• Genesis: Knowledge of Good and Evil.


    Answers in Genesis’ Explanation of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: Why Bad Presuppositions Can Lead to a Very Anemic Reading of the Biblical Text.


    Genesis: Knowledge of Good and Evil.

    A Truncated Telling of Genesis 2-3.
    As God was showing the man around the garden, He pointed out all the various fruit trees the man could eat from.

    “And here we have an apple tree, over there is a pear tree, and this one I call a banana tree.”

    “So, we can eat the fruit from all these trees?”

    “Yep! Anyone you want…except for that tree right over there.”

    “What’s it called?”

    “I call it ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’”

    “That’s a strange name. Why do you call it that?”

    “Doesn’t matter. Just don’t go over there and eat its fruit. If you do, you’ll die.”

    “What’s death?”

    “Eh…it means you won’t be alive anymore. Which reminds me, the tree right next that one, I call it the tree of life.”

    “Hmmm…that’s another odd name for a tree. Can I eat from that one?”

    “We’ll see. But for now, lay down here, there’s something I need to do.”

    And with that, God put the man into a deep sleep, and from the man’s side, God fashioned a woman to be his wife. After the woman was made, though, she got talking to a talking snake who convinced her to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She gave some to the man, and he ate it also. They didn’t die immediately, but they did realize for the first time that they were naked. When God showed up and found out they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he cursed the snake, told the woman childbirth was going to be painful for her and that she would be ruled by her husband, told the man he’d have a hard time farming and that he would eventually die—and then He clothed them, but then kicked them out of the garden so that they couldn’t eat from the tree of life, setting an angel with a huge flaming to guard the entrance. The man then named his wife, “Life.”

    Correct Questions.
    Sometimes Christians can be so familiar with a story in the Bible that they forget how odd some sound. Such is the case with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Sometimes, telling the story in a slightly paraphrastic way can help jar us out of our assumed familiarity with it and help us notice things we might have missed. Given my paraphrased version of the story in Genesis 2-3 probably made you think of a few things: (1) the names of both the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life—maybe there’s something more to them than just being two literal trees; (2) did they not realize they were NUDE until they ate a piece of fruit?—again, maybe there’s something more to the story than a simple historical event; and (3) Adam named his wife with the name of the tree of life that they didn’t get to eat from?—could her name be significant? And while we’re at it, a talking snake and an angel wielding a flaming sword?—that does seem rather, extraordinary, does it not?

    I’m willing to think that questions like these are tumbling around in most people’s minds, but they don’t know how to articulate them because it is often taught that this is a straightforward historical account of two literal people, and thus that assumption pushes the questions to more “historical” concerns, and the questions about the actual story often get pushed to the side.

    This can be seen in a recent short article on the Answers in Genesis (AiG) website by Harry F. Sanders. The article is entitled, “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: Evil or Good?” Sanders wrote it to address a question that a Facebook follower had asked. That question was, “If God saw that all he had made was ‘good,’ then wouldn’t the forbidden tree and its fruit be deemed ‘good’ as well?” Sanders then proceeded to answer the question in the short article that followed. What follows is a summary of the article.

    The AiG Take on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
    What struck me was how much the literalistic/historical way YECist groups like AiG come to passages like the one in Genesis 3 causes readers to simply miss a whole lot of what the passage is actually talking about. To be fair, it isn’t always just YECist groups who do this. In reality, I think most people read Bible passages like Genesis 3 with certain colored lenses that make it impossible to appreciate the full array of colorful meanings the passage actually is painting. If you put on yellow-tinted glasses, everything you look at will have a yellow-tint, and you won’t see the colors that are actually there. Similarly, if you come to a text like Genesis 3, reading it solely through the presuppositional lens of “it is a historical account of something that literally happened,” you simply are going to miss a whole lot in the story.

    Sanders’ article proves this very point. His answer can be summed up as follows:

    The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was probably placed in the garden on the 6th day;

    The purpose of the tree was to give man a choice: love and serve God, or rebel against Him;

    The tree wasn’t good for Adam (because it would bring death), but that didn’t mean that the animals couldn’t eat from it;

    The tree itself wasn’t evil, because if it was then that would mean God created something evil;

    The tree’s fruit wasn’t poisonous—if it was, then Adam and Eve would have died right away;

    The sin and curse that came about wasn’t the tree’s fault; it was the result of what Adam did;

    Therefore, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was good; the fault for man’s fall lies with Adam and Eve, not the tree.

    What’s the Problem?
    So, what’s the problem with Sanders’ explanation? Well, nothing per se—the main point he was making is correct: the tree itself shouldn’t be seen as evil; death and the curse were a result of Adam and Eve’s sin, not something intrinsic to the tree itself.

