Continuing the highlights of my personal deep dive into Genesis, I wanted to take this article to talk about one of the most perplexing and yet pivotal elements of the Fall narrative: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
What the heck is it? Why is it even there? And why does God tell the humans to avoid this tree?
As usual, we’ll start with a recap for those who may not be as familiar with this element of the story.
In Genesis 1 we get a flyover view of the creation narrative in a beautifully structured form, no cliffhangers or anything like that, just “here’s what happened, and we’re done. Read on.” Genesis 2, similar in some ways, different in others, but a separate story in its own way, starts to develop some of the ideas in Genesis 1 on a less macro scale. 
Genesis 2 informs us of a lot of things, a couple of them directly relevant to this discussion being: 1) God is a gardener, and 2) He is somewhat fond of trees. After He forms human from the dust of the ground, He makes a special sanctuary in which to house him. In Eden, He plants a garden (small detail, Garden ≠ all of Eden) and makes all kinds of beautiful trees to sprout up. It’s in this context, noting the formation of God’s special sanctuary from which humanity is dispatched to be God’s representation and rule on the earth (recall Genesis 1:26-29) that we get the first mention of the Trees. We are told that “the tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (2:9)
A few sentences later, we get the ominous command. Go and eat freely, every tree is yours, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (2:17) Robert Alter in his translation of Genesis translates this particular phrase as “doomed to die.” And of course, we all know what happens from there. Snake, temptation, eating, fall, it’s not pretty.
This narrative raises a plethora of questions we can ask, as Prof. Justin Jackson (whose lecture series I’m drawing very heavily from) highlights. Set aside questions of “literal-ness” for a moment, and let’s just take the story for the story that it’s trying to tell us. Let’s leave some assumptions we may have picked up over the years and try to ask about the details we may have come to take for granted in hearing this story so much.
Let’s start with the obvious question. What is this tree doing here? Further, what is it doing in the middle of the garden? Why would God spotlight a tree that would kill its partakers?
One of the things I think we need to reconcile with this tree’s existence is that, though as I said earlier this is a similar-yet-different story from the Creation narrative in Chapter 1, the two are complimentary of one another, not unrelated. We have to take with us into Chapter 2 the statement in Chapter 1 that “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (1:31) God doesn’t make evil things. Sometimes God makes things that are incomplete, and it isn’t good that they remain so (2:18), and certainly good creatures that have freedom of the will can corrupt themselves into evil, but nowhere in this story is God said to have made something evil.
So what does that mean? It means that not just one, but both of these trees in the center of the Garden of Eden were good trees. And when we look back at the text, this makes sense. For one, look at the placement of the tree. God has made a good world, though it is still wild and untamed in some ways, and in the middle of that world (later recognized as a mountain by other biblical authors), He planted a special sanctuary wherein to house His image. And smack dab in the middle of that garden (the sanctum sanctorum as it were) He plants two trees. And here we have to ask, do you plant an evil tree in the middle of a holy garden next to the ultimately good tree? I and others would have to say no! It just doesn’t make sense.
And let’s further look at the name of the tree itself. We don’t have the tree of good and the tree of evil at odds with one another. We have the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of both Good and Evil. This is not an evil tree, and I think the text makes that pretty clear. So then why, if this is such a good thing, does God say the humans will die/be condemned to death/be doomed to die if they eat from it? And it’s here I think the next obvious question raises its head.
I’ll be honest, as a kid going through Bible lessons in my fundamentalist Christian school (where every Bible character including Jesus Himself was white with a 1950’s Baptist haircut), this question was not addressed, at least not to my recollection. I can’t remember if I was even curious about it or not; I just remember that, like the dichotomy I warned against a paragraph ago, I thought there was a good tree and a bad tree, humans ate from the bad one, and we never got the chance to eat from the good one. 
After coming to realize that it’s not “good tree vs. bad tree,” the question obviously raises its head, why is the knowledge of good and evil such a bad thing? Wouldn’t that be a helpful bit of information to have in a world we are meant to rule? And in fact, this is the train of thought the serpent uses to trick Eve, “you will be like God/gods, knowing good and evil.” And Professor Jackson I think rightly asks, isn’t that the whole point? I mean, man was created to be an image of God, to be like God in that sense. In letting man name the animals, God is already letting him participate in the divine and godly act of creating and ruling the world. So wouldn’t a path to becoming like God be a helpful tool in that endeavor? And isn’t the knowledge of good and evil advantageous, even necessary to that end? And I think at that point, in line with Prof. Jackson, we could actually say “yes,” but I’ll come back to that in a moment.
