Friday, January 29, 2010

Why was the forbidden fruit forbidden?

I've been attending a new church for a while, and I'm guardedly optimistic that this one could be as good of a match as I could ever hope to find. There was an orientation class of sorts to help new people know more about the church, and that 3-night class was held each of the past three Wednesdays.

In the second class, a woman asked the intriguing question as to why the tree in the Garden was forbidden in the first place. Why did God tell Eve not to eat from the tree?

This is a rather interesting question! Of course, if you are a Calvinist, these types of questions have no interest for you. Calvinists have no problem believing God planned for the race to fall from the beginning, so there needn't have been any reason for the tree being verboten. It could just have been the needed statutory law so that humanity would fall as part of God's overarching plan.

I'm not a big fan of that view, though of course I cannot claim it is utterly impossible. I don't think the Bible gives us enough information to be certain as to the wherefore behind the law given to Adam and Eve, but perhaps we can take a guess...

We are told in Genesis 2:17 that God explained to Adam "On the day you eat of the tree, you will surely die." The tree from the beginning is called "The tree of knowledge of Good and Evil."

One then asks the question: Why does having knowledge of Good and Evil cause death? Angels have knowledge of good and evil, and they do not die. What is the linkage between this knowledge and the death? If the linkage is "God said not to do this, and you did it, so you are punished," then that gets us no further into understanding why the tree was off-limits in the first place. If the death was not a punishment but a natural outcome, then it is a reasonable question as to wonder why.

We get another piece of information later. People often say that sin caused the death directly, but the view of Genesis 3:21 is rather different. That verse indicates God threw Adam and Eve out of the garden explicitly because it would have been possible for them to (otherwise) gain immortality by eating from the tree of life.

Based on Genesis 3:21, one could claim that God, for whatever reason, did not want Adam to be BOTH immortal AND aware of good and evil. Perhaps this was to separate humanity from the angels or perhaps it was for some other reason. Who knows?

Paul references the fall in Romans 5:12-14, and my claim is that Paul refers to spiritual death there (which explains why God was not wrong for saying "on the day you eat of it, you shall die")

With this in mind, I'm venturing to give as a conjecture that we were told not to eat from the tree for our own benefit. As Paul discusses in Romans 5, the thing that causes death is not sin itself but sin going against a known law. He separates "sin" in general from "rebellion." Thus, while people sinned after Adam and before Moses, they were not "rebelling" against God, thus their spiritual depravity could not be blamed on their own sin but must have come from Adam's.

Note this is a very important point for Paul. He is making a case for all being saved in the same way: through Christ. And part of the way he is arguing for this is to say that all were thrown into spiritual death through the action of one person, (Adam) so it makes sense that all could be healed by the action of one person (Christ). This is why he speaks about people sinning after Adam but not "sinning in the way Adam sinned," which he calls "transgression" or "Rebellion:" The sin against a promulgated, declared law.

So, if that is the case, perhaps the idea is that, without knowledge of good and evil, humanity would be "sinning in ignorance" whenever someone did something wrong, and those sins are still sins but do not cause separation between the person and God. That is the big difference between the type of sin Adam did (and later the Jews did after receiving the Law of Moses) and the type of sin people do in ignorance: outright rebellion against something you have been told by God not to do leads to a spiritual weakening and separation from God.

Note that there was plenty of sinning going on prior to Adam and Eve eating the apple. Eve appears to lie to the serpent about what God had said (changing God's command from "do not eat" to "Do not even touch"), the Jews would have considered Adam and Eve's nakedness to at least be shameful if not an outright sin, and both Adam and Eve committed covetousness before ever eating the apple [that is what covetousness is: the desiring of something that is not yours to have.] Indeed, I think covetousness was considered the father of all other sins by Jews for this reason [and note Paul's description in Romans 7:7-12, which is related to this whole topic of the danger the law poses.]

Anyways, I think it is an interesting question and one pretty open to discussion, what do you guys think?


Dan Martin said...

I don't speak Hebrew, but I checked with a friend who has studied it, who confirmed for me that the "knowledge" of good and evil here was experiential, not intellectual. So assuming (which I do not necessarily) a literal tree as opposed to a mythological story here, there was no magical knowledge to be gained from the fruit. Rather, when (as you correctly pointed out) Adam and Eve performed an act of rebellion against God, by that very act they entered into an experiential knowledge of evil.

It didn't have to be a tree. But for Adam's, or our, obedience, to mean anything at all, there has to be the potential for disobedience. Evil itself is not a necessary requisite for good, but the possibility of evil is.

David Rudel said...

Dan, it strikes me as odd that we can claim this "knowledge" was merely experiential.

When the serpent is speaking to Eve, it says "...God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like god(s), knowing good and evil."

and God says the same thing in Genesis 3:22

Surely we could not attribute "knowing good and evil experientially" to God and God's court.

Also, immediately after they eat of the fruit we are told "their eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked." Clearly this is not referring to actually knowing they were naked (as though they did not previously know they were without clothes) but rather that it was shameful/evil for them to be, hence they immediately begin to clothe themselves. Once again, this is an understanding of "what it means to be evil."