    The problem with Sanders’ explanation lies in what he misses in the story, precisely because he reduces it to a “just the facts, ma’am” account. His assumption that Genesis 3 is a historical account leads him to ask questions that only deal with supposed facts and propose speculations on mere factual matters. In doing so, it doesn’t even occur to him that there is much more to the story than just the conveying of facts. Just look at some of the points he makes in the article:

    (1) The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was probably planted on the 6th day—not to sound petty, but so what?

    (2) The Bible doesn’t say the animals couldn’t eat the tree’s fruit—really? Where in the text is that even implied?

    (3) The tree’s fruit wasn’t actually poisonous—the only reason one would even ask this question (as with the second question) is that one misunderstands what the story itself even is.

    To the point, if you misunderstand what the story really is, you’re going to ask the wrong questions about it…and Sanders is asking the wrong questions; or more precisely, giving worthless answers to wrong-headed questions. And let’s face it, a basic reading of Genesis 2-3 really should alert you to the fact that there is something more to this story as just some sort of straightforward, historical account.

    A Little Bit of Church History.
    And the thing is, just a basic look into church history will reveal that many of the early Church Fathers clearly saw that the story in Genesis 2-3 wasn’t a simple historical account. Origen actually ridiculed people who read the story of Adam and Eve as if it were a blow by blow historical account. In his work, On First Principles, he wrote:

    “And who is so foolish as to think that God, just like a farmer, literally planted a paradise in Eden, somewhere in the east, and placed a tree of life in it that was both visible and tangible, and that if one actually sank their teeth in and ate its fruit, that they would obtain life? Again, who would think that one was a partaker of good and evil by munching on what was taken from the other tree? And as far as God walking in the paradise in the evening, and Adam hiding himself under a tree, I do not think that anyone doubts that these things are to be taken figuratively, and that they indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.”

    Then there was the early Church Father Irenaeus, who taught that the story of Adam and Eve was really a story about human beings in general: we, like Adam and Eve, although created in God’s image, are nevertheless initially infantile and immature, and we are bound to sin. Yet in God’s sovereignty, it is through experiencing the suffering that comes about because of sin that we come to truly know good and evil, can experience salvation, can come to a fuller knowledge of God, and can love Him more. He writes:

    “He learns from experience that disobeying God, which robs him of life, is evil, and so he never attempts it…. But how would he have discerned the good without knowing its opposite? For firsthand experience is more certain and reliable than conjecture… The mind acquires the knowledge of the good through the experience of both and becomes more firmly committed to preserving it by obeying God. First, by penance, he rejects disobedience, because it is bitter and evil. Then he realizes what it really is – the opposite of goodness and sweetness, and so he is never tempted to taste disobedience to God. But if you repudiate this knowledge of both, this twofold faculty of discernment, unwittingly you destroy your humanity.”

    “How could man ever have known that he was weak and mortal by nature, whereas God was immortal and mighty if he had not had experience of both? To discover his weakness through suffering is not in any sense evil; on the contrary, it is good not to have an erroneous view of one’s own nature… The experience of both [good and evil] has produced in man the true knowledge of God and of man and increased his love for God.”

    Here’s the Point
    I understand that some people believe the early chapters of Genesis to be an actual historical account of literal, historical people. I personally do not think those early chapters are intended to be read as history, but let’s put that to the side just for a moment. I want appeal to those who take those early chapters to be history to step back and consider this one basic point: many of the early Church Fathers who were responsible for preserving the early Christian faith in those early centuries—even those who might have assumed Adam and Eve were historical figures—clearly saw those chapters were filled with metaphor and symbolism that sought to convey much deeper truths about human identity and the human condition than just bare-bones historical facts.

    If you fail to keep that in mind, you will fall into the trap that Henry Sanders falls into in his article. Instead of taking his cues from the text itself, and asking questions like, “What is the significance of the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? We are told that God made man in His image, according to His likeness, and then the serpent tells the woman if she eats the fruit she will be like God—what’s going on? Is there something more to their nakedness, and their subsequent awareness of being naked, than simply, you know, being literally naked?” –instead of asking questions that the text is inviting the reader to ask, Sanders wanders off into the weeds with questions that have nothing to do with the story itself: “What day was the tree of good and evil planted by God? Could animals eat from it? Was the fruit actually poisonous?”

    The lesson we need to realize is that if we truly believe the Scriptures are inspired, we have to let the text itself speak to us, we have to take notice of the cues the text is giving us, and we have to ask the appropriate questions that the text is inviting us to ask. The Bible is a work that invites the reader to wrestle with it and grapple with it. There are cues and indications in the stories themselves that are telling the reader, “Take notice of this, take a closer look—ask the appropriate question of the text so you can really enter into what God is trying to teach you.”

    Unfortunately, this is precisely the kind of reading of Genesis 2-3 that Henry Sanders and AiG does not display. The result is a very shallow and superficial, and largely misleading explanation of the context of Genesis 2-3 and the significance of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.



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