”

Now, I could’ve taken the easy way out, and to some degree I did. In this instance, “He was a bad man” would be an almost perfect answer to the question. Ella knows that there is good and bad, right and wrong, and that people who do good get rewarded while people who do bad tend to fall off of high places and die murky, unseen deaths (call it the Disney Effect; see Beauty, Sleeping; also White, Snow; and Beast, Beauty and the). All I had to do was lay the trump card down, and the discussion, for the most part would have been over.

But as I said: I wasn’t on my game. Instead, I blurted out, “I don’t know, Ella. I guess because he was a bad man.”

I probably would’ve been okay, if not for the first part: I don’t know. It was an admission of unease, of moral ambiguity, or at the very least a sign of mental distress. My daughter doesn’t like ambiguity (she gets that from her mother) and so she pounced on my unfinished certainty.

“Why don’t you know, daddy? Was it wrong to kill that bad man?”

Seriously – where do you go with a five year-old on this? I’ve had conversations on Facebook this morning with adults who don’t have that question’s answer nailed to the ground with complete certitude. How in the heck do you break down the moral arguments contained within this single, simple statement? Perhaps I’m over-thinking the whole thing, but I don’t want Ella to grow up as someone incapable of parsing the shades of grey, and there’s certainly some to be found in this action.*

*Again, I’m staying away from this as a larger post, mainly because the death of Bin Laden has multiple meanings on many fronts. But in this narrow context of trying to teach a five year-old the way of the world, I wrestle with teaching her to see the world purely in black and white, particularly when there are so many people who can manipulate the facts to their own advantage. I’d rather wrestle with the tough questions now than see her get sucked in by someone’s horrific rhetoric later on because I settled on only teaching her “Us good, them bad” when she was little.

We were running out of time and road for the discussion, so I knew I would have to find some way of wrapping things up that would A, allow me to answer the question and B, allow me to answer it in a way that wouldn’t force the teacher to call me later on and ask why my daughter was talking about the death of a terrorist during “Story Time with Archie the Fluff Bug.” My brain was going ninety to nothing. I was drowning. The utter helplessness was terrifying. Finally I just tossed this out to her:

“Ella, I think killing that man was the right thing for our country, and the men and women who did it were brave and selfless. Sometimes, honey, we have to make hard choices.”

I could see her face in the rearview mirror; she was thinking about those words. And somehow (the grace of God?) she accepted that answer as sufficient. She nodded, fiddled with her shoelaces, and then reminded me that she didn’t want to walk in the back door with me – she wanted to be dropped off in the carpool line “like a princess.” (Continued fallout from the Royal Wedding, I suppose.)

She hopped out of the car with a smile and went inside to school, where I’m hoping she’ll never have a second’s thought on the topic we discussed. But it’s stuck with me, as a father and pastor and American citizen. In the end, I think it was the right thing for our country. It still leaves me with some questions, but I wrestle with questions all the time.

They Just Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To…

…and that’s a cryin’ shame. I just watched “12 Angry Men” for the sixth or seventh time in the past two months, and I still come away with a sense of just how freaking good that movie really is.

It truly stands the test of time.

There are some parts that are dated – a reflection of the changing social mores of an increasingly evolving America – but on the whole the tensions, the prejudices, the capacity for quiet strength expressed with dignity to change hardened or cynical hearts still holds true in our contemporary society.

We just don’t always see it. Or hear about it.

Or, honestly, appreciate it.

We’ve turned the person with moral conviction into a satirical lump that deserves our best shots, and I’m not talking about atheism vs. Christianity; I’m talking about people holding to an honest-to-God ethical conviction despite the prevailing pressures or blatant self-interest of themselves or others being turned into the target for our aggregated contempt.

Old-fashioned. Patristic. Parochial. Anachronistic. Whatever you want to call it, you dismiss it at your peril. We desperately need women and men who hold to a serious ethical code, men and women who won’t sell out their fellow man at the first opportunity to cut a corner or make a buck. And if you don’t believe that statement, well try and enjoy a fishing expedition in the Gulf region right now, or have a chat with someone who’s nest egg got scrambled by the fellows who cheated and lied their way to multi-million dollar retirements and golden parachutes.

Honor. Morality. Ethics. Class.

Foreign words to my generation and the ones behind us, but words we need to resurrect if we hope for any bright future for our nation. If we fail in this, we might as well carve out the tombstone for the American dream:

“Rest in Pieces.”