A blast from the past! This post was originally published on this blog in March 2010.
The account in Genesis about Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the forbidden fruit is fairly well-known. If you’re a member of a religion that includes the book of Genesis in its holy texts, you probably believe it says something significant about morality, even if you don’t believe it to be literally true in every detail. For my part, once I really gave it some thought, I found it to be very troubling — even if you forgive the nonsense about a talking snake, all the archaeological evidence against literal Biblical history, and so on. We can even set aside the ludicrousness of an omniscient and omnipotent God making a tree with forbidden fruit and putting it in Eden. (Wouldn’t God have known ahead of time that they would eat the fruit? Couldn’t he have just not made the tree in the first place?) Even if we view the story simply as a metaphorical moral teaching, the story of Adam and Eve is repugnant.
The forbidden fruit comes from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” God lies to Adam and Eve and tells them that eating the fruit will cause them to die that day. (We know it’s a lie, because they do eat the fruit and that’s not what happens.) The serpent points out the lie, and convinces Eve to eat an apple from the tree, and she gives it to Adam. Unsurprisingly, it gives them “the knowledge of good and evil.” God gets really mad, and punishes them in various and sundry ways, including kicking them out of Eden before they can also eat from “the tree of life” — which incidentally Adam and Eve have never been forbidden to eat from.
Did Adam and Eve know the difference between good and evil, between right and wrong, before they ate the forbidden fruit? Presumably not, since that is the knowledge that the fruit conferred upon them. But if they did not know the difference between good and evil, how could they have known that obeying God’s orders (at least in the context of this story) was the good thing to do? They could not have — they would be literally incapable of this judgment call — and it seems completely unfair to punish them for that ignorance. The other possibility, of course, is that Adam and Eve did already know good from evil, so they could fairly be expected to know they ought to follow God’s orders. However, that would imply that forbidding the fruit from that tree was a total waste of time, an arbitrary and capricious rule. But since Genesis 3:7 says that “the eyes of them both were opened,” it does sound like they learned something from the fruit, and this second possibility is unlikely.
So, the story of Adam and Eve suggests either that the justice of the Judeo-Christian God runs contrary to our most basic notions of what fairness should look like, or (less likely) that the Judeo-Christian God is so arbitrary as to cross the line into antagonism. If you believe in this God and you revere the text of Genesis, please tell me: which one is it?
While we’re at it — why wouldn’t God want his people to know the difference between good and evil? Wouldn’t God want people to be able to choose good over evil, and doesn’t that require being able to distinguish between them? A deity that punishes his people for finding out the difference between right and wrong does not sound very benevolent to me.