On a Side Note: Knowledge of Good and Evil

The LORD God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Gen. 2:8-9 NAU)

Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” (Gen. 2:15-17 NAU)

Of all the things that make up the “fall of humanity” it’s the knowledge of good and evil as a definition of “death” that seems to set the most definitive boundary.  What I mean is that the choice to be made was between life and its opposite (the two trees).  But rather than simply use the word death, God defines that choice as the knowledge of good and evil.  Therefore the opposite of life is the knowledge of good and evil.

For most of us, the word “evil” has become associated with a moral quality.  Something evil is morally so, as an element in the philosophical category of ethics.  There’s a cultural language issue that I believe obscures the point here.  While it seems clear that God is interested in defining death for Adam and eventually Eve, this definition as “knowledge of good and evil” is linguistically tied to our philosophical category of ethics.  I don’t believe it really belongs there, at least not as the term “evil” is traditionally used in the category.

The words for this tree in Scripture are “tov” (good) and “ra” (evil).  The problem of rendering these words into English are cultural.  A better rendering of ra in almost every instance is “bad”.  In Hebrew, ra is as flexible, if not more so, than our use of bad. Even in idiom or slang, they approximate each other.  The reason is that the meaning of these words is not only arbitrary, but very contextual. Something bad for one person can be good for another.  It depends on context of both affected parties.  This can also be said of ra.

In Amos, the prophet asks, “Can ra befall a city, and God has not done it?”  Well, obviously, if this refers to moral evil, we have a problem in our understanding of God.  Clearly the reference is to a calamity of some sort, either human or natural which harms the inhabitants.  But the point I’m making is that this word is used as a quality of something which God does, and therefore, even though causing suffering, can’t be seen as morally wrong (it’s God, He’s not morally wrong).  Therefore ra cannot be seen as a moral ethical element of the ancient Hebrews or as a moral quality in their understanding of God (a Hebrew theology).

The word ra belongs to a qualitative description based on the perception or point of view of the observer.  So, when I call something ra, that same thing might be described by another person (with another point of view) as tov.

Now, back to the tree.   The tree of death was called the knowledge of good and evil or tov and ra.  So what was the choice?  Life on the one hand or the knowledge of these arbitrary categories on the other?  How is the knowledge of these arbitrary categories death?

The answer is in the alternative.  The alternative to the personal knowledge of good and evil is the acceptance of God’s definitions of good and evil.  In other words, the choice in the Garden was between life (relationship with God) or death as “defining for ourselves what is good and evil”.  So the more we understand good and evil as God does, the more we begin to reverse the choice.  This is not to minimize the other elements in the deception or temptation, like becoming like God, and so on.  But death was brought about in that day in the choice between defining good and bad for themselves or continuing to accept God’s definitions of those things.   One is life, the other death.

So, as Moses said to the people, “Choose life!”  Study Scripture to understand God’s definitions, and live those out.  Inherent in this charge is the lordship of Jesus in our lives, the belief in His resurrection, and the rejection of our personal definitions of good and bad.  All these things are part of God’s definition of good and bad.  As is our submission to His definition of these in our lives.  Let Him “spin-doctor” the events of our lives rather than do it ourselves or let the world do it for us.  That’s the process we follow to reverse the choice our ancestors made in the Garden.

So what do you see and learn among the trees in the Garden?

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8 thoughts on “On a Side Note: Knowledge of Good and Evil

  1. I’ve thought about this in the past. So I actually studied Hebrew during my undergrad and kept up with it over the years; I’d put myself as an intermediate Hebrew reader and as far as speaking… אני מדבר מעט עברית (I speak speak a little hebrew). And I totally agree with you conversation on רַע, “ra.” It’s. Even today in the modern sense it’s very flexible…it’s not a straight 1 to 1 for the work evil…relativistic sin might play a much bigger part here than what has been traditionally understood.

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    1. It was kind of a jolt to me to discover its flexibility in use in Hebrew. I had to check it out, and really feel “bad” is actually closer than “evil” for modern use. We even use “bad” as “good” in some slang instances, and I think they (rarely) used “ra” the same way (more sarcastic than slang). Thanks for following, but really, thank you for commenting! I love this stuff – discussing our unique views of God through Scripture.

