The Apocrypha of Genesis: Part 2: What is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?

You know the basic premise, boy meets girl, girl meets snake, apples are eaten… yadda yadda yadda, boom, original sin. There’s just one problem; “original sin” is not in Genesis. What does the book actually say and what lessons, if any, does this story actually teach? Welcome to the hidden meaning of Genesis. See Part 1: Is God who we think he is?

Tree Of Knowledge

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Gen 2:16-17

So, lets talk about the tree, because if anything in this story is going to make sense, we’re going to need a good explanation for what it is. Here are four ideas. But before we get into them here is something to consider. Why does God want to keep this knowledge from man? Is this knowledge bad for mankind or bad for God?

1) Christians typically argue that the tree itself is not evil or sinful, but that because man (well Eve actually) wanted wisdom, wanted to be like God, the act of eating the fruit brought sin. In other words, it was the disobience not the tree itself that brought about the fall of man. The interesting thing about this explanation is that humanity is forever cursed because their ancestors broke an arbitrary rule. And since it is arbitrary, not based on a moral truth or utilitarian necessity, this takes on the shape of a game. In other words, there’s no reason for why this should be a big deal other than the fact that God says so. Either that, or else the knowledge of the tree is actually significant.

2) Some argue that the knowledge gained was sexual knowledge since it appears that Adam and Eve don’t have sex or concieve children until after they eat. This seems to be true. Before chapter 4, there is no hint of sex. Starting with chapter 4, cue the raunchy bassline because the Adam and Eve are getting busy. This theory is tempting, but doesn’t make complete sense given everything else.

3) Another idea is that it symbolizes moral knowledge, literally knowledge of good and evil. This ties into the act of disobedience, since the process of indoctrinating our children with ideas of good and evil is one of punishing incorrect behavior, and rewarding good behavoir. However, are Adam and Eve actually punished? And why would God want to keep this knowledge from them? What does it mean to be unaware of good and evil, to be “naked” and “not ashamed”? Does this mean a natural state unburdened by social convention or does this mean a state of animal-like consciousness? Or does this mean that anything is permitted and there are no real consequences (outside the one tree, of course)?

4) A newer scholarly idea claims that the Hebrew words that name the tree literally mean “Tree of Knowledge, both Good and Evil” and that “both good and evil” is a figure of speach that should be interpreted as “everything”. This also makes sense and is a safe bet to make since it naturally includes knowledge of morality.

What does the book say? In truth, it’s actually fairly ambiguous, hence why we have so many theories.

Instead of taking a line by line reading, I’ve decided to summarize the significant changes that appear to happen. In other words, there is no real explanation for what the tree is or why it is forbidden (more on this in the next essay). Therefore, we can try to understand it by it’s effect.

Here’s everything that appears to have changed.

– they suddently know they’re naked, they know shame
– Eve now has the power to bear children
– man must toil for sustenance
– Begining the next chapter, they now have sex
– they are now mortal or at least revealed to be
– God gives them some “skins” (suggestion of animal sacrifice?)
– They are forced out “lest they eat of the tree of life.”

If we put aside for the moment the meaning of the mysterious Tree of Life, this list begins to look very recognizable. I would think that anyone older than 12 can begin to grasp what is happening here. They become sexually active, they are kicked out of the house, they’re forced to work for food, and they have to abide by the rules of society.

You know, once your parents have taught you everything you need to know, “both good and evil,” they throw you a party (sacrifice some lambs), give you some skins (new clothes, new adult identity, the graduation gift, etc), kick you out the door and say “get a job, you hippy” and “don’t get pregnant (cuz it’s going to hurt)!” These changes of Adam and Eve are the clearly the markings of children growing up.

And remember the previous post regarding the nature of “God” in Genesis. Clearly he is not acting the part of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good godhead. Things don’t match up that way, but as a parental figure, well, he’s suddenly very understandable. Of course parents want to protect their children and keep them in a state of innocense, even though doing so is impossible. and Yes, parents must discipline their kids to teach them the rules of society. If you do wrong, society will punish you. “God” is really a symbol that stands for the highest power, and when you’re a child, the highest power is your mother or father.

The Fall is clearly an allegory for becoming a socially “corrected” adult, the indoctrination of social convention, an explanation of the process of socializing the youth so they may become responsible civilians. At the very least, this meaning appears contained in the text (unlike original sin) and it is a common understanding that reverberates culturally. The next time you see a movie or book which contains a special tree or garden, in most cases, it’s a not so subtle reference to this aspect of the Fall.


2 thoughts on “The Apocrypha of Genesis: Part 2: What is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?

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