Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

The Garden of Eden, England, 16th century (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

5th Week in Ordinary Time, Friday (Year I)

Genesis 3:1-8

“Give thanks to the Lord for he is good,
his mercy endures forever!”

Psalm 107:1

God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good.

Genesis 1:31

God and his creation are good. So what about the snake in the garden?

Apophatically speaking, God is beyond the conceptual couple “good and evil.” All concepts arise from the perception of being and non-being; thus opposing ideas arise simultaneously in pairs. God is beyond all thought. Before the divine mystery the mind is silenced, but for the sake of the sapiential journey concepts must be employed with awareness of their limitations.

In God’s good creation, the snake had a role to play by divine permission. Gifted with wisdom, the snake cunningly used its mind to plant thoughts in the mind of Eve to raise doubt.

“Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden’?”

Genesis 3:1

Referring to all the trees at once, the snake framed its question in the most negative and prohibitive terms, enticing Eve to correct it and draw her into its confidence.

The first part of God’s command was actually phrased in the most positive terms possible:

You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden…

Genesis 2:16

The word for “eat” (akal) is doubled in Hebrew. “The intensified form of expression (Hebrew: eating thou mayest eat) confers the most unrestricted enjoyment of all the fruitage of the garden.”1

At this point, Eve had the opportunity to walk away from the conversation. The monastic desert tradition counsels disciples to cut off converse with the voice of temptation from the get-go. Thoughts engender thoughts producing quicksand. 

Eve, however, felt compelled to correct the snake. 

The woman answered the snake: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, or else you will die.’”

Genesis 2:2-3

In the Legends of the Jews, speculations circulated in the oral and rabbinic tradition that Adam, in his zeal to protect his wife, had instructed Eve not to “touch” the tree of knowledge of good and evil even though God had only said not to eat it. Storytellers embellished the Genesis account such that the serpent seized upon Adam’s “exaggeration” to bring about Eve’s downfall:

It was Adam’s exaggeration that afforded the serpent the possibility of persuading Eve to taste of the forbidden fruit. The serpent pushed Eve against the tree, and said: “Thou seest that touching the tree has not caused thy death. As little will it hurt thee to eat the fruit of the tree. Naught but malevolence has prompted the prohibition, for as soon as ye eat thereof, ye shall be as God. As He creates and destroys worlds, so will ye have the power to create and destroy. As He doth slay and revive, so will ye have the power to slay and revive.”2

The actual command to Adam simply stated: 

You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die.

Genesis 2:16-17

Whatever may be the source of Eve’s added prohibition, the snake in Genesis did not address it but jumped straightaway to deny the consequence of death.

But the snake said to the woman: “You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.”

Genesis 3:4-5

As Eve’s thoughts churned, her relationship with God was demoted to secondary status. Seeking to understand the reason for the command became more important. Attention shifted away from God to the consequence of the command. Obedience no longer flowed from simple trust in a good and loving God (without a why), but rather from a desire to avoid a fatal consequence. Whether or not death would result from eating the fruit of the tree, the fundamental issue was that God had asked her not to eat it. 

Reason and deliberation went into high gear judging and weighing the wisdom of the command itself. The problem was that there was no way to validate God’s claim except by eating.

Furthermore, desire was agitated and toppled God to second place. The possibility of being “like gods” who “know good and evil” suddenly rose to the highest position. What that meant, Eve could not have known, but she sensed a latent potentiality for greatness in her being and wished to seize it on her own terms.

The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.

Genesis 3:6

As skepticism mounted concerning the consequence of death (thereby removing the fear of punishment), more and more reasons were marshaled in favor of testing the fruit. Simple trust gave way to sophisticated reasoning and the fruit was consumed.

Was Adam torn between pleasing God and pleasing his wife? Since no word is recorded from him during the exchange with the snake, his negligence amounted to complicity. The two were created as one “flesh” or “body,” and as one body they disobeyed. The original harmony of God, Adam and Eve split and fell apart. Sundered from the divine source, any unity between human beings is a false unity that leads to disintegration. Husband and wife ate and reaped the consequences.

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Genesis 3:7

Hebrew has a play on words for “cunning” (arum) and “naked” (arom).  

The couple seek to be “wise” but end up knowing that they are “naked.”3

The couple’s original robe of glory made them one in heart, mind, soul, spirit and body in God. Perception of “nakedness” apart from God introduced a scission between self and other that did not exist before. “Love of God and neighbor” only became commands outside of Eden. Prior to the “knowledge of good and evil,” the indivisibility of God and neighbor was as natural as the breath of life. Nakedness in the love of God has no awareness of an isolated self (Genesis 2:25). All persons and the cosmos interpenetrate in the light of glory. 

As the sun was setting and doom enveloped the hearts of Adam and Eve, a new consciousness of fear and division overtook them. 

When they heard the sound of the Lord God walking (halak) about in the garden at the breezy time of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

Genesis 3:8

The warmth, gentleness and lovingkindness of God was now felt as terror and judgment springing entirely from the divided heart. “Walking” (halak) with God in loving trust and simplicity was the privilege of Adam and Eve, later recovered by Enoch who “walked with God; and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:24). 

The cosmos (symbolized by the trees) now became a buffer between humanity and God, whereas before it radiated with the divine presence for Adam and Eve. How can trees or anything in creation be a “hiding place” when God dwells in all things?

The heavens are my throne,
the earth, my footstool.
What house can you build for me?
Where is the place of my rest?

Isaiah 66:1

In the dialogue that ensued between God, Adam, Eve, and the snake, fear, blame and division became the “new normal” (abnormal) alien to paradise and thus fled into exile.

Why ask why?
Christ obeyed
With one eye.4

-GMC

1 Whedon’s Commentary on the Bible, Genesis 2:16. 

2 Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Vol. I, trans. Henrietta Szold (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1913), 72. 

3 New American Bible (Revised Edition) footnote to Genesis 3:1.

4 The “knowledge of good and evil” gave birth to the double eye.
See related posts: A Garden Enclosed, A Fountain Sealed, The Single Eye

Jesus’ lament on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is an expression of human suffering and not a “why” of mistrust (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46).

7 thoughts on “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

  1. fdan

    Dear GMC, along with your reflection, reverencing this scripture story was both powerful and disturbing to behold. I felt interiorly ill, as if my soul were nauseous. All I could do is cry out, “Jesus I trust in you.” And now, I will recite the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy, which I haven’t done in a while, for the intentions of Christ’s Body. Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, pray for us.

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  2. fdan

    Dear GMC, as I reread your reflection, I noticed you added a note about the”why” of Jesus and in the Garden of Eden. Could the serpent, representing evil, be the precedence for understanding suffering in the Garden? Just a beginner’s musings. As always, thank you for your reflections. May it renew our relationship with our loving God. God is love. Love is God.

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  3. GMC Post author

    The note was added to distinguish the “why” of Jesus’ lament on the Cross and the “why” of human mistrust directed towards God. The question, “Did God really say…?” ignited the process of suspicion and mistrust. The unraveling began with a thought suggested by the tempter and ended in the deed (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 390 ff).

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  4. fdan

    Thank you for clarifying this, GMC.
    (For the sake of his sorrowful passion have mercy on us and on the whole world.)
    May God bless all of us and goodnight to all.

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