The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

One fatal tree there stands, of knowledge called,
Forbidden them to taste: Knowledge forbidden
Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord
Envy them that? Can it be sin to know?
Can it be death?

Paradise Lost, Book IV

Adam was given only one rule or commandment regarding food: he may eat fruit of any of the trees of the garden, except the one in the middle; death comes with the eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We’re so used to the story that we pass this over without thought but it is such an odd thing. Why does death come with eating this fruit? It could be simply a test of obedience. The creator of all things has the right to do what he wishes with his creation; he can set boundaries where he pleases. Adam and Eve—we—do not get all God’s reasons behind his actions and who are we to ask? But if it is about obedience to the command, why a prohibition against this specific tree? Why not just The Forbidden Tree? Is the death attached merely to transgression of the command or also with the nature of the tree itself? Again, why is the prohibition against the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? It is clear that the knowledge of good and evil—the precursor to wisdom—is a thing to be sought. The Book of Proverbs practically shouts it: Get wisdom! It is more precious than all the wealth that can be had. Why would such a tree, a tree declared good and able to make one wise, bring death in partaking? Not only that, but what is meant by dying here? It isn’t obvious. They don’t die physically, not in that day.

God had said that in the day they ate, they would surely die. The serpent said that God knew that in the day they ate, their eyes would be opened and they would be like God, knowing good and evil. Perhaps a psychological  reading can help. It is the gaining of wisdom itself, the opening of the eyes that brought the collapse of the world as they knew it, that is the death. They were no longer children, no longer in ignorant innocence. Once opened, their eyes could not be unopened. The knowledge they received was not exactly the wisdom that they hoped for, not the power to see and judge all things as God sees and judges; it was self-consciousness. Their eyes were opened, but all they could see was their own nakedness. Perhaps this was the knowledge of evil: they knew their vulnerability, weakness, mortality, and how to use this knowledge to hurt or exploit others. They knew what it was to miss the mark, to fall short of the glory of God. They learned deceit, ill-will, unfaithfulness, suspicion. The good it did do for them, though, was give them the fear of God. That was the beginning of wisdom. From this point, the way forward is not a return to paradisal ignorance but a pursuit of more wisdom.

Following this line, it may be that the knowledge of good and evil is the knowledge of death. Moses prays that we would learn to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (or bring our heart to wisdom). The knowledge of and reflection on our mortality brings us closer to wisdom. Perhaps this is also the fear of the Lord, of the immortal one, the source of our being, who holds our very selves in existence. 

Another layer of meaning may be found in a, what would this be? a positional or action-in-the-world reading. Paul seems to have this event in mind at the beginning of his letter to the Romans. The invisible attributes of God—his power and deity—were known from the beginning of creation, known to the man and his wife. Though they knew him, they did not give him thanks. And how could they, when they were doing the only thing he had said not to do? Professing themselves, or having pretensions, to be wise, they became fools. They exchanged the glory of God, in whose image they were made, for the likeness of man, birds, beasts, and creeping things, the creatures they had originally been given dominion over. Man lives not by bread alone, but by all that comes from the mouth of God. They received the fruit, so to speak, from the mouth of the serpent. He suggested that God was withholding this good from them, that equality with God was a thing to be grasped. They were complicit with the serpent, turning the truth—you shall surely die—into a lie—you shall not surely die. Following, trusting in the word of the creature over and against the word of their creator and sustainer is a turn away from their source of life, a turn to death.

Maybe a physical/metaphysical reading is helpful. C.S. Lewis uses two Greek words translated life to draw a distinction between the physical life of the body, Bios, and the spiritual life, Zoe. When Paul says that we were all once dead in our trespass and sin, it is clearly not Bios that he is referring to. We are not biologically dead before being made alive together in Christ. But this “dead in trespass and sin,” is this like calling a death row inmate the walking dead? Condemned but not yet executed? Is it a state of waiting future punishment? or is it more than this? Is the death he speaks of here the sin and trespass itself? Is the sin the death in which we walk? Missing the mark, straying out of the way is a living (?) in death, a walking in the way of death rather than the way of life. They stepped out of the way and the way to the Tree of Life was closed and guarded by the cherub and the flaming sword.