June 13, 2021
I've always wondered about the story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and, more specifically, the nature of the tree itself.
Just in case you're not familiar with this tree, a quick explanation may enlighten you as to why I'm quite curious about it.
The first time I encountered this tree was when I was a young boy, reading the book of Genesis in the Bible, specifically chapters 2 and 3. The story goes like this, pretty much verbatim:
“This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made them. Now no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth, nor had any plant of the field sprouted; for the Lord God had not yet sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground. But springs welled up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground.
Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, where He placed the man He had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God gave growth to every tree that is pleasing to the eye and good for food. And in the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
…Then the Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it. And the Lord God commanded him, “You may eat freely from every tree of the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.”
Later, after God created a woman to be a suitable helper for the man Adam, the story continues:
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field that the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’ ” The woman answered the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden, 3but about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You must not eat of it or touch it, or you will die.’ ”
“You will not surely die,” the serpent told her. “For God knows that in the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and that it was desirable for obtaining wisdom, she took the fruit and ate it. She also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate it. And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed together fig leaves and made coverings for themselves.
Then the man and his wife heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the breeze of the day, and they hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called out to the man, “Where are you?”
“I heard Your voice in the garden,” he replied, “and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.”
“Who told you that you were naked?” asked the Lord God. “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
And the man answered, “The woman whom You gave me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
“The serpent deceived me,” she replied, “and I ate.”
So the Lord God said to the serpent:
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and every beast of the field!
On your belly will you go,
and dust you will eat,
all the days of your life.
And I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your seed and her seed.
He will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
To the woman He said:
“I will sharply increase your pain in childbirth;
in pain you will bring forth children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”
And to Adam He said:
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten from the tree
of which I commanded you not to eat,
cursed is the ground because of you;
through toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it will yield for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your bread,
until you return to the ground—
because out of it were you taken.
For dust you are,
and to dust you shall return.”
And Adam named his wife Eve, because she would be the mother of all the living. And the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and He clothed them. Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil. And now, lest he reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever…”
Therefore the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. So He drove out the man and stationed cherubim on the east side of the Garden of Eden, along with a whirling sword of flame to guard the way to the tree of life.”
Now what's interesting is that there are plenty of ideas floating around out there, especially in theological circles, about the mystery of what exactly this tree was and why God put it there in the first place. Why is this important? Frankly, what you're about to read will, I think, serve you quite well when it comes to resisting temptations and desires, along with more of the temperancy I wrote about a few weeks ago.
What Was The Tree Of The Knowledge Of Good And Evil?
As you may have noticed, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is actually one of two specific trees in the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2-3 above, along with the tree of life.
In Jewish tradition, this tree, and the eating of its fruit, represents the beginning of the mixture of good and evil together. Before that breaking of God's law, the two were separate, and evil had only a nebulous potential existence, and it was not in human nature to desire it. Eating the forbidden fruit changed this, and thus was born what is called in Hebrew the yetzer hara, or the “evil inclination.”
From a Christian perspective, church father and theologian Augustine of Hippo taught that the tree should be understood both symbolically and as a real tree, and that the fruits of that tree were not inherently evil, because everything that God created “was good” (more on that in Genesis 1:12—and also my “Father's World” and “Honey” articles. Rather, it was the disobedience of Adam and Eve that caused disorder in God's creation, and that all humankind inherited sin from Adam and Eve's original sin.
The tree appears in Islam religion too. The Quran never refers to the tree as the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” but rather as “the tree” or as the “tree of immortality.” Muslims believe that when God created Adam and Eve, he told them that they could enjoy everything in the garden except this tree, but forbade them to eat from the tree so that they would not become angels or immortal (the Quran also mentions the sin as being a “slip,” and that consequently, Adam and Eve repented to God and were forgiven).
As far as the identity of the actual “forbidden fruit” on the tree, of course, in most Western cultures and art, the fruit is often depicted as an apple (quite possibly because of a misunderstanding of two unrelated words mălum, a native Latin noun which means “evil,” and mālum, another Latin noun, borrowed from Greek μῆλον, which means “apple”). Interestingly the larynx (the large prominence that joins the thyroid cartilage in the human throat) is noticeably more prominent in males and is often called an Adam's apple, derived from a notion that it was caused by the forbidden fruit getting stuck in Adam's throat as he swallowed it.
