You May Eat of Any Tree in the Garden, Except

What a set up. “You may freely eat, except from this beautiful luscious fruit tree I am placing right in the middle of the Garden, where you can’t miss it.” That’s like showing a six year old where you are storing a loaded gun in an unlocked cabinet and then saying, “whatever you do don’t touch this.” The story is like god double daring the humans not to go after the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Either god was stupid, or god had some other motive in mind.

A number of people on the online Bible Study suggested that the prohibition against eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a test of obedience, and since humans failed the test, we all suffer the consequences of original sin. We are all deeply flawed and subject to death unless we seek the life giving forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

Beth offered an insight from a book entitled, Open Secrets: the Letters of Reb Yerachmiel ben Yisrael by Rami M. Shapiro:

I can say quite simply that nowhere in the story of Adam and Eve does Torah speak of sin. True, the first couple disobeyed the command of God, but this is not called a sin in Torah.

Read your Torah carefully and tell me why Eve violated the only commandment God had laid upon her. “And the woman perceived that the tree was good for eating, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a means to wisdom, and she took of its fruit and ate. . .” (Genesis 3:6)

Torah does not waste words. Why not simply say: the woman ate? That would have made the point if the point was eating. But the point is not eating. The point is why she ate.

First she sees that the tree is good for eating, but she does not eat. Then she sees that it is beautiful to look upon, but she does not eat. Only when she realizes that it is the source of wisdom does she eat.

Meaning? It is not desire or beauty that compels the human being, but wisdom, and in quest of wisdom we are willing to sacrifice everything. We are not driven by sin, but the quest to know. A wonderful myth! A timeless message! So where is the original sin in this?

Jews do not see the eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil as the fall of humankind, but as its first step toward fulfilling its destiny. Life in Eden would never have resulted in the awakening of a mind capable of existing as a separate being as well as living in the oneness of God. Eve and Adam had to leave paradise if they were to grow and mature into the fullness of what human beings could become. We had to leave Paradise, if we were to become fully human. It is hard to imagine human life without the struggle between good and evil. Fat, dumb and happy in Eden somehow wasn’t God’s destiny for us. We are intended to reach for the stars. Or in the words of Robert Browning: “ah, but our reach should exceed our grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” We live somewhere between our brother and sister animals and the spirit of God that creates and sustains the Universe.

We compose music, write novels and plays, design great structures and send space ships beyond the earth. We pray and create liturgies of beauty and meaning in praise of God. We also indulge our senses with great food and love making. We live somewhere between our embodiment and our transcendent consciousness. We even have imagination enough to send the space ship Voyager beyond our solar system into interstellar space with a golden record with greetings from earth to other sentient beings in the Universe Voyager might encounter.

We cannot foresee the ultimate destiny of our species, but we were created with the gift of curiosity and we are intended to pursue knowledge. We want to know. What is over the next hill, across the river, the other side of the Ocean? We want to know what is on the far side of the moon, and now we are even venturing into interstellar space. God gave us the gift of curiosity the desire to know. We were created for the quest of knowledge.

So what can we learn from the Hebrew story teller’s placing of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the Garden, where humans could not miss it? First I think we have to note that in Hebrew the word knowledge was not academic knowledge. In Hebrew knowledge implies intimate intercourse. Adam knew Eve and she conceived and gave birth – intimate relationship. And let’s face it, we can’t have an intimate relationship with evil as well as good and remain innocent. To have knowledge for the Hebrew Story Teller was to know something from the inside out to have the experience of it. And maybe there are some things we don’t need to know from the inside out. Maybe we don’t need to know what it is like to commit murder. Maybe we don’t need to know what it is like to shoot up with cocaine. Maybe there are some things we don’t need to know from experience.

I think the Hebrew Story Tellers were also pointing to hubris, human arrogance, presumptive pride, the root of all sinfulness. And I believe the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil has a very practical application in our own modern context. Our scientific and technological knowledge runs way ahead of our wisdom in being able to use that knowledge responsibly.

What are some examples? First let’s consider our discovery of atomic energy. What was one of the first things we humans did with the power of the atom? We made weapons. Now we also use atomic energy for medicine and power generation, but we have lived in fear of nuclear weapons for over sixty years. With the end of the Cold War, we thought that maybe we could put the genie back in the bottle, but with rogue states like North Korea, Pakistan and Iran acquiring nuclear arms, and now the threat of terrorist organizations obtaining nuclear material once again the mushroom cloud of doom hangs over human kind.

Even the peaceful use of nuclear energy has been called into question by nuclear accidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in Japan. Can we manage nuclear energy safely? Are we wise enough and careful enough? And once a technology like nuclear energy has been developed do we have a choice whether or not to control and regulate its use? We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. It’s like eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. Once it has been done, it is done. We can’t go back. Or as one colorful character in Monee used to say, “we can’t un-pluck the duck.”

Another example of problematic knowledge is in the field of genetics. We have only begun to learn about the manipulation of genetic material, and already we have cloned animals. We have used stem cells to create tissue in a test tube. We are able to modify the DNA of plants and animals to make them resistant to disease. And we’ve only just begun. If we can learn to turn on and off the aging genes in our bodies we may be able to extend human life several decades. What will we do if average life span reaches 120 years of age? And we think Social Security is in trouble now? Are we really wise enough to use this incredible power science has placed in our hands responsibly?

So often after we have a disaster on our hands we look back and say, “seemed like a good idea at the time.” DDT, PCB’s, Fluorocarbons, Dioxins all seemed like a good idea at the time. In the early 1950’s Salesmen actually encouraged customers to sprinkle DDT on their out-door potluck picnics in order to keep the flies away. DDT salesmen were supposed to eat a teaspoon of the product to convince customers of its safety. We live. We learn. Hopefully we grow wiser. But as the Pennsylvania Dutch say, we grow old too soon and too smart to late. Will we grow wise enough to manage our science and technology well enough to avoid our own extinction?

The tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil is in the middle of the Garden, because we are by nature curious. We want to know. And as a species we often succumb to hubris. We think we our knowledge has made us wise, when in reality we know so little.

I think, however, if I was going to rewrite this story today, the tree in the middle of the Garden would be the Tree of Consumerism. And the fruit of that tree would be credit cards. I am not sure if we are driven by the desire to know anymore as much as we are driven by the desire to have, to accumulate, to get more stuff. We are no longer reaching for the stars, because we are too interested in acquiring the next toy. Too many of our best and our brightest are no longer pursuing science and engineering, but have been lured away to look for the big bucks on Wall Street and in Corporate mergers and acquisitions, and in financial services. I could tell we were in trouble eleven years ago, when there were more commercials on the Super Bowl for how to invest your money, than there were beer commercials.

God created us to become intelligent life. Our greed has made us stupid. Our destiny is to reach for the stars, and we have settled for the shallow entertainments of consumerism. Our birthright is curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge and we have settled for the bowl of pottage that is the pursuit of wealth and stuff.

Let us return to the destiny God intends for us. Within us is a potential to transform our world and ourselves and become the next step in the evolution of creation. We are approaching in the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin an Omega Point, reaching toward a global consciousness, the next stage of human evolution. Will that transformation be driven by greed, fear and hate, a consumerist culture, or will we reach instead for faith, hope and love, and embrace our spiritual destiny? Who knows? You choose.

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One Comment on “You May Eat of Any Tree in the Garden, Except”

  1. Nice message Bob. You always had a special insight!


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