Would avoiding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil have been a good thing? Is it possible to avoid eating of it?
Genesis 2:15-16 & 3:22-24 15 The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it. 16 The Lord God commanded the human, “Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; 17 but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!” …22 The Lord God said, “The human being has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” Now, so he doesn’t stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live forever, 23 the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to farm the fertile land from which he was taken.
[Scripture taken from the Common English Bible®, CEB® Copyright © 2010, 2011 by Common English Bible.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.]
Deconstructing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil
The Genesis story of Adam and Eve’s encounter with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil has been used to buttress an archaic theological concept – namely, original sin. As Bishop Spong writes, “In this way [Augustine] explained how God’s original perfection was now distorted by original sin and how the perfection of God’s world was ruined by the fall into evil. It was a fascinating story, the kind ancient people created to explain the realities of their experience.” The contention would seem to be that, if Adam and Eve did not disobey God and eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, humankind would not be mired in sin. Of course, the difficulty with this reasoning begins with the assumption that the story is an historical account of an actual event involving real people. Therefore the motivation of those real people (and the outcome of their action) needs to be explained.
Lets begin at a rather different point. The account of Genesis 2 & 3 is an early mythological account that attempts to explain the origins of human suffering. While the story does not go to the lengths that Augustine and centuries of theologians have gone – original sin is a phenomenon passed along generationally through sexual intimacy – it does focus on the disobedience of the mythic characters as they interact with God. The introduction of the snake (the tempter) picks up the seemingly natural human fear of snakes and thereby finds a convenient entity to blame for human misfortune. “The devil made me do it.” This whole understanding of the story is based on the assumption that there is an ideal world available either at the origin of life or, subsequently, as the fulfillment and consummation of life – that is, “heaven.”
Perhaps there is an alternative way to view this mythic story… a way that does not assume its factuality, but understands the deeper truth behind it. That deeper truth may even take unexpected twists as history moves along. That is to say, as history changes, as circumstances morph, as human understanding grows, truth (with a lower case “t”) evolves.
One option, which retains the Big God in the Sky, might suggest that Adam and Eve were experiments. God was doing a beta test on these experimental prototypes by giving a command that was contrary to the desired result. If Adam and Eve obeyed the proscription from eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil, they would be forfeiting their capacity to become human – that is the ability to distinguish between good and evil. Then God would have to try again for inhabitants of the world.
Another (perhaps more appropriate) option is to acknowledge that not only are Adam and Eve mythic characters, so is the God of the story. Any commandment that Adam and Eve were not to eat the fruit of the tree of good and evil is counter to what human beings must do. We human beings are hard-wired to discern the difference and choose between that which is good and that which is evil. For we humans, even a assumed order from God, cannot prevent us from being who we are – meaning-makers who discern good and bad, long and short, helpful and not-helpful, wise and not wise… A corollary to John Caputo’s dictum that “God does not exist, God insists” must be that any insistence that diminishes human capacity can not be received in the name of God.
Therefore, the Genesis 2&3 story is about the foolishness of postulating an “ideal” world to be inhabited by human beings. Until they were expelled from Eden, Adam and Eve could not attain their full humanness – which, in the story, is defined as discerning between good and evil. Other strains of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures suggest that there is more to humanity than just splitting the world into the good and the bad. These strains suggest that living beyond one’s self interests – compassionate peace-making and justice for all – is the challenge, the charge, the calling for humankind.
We live in the real world. Discerning good and evil is simply a means to move us toward a life focused on mercy and justice. What is insisted upon us in the name of God? – to do justice, love mercy, and to act with humility!
Toyohiko Kagawa, Japanese theologian and activist, put it this way:
“There are theologians, preachers and religious leaders, not a few, who think that the essential thing about Christianity is to clothe Christ with forms and formulas. They look with disdain upon those who actually follow Christ and toil and moil, motivated by brotherly love and passion to serve. . .They conceive pulpit religion to be much more refined than movements for the actual realizations of brotherly love among men. . .The religion Jesus taught was diametrically the opposite of this. He set up no definitions about God, but taught the actual practical practice of love.”