Gesenius' lexicon claims it means intellectual knowledge in these cases. See entry 5 at

Dan Martin said...

Actually, Dave, the lexical reference you hyperlinked appears to suggest that the word could be either intellectual OR experiential; among the definitions that most explicitly carry one ramification over the other (as opposed to ones that just say "know" devoid of context), 1(a)1(e) is specifically experiential, and 1(a)3 is carnal knowledge. So to claim that the definition is clearly intellectual is not supported by that lexicon.

I agree with you that it's inappropriate to suggest that God knows evil experientially in the sense of having committed evil; however, it is Satan making that claim, NOT God. It's not an unbelievable stretch for Satan to suggest to humans that an intimate knowledge of evil makes one like God. He (Satan) would be wrong in that claim, but it's perfectly plausible to suggest that he'd make it (he is, after all, a liar).

As for the nakedness claim, we've been down that trail before and I don't think either of us will convince the other. However, I find it interesting to note that they "realized" that they were sinning in the very state that God Himself had created them. I find it at least equally possible that, until they knew sin, there was no reason for shame (Gen. 2:25 says they were "naked and not ashamed" as a point of fact, not necessarily as a criticism). Once they had crossed the line into disobedience, shame came upon them in ways that were unnecessary--in fact inappropriate--prior to their sin.

But as I intimated above, I doubt there was a real tree and a real temptation of fruit. I suspect rather that this is a mythical story telling us of the human choice to try and seize equality with God by embracing our own will in disobedience. In that disobedience came shame, sin, and as with all the devil's bargains, it did not turn out well. It also sets up the contrast for Jesus, who did not hang onto equality with God even though it was his nature and right (Phil. 2:5-11).

Original sin is not the fruit, or Eve's misrepresentation of God, or their nakedness, or anything else. Original sin is to attempt to seize God's authority for ourselves, and to use our own (and Satan's) choices/methods to become like God, rather than Jesus' method as described in Philippians.

David Rudel said...

Dan, I don't think you read my comment closely enough.

First, it doesn't matter that Satan is not a very trustworthy character. Regardless of whether he is lying or telling the truth, the meaning of the word itself is clear by what he says (the verity of the statement notwithsanding)

Second, I said that both Satan _and God_ say the same thing in 3:22: "And the Lord God said, 'Now that the man has become like oneo f us, knowing good and evil, he must not be allowed to stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live forever.'"

Thirdly, when I said the lexical reference claims it refers to intellectual knowledge "in these cases," that is exactly what I meant: the reference I give cites these verses explicitly as ones where a cognitive meaning is in view.

Dan Martin said...

Fair enough, Dave, that God does not "know" evil by having done it. That I grant without argument.

I'm confused by your reference to the lexicon, unless you're reading a different web page than the one I found at your link. The lexicon clearly states a wide variety of meanings to the word, all the way from intellectual to experiential to the much-vaguer "perception" which could encompass both. The extensive commentary in the extended definition states the lexicographer's opinion of the meaning in various places, but it's not substantiated (at least in the text I see) with any justification for why the same word should have one meaning in one place, and a different one somewhere else, which leads me to believe that conclusion is based on theology, rather than allowing the construct of the text to form the theology. Linguistics is a different tool from theology, and the lexicographer--if he is being responsible--allows the linguistics to drive the meaning.

So I'd like to see a responsible Hebrew linguist--one who analyzes structure and word form without forcing his theology onto it--tell me whether the word and/or its forms in 3:22 is the same, or different, from 3:5, or from the "knowing" they were naked in 3:7.

That said, I grant that 3:22 militates against the experiential definition here. It does not sit right with me, however (and now I'm theologizing), given the rest of the character of God we see throughout scripture and history, that he really intended his creation to be ignorant little slugs either. If they (we) were ever to demonstrate obedience and love, then somehow they had to be equipped to distinguish right from wrong.

If that is true, the sense that "before, they didn't get it, now they do and that's bad" doesn't compute either.

Another possible interpretation, which occurs to me now and fits with my suggestion that usurpation of authority is the real issue, would be if the sense of knowing "good and evil" (hitherto we've been focusing on the "evil" side of the equation) involves the right or authority to distinguish which is which--that is, to establish the standard for what is good or evil. We can--in fact we must--discern between the two, but are we doing it according to our own (adamic) standard, or God's?

True Earth said...

Dan (& Dave) - Can each of you explain in plain language for those of us who aren't theologians, linguists and Bible scholars:

The Original Creation & The Fall?

Much can be debated, but surely there is a basic scenario that we can agree on. Does not the essence of "authentic" Christianity derive from what happened in Eden and why?

David Rudel said...

Hi Dan,
To respond to your first request, I'm referring not to the online lexicon but Gesenius' lexicon that happens to be transcribed at the link I sent.

If you go to the link I sent, scroll down a bit to the section marked "Gesenius' Lexicon" and then click the "Click here for the rest of the Entry" link, you will find the "Definition 5" I reference.

That entry (Definition 5) gives a sloo of verses where the Hebrew term refers to knowledge in the intellectual since we normally use the word "to know," and it specifically calls out the verses we have been describing (Genesis 2:17, 3:5, 3:22) It also references Ecc 4:17 "They know not they do evil."

