And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. [a]
From a modern worldview, one may question why simply knowing about good and evil is a big deal. Isn’t it better to know danger, so one can avoid it? Hardly seems like a capital crime. Yet this is my contention, that God means what He says. This Bible passage refers to an episode at the beginning of history called “the fall”. It serves as the explanation for the entry of death into the world and evil into the hearts of men.
The word knowledge has an expansive set of definitions. It may mean much more in v17 than “the condition of being aware of something” or “apprehending truth or fact through reasoning”. Though the preceding cognitive interpretation could be all we mean when we speak of knowledge, its primary connotation is “knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association”[b]. For example, a skilled tradesman “knows” or perfects his craft from long practice.
We can deduce that this passage does not mean simple awareness if we begin from v17. If the creation was “very good” in the sight of the Creator at the end of the sixth day (Gen 1:31) and disobeying this command caused death, then God was – by using the word death – expecting Adam to understand a consequence he had never seen. Adam could not have an experiential understanding of death, since death did not yet exist [c]. Genesis 1 makes clear that everything exists because “God said”. Thus, the irresistible nature of the Word of God – the voice responsible for making everything – would cast grave doubt on the premise that the same creator would speak to Adam in language that Adam had no hope of interpreting.
The meaning of v17 can therefore precisely NOT be that the original sin was only that Adam “found out” about evil by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Actually, this fall from perfection is self-fulfilling of the “experience or association” sense; the disobedience itself is evil. Adam and Eve participated in the same vein of evil that Satan did in questioning the motives of the perfectly loving Creator until they felt justified assigning evil motives to Him.
What do I mean by “assigning evil motives”? On Satan’s part, I mean the premise that God has assigned us a station in the scheme of things that is substandard to our rightful place, or considering the human ability grow, of the ability actually so-far attained. Satan’s intimation to Eve was that God was withholding to “protect his own turf”, keeping Adam and Eve from the knowledge of good an evil that set Him apart from them. Of course, this is a lie that ignores the truth that every parent knows: we do want our offspring to succeed to the limit of their ability and we don’t want them to squander their precious innocence. Do we fear they will surpass us? No, we hope they will!
Having vilified God’s motives, Adam’s next step down the pathway of death was to actually cross the line and eat. Violation of God’s prohibition required a physical act. Just having an idea pop into his head wouldn’t do it. Isn’t that a relief? Does it seem strange that the “knowledge of good and evil” should be imparted in the process of eating a fruit? Isn’t fruit good for you? Doesn’t an apple a day keep the doctor away? I wouldn’t quickly jump to the conclusion that this story is only allegorical. It wouldn’t matter much what the prohibition was. If God had said to Adam, “Don’t play golf in the garden”, Satan would have posited that God didn’t want to risk Adam besting God’s handicap. Then Adam would have found a club-shaped stick and a small white dimpled gourd to try to get one-better. Was the physical fruit special? Not necessarily. The failure could have been all in the spiritual realm and the soulish attitudes and assumptions. Disobedience is a denial of faith in the One who gave the instruction; i.e. deciding for oneself. On the other hand, there may well have been something about that particular tree. It could have contained a chemical compound that mutated DNA to remove a human ability to sense the spiritual realm with the same facility that we interact with the physical world (pure speculation, of course). God did made later provision to keep Adam and Eve from also partaking of the tree of Life while in their fallen state [d]. Think of Hitler living forever. How much evil can the fallen do, with all eternity to plot it?
Again, why fruit trees? What can a tree have to do with knowledge (or eternal life)? Maybe that they were good for food is key [e]. If one wants to change course in life by developing a value or belief, success depends on whether we can internalize the new principle. We speak of this metaphorically. In the physical sense, we say “You are what you eat”. Intellectually: “I swallowed it hook, line, and sinker”, or “I devoured that book”. Eve took the bait; hook, line, and sinker as Adam joined in.
[a] Genesis 2:15-17 (Scripture quoted from the King James Version, since it is in the public domain.)
[c] Romans 5:12
[d] Genesis 2:22-25
[e] Genesis 3:6