The Knowledge of Good and Evil

“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.” Genesis 2:16-17 NIV

The word “genesis” literally means “origin.” The Book of Genesis is exactly that: a book about the origin of all things. The story of Adam and Eve, which explains the origins of man’s fallen condition, is familiar to people of every faith. In the center of the garden in which G-d had placed man there stood two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. G-d told the man that he could eat from any tree in the garden, except for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. If man were to eat from that tree, then G-d said “…you will certainly die.”

Now the understanding is that if man were to eat of the Tree of Life, he would gain eternal life, so the choice was literally between life or death. Of course we know that along came the serpent, the craftiest of creatures, and he told the man a different story. In fact, he directly contradicted G-d and told them, “You will certainly not die.” Man, in an astounding demonstration of misplaced faith, believed the serpent instead of G-d, and ate the fruit of the forbidden tree.

The rest, as they say, is history. One of the things I am most curious about is, why was the knowledge of good and evil forbidden to man? It seems that this would be something that could come in handy. Maybe if they had known good from evil, they would not have disobeyed G-d, and we all would still be living in paradise! Another question that comes to mind is, why was the penalty death? Surely this is a little drastic for simply eating from a fruit tree, especially for a first offense!

I believe that there are some pretty big clues in the story that explain this. The first is that G-d had placed man in paradise, where all of his needs were provided for. To be sure, man was given a job. Actually, he was given a couple of jobs. His first job was to name the animals, and his second was to tend to the garden. One thing this demonstrates is that even in paradise, there is work to do. This also tells me that anyone who thinks heaven will be akin to an eternal retirement home is in for a rude awakening.

The other big clue is that, if man had eaten of the Tree of Life, he would have gained eternal life, but eternal life apparently without the knowledge of good and evil. On the surface, this does not seem to make sense. After all, how would man judge the worthiness of his own words and actions, and that of others, without the knowledge of good and evil?

Finally, maybe the biggest clue of all is that at the root of man’s disobedience was a lack of faith in G-d and in His Word. Adam and Eve readily believed the serpent over G-d! They then acted on this misplaced faith in brazen disobedience to G-d’s command!

Where do we begin to unravel these mysteries? Perhaps the best place to start is with G-d and man’s initial relationship. As previously mentioned, G-d created man and placed him in a paradisaical garden. Here he provided for all of man’s needs. In addition, He entrusted man with dominion over the whole Earth and everything in it. G-d was a loving Father to man, whom He treated as a beloved son.

For man’s part, it was his responsibility to tend to the garden and, most importantly, to obey G-d. In other words, to be a loving and obedient son. G-d walked with man in the garden and man had communion with Him. It is important to note that in this relationship, man was completely dependent on G-d.

This, I believe, is the key to the mystery. If man was dependent on G-d for all things, and man was expected to be obedient to G-d, why would man, independent of G-d, require the knowledge of good and evil? I think it is clear that man did not require this knowledge, given his dependent status.

This doesn’t quite answer the question though, because it does not (yet) explain why this knowledge was forbidden to man. It is one thing to say that one doesn’t need something, and another to say that one can not have it.

We have to consider here what the serpent said to Adam and Eve after he told them they would not die. In essence, the serpent said that G-d was jealous because He knew that if they ate of the tree, they would become like Him, knowing good from evil. Man, according to the serpent, would no longer be dependent on G-d, but could act independently, just as G-d acted independently.

There are a couple of things wrong at this point in the narrative. Yes, man now had the knowledge of good and evil like G-d, but the problem is with that knowledge comes the responsibility to follow, or obey, the good, and reject the evil. Was man equipped to do this? Well, we just said that man was created to be dependent on G-d for everything, so the answer is no, man has no independent intrinsic or inherent capacity to follow the good and reject evil.

Paul himself testifies to this in Romans when he said, “I have discovered this principle at work, Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.”

So this is the dilemma: man has been “blessed” with the knowledge of good and evil, but because he is cut off from communion with G-d, his source of strength, he is cursed with the inability to follow the good and reject the evil. Here is where man’s sense of guilt, shame, and fear come from. He now has a conscience which condemns him, for he recognizes that he has done evil by disobeying G-d, and he also recognizes that he has no way of correcting the problem, try as he might. What is his solution? Hide!

He tries to hide from G-d. Man also realizes his nakedness, his inability to conceal what he has done, but he tries to cover his guilt and vulnerability with leaves, both for him and his wife. When G-d catches up with them and questions them, the first thing the man does is blame Eve, “The woman you gave me…”, and indirectly G-d, for his disobedience. The woman, not willing to accept responsibility for her part, blames the serpent.

After G-d pronounces judgement on the three of them, He then makes garments from animal skins for the man and the woman, indicating that only He could deal with man’s sin, and not without the shedding of blood. This also shows G-d’s continued love for man, even though he has rebelled against Him and turned dominion of the Earth and evrything in it over to the serpent.

I think we can start to see from this story why the penalty for man’s disobediance is death. Man’s spiritual communion with G-d is broken and man can no longer gain guidance, support, and wisdom from that communion. Man has essentially died spiritually already. He is also in a state of denial over his transgression, blaming everyone but himself for his plight. He knows in his heart that he is guilty, but he doesn’t accept responsibility for it.

We can start to see it here, but it isn’t until we look at the course of history, and see what man has done to himself and others, that it is clear that man had to sufffer physical death. Imagine if man had partaken of the Tree of Life in his fallen state and become immortal. There would be no end to the evil that men could do, the pain he could inflict, and what he would become. I am reminded here of a dark comedy, “Death Becomes Her”. It shows in a very funny, but effective, way one possible outcome of human beings given immortality in their fallen state. If you have never seen the movie, check out the trailer at the end of the post.

This could have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t. G-d, when pronouncing judgement on the man, the woman, and the serpent, also made a promise. He said that through the woman, someone would be born who, although injured by the serpent, would in the end crush the serpent’s head. Isn’t it interesting? Through the woman, with the man’s agreement and cooperation, the serpent would lure man into rebellion; and through the woman, a man would come who would slay the serpent, thus restoring man to his rightful place as the crown of creation and ruler of this world.

So what relevance does this story have for us today? How can it help us fulfill our G-d ordained destiny as monarchs? Like pretty much all Bible stories, the story of The Fall is a story of faith. Man’s problem wasn’t that he had no faith, it was that he put it in the wrong place. Had he put his faith in G-d, he would have believed G-d and obeyed G-d. Instead, he put his faith in the serpent.

Someone, I forget who, said that there is a G-d shaped hole in all of us, and this is the source of our problems. He went on to say that we are constantly trying to fill that void, that emptiness with something. These are the things we put our faith in: money, sex, drugs, government, other people, ourselves… What we too often don’t try to fill it with is the original occupant before The Fall: our Creator, our Father, our G-d.

It might be a good question to ask the next time disappointment strikes, when we don’t get that thing we strived for so mightily; that thing that was going to make our life just all right and complete. Where were you, and where are you, putting your faith?

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