The parenthetical note by the Lexicon's authors to an idiomatic formulation ("to be be prudent or wise") suggests they were not unnaturally drawn to this meaning of the term. In any event, the other examples cited give theologically neutral examples where the word does have this range of meanings, which should not be so surprising. Most words do, and I have already shown how the experiential meaning could not possibly be in view here regardless.

The idea that eating the fruit made Adam and Eve "like God" in the sense that they now get to be the ones determining what is right and wrong does not seem to fit the particulars of the scene (though there is only so far this understanding can be wrong since you are essentially arguing that they took on the "burden" of moral choice rather than the "capacity" (which is what I am suggesting a direct reading of the text indicates):

1. Even prior to eating the fruit, they were already determining what was good and bad (see Genesis 3:6) in the Hebrew sense of those terms (what is good for life versus harmful, note Mark 3:4) rather than the ethical trappings we attach.

2. The immediate consequence of eating the fruit was "their eyes were opened" (just as the serpent said they would be). That speaks to knowledge of reality not self-actualization.

3. Looking again at that Genesis 3:6 verse, we are told the reason they desired the fruit was that it was good toward "making one wise." That works quite well with knowledge of the Hebrew understanding of "good and evil" but has little connection with usurpation of authority.

4. God actually says they have been made "like us," which most people interpret to mean the heavenly court with the angels, surely one cannot claim each angel individually determines what is right and wrong.

David Rudel said...

True Earth, I'm not claiming a firm interpretation here so much as trying to answer the question of why the tree was forbidden in the first place, suggesting it was for our own good due to the danger that comes with knowing what is good and evil.

I would agree the Fall is quite important to understanding Christianity...if it was clear what happened. Unfortunately, history has not shown consensus on what the fall was really about. Furthermore, the earliest evangelists [Paul, Peter, etc.] and the writers of the gospels do not seem to be so concerned about it. There is only one extended discussion of the Fall in the entire New Testament, and it is one of the most difficult passages to understand in a particularly difficult book that was not even written for an evangelistic purpose.

The Fall simply did not have the primacy in early Christianity or is Jewish context. Every indication from the New Testament shows that the early believers saw the beginning of salvation history as occurring far, far later, not in Genesis 3:15 but in Genesis 12, where Abraham receives the promise.

Thus, while a thorough understanding of the fall would surely help us understand Christianity, the writers of the New Testament seem to believe it can be satisfactorily understood without it.

Dan Martin said...

Thus, while a thorough understanding of the fall would surely help us understand Christianity, the writers of the New Testament seem to believe it can be satisfactorily understood without it.

Here, Dave, I want to underline your judgment in the strongest possible terms. You are right, that the fall is not central to New Testament thought. It figures, certainly, but not as the lynchpin which contemporary Evangelicals (among many others) have made it. So while we can debate the significance--or not--of various aspects of that event, it's not central to knowing or following Jesus.

TrueEarth, as I have alluded, I believe the Fall is best seen as a metaphor or myth describing the truth of humanity's desire to supplant God's authority with one's own...which is why the Philippians passage about Jesus not seizing onto equality with God is such a vital contrast. If we are to truly emulate the character of Jesus, it requires us to recognize--against human nature--that he is on the throne, and we are not.

Anonymous said...

I read one time that of the two trees one was the "Be to do tree" and the other was the "Do to be tree."

Could it be that the sin was trying to be good and not evil instead living by faith,

David Rudel said...

Welcome to the forum!

I don't see anything in the story suggesting Adam and Eve were making an effort to be good by "not being evil."

According to most standard views, I would think that good angels, for example, are good through "not being evil." And I believe that is how we normally ascribe goodness to Jesus, so I don't think that desire (even if Adam had it, which I just don't see) can be considered a sin.

'Seph Sayers said...

Well... presuming this biblical story isn't literally historic, there is another angle as to "why was the forbidden fruit forbidden?"

I've written a piece some time back on the topic of Gnosticism.
One section, or excerpt, deals with this.

You can read it (in its somewhat unedited version) at the following link,
Excerpt from Section II: Chapter 3

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I started reading your book yesterday and an initial understanding is that you are saying that we will be judged on how well we keep the commandments of Jesus. To what degree are we to keep them?

I'm sure that you will answer this as I continue to read.

David Rudel said...

Welcome, Seph, and thanks for the contribution. I haven't taken a look at it, but I hope to sometime.

The first few chapters of the book are simply meant to discuss the topic of "salvation," as that term was used by early Christians, and in particular to separate it from the Judgment so that passages on the latter can be read in their own context rather than seen through the lens of those passages using the term "salvation."

If you want to fast-forward to my thoughts on this particular topic, you can go directly to chapter 5, but I also recommend reading chapter 6 which answers the question of "How does faith in Christ tie in?"

David Rudel said...

Hey Nimblewell,
Just wanted to let you know that I saw your posts at the other discussion board [] and have approved and replied to them...hopefully we can get some discussion going at that quiet place. Thanks for posting!