The Genesis story of Adam and Eve is perhaps one of the best known Old Testament tales but for all its familiarity I wonder how often we pause to think beyond its superficial meanings and dig a little deeper into the soil of this garden. Here I share some of my attempts to do so, although I am certain there are many more layers I have not yet overturned.
In the beginning there is a garden. It is, or at least appears to be, a perfect haven of peace and security. Adam and Eve, humanity, are given the run of the garden; forbidden only from eating the fruit from one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So if the garden represents the totality of creation, why this one forbidden fruit?
I imagine many explanations have been offered for the reason God forbade access to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The biblical text itself offers two, one given by God (“you are doomed to die”) and a second by the snake (“your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods”). Just as I am sure many have done before me, I am going to hazard my own explanation for this prohibition.
The suggestion is that the trees in the garden have been planted by God: the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the fruit of a tree planted and nurtured by God. Perhaps the reason God does not want humanity to eat fruit from this tree is because it is meaningless knowledge: however delicious and beautiful it may look, you cannot be fed and nourished by the fruit of the tree of someone else’s knowledge of good and evil. God forbids access to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because he wants humanity to grow its own trees of the knowledge of good and evil. He does not want us to receive a set of truths, but to grow our own. The knowledge of good and evil, morality, is not an external set of rules, but something each of us must plant, grow and nurture for ourselves.
Maybe God, as parent, as teacher, knows that you cannot feed others from the fruit of your own tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Better, you must give them the tools and the seeds to grow their own tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And what are the tools we need to grow our trees of the knowledge of good and evil? Maybe there are indications in the genesis story that God also gives these tools to humanity.
Adam, humanity, is instructed to “cultivate and take care of” the garden. The Garden of Eden is not a readymade reality, but a place in which humanity is invited to be a co-creator. It is something which is incomplete and open to acts of creativity. Adam is also instructed to name the animals and “each one would bear the name the man gave it.” Names are significant. They are bearers of identity. This is not just about convenient scientific categorisation; the act of naming is a creative act. We are called to be creative.
Adam is given a companion because “it is not right that man should be alone”. From the beginning, the need for collective experience is recognised. Growing and creating are acts we do best with others. We are not meant to exist in isolation, nor will our trees grow best when they are grown out of selfishness or self-interest. We are called to be community.
With the exception of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humanity is “free to eat of all the trees in the garden.” These may be apples and bananas, but if the two named trees are knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life, we might imagine that the other trees also have symbolic fruits: and humanity is invited, even encouraged to explore and discover for themselves. We are called to be free.
Perhaps the prohibition to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is in itself also one of the tools we need. When we have planted our tree of the knowledge of good and evil and tasted its fruit, our pride in our creation, along with a genuine desire to share something which, to us, is truly beautiful, tempts us to feed our own fruit to others. What God knew, and we too often forget, is that our fruit, acquired through our experience, if we present it as what the fruit of such a tree should be, beautiful though it is to us, risks limiting another’s potential to grow their own tree, of which the fruit may be very different. We are called to be unique.
Growing our own trees of the knowledge of good and evil will take time, the fruit needs to ripen and mature, and, the chances are, even as it does so, it will be blemished and imperfect, but in spite of the imperfections it will be our fruit. It will be the fruit that will nourish us and the fruit that will be beautiful.
These are lessons that any of us who are educators could probably learn from. They are lessons that we, as individuals on a life-long journey of learning, need to recall.
Did God then, as the snake suggests, lie to Adam when he told him that in eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he was “doomed to die”, or did he threaten a punishment which, in the event, he didn’t carry out, or is there another explanation for these words?
I believe in a God of Love, and love is not violent and does not threaten; plus I feel truth is probably inherent to the nature of God, so I felt the need to seek a different possible explanation, which is this: perhaps God was stating a reality. Although eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil did not bring about Adam and Eve’s physical death, perhaps it prevented them from experiencing life in all its fullness.
In eating of someone else’s tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we admit our willingness to accept pre-determined realities and perhaps our willingness to accept someone else’s truths prevents us from discovering the world anew with eyes truly open, allowing us to explore and to create new realities, a newness inherent in having life in all its fullness.
In eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we are tempted by acquiring something without the effort of producing it, eating of the fruit without being part of the creative and potentially often arduous task of growing it, an active participation inherent in having life in all its fullness.
In eating of the readymade tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we seek to possess what we do not have, rather than to create using what we do have. We stop using the seeds and tools we were given to grow our own trees. We deny our unique individuality and freedom to be someone different, but at the same time individualistic self-fulfilment becomes more important than creative community. And perhaps that is why every time we eat of someone else’s tree of the knowledge of good and evil, something inside us dies and we fail to live life in all its fullness.
Perhaps we need to start planting.