Tree of life and tree of the knowledge of good and evil

One of the challenges I am confronted with again and again as a missional Christian is the huge gap between what everyday people think they know of Christianity and what they actually know of Christianity. Somewhat ironically, this gap seems particularly wide when it comes to the Biblical story of the tree of knowledge.

Or should I say the story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for that is its actual name.

Or should I say the story of the two trees, for the tree of life is as central to the story as the other tree.

You see, this is where I find the problem starts, with people getting confused over the names and taking short cuts. For properly understood, the book of Genesis is not an anti-knowledge or anti-science or anti-sex or anti-Gnostic text as many have claimed. The book of Genesis has nothing to say about “knowledge” in any sort of unqualified way.

See for yourself. See what Genesis 3 actually says:

And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

If you read through the text carefully you will see it is never referred to as the “tree of knowledge”, only as the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”

“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

This is the essence of the temptation, not knowledge in general, not knowledge of sex or science or spirit, but knowledge of good and evil specifically. But so what? In essence they are being tempted to decide what is good and evil for themselves, they are being tempted to re-orientate their understanding of good and evil around themselves not God, to discern between good and evil without reference to God. That’s what it is saying is primal sin.

Now, what about that other tree?

And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

Notice how there is no indication that they have eaten from it yet? The text doesn’t make it explicit, but what if, what if this is suggesting, not so much that they had to stop eating from the tree of life, but that they never got to start eating from the tree of life? How about reading it again?

The simpler reading of this text is that the two trees represented two mutually exclusive decision paths, one which led to death, one which lead to life. Was eternal life something they had, and lost, or something they were offered, but forfeited by an alternative choice? It is a reading which addresses many of the questions raised by evidence of pre-human extinctions. And I actually think it is the more natural reading. In either case though, irrespective of whether you accept my interpretation of the tree of life or not, the interpretation of the tree of knowledge of good and evil being about morality, not ignorance, is well established and interpretations that Genesis 3 advocates anti-intellectualism should be abandoned as anti-intellectual.

2 thoughts on “Tree of Knowledge

  1. Good post.
    I think sometimes Christians belittle the meaning behind the trees, and as a Christian, I’ll be honest, I don’t completely understand it.
    For instance we say it’s tragically ironic because Adam and Evil already knew good and evil, but why do they feel ashamed that they are naked then? If their shame is a symbol of their recognition of evil, then what can a Christian say?
    Just some stuff to mull over…

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  2. From my own experience, when I think back to times where I felt ashamed over things that I did or failed to do, I remember wishing I could crawl into a ball and make the world disappear. In terms of interpreting their response I think this is one place where it is better to go with gut feeling than analysis. Shame prompts hiding resposes, pure and simple. Think back to times when you just wanted to hide. Re-experience them – engage all your senses – I find that’s the path to understanding here.

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