Tree of Knowledge

Usually when I read a book, an article, or a blog my aim is to understand the overarching theme or message.  I hope that I can obtain a balcony perspective that will encapsulate the writer’s vision or goal.  When I read and re-read the early chapters of Genesis this is the balcony perspective that I come away with – God’s original hope, God’s original desire for humanity was a relationship built upon trust.  And not just an attitude of trust, but a living expression of it.  Trust that God created us for meaningful work, that God permitted us to thrive in the fullness of His good creation and especially the garden, and trust that God meant what God said when he established the one boundary for humans to keep.

During the creation story we discover that God is the creative force and that over 6 undefinable “days” all that is came into existence.  Humanity, according to the Genesis author, was the pinnacle of God’s good creation.  But God wasn’t done yet – God decided to plant a garden in Eden and to move humanity there establishing for them meaningful work (vocation), empowering them to thrive in the fullness of God’s good creation (permit), and establishing one boundary (prohibition) – “do not touch or eat of the tree in the center of the garden, the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”  The consequences of this was:

1) something productive for humanity to invest themselves in – cultivating and tending the garden – because God did not create us to be slothful, leisurely people.  God created us to be co-creators; for our ingenuity and natural inquisitiveness to thrive and produce.

2) dwelling in the garden together, our original human parents also dwelt with God.  They were not only nourished by the garden physically, they were nourished spiritually because of God’s presence.

3) humans had only one boundary to keep – one tree to stay away from – a choice to reject the tree of knowledge and accept the benefits of God’s garden and presence.

Reading a variety of commentators and interpreters one noted that the tree of life and the tree of knowledge did not possess some kind of special essence or nature that would endow humanity with something that God had not already given them.  When God breathed into the man the breath of His life and created woman from the man that God had animated, humanity received at that moment all that God intended for them to know and possess.  The two trees therefore represented choice.  The tree of life represented choosing God, the garden, and the vision of God.  The tree of knowledge represented choosing something other than.

Dwelling in the garden was an exercise of trust that from an anthropological view provided vocation, permit, and prohibition – a framework of harmony and peace between divine and human, human to human, and human to creation.  But if you remove one of the three elements then harmony dissolves and the divine purpose for human life is perverted.  All of this relied upon Adam and Eve understanding that God’s one command (do not touch or eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil) was a serious one.  God meant what God said.  So what happened?

Let’s take a moment to look at the Genesis author’s story and note some things about it.  Almost all of us have heard some version of the serpent in the garden story.  The author describes a moment (we don’t know exactly when) where the crafty serpent started a conversation with Eve.  The NRSV records the serpent’s first words as “Indeed, had God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”  The serpent asked if God’s prohibition extended to all of the trees of the garden, not one in particular.  The question tested Eve’s understanding of God’s command and she demonstrated it with her reply:  “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.”  The serpent retorts with an interpretation of God’s command that evidently the woman (and the man) had not thought of themselves.  “You surely will not die!  For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  As several theologians point out this is the moment that the woman and shortly there after the man distrusts what God has said and thus disobeys what God commanded.  Here are some things to also consider:

1)  Was the serpent really Satan?  Walter Bruggemann’s commentary on Genesis for the Interpretation series notes:  “the serpent has been excessively interpreted.  Whatever the serpent may have meant in earlier versions of the story, in the present narrative it has no independent significance.  It serves as a literary device to move the plot along.”  In other words, the serpent is a benign figure without malice or evil – it is simply a fourth party in the conversation.  As much as we try to interpret the serpent as Satan and as the source of evil, this cannot be confidently interpreted when reading the Genesis text – what we can say is that the serpent is a conversation partner that generates and leads its subject(s) to distrust God.

2)  The Hebrew word for “you” is not the singular form but rather the plural form.  According to the Genesis author God gave the prohibition to the man; woman had not yet been created.  The text does not say that God later instructed the woman regarding the prohibition but she is aware of it; it is assumed that Adam was the conveyor of the information and Eve heard the prohibition secondhand.  And based upon the plural form of “you” in the Hebrew text it is reasonable to conclude that the serpent was carrying on a conversation with Eve while Adam was present.  Thus Adam could have chimed in at any time, but he didn’t.

3)  This is the first theological conversation in the Holy Bible.  Eve repeated what she understood to be the prohibition of God – “do not eat or touch, or you will die.”  The serpent simply re-framed the meaning of God’s prohibition from the consequences to humanity to the consequences God would experience.  Now instead of it being a command that God gave to Adam and subsequently to Eve, the serpent has led Eve (and Adam) to see it as an option.  What makes the conversation a theological one is that it is not speech to God or with God; it is conversation about God.  God has now been objectified just like the fruit.

The result of the conversation was that Eve was convinced that it was okay to take the fruit and eat of it – she does and Adam willingly and without question follows her lead, takes a bite of the fruit, and their eyes were opened to the first experience of distrust and disobedience.

Centuries ago Saint Augustine penned these words:  “O greedy men, what will satisfy you if God himself will not?”

Because Adam and Eve distrusted and disobeyed God, sin and death entered into God’s good creation and with it perversion of God’s intentions:

– the prohibition is violated

– permission is perverted

– vocation is neglected

And as Charles Sherlock noted in his book titled The Doctrine of Humanity our relationship with God is now “corrupted from freedom to estrangement.”  And this estrangement continues.

