The story of Adam and Eve

A blast from the past! This post was originally published on this blog in March 2010.

A LEGO-minifig Eve picks an apple. Image credit: The Brick Testament.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.

Comments 3

  • Hrm… I don’t read the story like that at all. (Not surprising, I guess [grin].)

    First, there is no lie from God. My understanding: Prior to getting kicked out of the garden, eating from the Tree of Life would enable them to not die. Death comes as a consequence — and, I’d suggest, a grace — once they have fallen as they are kicked out of the garden away from the sustaining tree.

    Second, the knowledge of good and evil is much more than simple moral understanding of “should I do this or not?” They know they should not, but seeing what appear to be huge benefits, they eat it … introducing a knowledge set that is disastrous to them and humanity as a whole. This brokenness — which shatters their relationships both with one another and God — lays the groundwork for all human evil. Rather than gaining good (which they already had), they gain evil … and can now see it (hence the hiding from one another and God).

    Third, like the Greek myths show: Eternal life with the human condition is horrific; the very human-like gods are bored, vindictive, evil, and more. Allowing us to live in such a state would be awful… and quite possibly why hell is so horrific. Hence the fact that this is, in many ways, a grace.

    Fourth, this isn’t about hiding knowledge or suppressing information. It’s about saving us from learning through our own experience. The simplest analogy (imperfect, to be sure) would be like when a parent tells a kid not to touch a hot stove. “Don’t touch that or you’ll get burned.” Should the child willfully touch the stove, they will learn the difference between not being burned and burned. But there is no true benefit to going through the scaring simply to know that you were not burned before.

    Fifth, there is a ton in here about pride and distrusting God and, digging into that, I believe, helps clarify even further why the historical understanding of this passage is solid and beneficial.

    That’s all I’ve got time for at the moment. Hope that was at least a little helpful in expressing the more orthodox reading.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I do enjoy mulling them over because you bring up great points!

    ~Luke

    • I’m going to answer generally rather than go point-by-point so the complexity of our conversation doesn’t increase exponentially with each reply. 🙂 And at any rate, I think there’s a central reason for our disagreement: when I read the relevant chapters of Genesis, I see phrases like “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and “you will be like God, knowing good and evil”. Knowing good looks like a key component here. (I’m looking at ESV online, but other translations put it even more explicitly, e.g. “you will be able to tell the difference between good and evil”.) Based on the text, I don’t see a reason to interpret this strictly as gaining the knowledge of how to do evil, or any reason to think that, as you say, “they already had” the knowledge of good, including the ability to know that it was good to obey God (or even that you’re supposed do the good things and not do the evil things).

      I don’t doubt that a more conventional interpretation of this story, as it’s taught to Christians, downplays these aspects of the text and portrays the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” as something more like Pandora’s Box from which all sorts of badness is released. But I frankly don’t see the textual basis for that interpretation.

      • Good call about not adding complexity [smile]. I do see where you’re coming from… but I believe it’s clear Eve knows what she’s not supposed to do (she’s not morally clueless despite not yet “knowing good”) and that the knowledge they gain in no way helps them (indeed, it breaks every relationship they have). I tried to look up more about the specific textual elements (“good” and “knowledge” and such), and I didn’t find anything illuminating to me in Strong’s or the IVP Bible Background Commentary. The words appear to simply mean what they say [laughing]. So I have nothing to offer on that front.

        The only other piece I can think of that may prove helpful here — or not [grin] — is that the pursuit to be “like God” here is different — at least, in everything I’ve seen in the churches I’ve been in — from the Christian pursuit to be more like Christ. And while Christians do regularly suggest jumping into learning more about evil with both feet is a poor life choice, there is no prohibition against wisdom or learning. So perhaps that’s the other reason I don’t read the passage the way you do: The theme hasn’t carried forward into my Christian experience…

        For whatever that’s worth!

        Again, thank you for bringing this stuff up. I enjoy digging into these things more and striving to see it from a new perspective.

        ~Luke

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