The Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil

tree of knowledge

In the creation story in Genesis ‘The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ (Genesis 2 v 9). The Hebrew word translated ‘tree’ is the same word as that used for ordinary trees in all twenty-five uses of the word in the book of Genesis. There is no exception. So the ‘tree of life and the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ are clearly actual types of tree. Both the ‘tree of life’ and the ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’ are fruit trees. When we talk about eating of the ‘tree of life’ or the ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’, we are of course talking about eating the fruit of these trees: ‘The woman said….“We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die’” (Genesis 3 v 2, 3).


What does the bible mean when it talks about fruit? There is of course the obvious meaning – the fruit that we eat such as oranges or apples and I think that this meaning is certainly included, but there also seems to be a deeper meaning here. So what other meanings does the bible give to the word ‘fruit’?

First, ‘fruit’ refers to the result or outcome of something. For example, Psalm 128 v 2 says: ‘You shall eat the fruit of the labour of your hands’. Thus the word ‘fruit’ referred to in this verse means ‘the result of one’s labour’. Such a result or outcome may be good or bad – ‘They will eat the fruit of their [evil] ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes’ (Proverbs 1 v 31). Perhaps the most familiar example in the New Testament of fruit being the result or outcome of something is the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (Galatians 5 v 19 – 23). People who walk in the Spirit will yield the fruit of the Spirit: ‘love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’. This is the fruit that we bear when we are obedient to God. ‘Fruit’ then consists of our attitudes as well as our actions. With these attitudes from the Spirit of God, good actions and behaviours follow on as a result.

Second, the word ‘fruit’ also refers to ‘prosperity or plenty’. The righteous man who delights in and meditates on the Word of God is said to be ‘like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth fruit in its season’ (Psalm 1). And what is that fruit? The last line of verse three says: ‘whatever he does shall prosper’ and this is almost certainly a godly and holy prosperity. In the same way, in Proverbs 8 v 1-20, ‘fruit’ (portrayed here as the fruit of wisdom) is described as riches, honour, enduring wealth and prosperity. Once again, these are not earthly riches but true riches and wealth coming from God’s wisdom.

Third, ‘fruit’ is also a sign that identifies, distinguishes or marks something out.   Jesus said: ‘By their fruit you will recognize them (Matthew 7 v 16). So ‘fruit’ is rather like an identity badge. The fruit of the Spirit is evidence and expression of the nature of Christ in a person, of their standing in Grace.

The tree of life

The ‘tree of life’ became a common poetic simile representing something that was a source of great blessing. In the Book of Proverbs, the conception of the tree of life deepens and extends from a literal source of physical immortality to also include a moral and spiritual source that leads to a full mental, moral and spiritual life. Wisdom is a source of life – an essentially moral quality that brings the whole person into a right relation with the Source of life. Hence, a person truly lives because of this relationship: ‘Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honour. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed. By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew. My son, do not let wisdom and understanding out of your sight, preserve sound judgment and discretion; they will be life for you, an ornament to grace your neck. Then you will go on your way in safety, and your foot will not stumble’ (Proverbs 3 v 13 – 23). There is a similar phrase in Proverbs 10 v 11, where the mouth of the righteous is declared to be a fountain of life. Good words are a power for good and hence they produce good living. A similar theme is found elsewhere: ‘The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life’ (Proverbs 11 v 30), that is – a righteous life is a source of good in its influence on others. Elsewhere the bible says: ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life’ (Proverbs 13 v 12) – the meaning seems to be that the gratification of good and lawful desires produces those pleasures and activities which make up life and its blessings. Finally, Proverbs records: ‘The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit’ (Proverbs 15 v 4) – the helpful influences of a soothing tongue help others to a better life. In these references the tree of life symbolises that which brings joy and healing to people. This was what the original, real tree of life in the Garden of Eden symbolised. It was a real material object, but it also stood for the blessing of eternal life that God would continue to give to Adam and Eve and their descendants if they passed the test of obedience: they were permitted to eat the fruit of any tree in the Garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – on pain of death.

The Book of Revelation also refers to the tree of life in four places: ‘To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God’ (Revelation 2 v 7) – all the possibilities of a complete and glorious life are open to the person that successfully overcomes, such that they become immortal in a vastly higher sense than was possible to our first parents in the Garden. Again, Revelation records: ‘The angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him’ (Revelation 22 v 1 – 3). The leaves are a source of healing, almost certainly to those who are outside of the New Jerusalem. It’s fruit seems to be supplied freely to the redeemed, that they may enjoy the highest possibilities of activity and blessedness that comes to those who are in a restored, reconciled relationship with God and Jesus Christ. Once again Revelation declares: ‘Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs’ (Revelation 22 v 14) – a blessing is pronounced on those who wash their robes – on the redeemed – because they have the right and privilege of entering into the gates of the New Jerusalem and they have access to the tree of life. This means immortal existence and access to all that is good in the kingdom of God. Finally Revelation declares: ‘I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll’ (Revelation 22 v 18, 19). All these passages in Revelation portray the glorious possibilities of life that await the redeemed in the New Jerusalem.

