Before I get started on this, I think I should make it clear that what follows is neither a literal interpretation nor a historical contextual interpretation. Rather, it is a possible modern spiritual interpretation. In other words, I am more concerned with expressing a known truth through a familiar story rather than extracting truth from an ancient document. This is, in a sense, the pouring of a matured understanding of the nature of the natural world and the mind into scriptures of an earlier time and filling it full of new meaning to make it relevant to a new era. This is a style of interpretation that first centenary Jews called the fulfilment of scripture. This writing style can be observed in abundance within the Book of Matthew, where the author uses the term “as it is written” to denote that he is about to fulfil a scripture from what we call the Old Testament with an aspect of the story of Jesus’ life. It is important to note that this fulfilment in no way implies that the original scripture writer had somehow predicted these future events like some carnival fortune teller; rather it is an expression of how these sacred texts continue to be relevant to the modern reader.
The LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. … And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:8-9 & 16-17 KJV)
There are two important trees in this garden. They are called “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and “the tree of life”. The name of the first is sometimes abbreviated but I think it is important to consider its name in full in order to know what it truly represents. Quite simply, it is a tree. Trees do not contain knowledge so it is also a metaphor. A tree is a living organism which grows, thus we can see that the knowledge of good and evil is a living and growing thing within us as individuals as a microcosm and within humanity as a whole.
Knowledge of Good and Evil
Now, in regard to a discussion about the knowledge of good and evil it is important to define what exactly we mean by good and evil. Most people would agree that a dingo that eats a human baby is not evil, though its actions may cause a great deal of suffering. Conversely, if the baby was eaten by a human adult we might then call the action evil. This suggests that evil (and therefore good also) must be performed by beings who are conscious of a degree of right and wrong in order to make a moral choice in order to be considered good or evil. The family dog that has an idea of how its human pack operates who eats a human baby may be judged more harshly than the dingo, for while the two are genetically the same species, the dog has a limited understanding that eating its master’s offspring would be a bad thing. We may hold the dog as perpetrating some level of evil, though not as much as the baby eating human.
So a wild animal (while probably holding some understanding of proper pack behaviour) can be considered essentially amoral in all of its dealings with humans. A domestic animal with limited capacity for understanding the rules of human society can be considered to be a good dog when it brings you your slippers and a bad dog when it eats them. A primate could be held morally accountable to some degree if its shrewdness has taught it the basic value of ape life, as it should have the cognitive ability to recognise a human child as similar to itself, non-threatening and non-food. Even amongst humans the level of moral cognisance is taken into consideration for moral judgement. A baby is not judged harshly for being utterly egotistical and inconsiderate of the needs of others. An adult human who cries and screams to get what they want isn’t treated with the same sympathy.
Thus, we can conclude that our capacity for good and evil acts is directly proportional to our level of knowledge of good and evil as concepts. The size of the tree dictates the size of the fruit.
Do Not Eat It
This brings me to my next point. The tree itself is fully good because God made no bad things. There is nothing inherently evil about knowledge, even the knowledge of good and evil. The thing that causes death is eating the fruit.
In Matthew 7:16, Jesus says “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?” (see fig vi in previous article)
He’s a clever man that Jesus. Of course, he is speaking of fruit metaphorically here. Fruit is the natural product that comes naturally from a thing. In the case of a grape vine the fruit is grapes. In the case of working in the field, the fruit of your labour is the harvest. In the case of knowledge of good and evil, the fruit is a judgement of things as either good or evil.
When you eat something, it becomes a part of you. When you eat grapes for example, your digestive system breaks down the flesh of the grape and extracts nutrients which it then feeds into your bloodstream to either fuel or build into your body. It becomes a part of you. When you eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, judgement of things as either good or evil becomes a part of you.
Let me reiterate, eating the fruit does not produce the ability to do wrong. Eve was perfectly capable of telling a lie while talking to the serpent before eating the fruit.
God says: “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”
Eve says: “God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’”
The consequence of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is dualism.
Or You Will Die
So what is death? Well that’s quite simple isn’t it? It is the absence of life where once there was life right? Of course, you first need a basis of dualism to come up with that definition.
