Barry Newman's Blog

March 28, 2011

Science and Genesis 2: 4b – 3: 24 (part XVIII)

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 9:07 pm

The trees of the garden

The tree of life is first mentioned in Gen 2: 9 and then again in Gen 3: 22 and 24.  The notion of a tree of life is found in Proverbs (3: 18, 11:30, 13:12 and 15:4) and the Genesis reference is again taken up in the New Testament in Revelation 2: 7 and 22: 2 and 14. The references in Proverbs relate to how people live, with wisdom, righteousness, the longing of a person being satisfied and using helpful words, forming the subject matter.  The references in Revelation seem to be more directly associated with the tree of life of Genesis.

The notion of food that would allow one to live “forever” is not an uncommon one in the literature of the ancient Near East (Walton, pp. 28, 29).  In the “Tale of Adapa”, Adapa, a priest of Ea, misses out on the opportunity to gain immortality because he obeys the instruction of Ea not to eat food available at the abode of the god of the heavens who has summoned him there. He is later informed that the food was the “food of life”.  In the Gilgamesh Epic, Gilgamesh searches for “eternal life” and is finally lead to a plant that will satisfy his desire. The plant grows at the bottom of the sea but it is eaten by a serpent before he can partake of it.  Behind both these accounts lies a “tree of life” idea.  However the relationship between the Genesis account and these accounts is not substantial.

It is clear from Gen 3: 22 and 24 that the fruit of the tree of life was able to sustain life.  God declares that man “must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take … from the tree of life and eat and live forever” (NIV). Walton, commenting on the word “forever” states that, “Careful study of the term … has demonstrated that it is not an abstract term suggesting infinity or eternity per se, but characterises something being open-ended with no anticipated ending built in.” (p. 170).  Furthermore, given that living in the garden would seem to involve eating of the fruit of the trees on a ongoing basis it would be odd if, with respect to the tree of life, one only ate once of its fruit.  That is, the idea seems to be that the man was expected to eat fruit from the tree of life from time to time and that the fruit would continue to sustain his life.  Walton suggests that it would counteract aging.  If this were the case, then one could reasonably postulate that the man (and later the woman) in the garden as quite young adults – to use a modern term, “adolescents” – perhaps adolescents approaching sexual maturity.  This notion will be taken up later.  What is not assumed by this writer is that one bite of the fruit ensured immortality.  That notion seems to be contrary to how the garden functioned.

What type of tree was the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”?  It is obvious that eating the fruit would result in the acquisition of some type of knowledge and Gen 3: 20 makes this clear – man having eaten of the fruit now knows “good and evil”.  Even the serpent informs the woman that upon eating it her eyes will be opened … knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3: 5) However what is meant by the term, “good and evil”?

References to “good” in conjunction with “evil” in the Old Testament are numerous.  They go together often as alternatives, with the idea of there being no other possibilities.  The precise Hebrew of Gen 2: 9, 17 and 3: 5, 22 is repeated in Deut 1: 39 while 2 Sam 14: 17 speaks of “the good and the evil” and 2 Sam 19: 35 and 1 Kings 3: 9 refer to distinguishing “between good and evil”.  Perhaps the Deuteronomy reference is quite pertinent since it relates to children who have no knowledge of “good and evil”.  Walton, by way of a summary, mentions the passage in Deuteronomy and writes that when “good” and “evil” are used with the verb “to speak”, it suggests that the speaker is passing judgment on an issue; with the verb “to hear” it refers to listening with discernment; with the verb “to know” or similar, together with prepositions it is a reference to the capability of discerning (p. 171).  On this basis, to state the obvious, “knowledge of good and evil” in Genesis 2 and 3 could be understood to entail knowledge that involved the awareness of  matters that otherwise would not have been noticed.  This seems to be the situation in Gen 3: 7 when both man and woman realised they were naked. It seems to this writer that “knowing good and evil” does not have as its prime reference knowledge of what is morally good or evil. 

We should note that the text indicates that the tree of life was in the middle of the garden and so too was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Their positioning and their proximity is not unimportant.



  1. Typo: In the second last sentence in paragraph 3, I presume “mortality” is supposed to be “immortality”?

    Also, I’m not sure I understand your reasoning for the statement near the end, “It is inappropriate to understand the term as necessarily relating to that which is morally good or evil.” I understand the range of meaning of the Hebrew words “good” and “evil”, but in this context I struggle to see them as not having a moral connotation.

    Enjoying reading these posts.

    Comment by Stephen Shead — March 31, 2011 @ 9:37 am | Reply

    • Thanks Stephen. Yep, I did mean “immortality”. I’ll correct it.

      With respect to the “morally good or evil” statement, the argument is that the phrase as such in its connection with knowledge in the text should not necessarily (with some emphasis on “necessarily”) be understood as referring to moral issues. Perhaps I should have stated that more clearly. I am not denying that for the man and the woman there was a moral issue involved or that the words, “good” and “evil” taken separately often have a moral sense. Rightly or wrongly I think that the phrase “knowing good and evil” has to do with discernment without that discernement being necessarily tightly tied to explicit moral issues. Upon reflection however I think that when I deal withe outcome of the disobedience of the man and the woman I should make mention of the possibility of a moral connotation again.


      Comment by barrynewman — March 31, 2011 @ 9:13 pm | Reply

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