One of my favorite modern theologians is Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr.  He wrote a book titled Christian Doctrines in which he noted that “Evil comes into our lives and in the world around us because we freely choose evil rather than good.”

This continuation of estrangement, sin, and evil has been described in a variety of ways but it all goes back to thoughts, interpretations, and understanding regarding what is called “original sin.”

The original sin is understood to be the first act of distrust and disobedience by Adam and Eve that brought sin, evil, and death into the realm of God’s good creation.  But it is also understood that each of us are under the power of original sin.  How this is manifest is a matter of interpretation.  There are at least 4 that I have come across and read about:

1)  Soul corruption – we are all part of one collective soul and when Eve and Adam distrusted and disobeyed God, we all inherited in our souls the nature to distrust and disobey.

2) Genetic – the broken nature to distrust and disobey is actually passed on in the procreation process – it is embedded in our DNA and genetically transmitted through the seed of the man that penetrates and impregnates the woman’s egg.  At conception, the nature to sin is passed on.

3) Relational – Eve is interpreted as the original temptress and Adam was sexually seduced into distrust and disobedience.  Early theologians linked this interpretation with sexual activity and thus sex was considered immoral beyond the act of procreation – sex was not something to be enjoyed as a good gift between consenting adult partners; sin was propagated through evil sexual attraction between men and women, even ones who were married.

4) Brokenness – Adam and Eve’s sin of distrust and disobedience resulted in brokenness; our relationship with the divine, each other, and the created order is a distortion of God’s original design.  And because we continue to live in an attitude of distrust and actions of disobedience, we perpetuate sin, evil, and death – brokenness.

Guthrie promotes the fourth interpretation.  Sin, evil, and death “…comes from the rebellious, hostile, destructive thoughts, attitudes, and desires that are in our hearts before we choose – before we act…the problem of evil is precisely where these thoughts, attitudes, and desires come from that enslave our wills.”  Distrust of God and disobedience begins as an attitude that is manifested into an action and we are slaves to this perpetual cycle of sin that will result in death.

So what did we gain by eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil?

tree of knowledge  (image courtesy of gnosticwarrior.com)

We think that we gained freedom.  We think that we gained the freedom to trust ourselves more than we trust the wisdom and knowledge of anyone who would be an authority figure over us.  We gained the freedom to question, doubt, distrust, and determine for ourselves.  We think we are free to choose our own course for our lives.  We are free to decide our relationships and we are free to decide what is good or bad for us.  We gained the freedom to exercise our will.  But did we really gain freedom?

Guthrie notes that “the notion of free will is…somewhat misleading; will is an essential aspect of being human, yet the will is not free but enslaved.”  What we got is slavery!  The prohibition of God that would have granted us freedom to follow God with our entire being has been traded for slavery to sin and death.  We are not free to pursue pleasures, material possessions, power and prominence – we are slaves to our appetites that feed our distrustful attitude.  We traded our freedom to live in harmony with God, each other, and creation for the freedom to pursue things that will not satisfy.  The result is continued estrangement from God, each other, and creation.  Estrangement isn’t freedom – it is our slavery.  This is what will ensure that evil and death continues to thrive in our world today – the attitude that we know better than God does.

So is there any hope?  Knowing that we can’t jump into Mr. Peabody’s way back machine so that we can go back and swat the fruit out of the hands of Eve and Adam, is there any hope for us?

A final word from Guthrie can lead us to a life of hope in action.  “We may be free to choose to be moral or immoral, be law-abiding or lawless, go to church or stay home, do all kinds of ‘good works’ or not.  But the good God requires of us and wills for us is more than just morality, piety and good deeds.  We must [choose] to love, trust, and obey God with glad thanksgiving in all we do.  We [must choose] to love and help, and let ourselves be loved and helped, by other people.”

I think that hope is a daily choice:

1) to let our words be the words of Jesus – to speak words of life and forgiveness to people who are desperate for grace in a harsh world

2) to let our actions be the action of Jesus who said “I have commanded that you should love one another.”  This is manifested in our care for our neighbors around us and our neighbor in the pews.

So who do you trust more?  God or yourself?  The new life that God desires for us to have in Jesus Christ is first built upon trust – not in ourselves, but in the redeeming work of God through Jesus that is for us.  And second through obedience – to be missional in caring for people in our worship community, in our neighborhoods, and the world beyond.

God still desires for us to have meaningful work for His kingdom.  God still desires that we thrive in the fullness of his good creation.  And God still desires that we trust that God knows best by choosing to respect his law, his boundaries.

So let’s shed our slavery to our distrustful attitude and our disobedience; let’s gain the freedom to do God’s good work, to live in harmony with each other and creation, and to obey God’s life-giving commands.  I think this is better than the alternative!

Blessings for the journey.

About Jim Hoffman

Pastor, teacher, leader, novice blogger, wanna be author and Christian conversationalist. Passionate about environmental architecture - creating spaces where people can foster new or growing relationships with each other and God. Currently leads a faith community on Ward Parkway in Kansas City and happily married to Margaret. Blessed with four adult children and two grandsons.
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