Friday, February 28, 2014

IN THE BEGINNING. Genesis 2/16-17

Tree of Knowledge
Sebastian Münster (1489 - 1552)
"And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.'” Genesis 2:16-17

Good and evil? 
Good, sure. But evil? What evil? This is Eden.

First, a few observations:

"In the day" here once again shows us the yoga-like flexibility of the word day in the Hebrew mind. In one more chapter, Adam will chomp down on forbidden fruit and yet ripen to 930 years old. That's one heck of a "day". So, not to beat a dead Eohippus, but those six days of Creation in Genesis one, if they're even interested in the argument, seem really comfortable with indefinite swaths of time. Not just 24-hour days.

"You will surely die." Not to split hairs, but this is a very different phrase for Elohim to say than "I will kill you." Perhaps this distinction isn't satisfactory for you, but consider; when I am telling my kids to look both ways before crossing a five lane highway, I'm not saying "or I will kill you". Lovingly, I am cautioning them about intrinsic consequences of not looking first. Tangentially, I'm also a bad father for making children cross the highway. The story most likely depicts God warning Adam, not threatening him. The question is, what is the nature of the warning?

"Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.Special trees pop up in many ancient stories. There's a Babylonian bead from about the 22 Century BCE depicting a man and a woman and tree (and even a snake). Egyptians had a Tree of Life. In Greek mythology men and women sometimes turned into trees. This tree in Genesis is interesting because it possesses the ability to impart knowledge. Just what kind of knowledge I find interesting, because there's not supposed to be any "evil" yet at this point in the narrative for Adam.

"Good and Evil" (or as it can be translated from the Hebrew, "Good and Bad") is considered by many not to have so much a moral connotation but the scope of knowledge the tree gives you. This is called a merism. A merism uses two or more ideas to encapsulate everything between them. Such as Elohim creating "Heaven and Earth"- we know from this brief phrase Elohim created everything, and not only the sky and the planet. We use merisms in english. You can "search high and low" for your keys and we'll all know you scoured your whole house in your search, not just the ceiling tiles and the carpet. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is unlikely to be a tree that makes you a savvy saint/sinner hybrid who God must dispatch, but a Tree that imparts the knowledge of all things. And for some reason, that much knowledge is ultimately bad for Adam.


We can't know for sure, although theologians have interesting (and often compelling) assertions to the contrary. For my part I'm interested in how the same knowledge can bring both blessing and curse. For example:

  • The knowledge of metals and how to forge them into various, pointy shapes has had its good and its evil, and surely death has followed. 
  • Black powder dazzled 9th century China's sky with fireworks, and then propelled wads of lead into men's chests. 
  • The process of fermentation has been part of how people enjoy eating and being together, and has also destroyed people's live and entire nations.
  • Human flight puts people into the air to travel abroad, and continues to make them more and more efficient long-range killers. 
  • Atom splitting has thus far proven to be knowledge we mostly aren't ready to have, despite the blessing the resultant energy can be.

In these and a million other examples over the course of history, it's not that the knowledge is bad. Or even good I guess. It's that we humans have proven to have a penchant for turning knowledge into a way of making life hell for ourselves. We surely die. Every time.

I'm reminded of Paul's words to the Corinthians: Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. It's not that true spirituality shuns technology or knowledge. This is, after all, not an Amish blog. Perhaps Paul understood that all these things we learn have the capacity to make one's sense of self bigger than one's sense of being connected to others. As our heads swell with knowledge, our hearts empty of love. We have a history of using what we learn not to unite, but to divide. And that division, that separation, is death. Even if we live another 900 years, if we aren't learning to unite, we're learning to die.

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