When we were expecting our first child, my wife was concerned about the potential hazards in our home environment. We did not design our home interior with curious toddlers in mind, so she insisted we identify and rectify anything which might imperil the well-being of our child. So, we bought rubber bumpers for table corners and dummy plugs for unused power sockets. We also paid for the installation of window grills—something I quietly loathed because it obstructed an otherwise pristine view of the park connector. As responsible parents-to-be we did what we could to ensure a safe home environment for our child. Most parents would have gone through a similar preparatory process, after all, who would wish to expose their own children to danger?
Hence, when one reads the second creation account in chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis, one wonders why God put the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of Eden (Gen. 2.9). If the tree is so hazardous that “in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2.17), why does God leave it in the middle of Eden so his children might stumble and fall? Why does God not ensure a safe environment for his children to grow in? What purpose does the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil serve? Such questions might seem trivial, a theologian’s molehill, so to speak, yet something more is at stake here because it inevitably affects how we perceive who God is. Is God a good Father or an irresponsible, or worse, malicious, parent?
Firstly, we must affirm that the tree in question is not a deficient creation of God. From a quick reading of the narrative, it is tempting (pun unintended) to think there is some supranatural evil contained in the fruit of the tree, since God warns “in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Here, the act of eating the fruit is thought to be akin to the Greek myth of Pandora opening a box containing all kinds of evil and releasing them into the world. Clearly, this reading is deficient because St John the Theologian asserts “that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1.5). God could not have created something that is evil .
If the second creation account is not disconnected from the first, then the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil cannot be anything but good. It must be part of God’s good creation because the first chapter of Genesis ends with the affirmation: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen. 1.31). God is good, and nothing which a good God makes can be bad. God’s creation is very good, including the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is explicitly affirmed: “Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2.9). Every tree in Eden is “pleasant to the sight and good for food,” including the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. So, how can what is good be the downfall of the first humans?
Generally, this problem has been resolved in two different ways in the tradition of the church. The first shifts significance away from the tree in question to God’s command: the fall has little to do with the tree but with disobedience to the divinely given prohibition. The second sees the tree in question as good for humanity and God’s command as a temporary prohibition. These two resolutions stem from two different interpretations of the second creation account.
The first resolution comes from St Augustine of Hippo whose writings have greatly influenced the Western churches of Christianity (Roman Catholicism and Protestant churches). Augustine affirms that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is not bad. Neither is there anything special about—it is just like any other tree in Eden. According to him, God simply prohibited the first humans from eating of its fruit “for the sake of commending a pure and simple obedience, which is the great virtue of the rational creature set under the Creator as his Lord. For, though no evil thing was touched, yet if a thing forbidden was touched, the very disobedience was sin.” The fruit of the tree is good (just like every other fruit in Eden), but it became evil for the first humans because they partake of it in disobedience. The moment the fruit is eaten is the moment humanity abandons God, turns to itself, and enjoys its own power apart from God. Augustine attributes this turn to pride, the greatest of human sins.
Therefore, he understands the divine prohibition as a limit God sets upon the first humans for the purpose of keeping them humble and obedient. Following Augustine, the French Reformer John Calvin also sees the divine command as a natural limit for humanity so “that he might not seek to be wiser than became him, nor by trusting to his own understanding, cast off the yoke of God, and constitute himself an arbiter and judge of good and evil.” “Knowledge” is understood in a somewhat negative sense here. Instead of acquiring knowledge for themselves, humans are to submit themselves to God’s command because obedience is the only and true way to wisdom.
The second resolution may be somewhat unfamiliar to us but has already been proposed in the second century by St Theophilus of Antioch and St Irenaeus of Lyons. This is also the way the Eastern churches (the various Orthodox churches) interpret the second creation account. In this reading, the first humans are created good but not perfect. Instead of the static perfection seen in most Western readings, the East views humanity as created for dynamic growth; humans are created immature and they must gradually grow into perfection in God. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil actually contains knowledge and therefore plays a role in the first humans’ spiritual growth. As Theophilus writes,
The tree of knowledge itself was good, and its fruit was good. For it was not the tree, as some think, but the disobedience, which had death in it. For there was nothing else in the fruit than only knowledge; but knowledge is good when one uses it discreetly. But Adam, being yet an infant in age, was on this account as yet unable to receive knowledge worthily. For now, also, when a child is born it is not at once able to eat bread, but is nourished first with milk, and then, with the increment of years, it advances to solid food.
In the same vein, Irenaeus considers the knowledge of good and evil as part of what it means to be humans in the image and likeness of God, as God himself says in Genesis chapter 3, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3.22). To be able to choose the good over evil is what it means to be mature (see Is. 7.15).
However, this knowledge is temporarily prohibited by God for two reasons. The first is to ensure the first humans acquire a level of spiritual maturity to make use of it judiciously. No responsible parent would teach his immature child to operate a car, but once she comes of age, he would encourage her to get her driver’s license. The second is to teach the first humans simple and loving trust in the habit of obedience. Therefore, God’s purpose for the prohibition is to keep the first humans from a knowledge too great for them to handle until they have acquired the maturity of obedience in faith. It is nothing less than an act of a loving Father. Following this, the fall of the first humans is not seen as entirely due to pride but is also a result of the deceptive Serpent taking advantage of their immaturity and lack of discernment. Their disobedience to God’s commandment then corrupts the good knowledge received in the eating of the fruit. As a result, although humanity now may have knowledge of good and evil, they are unable to choose rightly and therefore unable to grow into the perfection intended by God.
Both resolutions (West and East) are deeply scriptural, but I believe the latter has greater explanatory power and theological coherence. One issue with first reading is how it makes God’s command seem arbitrary. There is clearly nothing special about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that God should prohibit the eating of its fruits. The command is simply an arbitrary prohibition and a test with deadly consequences. It is akin to a parent placing a packet of milk before his child and warning her not to drink from it or she will be punished. The prohibition itself serves no actual purpose but is merely a test to put the child in her place and ensure her obedience to him. This is difficult to reconcile with a God who is revealed to be Father, and who creates and governs all things according to his love and wisdom. Surely his commands must be sensible and beneficial to us because they truly reflect who he is? In any case, both tales explaining this one tree have been told and accepted by the church throughout the ages. I leave the final adjudication for the age to come.
1 If we say God’s commands are good simply because it is God who wills them to be good, then we impale ourselves on one horn of Euthyphro’s Dilemma. In this case, it seems that God can make what is evil good simply by commanding it. On the contrary, God’s commands are always good and rationally reflect what is truly good because he is the very source of all good and is good itself.