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      1. Agreed, it does have a much wider usage, which I think implies we need to rethink how we look at the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’ And of course we don’t want to commit the anachronistic fallacy here and superimpose a modern understanding on an pre-dileuvian paradigm for “ra.” Or even an understanding of “ra” for like Isaiah’s contemporaries, or “ra” during the Persian Empire, thousands of years later. I guess here the conversation makes sense looking at linguistics. So I’m taking a Koine Greek class right now – not sure if you’ve studied Greek but it’s super cool – and in last week’s lecture we just broke off from the Greek and delved into a linguistics conversation. We started looking at the marked theory of linguistics – again not sure if you’re a linguistics buff, if so just gloss of this part – and the theory, in a nutshell, says that within a paradigm you have forms that are either more marked or less marked. Unmarked forms of a word are those that act like a pivot for the marked forms to rotate around; they are like the default word for the paradigm. Or they are like the anchor word for all the different forms. So for example, take “cool.” Cool has other forms like “coolness,” “cooled,” “cools,” “cooling,” “cooler,” etc. I think in this situation we would say “cool” is the most unmarked form here because it is the pivot of which the other forms surround, it contains the meaning of cool and is probably the least likely to change over time even as the more marked forms may change (which are ones that have suffixes appended to them) – even linguistically from like Shakespearean English to modern English. And then of course, cool came to take an a totally different meaning in the 20th century as “vogue,” or “popular.”

        So that major digression to say, I’m not enough of an expert to comment on the evolution of “ra” from when Moses wrote Genesis (assuming it was Moses) to later Hebrew used in the other contexts of ra (like the prophets, writings, etc). So this goes back to our last conversation on redaction theory then…what tool do we take out of our tool belt to get to the right meaning of ra? I think the best starting place, from the 30,ooo foot view, is that the Spirit is the author of the Word, so we can probably expect some similar patterns to exist in word meaning (but that may have to be proven), from there we maybe start to dive into the changes of meaning in ra from Moses to the prophets, to today. Because God would have to retain the information contained in the word ra up to present day in some form.

        Sorry man, that was like a novel haha. And yes, I love discussing this stuff. I have a close brother (who’s also a linguistics guy) that we would get coffee and discuss the “knotholes” of Scripture for hours and hours until late at night. This stuff is right up alley.

        Anyways, God bless brother!

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      2. LOL! Wow, a fellow word-geek! And yes, I’m familiar with biblical languages (have my masters in it), and somewhat familiar with linguistics even though not those terms exactly. The transition (rather than development) of language through a culture’s history is fascinating. I love studying it but I bore people with it when try to explain it. Keep at your studies! They reap rich rewards!

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      3. Nice, I started following the right blog. Masters in biblical languages…that’s really cool. I have my masters in business, so other end of the spectrum, but I have a passion for Hebrew and now Greek too. Definitely look forward to reading more of your stuff on the language side.

        Yeah I know what you mean, people don’t find this stuff mind blowing for some reason? Haha! But then this is coming from a guy who gets excited about working in finance and accounting. They do reap very rich rewards!

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      4. Okay, small-world-moment, my vocation is providing CPE to tax and accounting professionals. I do that to fund my passion and calling of biblical theologian. My undergrad was in business, but wound up there vocationally on a convoluted path. Thanks for dialoguing! I love this, so please keep visiting, commenting, and challenging! Good stuff!

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      5. Hahaha! Wow, now that’s a small world moment! I ended up in business to fund familyhood, but find myself at Starbucks every lunch break memorizing Hebrew vocab and working through Decker’s Reading Koine Greek. Will do on visiting Matt, I’m sure I’ll be by often. I enjoy conversing over this stuff. Especially the language side of it 🙂

        So, I’m curious, are you well learned in both Hebrew and Greek? Or did you have an area that you specialized in?

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      6. I actually prefer Hebrew and the Hebrew Scriptures, mostly because I feel they are a neglected area of study. I had an instructor tell us that there is more grace in the Old Testament and more wrath in the New Testament than people realize. So I spend my time mining for both. I didn’t minor in philosophy technically, but I did essentially (my program didn’t offer that). I try to combine the language study with critical thinking about the meaning to derive that thread working through all of Scripture.

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