What is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?
In Genesis 2:17 where you have the Garden of Eden story and God’s prohibition he says, “You can eat of any tree you want but you must not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” Now, I have a question. Why wouldn’t he want them to eat of that tree most of all? Wouldn’t God want them to know all about good and evil? Isn’t that just the right tree to eat from? The tree of the knowledge of good and evil—know what is good, know what is bad, be able to choose between them, right?
Actually it is misleading. Here is the situation. The knowledge of good and evil is what is called a “merism.” Let me give you some examples very quickly. In the Bible we really have a lot of merisms. A merism is an expression of totality by the mention of polarity. You mention some opposites and it implies everything in between. For example, the west and the east are used as merisms. Heaven and hell, if I ascend to heaven there you are, if I go to Sheol there you are. Does that mean that God is only at the two extremes? No, he is everywhere, that is the point. Near and far are used as merisms. “Peace to the far and peace to the near,” says the Lord. In other words peace to everybody. More examples of merisms— “going out and coming in” is a fairly common merism. “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in,” meaning the Lord will take care of everything in your life.
Then “good and evil” is actually a very common merism. It means “any kind of thing” or it means “everything.” Their idols cannot speak, cannot walk, cannot do evil, cannot do good, meaning they just cannot do anything. The knowledge of good and evil is a way of saying in Hebrew “all knowledge, knowledge of everything” and that is what God does not want people to know. If you read the story, you see that is what Satan says. He says, “Hey, he knows you will become like gods knowing everything. That is what he is trying to keep from you. Don’t you want to know everything?” Knowing everything sounds interesting. And they do and after the fall God says, he is speaking again in heaven as he often does in many places in Scripture not just Genesis, “Look they have become like one of us, they know good and evil, they know everything.” Does that mean that they actually know everything? You say, “Alright, immediately draw me a graph for the following equation.” No, it takes time to know that. The idea is that we now have more knowledge than we can morally handle. That is the point of what is emphasized here in this story.
Part of the human dilemma as a consequence of the fall is that humans have enormous knowledge of how to do bad things as well as how to do good things. The same human being that knows how to create a computer and all the bandwidth that they use for all the good communication purposes so you can get e-mail from your cousin in Mongolia also has provided a way for a vast increase in the dissemination of pornography in our age. The same skill that uses atomic energy for good makes weapons out of it. The same skill that does anything can be used for bad. Human beings, unlike hamsters and June bugs, have enormous capacity for choices; taking skills that they could use and should use for good and employing them for evil. That is part of the human dilemma. We are in trouble because we are so good at doing bad. That is, I think, the message that you are supposed to get out of this whole story about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.