But other proposed possibilities include grape, pomegranate, fig, carob, etrog or citron, banana, pear, and even magic mushrooms. For example, the non-canonical Book of Enoch describes the tree as “like a species of the Tamarind tree, bearing fruit which resembled grapes extremely fine; and its fragrance extended to a considerable distance. I exclaimed, How beautiful is this tree, and how delightful is its appearance!” (1 Enoch 31:4). In Islamic tradition, the fruit is usually either identified with wheat or with grapevine.
And yes, I even said “magic mushrooms.” For example, one fresco in the 13th-century Plaincourault Abbey in France depicts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, flanking a tree that has the appearance of a gigantic Amanita muscaria, a commonly known psychoactive mushroom (it's the spotted red-and-white one that looks like the Mario Mushroom). Plant medicine enthusiast and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna (brother of my former podcast guest Dennis McKenna) proposed that the forbidden fruit is a reference to psychotropic plants and fungi, specifically psilocybin mushrooms, which he theorizes played a central role in the evolution of the human brain (it's actually not uncommon to encounter theories about so-called “psychedelic medicines” in the Bible, none of which I think are relevant to our salvation or particularly important in the scheme of things).
But my own personal conundrum with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil isn't so much curiosity about what kind of tree it was or what kind of forbidden fruit it produced, and more a matter of wondering why God planted it there in the first place. After all, wouldn't everything had been just perfect without it?
So Why Did God Create The Tree Of The Knowledge Of Good And Evil?
There are many theories about why God may have originally created the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
But I think the most compelling notion is that the tree really wasn't there to “test” or “tempt” Adam and Eve to see if they would obey or disobey. Rather it was there to provide an opportunity to either delight only in God and the true life He gives, or to take an alternative path to satisfaction. By refusing to eat of the fruit, Adam and Eve would have affirmed the totality of their satisfaction as being fully rooted in God. In other words, God is enough. In Him, Adam, Eve, you and I can discover the fullness of life.
But if we do not live life through the lens that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him, and instead seek satisfaction in other “forbidden trees”—in lust, in pride and delights of the eyes and the flesh—we can show where our true desires lie, even if those temptations are not eternally satisfying. The Dutch philosopher Spinoza claimed that “desire is the very essence of a man.” This means that if you watch what a person desires, it can reveal their true character. And boy-oh-boy, from money to power to prestige to popularity to food to drugs and beyond, there are plenty of abusable and desire-satiating shiny pennies and forbidden fruits scattered throughout every day of each of our lives, aren't there (even including our precious, “noble and laudable” temptations like exercise, food, and self-care)? However, as I talk about here, no matter how impressive our attainments and no matter how good we eventually feel about ourselves and our accomplishments, these will never be enough.
It's not that desire is bad.
God made us to desire.
He made us to produce, to sense, and to feel pleasurable neurochemicals like dopamine and serotonin, which can seep into our brain and produce a temporarily satisfied, feel-good effect when we, say, bit into a fresh, luscious strawberry. He made us to delight, to love, and to savor His creation.
But it is when we seek to satisfy our desires apart from God—without acknowledgment of God, union with God, or a recognition of the healthy boundaries that God has set—that we experience a diminishing life based on the satisfactions of Las Vegas-esque worldly pleasures, rather than an ultimate, deeply satisfying life based upon an obedient relationship with God that is the only satisfaction which can fill the eternal hole—the God-shaped abyss—in our hearts.
God created us with a desire of such magnitude that it can only be fulfilled in Him. This was not meant to be a cruel, tortuous trick, making us yearn for what we can never find in earthly goods and experiences, but rather, an opportunity to look above the earth—to look to God for our ultimate fulfillment, satiation, and satisfaction. As seventeenth-century English clergyman Thomas Traherne said, “My desires are so august and insatiable that nothing less than a Deity can satisfy them.”