Ezekiel also pictures the New Jerusalem, where, flowing from the sanctuary of God there is a life-giving river that has trees on either side of its banks, yielding fruit every month. The leaf of this tree will not wither, nor its fruit fail, because that which gives moisture to its roots flows from the sanctuary. This fruit is for food and the leaves for healing (Ezekiel 47 v 12).

The cross is also spoken of as a ‘tree’ (Acts 5 v 30; 10 v 39; 13 v 29; 1 Peter 2 v 24). Deuteronomy 21 v 23 declares that ‘anyone who is hung on a pole [or tree] is under God’s curse’. Quoting this verse, the apostle Paul explains that Christ bore that curse, ‘becoming a curse for us’ (Galatians 3 v 13).

This poetic symbolism does not negate the fact that the tree of life was a real tree. God’s creation of the tree of life involved two ‘good’ aspects: Firstly, it was pleasant to the eyes – it was beautiful to look at. Secondly, it bore fruit that was good for food. Eating the fruit of the tree of life provided conditional immortality for Adam and Eve and access to this fruit was maintained through continued obedience to God. As long as Adam and Eve were obedient and did not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then they had access to the tree of life. By contrast, the tree of knowledge of good and evil was good only for its beauty and not for its use as food: ‘the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2 v 16, 17). But Eve confused and merged God’s order: ‘When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it’ (Genesis 3 v 6). She confused beauty and desirability with food that was good to eat. Then, she further compounded the order of creation in which the husband is head of his wife. Instead, she took the lead, ate the fruit first and then offered the fruit to her man such that he ate it also.

Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil

The tree of life was distinct from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Both trees are also mentioned in The Book of Enoch, a text sacred to Coptic Christians. Chapter 31 records: ‘The tree of knowledge also was there, of which if any one eats, he becomes endowed with great wisdom. It was like a species of the tamarind tree, bearing fruit that resembled extremely fine grapes; and its fragrance extended a considerable distance. I exclaimed: How beautiful is this tree and how delightful is its appearance! Then holy Raphael, an angel who was with me, answered and said: This is the tree of knowledge, of which your ancient father and your aged mother ate, who were before you; who, on obtaining knowledge, had their eyes opened, and knew themselves to be naked, and were expelled from the garden’.

The phrase ‘good and evil’ is a figure of speech whereby a pair of opposites actually refer to something that is greater than the parts – as in the phrase ‘they searched high and low’, meaning that they searched everywhere. These figures of speech are called ‘merisms’ and they are a common feature of biblical language. In Genesis 1 the phrase ‘the heavens and the earth’ refers to God’s creation of the whole universe. Similarly, ‘male and female’ constitutes the whole of humanity. ‘Good and evil’ is also a merism. It means ‘any kind of moral quality’ or ‘every moral quality’. The knowledge of good and evil is a Hebrew way of saying ‘the whole scope of moral knowledge; knowledge of all dimensions of morality’. In other words, this is not just ‘head knowledge’ – it is not merely an academic, theoretical, philosophical or doctrinal knowledge of moral categories and distinctions. This knowledge is experiential. It is knowledge of all moral dimensions gained through experience. And this is what God does not want Adam and Eve to know.

Satan slanders God

Satan the Accuser said to Eve: “You will not certainly die, because God knows that when you eat from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3 v 4, 5). The phrase ‘your eyes will be opened’ signifies knowing from an interior or inner principle, insight or experience. This is evident from similar expressions in the bible. Balaam, as a result of having visions, called himself the ‘man whose eyes are opened’ (Numbers 24 v 3). ‘Eyes’ are often used to denote our understanding: David said: ‘Lighten my eyes, in case I sleep the sleep of death (Psalm 13 v 3). Ezekiel, speaking of those who are not willing to understand, said that they ‘have eyes to see, and see not’ (Ezekiel 12 v 2). So the ‘opening of the eyes’ signifies a new, deeper understanding and insight that is gained from experience. The disciples were walking with Jesus but did not recognize him – ‘Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him’ (Luke 24 v 31). Of the Jews and their relationship to Jesus, Paul says: “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day” (Romans 11 v 8). Regarding Christians, Paul says: ‘I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe’ (Ephesians 1 v 18, 19).

Eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil

So Eve and her husband ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil: ‘Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (Genesis 3 7 – 10). We can note the immediate effects of gaining experiential insightful knowledge of the full range of moral dimensions. Before they ate, ‘Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame’ (Genesis 2 v 25). But now:

Their eyes are opened – they gain insight from experience

They have realization – of their nakedness

They become secretive – they hide from God

They feel fear

Previously they were not ashamed even though they were naked and this signifies their innocence, but through this experiential knowledge as a result of eating this fruit their innocence is lost, nakedness becomes a scandal and a disgrace. In the bible, the feeling of shame is normally caused by public exposure of one’s guilt. Nakedness is used in the bible as a picture of disgrace, guilt and vulnerability: ‘I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see’ (Revelation 3 v 18). And again: “Look, I come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully exposed” (Revelation 16 v15). To be ‘naked’ is to be on one’s own, to be left to one’s own strength and power, to be ‘naked’ when it comes to truth and goodness and godliness. To be naked is to be vulnerable to the wrath of God.

And God does indeed issue condemnation of Adam and Eve. We are interested in the theme of the two trees here, so I will move to the conclusion of God’s condemnation: ‘The Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil’ (Genesis 3 v 22). This is an interesting verse and so I will spend a little time exploring it. I said earlier that by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve did not gain a mere theoretical knowledge, but that rather they gained an experiential knowledge of the whole range of moral dimensions. What do I mean by this? Immediately following their creation, Adam and Eve only knew happiness and goodness. God had given them all that they needed – he had located them in a beautiful garden and placed only one restriction on them: Don’t eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They only knew good in their experience, but eating from the fruit of this tree would provide experiential knowledge of the whole range of morality – good and evil. If they ate of the fruit of this tree, they would have a more complete, fuller, experiential knowledge because their experience would be extended to an experience of evil and the insight and understanding that such experience would give them. In other words they have experiential knowledge of deviating from God’s instruction, of experiencing the activity of doing something that is contrary to the character and purpose of God. Evil is also closely associated with misery and suffering. The Hebrew word for evil that is used in the tree’s description – ra‘ – has the sense of misery, woe, grief, or harm. We have seen that Adam and Eve immediately felt self-conscious, vulnerable and ashamed at their nakedness such that they hid from God because they were afraid. This is what the ‘opening of their eyes’ really means. From this root the tree of the knowledge of good and evil branches out into all of humanity producing the fruit, the outcome, of a physical nature that has desires and passions that lead to disobedience and ungodliness – a physical nature that is inherited and passed on from generation to generation, producing more fruit – more outcomes of ungodliness.

God says that the consequence of this initial act of disobedience was that “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil’. We can note here that the reference is not just to God – Adam and Eve have not become like God – but rather, ‘like one of us’. The reference here I think is to those who dwell in the spiritual realm. We know that in the spiritual realm there are impure spirits and rebellious angels that are led by Satan, the Devil, the Accuser – and ‘the devil has been sinning from the beginning’ (1 John 3 v 8). In other words, within the spiritual realm, before the earth was created, there was experiential knowledge of good and evil. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they became like those in heaven who, as a whole group, also had this experiential knowledge.

Puritan Bible commentator Matthew Henry (1662-1714), suggested that the fruit itself may not have provided the knowledge of good and evil, but rather that it is their disobedience of God’s command that creates this experiential knowledge and the resultant condemnation by God to death. The tree itself did not have any quality within it to bring about or increase such knowledge. It was the disobedient act of eating the fruit from this tree that opened up a new, experiential awareness and insight in Adam and Eve. If this is the correct interpretation then the tree could have been any type of tree, known or unknown. This explanation gains further credibility in the way that the Genesis account describes these events. God did not say: “If you eat the fruit from this tree, it will kill you.” Rather, He said, “in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.” The death-knell was not in the fruit itself, but in the act of disobeying God and the consequences from God of that disobedience.

What God did not want was for humankind to continue to live for all eternity now that it possessed this kind of experiential knowledge: ‘He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden such that he had to work the ground from which he had been taken. After God drove the man out, he placed cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth on the east side of the Garden of Eden in order to guard the way to the tree of life’ (Genesis 3 v 22 – 24). Eternal life was now no longer theirs – or ours.

Part of the human dilemma as a consequence of this fall from innocence is that we have enormous experiential knowledge of how to do bad things as well as how to do good things. The same knowledge that uses atomic energy for good makes weapons out of it.

But even in this passage in Genesis, there is God’s promise of a Deliverer and through Him, restored access to the Tree of life.



About Robert Laynton

Robert Laynton has a B.Sc.(Hons.) degree in psychology and was a member of the British Psychological Society, becoming a member of their Transpersonal Psychology Division and a contributor to their Journal, 'The Transpersonal Review'. He also gained a Post Graduate Certificate and Diploma in counselling. He likes photography, walking, jazz, reading American Crime Fiction from the 40's, 50's and 60's and enjoys watching older films, especially film noir. He lives in England.
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