What is death to a dog? Easy! That is the process by which something else goes from being a moving thing to being a food thing. Death is great! What does a dog know of its own death? Absolutely nothing. It may briefly have the sensation of intense discomfort but by the time death is a reality, the dog is no longer able to experience anything. Hence, as far as the dog is concerned, its own death does not exist.
A young child has a similar perspective of death as a dog has. In order to come to a position of knowledge that they “will surely die”, the child requires the experience of encountering the concept, either through the death of another or through an explanation from somebody who already understands the concept. Coupled with a bit of imagination the child can quickly imagine the idea and uncertainty of death. Add a health does of egotism and dualism and they will quickly decide that their death would be a bad thing and something they would like to avoid.
Humans have been trying to find ways to escape their own personal death for as long as they’ve known about it. In the absence of longevity technologies and cryogenics, the most obvious solution has been the concept of an afterlife. This fear and avoidance of death is the basis for religion which will often associate desired behaviour with favourable afterlife outcomes.
Dualism also leads to tribalism. When to groups with conflicting religious beliefs meet, the initial innocent response is a gradual merging of the beliefs. This will then often result in a fear reaction from some members of a community out of a dualist thinking that the beliefs should be kept separate or untainted. Fear leads to fundamentalism and the enforcing of boundaries of what constitutes acceptable beliefs and behaviour for members of that group. Anything outside of that becomes evil and results in either punishment or ostracism.
As a consequence of humanity’s consumption of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we now live in a world of fear and hatred of the other and a glorification of the self and the similar. Even the so called liberal theologian suffers from the dualistic tendency to demonise the fundamentalist. Wars are fought in every nation, often most viciously between the beliefs that are most similar, by those defending the boundaries of the like against the invasion of the other. Christians accost grieving parents with “God hates Fags” placards outside children’s funerals. Suicide bombers detonate themselves in Israel’s cultural centres. Muslims battle Muslims across the Middle East and Africa. The Buddhist government persecutes Buddhist monks Burma. There is still massive fighting in the Congo between various Christian military groups. France is moving to ban face veils in a move to further alienate a people group. Australia is happy to have 200,000 predominantly white immigrants each year from developed nations but 800 Arabs begging refugee status from war torn countries are imprisoned with minimum sentences before processing can even begin.
One of the definitive attributes of God is holiness. The Hebrew word for holiness is qadosh which literally means “to be set apart”. God is therefore definitively Other. Hatred of the other is hatred of God. The “Golden Rule” found at the heart of every world religion of doing for others as you would want them to do for you has been rejected by the vast majority of humanity in favour of tribalism, forcing people to conform to our views or be rejected as infidels. Treating the other as the enemy, we have set ourselves in enmity with the Other.
Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40 Message)
All is not lost fortunately. Remember that the garden contains two
metaphor trees. If the first one was growing inside of us then the second one must also be there. This tree is called the tree of life.
“…he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22b)
So just as eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil took our society from childish innocence and brought us into this current state of adolescent rebellion and egotism, there is a tree of life growing within us still. Within this is the hope that someday we will grow out of this immature bickering and will, collectively, grow up.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up my childish ways. (1 Corinthians 13:11)
Now the idea of spiritual maturity (which I will go into more detail on in a later post) is not something which can be forced upon a person. It is something that comes naturally when people have time to reflect and pray, the freedom to explore varied beliefs and alternative perspectives, and the security of having basic necessities of food and shelter.
Spiritual development cannot be forced, but it can be inspired. If, after reading this article, you feel that you can feel that tree of life deep within you and want to nourish it to grow you into a spiritual adult (thank you I see that hand), the process is something I cannot teach you. A can however give you advice. Learn about other faiths than your own from a perspective of trying to understand how other people think rather than to try to beat them or convert them to your worldview. Put yourself in their shoes and see what it is like to walk like they do. Question your own assumptions.
If you feel you would like to help bring spiritual maturity to the world as a whole, which is a commendable goal, I can offer some simple advice. While people are fearful, insecure and feeling marginalised they will dig themselves deeper into adolescent thinking. So where possible, support movements which aim to bring people out of poverty and counter oppression, particularly religious oppression. Meet people’s physical and emotional needs first, then give them the tools to develop their own spiritual identity within whatever system of beliefs they identify with. Practice agape, disinterested love; which gives of itself without expecting anything in return.
And as a wise Hindu once said: Be the change you wish to see in the world.