So that was likely one possible purpose of the existence of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: to point to the true object of our desires, and to give us the opportunity and free will to seek fulfillment in a life with God, immersed in His joy, His love, and His peace, instead of fulfillment in the things of earth. When we succumb to the temptation and take that same free will and seek satisfaction apart from God, the consequences are devastating. We experience death, not so much in the immediate physical sense of the word, but rather, death in the sense that we are cut off from experiencing the complete fullness of life we were intended and created to experience, a separation from the very source of life itself, our Creator, and a banishing from the life of a paradise in Eden. Arguably, this separation is even more painful than physical death, because, while still breathing, standing, and walking, we are severed from the joyful, satisfied life for which we were created in the first place. We become like the walking dead, pursuing our own shallow pleasures in exchange for an existence without God, which, as I write about here, is really just the definition of hell.
Furthermore, the tree also offered an opportunity to display haughty and selfish self-dependence vs. humble and trusting dependence upon God, and acceptance of all His good gifts, almost as if you were, as a child, gifted with a host of wonderfully wrapped presents on Christmas morning, but your parents commanded that only one of those gifts was to remain under the tree, unwrapped. In such a situation, you would have the choice to either savor all the amazing gifts you'd just received or sit like a sulking toddler staring at the one remaining gift under the tree, throwing a tantrum because you can't open it, then eventually sneaking in and opening it anyways when nobody is watching. See, in prohibiting the eating of one tree out of a countless number of other trees, plants, leaves, vines, shrubs, fruits, nuts, and seeds, God was essentially saying, as John Piper writes about here,
“I have given you life. I have given you a world full of pleasure, pleasures of taste and sight and sound and smell and feel and nourishment. Only one tree is forbidden to you. And the point of that prohibition is to preserve the pleasures of the world, because if you eat of that one you will be saying to me, ‘I’m smarter than you. I am more authoritative than you. I am wiser than you are. I think I can care for myself better than you care for me. You are not a very good Father. And so I am going to reject you.’ So don’t eat from the tree, because you will be rejecting me and all my good gifts and all my wisdom and all my care. Instead, keep on submitting to my will. Keep on affirming my wisdom. Keep on being thankful for my generosity. Keep on trusting me as a Father and keep on eating these trees as a way of enjoying me. There are 10,000 trees, every imaginable fruit. Just go eat. Be thankful. I have given them to you and see them as expressions of my goodness and savor them that way.”
So, despite all those “gifts under the Christmas tree,” so to speak, that God gave us in the very beginning, Satan comes along and says, “God isn't generous. Ignore all these other amazing gifts, because God is selfish, stingy, and a skinflint. See, He's obviously not giving you that one.” It's as though Satan portrayed the prohibition of one forbidden tree and treated it as a prohibition of everything in Eden, which of course really wasn't the case.
Instead, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a test for us, based on the free will that God gifted us with from the very beginning, to choose independence instead of God-dependence, and, as a result, to risk losing the pleasure of the entire garden and full union with God along with our choice to go it on our own and forsake supreme pleasure in God.
Finally, I'd be remiss not to give a head nod to one alternative, albeit much simpler suggestion for the existence of the tree: perhaps it really was just pure poison. No, really, perhaps the forbidden fruit did contain some kind of ancient variant of highly potent THC or psilocybin or DMT or some other mind-tweaking, brain-bending alkaloid or chemical that God knew would fry early human's neurochemical eggs to the extent to which they became incapable of savoring His creation or being in a state capable of fully honoring and worshipping Him, in the same way that God may also have warned against excess consumption of honey or trying to walk off the edge of a cliff and fly. He just knew that, although He made it for some purpose we just don't know about, it wasn't going to be a biologically beneficial thing to have as a staple in our diet.
