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Adam, Eve and the Elephant in the Room - Serpents of Desire, Part 1

May 9, 2009 | by David Fohrman

Why would God want to withhold a knowledge of good and evil from us?

Okay, you've taken some time to re-read the story of Adam, Eve and the Snake. Hopefully, you've read it with fresh eyes, and asked yourself that very basic of questions: "What is strange about this picture?" Before getting to your conclusions, let's take a moment to revisit the basic storyline together. In a nutshell, here it is:

After creating a world, God fashions two human beings and places them in paradise, the Garden of Eden. He gives them virtually free reign over the territory. There's only one restriction: A certain tree is off-limits -- it's the tree labeled "the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil". The fruit of this tree must not be eaten under any circumstances.

In short order, the human beings manage to transgress the only prohibition given to them. At the behest of a mysterious snake, Eve eats from the tree and shares the fruit with Adam. The Almighty becomes angry, and hands out various punishments: The snake? No more walking upright for him; he must crawl on his belly and eat dust. The woman? Generations of her kind will endure pain in conception and childbirth. And the man? He and his progeny will have to work by the sweat of their brow to make bread. And just to round things out, death gets handed out to all the parties; nobody gets to live forever anymore.

Eden is placed off-limits; everyone has got to find somewhere else to live now. The great Lifeguard in the sky has blown His whistle and it's time for everybody to get out of the pool. Why? Because there's another mysterious tree in the Garden -- the Tree of Life -- and the last thing God wants is anyone taking anything from that tree...

Well, what are the problems here? Does the story sit well with you, or do you find yourself uneasy with it? If you are uneasy, can you identify exactly why you are uneasy?

As I mentioned earlier, many Biblical stories have their "elephant in the room": An obvious, slap-in-the-face question that is so basic and so deeply troubling that until you find a way to deal with it, you really can't claim to have any understanding at all f the story you are reading. Is there a question of this sort -- a question of this magnitude -- that we need to deal with when reading the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?

I think there is.

Let's talk a little bit about this mysterious tree in the Garden, the one that God places off-limits. It has a name. It is known as "the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil". By any measure, that's a pretty strange name for a tree -- but if that's what the Bible calls it, then that's presumably what it is: It somehow conveys a "knowledge of Good and Evil," an ability to distinguish right from wrong to those who partake of its fruits.

Are human beings better or worse off, for their knowledge of "good and evil"?

But there's a big problem with this. In a sentence, it is this:

"Why would God want to deny this knowledge to people?"

Think about it. Are human beings better or worse off, for their knowledge of "good and evil"? Is knowing right from wrong an asset or a liability for humanity?

Imagine a world in which people were pretty much the same as they are now -- they were smart, they could walk, they could talk, they could drive cars and become investment bankers. They were missing only one thing. They didn't know right from wrong.

We have a word for people like that. We call them sociopaths.

A person with all the faculties we associate with humanity except for the capacity to understand right and wrong is someone who could slaughter people with an axe the way you and I mow the lawn. Did God really want to create a society filled with such people? Clearly, people are better off when they know the difference between right and wrong. So why would God pretend that having such knowledge is undesirable?

A tempting way out of the problem would be to suggest that somehow, it was all a set-up: God really did want people to have the knowledge the tree would give them, and was in fact "glad" when they ate from it. But this approach is deeply problematic. For the way the Torah tells the story, the Almighty seems pretty disappointed with Adam and Eve after they ate from the tree; he in fact punishes them severely. How are we to understand this disappointment? It seems a little perverse to imagine the Almighty secretly chuckling with pleasure that Adam and Eve finally ate the fruit he put off limits - but hiding His joy behind a mask of displeasure and anger.

Clearly, God really did want Adam and Eve to avoid the Tree of Knowledge. But that brings us back to our question: Why would the Lord want to deny humanity an understanding of good and evil?


The truth is, the question is really even a little deeper than this. It's not simply that it seems strange for God to have put a "tree of knowledge" off-limits to Adam and Eve. Rather, the very existence of such a tree seems to create a basic contradiction in the story as a whole. Here's why:

What happens immediately after Adam and Eve eat from the tree whose mysterious fruits confer knowledge of "good and evil"? The Almighty becomes angry with them and punishes them. But if Adam and Eve were punished for what they did, this presupposes that they knew they did something wrong. You don't punish people who are unaware that they did something bad. So Adam and Eve evidently had some knowledge of good and evil before eating from the tree. At the very least, they knew it was right to obey God when He told them not to eat, and it was wrong to disobey Him.

But now we're really stuck. For if Adam and Eve already understood good and evil before reaching for the fruit, well then, they already possessed what the tree was supposed to give them. And that would mean that the tree was useless, nothing but an empty farce.

It's a catch-22.

This is a very serious, fundamental problem. Didn't Adam and Eve already have the knowledge the tree was supposed to give them? It's the kind of question that you should lose sleep over. For as long as you are stuck with this question, the story of Adam and Eve simply fails to make any sense at all.

So how are we to deal with this problem? I'd like to sketch the outline of an approach we may ultimately find useful.


Perhaps we've been the victim of faulty premises. We've casually assumed that we knew what kind of knowledge the Tree gave to Adam and Eve: A knowledge of "good and evil," of "right and wrong." But on second thought, just because it's called a "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil" doesn't mean that Adam and Eve were ignorant of morality, of right and wrong, beforehand. It just means that they didn't call morality "good and evil." They called it something else.

The approach I am suggesting here is not my own. It in fact is the approach taken by Maimonides, the Rambam. Indeed, in his Guide to the Perplexed, Rambam considers the very same question we have advanced here: Why would God want to withhold a knowledge of good and evil from us? And the answer he gives is this: The tree didn't give us an understanding of right and wrong when we had none before; rather it transformed this understanding from one thing into another. It transformed it into something called a "knowledge of Good and Evil".

What would it mean to think about right and wrong in the world of Eden, in the "pre-tree" world? That, indeed, is the $64,000 question.

If this seems a little obscure, try thinking about it this way: Nowadays, when we do something right, we think of it as "good". And when we do something wrong, we think of it as "evil". But, Rambam contends, those are not the most natural terms one could possibly use. Those terms became relevant to us -- they became part of our vocabulary, as it were - only after we ate from the tree and assimilated "knowledge of good and evil". In the world of Eden, in the world before the Tree, the words "good" and "evil" would have seemed strange and inappropriate. Yes, we would have been aware of right and wrong, but we would not have called this "good and evil". We would have thought about it differently. We would have called it something else.

What, exactly, was that "something else"? What would it mean to think about right and wrong in the world of Eden, in the "pre-tree" world? That, indeed, is the $64,000 question. To some extent, we are reaching beyond ourselves to even ask the question. To ask is to try and understand a world we no longer know; a world in which right and wrong looked, felt and seemed vastly different than they do now. But try we must. For the Torah suggests that it was that world which was the more genuine one. And it is to that world that we strive to return.

Uncovering the nature of right and wrong in the pristine world of Eden will be one of the central tasks before us in the chapters ahead. But before we tackle that, we need to assemble some more data. So for now, it's back to the drawing board: It's time to ask ourselves, once again: What are some of the other problems the story of Adam and Eve holds out to us?

Re-read the text one more time. I'll see you again next week and we'll compare notes once more.

Rabbi Fohrman invites comments or questions from readers. Please use the comment section below.

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