The Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis 2 and 3

The story of the first couple in Genesis 2 and 3 is well-known and often referenced in the lives of religious communities and in culture more broadly. The text of this story is very terse and full of “pregnant silent spots,” as one of my mentors used to say. One aspect of this story that people have often thought about is the meaning of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” that God put in the Garden of Eden. There are many questions: Why did God put it there if he didn’t want the humans to eat from it? Is it still somewhere on the planet? What does “the knowledge of good and evil” mean?

On this latter question, people have come up with a number of ways of thinking about it. Some have said that this turn of phrase means “everything.” Others have suggested that eating of the forbidden fruit is a veiled reference to sex. Still others have suggested that “the knowledge of good and evil” is to be understood as a reference to moral discernment or wisdom, an attribute that distinguishes humans from the rest of the created order.

Each of these answers has something to say for it. If we think of “good and evil” as a merism—like our own phrase “from A to Z”—then what the first couple sought was knowledge that would make them like the gods. Perhaps this is what the serpent means in 3:5 and what the LORD God seems nervous about in 3:22–23 where we hear this: “‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’—therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken.” God admits that the couple has become like the divine beings and is nervous about the knowledge they have, so limits their lives.

In favor of the story as a veiled reference to sex is the reality in the change of the couple’s perception. Just before the serpent approaches the woman we hear, “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (2:24). Immediately after, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (3:7). The fact that awareness and shame about their nakedness is the way the author decided to note the change, suggests that we have a story about innocence and discovery of sexuality, or perhaps a story about becoming civilized. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the wild man Humbaba is brought into the civilized world through sex with a harlot. Save that, it seems he would have remained in the wild.

These two interpretations certainly have something meaningful to say, but it is the third one that is most compelling to me. The reasons for this are several. First, is that the phrase “the knowledge of good and evil” is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible to speak of moral maturity or the lack thereof. So, children (Deut 1:39; Isa 7:15–16) and old people (2 Sam 19:35) don’t have the knowledge of good and evil. On the other hand, when Solomon asks God for wisdom, he says, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (1 Kgs 3:9). While there is one passage that might be understood to favor the interpretation of this phrase as a merism (2 Sam 14:17, 20), and “knowing” is used as a reference to sex (e.g., Gen 4:1), other things in this passage tilt the balances towards the idea of wisdom or discernment.

The first and most direct pointer towards this interpretation is that when the serpent is speaking to the woman, he says, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4–5). Here, having open eyes is linked with being like God and knowing good and evil. But what is it to have open eyes? Were the man and woman like baby animals who come forth from their mother’s womb and don’t open their eyes for several days? Or is this a figure of speech?

In 3:6 we hear this: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” But I thought that the serpent said they would gain the knowledge of good and evil. Why did the woman think it would make her wise? And if it is wisdom that is received from eating the fruit, why would God be so unhappy about it? Doesn’t he want humans to wise?

What is meant by wisdom and the knowledge of good and evil is clarified in what happens in 3:7 after the couple has eaten the fruit. We hear that “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” Wait, what does nakedness have to do with having open eyes? What does that have to do with the knowledge of good and evil or wisdom? And how in the world does that make the man and woman like God?

In Gen 2:25, just before the temptation story begins we find out that the man and woman were naked and not ashamed. Then, after they ate the fruit, their eyes were opened and they knew they were naked and move quickly to cover themselves up. So, there is a set of interlocking concepts in this story: nakedness, shame, knowledge of good and evil, wisdom, open eyes, and being like God. I would argue that we are not likely to understand the meaning of these ideas if we take them individually; they are a set. In this story, where we see so many things about human life explained (marriage, fear of snakes, pain in childbearing, hard work, and strife between male and female), we should expect that this part of the story is explaining something too. Using consciousness of one’s body as the groundwork, the story explains how humans reached a sort of species wide adolescence in which they departed from the company of animals to become more like God in that they now had discernment, insight, and recognition of self. And so, God then limits humans by expelling them from the Garden and blocking the way to the Tree of Life so that they will not be able to live forever (3:22–24). God’s concern with limiting human capacity is also visible in the Tower of Babel story in Gen 11. There, God is concerned that if humans remain in one large group “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Gen 11:6). And so God confuses their languages so that they can no longer communicate effectively and they have to split up.

While it is a little hard for some to fathom, that God would be threatened or intimidated by humans, both of these stories suggest that for some reason that was in fact the case. The moves God made to limit human abilities help explain some of the things that humans have dealt with for millennia—the problem of death and the recognition that there are many people not like my group.

If this reading is even remotely on target, it suggests that many of the questions we have about the so-called Fall of Mankind are misguided. It is not a story about how Original Sin came into the world. It is not about the Devil or Satan (who are never mentioned). It is about human mortality and the things that separate us from other creatures. In evolutionary terms, we could say that it speaks to the time when Homo Sapiens gained self-awareness.