In other words, maybe the tree and its fruit literally was poison—and although God had some good reason for creating it, such as some kind of built-in plant defense mechanism to keep a gorgeous sacred and ancient tree from getting consumed by birds and mammals or something like that—the Bible doesn't say exactly why it was there in the first place, but does indicate God was just giving a command rooted in “friendly gardener” advice. Maybe He knew that—very similar to the rampant effects excessive plant medicine and psychedelic compounds harvested from nature in modern-day times can potentially cause—the chemical soup such a plant might create in our brains could threaten to drive us away from Him and not closer to Him as we create some kind of God-like state within our own minds. Perhaps he didn't want Adam and Eve laying on their backs for three days drooling and staring off into space, or worse (for example, although I'm not against responsible uses of some plant medicines, I recently saw a video of a guy stumbling out of an Ayahuasca retreat, deciding he was “enlightened,” and proceeding to cut off his own genitals with a pocketknife). So in the same way God put THC in cannabis but warns us to “stay sober,” or put razor-like teeth in the mouth of a great white shark but gave us pain receptors and enough common sense to not stick our head into a set of giant shark jaws, perhaps his warning about the tree really was just practical advice designed to assist us with our own protection and preservation.
Based on this idea, maybe God would have let us eat of the forbidden fruit at some time later, in an appropriate set and setting, and after He had taught Adam and Eve responsible use and the intended natural utility of the tree.
Or maybe the tree was necessary as some vital part of the ecosystem for nourishing creatures aside from humans, such as serving as some kind of food for ancient gods (as books like The Unseen Realm point out, we know there were other non-human, spiritually conscious beings who existed in addition to the God).
Or maybe it was a dwelling abode for beautiful, rare snakes, or pollen for some kind of insect that kept other plants and trees thriving, but was poison for humans.
Obviously, one could weave down these hypothetical rabbit holes for quite some time. But ultimately, here's what we do know:
- God created humans to glorify and worship Him by enjoying His magnificent creation while being fully satisfied in Him. He also made us non-robotic beings of free will.
- He told us something that was very important not to do—not to eat one thing—but based on our own free will and our desires for self-satisfaction, we rebelled, broke our trust with Him, and ate it anyway.
- As a result, we lost full union with God and visited a curse upon ourselves, but, quite beautifully when you really think about it, God gave us a merciful “out” through another tree—the more powerful tree that I talk about in this Hero's Journey story.
Because of that third fact listed above, I'm OK with the true nature of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil remaining perhaps a bit of a mystery, and I'm OK with continuing to be curious about it, but ultimately, in the end, it doesn't really matter because I have been given the grace to walk in full union with God and to eat of all the trees of all of Eden for the rest of all time with this simple choice.
And one last thing—in case you find this whole tree theology thing to be interesting and want to take an even deeper dive.
I recently discovered the book Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us. This intriguing walk through all way trees are woven into religion and the Bible, written by former physician and carpenter Dr. Matthew Sleeth, makes the convincing case that trees reveal more about God and faith than I could have ever imagined. Any spiritually-minded person looking to reconnect to the natural world will relish this passionate call to a tree-aware stewardship of the Earth. Fifteen years ago, Dr. Sleeth believed that science and logic held the answers to everything. But when tragedy struck, he opened the Bible for the first time and was surprised to find that God chose to tell the gospel story through a trail of trees.
There’s the trees you just read about on the first page of Genesis, but also in the first psalm, on the first page of the New Testament, and on the last page of Revelation. The Bible’s wisdom is even referred to as a tree of life. Every major biblical character and every major theological event has a tree marking the spot. A tree was the only thing that could kill Jesus (a wooden cross), and the only thing Jesus ever harmed (a fig tree). Reforesting Faith is a rare read that builds bridges by connecting those who love the Creator with creation and those who love creation with the Creator. Sleeth explores the wonders of life, death, and rebirth through the trail of trees in Scripture. Once you discover the hidden language of trees, your walk through the woods or the Bible will never be the same.
My favorite quote from the book is when the author asks his son what superpower he would want, and his son said he'd want to be able to grow as many trees as he could as fast as possible, reasoning, “Think about it, Dad—you could plant mangrove trees and slow down a tsunami. A dense forest could stop an army. There’d be no more hunger. Everyone would have wood for houses and fires.”
Amen (and read the book for more).
So, what do you think the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was, and why do you think it was created? I'd love to hear your own feedback and thoughts, and any studying up you've done on this matter! Leave your comments, questions, and feedback below. I read them all.