What was the tree of knowledge of good and evil?
Was it a real tree in the Garden of Eden, or was it symbolic?
THE BOOK OF GENESIS TELLS US THAT ADAM AND EVE, the first man and woman, disobeyed God when they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The tree itself cannot be identified, but in context it was a definite literal tree with a lot of literal lessons. It was not simply a symbolic tree.
The tree explained
When God planted the Garden of Eden, he placed Adam, the newly created first man on earth, in the garden “to dress it and to keep it.”
God told Adam he could freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden except one — “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” If Adam ate from this tree, God told him, he would die (Genesis 2:16,17).
Was this an actual tree like other trees in the garden? Or was it, as some have suggested, merely a symbol of something to teach readers a moral?
The Hebrew word here translated tree is the same word used for ordinary trees in all 25 uses in the book of Genesis. There is no exception. So the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” was clearly an actual type of tree.
Similarly, the Hebrew word for knowledge is the ordinary word for knowledge or awareness. There is not the slightest indication that we should look for another meaning for knowledge.
What about the words for good and evil? Well, the word for good is the same one used throughout Genesis chapter 1 when God pronounced His creation “good” and “very good.” The meaning may at times be extended to mean beautiful, joyful, bountiful, or pleasurable. Again, there is nothing to indicate we should look for an unusual meaning of good.
The Hebrew word for evil that is used in the tree's description — ra‘ — has the sense of misery, woe, grief, or harm. The word means evil, and perhaps more. It points to something extremely sorrowful — so we can rightly understand that eating the fruit of this tree would reveal knowledge of good and misery.
Good is known; misery unknown
Adam (and Eve when she was created shortly after) knew only happiness. God had given them all they needed, located them in a beautiful garden of delights, and placed only one restriction on them: Don't eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As they already knew good, eating from this tree would provide only knowledge of calamity, grief, and sorrow.
Some commentators wrongly say that God gave Adam and Eve a choice — they were free to eat from the tree or not eat from it. But God didn't give them a choice. Genesis 2:16 and 17 tell us that “the Lord God commanded the man … of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.” He commanded Adam not to eat from it. He didn't say Adam could eat from it if he wanted to. Certainly Adam and Eve had freewill to disobey God, but no choice was given or implied in God's command.
Was it an apple tree?
In most classical representations of Adam and Eve eating from this tree, the fruit is an apple, which would mean the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was an apple tree.
Well, it could have been an apple tree, but it probably wasn't. The apple idea stems back to a Latin pun, where the Latin word malum means both evil and apple. (The actual phrase for good and evil is boni et mali.) It's a pun that is lost in other languages, and as Genesis was written in Hebrew we should not place any reliability on a Latin pun.
Some believe it was a fig tree, because after Adam and Eve ate from it they sewed fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. But again this is reading more into the text than it says. The tree is not identified.
Others have suggested that there was something in the fruit itself that caused them misery — perhaps some poisonous chemical or toxin. But this seems to conflict with God's pronouncement earlier that everything He had created was “very good”. He would hardly have called a fruit very good if it was so toxic it would skew people's brains and kill them.
Another explanation sometimes heard is that the knowledge of good and evil refers to sexual relations. But in the context this makes no sense. There was no-one else on earth for them to commit adultery with, and it is hard to imagine what other “evil” sexual relations Adam and Eve could have taken part in.
What it was
Puritan Bible commentator Matthew Henry (1662-1714), whose commentary on the Bible is still one of the most quoted after 300 years, suggested that the tree itself may not have provided the knowledge of good and evil, but that Adam's disobedience of God's command would reveal evil to Adam and ultimately cause his death. In this view, the tree itself did not have “any virtue in it to beget or increase useful knowledge.”
Eating from the tree would open up some kind of unknown sense in Adam and Eve, somewhat like a person who is born deaf doesn't know there is a sense of hearing until a revelation comes that it exists.
If this is the correct explanation, and it probably is, the tree could have been any type of tree known or unknown. The explanation gains further credibility when you look at the way the Genesis account describes it. God did not say “If you eat from the tree, the fruit will kill you.” He said, “in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.” The death-knell was not in the fruit, but in disobeying God. Adam and Eve were tried in something that was evil only because it was forbidden.
Was it a serpent?
Skeptics have mocked the account of Adam and Eve's sin because it sounds silly to them that a serpent could talk to Eve and entice her to eat the fruit. But this is how Satan works. If he can first make people skeptical, he has a chance to eventually turn them into atheists and then they are kept out of Heaven while they protest that he doesn't exist.
The word for serpent in Genesis 3:1 is nachash, which comes from a root meaning “to hiss”. It is the same word used for serpent elsewhere in Scripture, but also carries the sense of an enchanter who whispers or beguiles to produce a magic spell.
This serpent was not a talking snake; it is identified in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, as Satan himself. Satan beguiled Eve by taking the form of a serpent.
Some commentators have pointed out that God told Adam only that he must not eat the fruit (Genesis 2:17), whereas Eve told the serpent that they were not allowed to even touch it. They imply that Eve lied by adding an element to God's command.
But the Bible does not record every word of every conversation it mentions, so it is possible that God did say not to touch it, and that only an abbreviated part of the conversation was recorded in Genesis 2:17. In any case, it seems pointless to think that they could have eaten the fruit without touching it.
And if the tree couldn't be touched, those paintings that show the serpent in the tree (such as the one above by Lucas Cranach, 1533) must be wrong.
Didn't die straight away
Why didn't Adam and Eve die immediately they ate the forbidden fruit? After all, God had said “in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”
As numerous commentators have pointed out, the phrase “thou shalt surely die” can be rendered “dying, thou shalt die.” It means they would start to die physically from the moment they ate the fruit, which is what happened. But spiritually they died immediately, because their sin separated them from God.
Can serpents talk?
Didn't Eve know that serpents couldn't talk? Didn't it arouse her suspicions that there was something wrong when a serpent started talking?
Probably not. Eve hadn't been around long, and was still learning. In her innocence she obviously didn't find anything strange in this.
Serpent didn't force Adam and Eve to eat
We must remember that Satan did not force Eve to eat the fruit. He did not pick the fruit and give it to her.
It was a clever move on his part to choose the form of a serpent for his scam. The serpent had no arms to pick the fruit and hand it to Eve. With Satan's encouragement, she had to make her own decision to take it and eat it, and then to get Adam involved in doing wrong as well.
The type of fruit Adam and Eve ate is not identified in the Bible, and we would be wise not to presume we can identify the tree of the knowledge of good and evil today. But as we have seen, we can learn many lessons from this trustworthy account in the information we do have.
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