The nature and/or existence of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, mentioned in Genesis 2:9,17; 3:1-24 has often been the subject of much discussion, with some considering it (along with the Tree of Life) to be purely metaphorical, representative of the truths that God is the source of all existence and that our true creaturely freedom is thereby only to be found within the limits set by Him who knows the contours of the creation He has made. Such a position indeed connects with much of what the two trees represent, but for consistency’s sake one would have to see Adam and Eve themselves as purely representative figures – a view which the magisterial teaching of the Church does not allow for. Like the trees, our first parents do have a representative function, but it is to be held by all the faithful that they were also historical persons – that is, that the first people to know God were a discrete couple, not simply one of many who evolved towards an awareness of the divine.
There is much more that could be said about this of course (what the relationship is between the reception of a divinely implanted soul capable of knowing God and the purely physical attributes that would be able to facilitate such a reception, for example) but my point here is only that if one recognises the historicity of Adam and Eve (as all Catholics must) then it would seem to make the mythologising of the two trees unnecessary. Perhaps one reason people are tempted to do so though, is because they feel to make the trees historical would be to make them magical – it would make the fruit of the trees enchanted fruit. But clearly, given the context in which we read of them, this cannot be the case – they are, as is all else in creation, but particularly in the Garden, gifts of the Creator, and thus should be seen as sacramental, not magical; any benefits they afford to mankind is a direct gift of God, mediated through His creation, not an intrinsic property of the material itself.
Nevertheless, all this, whilst important from an exegetical point of view, is not really the most important thing that the text is trying to communicate. It is important to recognise that the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil were more than metaphorical, but this does not mean that they therefore stop being metaphorical, and it is the truths that they represent that are the most important thing. The truths represented by the two trees are interconnected, but I would like to focus on the latter here, and consider what kind of knowledge was being prohibited, as well as what kind we had before the Fall, and also what this might tell us about the human condition in general.
Adam and Eve already knew the distinction between good and evil – if they hadn’t done, their disobedience would not have been culpable. The proclamation of ‘thou shalt’ and ‘thou shalt not’ to the first people presumes that they had an intuitive grasp of the fact that moral obligations exist, and also that these obligations ultimately have their source in the will of God. What Adam and Eve did not have was experience of the consequences of transgressing the moral law laid before them; they knew that as creatures it was not only their due, but for their own good, to follow the plans laid out by the One who made them, but at this juncture in human history the bitter fruits of misusing our free will were not yet known. The experience was what was new in our story, and ironically it was that which led to the frustration of true freedom thereafter (c.f.; Romans 7:13-25).
God gave humanity, in the first instance, the opportunity to respond to His love with love in return, with a fealty born out of the knowledge that He is closer to us than we are to ourselves. In this moment of history, it was possible to live in harmony with the will of God, and Adam and Eve enjoyed that filial relationship to Him which thereafter could only be made possible at great cost. In this sense then, the function of the Tree of Knowledge is primarily prohibitive, and the precise kind of knowledge it represents is secondary – what counts is that it is God’s will we should not have eaten of it, and it is God’s will that is the very thing that keeps us in existence, something which it would be madness to contradict. And yet, we must be able to say something of the knowledge that it imparted, as we are the inheritors of it.
The two things are of course not unrelated, as the fact that the tree had a prohibitive function also points to the core of the consequences eating of it would deliver – it stood (and stands) as a symbol for the fundamental choice we had before us then and still have before us, though now with intimate knowledge of those consequences; it stands for the choice between discipleship and rebellion, between harmony with Creator, creation and self, and the illusion of self-sufficiency, self-making, which as we now know, always results in dissatisfaction and discord. The tree plays the role of the two doors we read of in so many stories, where we are given the option of walking through either one, but are only told what lies beyond each – we must trust that the signs above the doors are genuine indicators of what we would see if we were to walk through.
To eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is thus to refuse what is offered via the Tree of Life – it is to refuse a life lived in dependence upon, obedience to and in harmony with God and prefer the self-made life; an illusory option, but no less powerful for that. It is to think that the One who made us and all that we live in the midst of is somehow insufficient for our needs, and that we could do better if only we were allowed to test things out for ourselves – which is to say, it is to challenge reality itself. The original sin, and every sin afterwards, have this in common – that they involve a sort of madness, a rejection of things we know to be real and the choosing of things that only might be so; it is the making the self to be the centre of the universe, the illusion that we can ‘be like God’ (3:5). The essential insanity of sin, the tendency to work against the current of reality that is within each one of us – it all started here.
Our knowledge of good and evil, through this disobedience, thus became both like and unlike the divine knowledge (c.f. 3:22) differing from the omniscience of God and the innocence we had beforehand in the way that the sick man’s awareness of his illness ‘differs both from the insight of the physician and the unconcern of the man in health’ (Tyndale Commentary on Genesis by Derek Kidner, Intervarsity Press, 2005). And so it was that free will, one of the things that set us apart from the rest of creation, would also, by being misused, lead to the birth of another aspect of our human condition that so sets us apart – a sense of dislocation, not just of self-awareness, but of being aware that we are not quite in step with things, not quite living as we should be. Heinrich von Kleist, in his short story On the Marionette Theatre, examined this issue of humanity’s sense of displacement, noting that the other animals have a grace that we lack, as they simply act according to the place in nature that has been given them – lacking the freedom to act otherwise, they follow instinct and are in harmony with themselves.
This story also considers the fact that we are not just out of sorts, but are always looking (both backwards and forwards) to an ideal time in which this was not so – a time when we were integrated with our selves. This idealism is something von Kleist is ultimately sceptical of (and his recognition of our deep instincts for such an integration, coupled with a reluctance to accept that we could be otherwise, tragically led to him taking his own life) but he does point very powerfully to the nagging sense we all have for a fundamental disconnection between what we are and what we should be. Some would also take von Kleist’s scepticism further, and suggest that the state of the animals is actually preferable to our own – that their unthinking obeisance to their nature is a better state than our disconnection.
Given that the central premise for this argument is that the beasts cannot do otherwise precisely because they are incapable of the self-awareness that makes for real free choice (and thus the misuse of that choice that leads to the disharmony we see in humanity), it would hardly seem that theirs is really a preferable state – they cannot reflect on the experience of harmony with creation in order to enjoy it, because that very harmony comes from their lack of free will. One cannot have it both ways. But not only do we humans have free will and self-awareness, we also did have that harmony with Creator and creation once as well, and were able to enjoy it as the beasts cannot – is it possible to do so again; are there any hints in this life that, contrary to von Kleist’s contentions, it is possible? Yes, it is, and the proof is in the lives of the saints.
We do not have to wait until Heaven to see what a return to harmony with the will of God looks like – we can look to those who embrace that very will in their earthy lives. These were (and are) people who not only denied the selfish impulses of their own wills and submitted to the will of the divine, but who in doing so found great joy – a joy that comes from being right with God and thus in line with what is intended for the self. No matter how ascetic some of their lives may have been, or how far removed they might seem from our everyday experiences, the one thing that is common to them all is that they are not sad, but filled with the very fruits promised to us if we do likewise (c.f.; Galatians 5:22-23). The saints have, as with all of us, eaten of the Tree of Knowledge and found it wanting; but instead of languishing in the shadows that tree casts upon us, they chose Life, and that abundantly. To know good and evil, in the sense we read of in the account of our Fall, is a costly business, but there is still a way to be free of that legacy – a ‘more excellent way’ that I shall (hopefully) take a look at in a future post.