'And the Lord God commanded Adam saying, “You may certainly eat from any tree in the garden. But from the Tree of Knowing what is Good and Bad you may not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you will surely die”.'
What is the meaning of ‘the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil’, as it is usually translated? I’ve encountered different explanations without finding any of them very convincing. I am not about to confidently announce that the explanation I am offering here is the right one, but I will say that it is one that makes sense to me and which is full of meaning for me. I hope that you also will find it helpful.
If I were to ask, ‘do you know what is good and bad?’ how would you respond? I would imagine that the response of people reading this would probably go something like this, ‘well, I hope and trust that I know at least something about these things, but I wouldn’t pretend to know all there is to know about it. I’m on a journey of learning more and more about them from others and from God’.
Now only someone without any humility or common sense thinks they don’t have anything to learn from anyone else about what is good and bad. However, there is a wider question about this: does humanity have it within itself to find out of its own accord all that it needs to know about right and wrong, or good and bad? We live in a culture dedicated to progress and there is a myth that sustains this drive to improve; we may be forced to recognise bad mistakes that keep happening and the terrible things that people have done, and still do to one another at times, but there is a hope that we are moving ever onward and upward by our own efforts to better things. If we can’t sort out all the problems just yet, we will eventually be able to if only we keep striving to move forward. Yes, there may be serious reverses and things that happen which seem to put that hope in serious doubt but we must keep pressing on and not be discouraged. Obama’s election slogan “yes we can!” was drawing on this myth. As for God, for so many he is irrelevant in all this; at best he is no more than a private consolation for those who have a bent for religion, at worst, looking for help from him is a dangerous delusion.
This takes us right back to the Garden of Eden. God put humans in charge of this world and that inevitably involved us being given authority to take decisions about what is good and bad. While we were given this authority we were also to remember that we were to act as those who are also under authority, for, if you are given authority by any one, it stands to reason that you are under the authority of the one who gave you your authority. This means that, whilst we have the right to make decisions, there is some one above us who is the final arbiter of what is good and bad and to whom we are answerable. We were meant to accept that whatever knowledge we used in our decision-making was provisional, whereas only God has final knowledge, as the one who made both us and everything else.
The tree of knowing what is good and bad was a statement that God is the final arbiter of these things and was a test of whether we accepted this as we looked to God as our Lord and our helper. We do our best at knowing what is good and bad; He really knows. To refrain from eating its fruit was to accept this, whereas eating from it would be a statement that we refused to accept this any longer; to do so would be to say that we were deciding to act on our own authority now, ‘we can make up our own minds now, and we don’t need God to show us anything about what is good and what is bad’. History has taught us what a disastrous decision this was.
But those of us who have surrendered our lives into God’s hands are choosing to go back on that awful decision – we accept we cannot do things on our own, whilst those who act without God’s help are carrying on with that decision.
I have deliberately translated it as the Tree of Knowing Good and Bad, rather than good and evil. This is because, like our word bad, the Hebrew word ra’ isn’t just used to describe what is morally wrong. Like our word bad, ra’ is used in a more general sense. When we say that this apple has gone bad, or talk about a bad egg, we don’t mean that the apple has turned to evil or the egg has sinned! There are things to do with what is good and bad that may not be concerned with moral issues (or at least not directly so) but which really matter to us and affect us. For those who are unfortunate enough to work in a physically ugly or unpleasant building or reside in a soulless and unattractive part of town it can really affect how they feel. Phlegmatics will probably use their natural switch-off mechanism to deal with it but Melancholics find it hard not to be affected.
I remember taking a coach to a special place of beauty but, whilst the place we were headed for was lovely, I couldn’t help noticing how ugly so many of the houses were in the places we were going through. I don’t mean that we were going through a particularly deprived and dilapidated area, even the pricier looking houses seemed so tasteless in their design, as though the local architects had an aesthetic blind spot. I found it a bit depressing to see and felt sorry for the people who lived there. In the same way, eating a badly cooked meal is an unpleasant experience. What the verse in Genesis tells us is that these things really matter to God and turning away from him didn’t just bring moral badness into the world.
There are different types of goodness. A lady I visit described a concert she had been to recently: a local girl who had made good as a singer came back to give a concert and she performed the kind of songs and virtuoso operatic solos designed to show off her voice. It was clear from my friend’s description that she was duly impressed by the singer’s voice but her heart was not very touched by the music. Her account reminded me of an evening of jazz I went to hear a while back. The musicians were highly accomplished and at times technically dazzling, the music itself was skilfully composed and improvised but I was left cold by the experience; the singer didn’t seem to be singing from her heart and I left wondering what it was all for.
On the other hand, there is a kind of goodness that warms our hearts and has the capacity to make us feel closer to God. I think of my visits to cathedrals like Salisbury or Wells, which left me inspired with a sense of the beauty and glory of God and made me want to praise him. We were put in this world to bring out its goodness in a way that makes people feel closer to God and that inspires each other with touches of his glory, whether from the majesty of a cathedral, a lovely meal or a beautifully made chair, a really good conversation, an entertaining piece of humour, a well-taught lesson or any other job well done.
We all have our own ideas about what is excellent but, when we accept that God is the author of goodness and we can never stop learning from him, we will accept the life lessons he has to teach us, even if it comes from going through a difficult experience. We are being taken to a deeper place, and from that greater depth, with whatever gifts we have been given, we can display God’s goodness to others in a way that shows them his goodness on a deeper and more satisfying level.