If the knowledge of good and evil is actually a good thing, then we have to ask ourselves is there something about this situation that makes it dangerous? To be sure, getting a good thing in the wrong contexts can have detrimental consequences. Think ahead to when Moses asked to see the pure goodness of God’s face, and God said (paraphrasing), “No that would kill you, but you can catch my backside” (Exodus 33:17-23). So is there something that makes this context wrong?
I think it’s here that we really start to see that that narrative is drawing on all of Genesis 1 in its prohibition against the knowledge of good and evil. Really, it’s not a prohibition against the knowledge of good and evil per se, but rather this particular avenue to that knowledge.
Lest we forget, Adam and Eve already have access to the knowledge of good, even the very One from which the nature of goodness flows. All throughout the Creation narrative in Chapter 1, God has been highlighting “Yes, this is good; this is good; this is very good.” And then a few verses later, we get a sense of God also making known what is not good, i.e. man’s solitude. So up until this point, God, the fountainhead from which goodness flows, has been making known what is good and what is not good.
And once we notice that, we notice the nefarious trick at the heart of the serpent’s half-truth. It’s in the determination of good and evil for ourselves that brings death and destruction. It’s in the desire to be like God in a way that tries to usurp Him or equal ourselves with Him that betrays rebellion. When the humans took this good fruit of this good thing in suspicion of God’s purposes, it shows that they had lost trust in God to provide them with the knowledge that they needed to rule, that there was some secret, some fear that He was hiding from them. “Of course we should have this knowledge, why wouldn’t He give it to us,” apparently forgetting that He had been and was giving it to them.
And once we understand this theme, then we understand that the Genesis author is setting up a theme that will be replayed throughout Genesis and beyond. In Abraham and Sarah, this new Adam and Eve from which all nations of the earth will be blessed, when they are promised a son, this good thing, but then God providentially delays the promise. They take it upon themselves to determine what the right course of action is and end up sowing discord and destruction in their family. In Jacob and Esau, when Jacob is chosen as the child of promise, declared to be the recipient of a good thing, but then takes for himself the blessing that God was already going to give to him and ends up ripping his family apart and sowing discord in his new family.
Here’s the thing about the Bible. It is meant to be read over and over and over again for the rest of your life. And when we do that, we start to notice patterns, and themes start to fill themselves in.  And when we pick up on a theme, and we follow it through a narrative and watch it develop, and then when we go back and read the beginnings of the theme again, we do so with the knowledge of the whole theme in our minds, and the picture starts to fill out a little bit more each time. All of a sudden the genesis (pun very much intended) of an idea takes its place in a developed theme, and we see things we didn’t see before.
When it comes to this taking of the knowledge of good and evil for ourselves, if we start to trace this theme as it develops throughout the rest of the Scriptures, an interesting thing emerges in certain places. The thing someone takes for themselves is, in some instances, something that God was going to bless them with to begin with, but the person in question takes the blessing for themselves, and then chaos erupts. So continuing in another thought from Prof. Jackson, I’d like to share his idea that maybe that was the plan with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil all along.
We like to ask why the tree was there in the first place, and part of the answer that we may have been missing for some time could be that it had the same purpose as any other tree in the garden, to be eaten of! What if the temptation in the garden wasn’t only just a temptation to rebellion, but also a temptation to seize a blessing out of time? I think this makes a lot more sense given the character of God. Yes, there is that element of God giving us the choice to obey or not to obey, but it’s much more nuanced than God creating a thing we could never have. Maybe it’s God creating all things very good, including the knowledge of good and evil, but telling humans to hold off on that knowledge just for a time. Would there have come a time when God would have let the humans eat of the tree under His guidance? We may never know for sure, but I think that Prof. Jackson’s suggestion is a marvelous rereading of the story that gets to the heart of a very complex issue.
In man’s attempt to be like God, he tries to seize a blessing for himself instead of allowing God to endow it on him. And in doing so, the blessing becomes a curse. The goodness of God exposes the evil in man’s choice, and his knowledge of both is increased. Yes, man does have the knowledge of good and evil, and every day he does that which is right in his own eyes. It’s something to ponder and meditate on, and it’s something the Bible goes to great lengths to explain the consequences of, highlighting the need for a new Adam who will submit their will to God, to not choose what is good based on what they want for themselves, someone who will face the temptation to seize power and peace and safety for themselves but say “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”
Nick Henretty is a music and audio producer, podcaster, and blogger based out of Richmond, Virginia. He has worked with organizations such as Inspiring Philosophy, Deeper Waters with Nick Peters, and Moral Apologetics Press, and currently hosts the 3 Priests Walk in a Bar podcast promoting ecumenism between different Christian denominations. He has a passion for peeling back the surface layers of pop culture issues to expose the deep and abiding questions at the heart of the human experience and showing how the person of Christ is the answer and fulfillment to them.