The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

Christianity came to see the eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, contrary to God’s command, as the source of “original sin,” inherited by mere issuance from Adam.  That notion has no basis in the life and teachings of Jesus.  Rather, it is rooted in the letters of Paul in his justification of Jesus as the Christ to the Gentiles and presentation to them of Jesus as Savior.  The name, Savior, was derived from one of the names attributed to Caesar, as was Son of God and others.  Paul had one foot in the Gentile world, and the other in the Jewish World.  From his Jewish heritage, Paul connected Jesus to the sacrificial lamb, without blemish, given as atonement for the people’s sins.

The Biblical story of Genesis is predated by a similar Babylonian story of approximately 2300 BCE.  That is represented by a cylinder seal from that time and area.

Generally, the Judaic interpretation of the story is that with the act, humankind became inclined to evil.  The medieval French rabbi, Rashi, considered the offense to be Eve’s addition to God’s command:

‘Neither shall you touch it.’ [By saying this, Eve] added to the command, and thereby came to detract [from it].  This is as written [Proverbs 30:6], ‘Do not add to his words.’

Rabbi Meir asserted that the forbidden fruit was the grape, which Noah later tried to redeem by making sacramental wine of it.  Rabbi Nechemia asserted that the fruit was a fig, and that Adam and Eve used the fig leaves to hide themselves.  Yet another asserted that the fruit was wheat.  The general Jewish interpretation is that the act of eating the fruit of that tree caused evil to mix with good.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, enlightened by learning of his time, said of original sin:

Our young people are diseased with the theological problems of original sin, origin of evil, predestination and the like.

Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers speaks of the significance of the story:

. . . Without that knowledge, we’d all be a bunch of babies still in Eden, without any participation in life.  A woman brings life into the world.  Eve is the mother of this temporal world.  Formerly you had a dreamtime paradise there in the Garden of Eden – no time, no birth, no death – no life. . . .

Campbell speaks of the historical background to the story:

There is actually a historical explanation based on the coming of the Hebrews into Canaan and their subjugation of the people of Canaan.  The principle divinity of the people of Canaan was the Goddess; and associated with a Goddess is the serpent.  This is the symbol of the mystery of life.  The male – god – oriented group rejected it.  In other words, there is a historical rejection of the Mother Goddess implied in the story of the Garden of Eden.

He explains that, according to Genesis, prior to the “Fall,” man and woman did not know that they were different from each other.

The two are just creatures.  God and man are practically the same.  God walks in the cool of the evening in the garden where they are.  And then they eat the apple, the knowledge of the opposites.  And when they discover they are different, the man and woman cover their shame.  You see, they had not thought of themselves as opposites.  Male and female is one opposition.  Another opposition is the human and God.  Good and evil is a third opposition.  The primary oppositions are the sexual and that between human beings and God.  Then comes the idea of good and evil in the world. . . .  To move out into the world, you have to act in terms of pairs of opposites.

Although Islamic sacred literature includes the story of Genesis, the Koran, itself, refers only to a tree, the fruit of which God forbade them to eat.  Because of their disobedience, they were evicted from Heaven to dwell on earth.  They repented and God forgave them.  Thereafter, those who follow in the path that God directs will be rewarded with everlasting life in heaven, but those who disobey shall be punished in Hell.

Concerning the symbol of the tree in other religions, Wikipedia provides at

The concept of a tree of life has been used in science, religion, philosophy, and mythology. A tree of life is a common motif in various world theologies, mythologies, and philosophies. It alludes to the interconnection of all life on our planet and serves as a metaphor for common descent in the evolutionary sense. The term tree of life may also be used as a synonym for sacred tree.[1]

The tree of knowledge, connecting to heaven and the underworld, and the tree of life, connecting all forms of creation, are both forms of the world tree or cosmic tree, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica,[2] and are portrayed in various religions and philosophies as the same tree.[3]

The following is one interesting Christian perspective of the Jewish heritage relating to this story.  It somewhat reflects Joseph Campbell’s interpretation of the story as an introduction into life a world of opposites, called “merisms.”

What is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?

Written by Douglas Stuart On the Tue, 2012-04-03 05:56 0 Comments

In Genesis 2:17 where you have the Garden of Eden story and God’s prohibition he says, “You can eat of any tree you want but you must not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” Now, I have a question. Why wouldn’t he want them to eat of that tree most of all? Wouldn’t God want them to know all about good and evil? Isn’t that just the right tree to eat from? The tree of the knowledge of good and evil—know what is good, know what is bad, be able to choose between them, right?

Actually it is misleading. Here is the situation. The knowledge of good and evil is what is called a “merism.” Let me give you some examples very quickly. In the Bible we really have a lot of merisms. A merism is an expression of totality by the mention of polarity. You mention some opposites and it implies everything in between. For example, the west and the east are used as merisms. Heaven and hell, if I ascend to heaven there you are, if I go to Sheol there you are. Does that mean that God is only at the two extremes? No, he is everywhere, that is the point. Near and far are used as merisms. “Peace to the far and peace to the near,” says the Lord. In other words peace to everybody. More examples of merisms— “going out and coming in” is a fairly common merism. “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in,” meaning the Lord will take care of everything in your life.

Then “good and evil” is actually a very common merism. It means “any kind of thing” or it means “everything.” Their idols cannot speak, cannot walk, cannot do evil, cannot do good, meaning they just cannot do anything. The knowledge of good and evil is a way of saying in Hebrew “all knowledge, knowledge of everything” and that is what God does not want people to know. If you read the story, you see that is what Satan says. He says, “Hey, he knows you will become like gods knowing everything. That is what he is trying to keep from you. Don’t you want to know everything?” Knowing everything sounds interesting. And they do and after the fall God says, he is speaking again in heaven as he often does in many places in Scripture not just Genesis, “Look they have become like one of us, they know good and evil, they know everything.” Does that mean that they actually know everything? You say, “Alright, immediately draw me a graph for the following equation.” No, it takes time to know that. The idea is that we now have more knowledge than we can morally handle. That is the point of what is emphasized here in this story.

Part of the human dilemma as a consequence of the fall is that humans have enormous knowledge of how to do bad things as well as how to do good things. The same human being that knows how to create a computer and all the bandwidth that they use for all the good communication purposes so you can get e-mail from your cousin in Mongolia also has provided a way for a vast increase in the dissemination of pornography in our age. The same skill that uses atomic energy for good makes weapons out of it. The same skill that does anything can be used for bad. Human beings, unlike hamsters and June bugs, have enormous capacity for choices; taking skills that they could use and should use for good and employing them for evil. That is part of the human dilemma. We are in trouble because we are so good at doing bad. That is, I think, the message that you are supposed to get out of this whole story about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


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