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?