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I Really Don’t Get the Whole “Tree of Knowledge” Thing

Posted by BrianJ on January 31, 2010

There, I admitted it.

I just don’t get what it means. I feel like over the last couple of years so much of the Garden narrative has come together to make sense in a way that it never did before, but I just can’t seem to put my finger on that tree. So, what do you make of it?

Before you jump into answering my question, I should offer up some interpretations I have considered—or at least, some questions I’ve pondered (some of which relate to the story as a whole).

Is the emphasis on knowledge or on good and evil? Before partaking of the fruit, did Adam and Eve know a lot but just not about good and evil (hence the emphasis is on the particular type of knowledge gained), or were they truly ignorant in a general sense (emphasis on knowledge in general).

What is good and evil? I always thought of this in terms in right v. wrong, but it frankly makes no sense to think of Adam and Eve ever not knowing (in some sense) that difference. Or in other words, I can’t find meaningful ways to interpret the rest of the story if Adam and Eve really didn’t know the difference between right and wrong—every decision thus becomes merely a whim and therefore devoid of meaning. (Maybe that would be a nice message if it didn’t mess up the rest of the story!)

So I started looking for other interpretations. Some argue that “good and evil” is meant to mean “everything from good to evil and in between”; i.e., this tree is the knowledge of everything. That’s interesting, and certainly fits with the idea that “now they are like gods”, because God knows everything (but see below). I’m more partial to the idea that “good and evil” means something more like “desirable and undesirable,” as in “that which is good for man….” It’s a reading that allows Adam and Eve to have extensive knowledge of a lot of things before eating the fruit—a sort of “book smarts,” though, not “street smarts.” It also fits within the framework of discussing the tree along with pleasure/pain, etc.

Allegory schmallegory. Elder Talmage, and perhaps many others, were partial to the idea that the fruit was literally a fruit that caused physical changes to one’s body—think Word of Wisdom here. I confess that I view the story far too allegorically for that.

Surely there are different levels of reality at play throughout the story. I don’t want to get into that too much, but one meaningful way to read the story is not just as history (i.e., it is a story about two people and only those two people: Adam and Eve) but to read it as archetype: each one of us is Adam and Eve. Meaning, that each of us partook of this fruit at some point (or we still are partaking?) and became fallen. I think I like where that archetypal reading goes, but I can’t make sense of what this archetypal fruit is in my life (in practical terms).

Did God really get all his knowledge from eating fruit? Yes, I know this is a terrible question because I haven’t even determined what the fruit is yet, but whatever it is, is it something God ate too? Seems like quite a short-cut* to omniscience.

* well, maybe: it all depends on what the fruit really is.

How is this a negative thing again? No, no, I’m not forgetting how this all worked into the Plan. Rather, I’m thinking about Lehi’s teaching that “there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter.” Note that I’m also not thinking in terms of opposites, as though the two trees are enemies or something, just that I don’t see why the two trees need separating.

What’s the specific point? If the point is just to say that Adam and Eve disobeyed, then the tree could have been anything forbidden to eat: The Tree of Knowledge of Bowling, The Tree of Classical Piano, The Tree of Green Pants, the Tree of Sausage. Maybe it had to be a tree with enticing fruit, but certainly that last one would have been intriguing! Aside from how the fruit plays into the rest of the story (enticement, temptation, obedience, etc.), there’s something particularly important about the tree being about “knowledge of good and evil” and not something else.

And now, I am craving some sausage. Which is sort of how this post turned out. Thanks for reading and for any insight you have!

15 Responses to “I Really Don’t Get the Whole “Tree of Knowledge” Thing”

  1. Daniel Ortner said

    This is an interesting post!

    It always seemed to me that the problem with the tree was not that the desire to have knowledge was bad, but precissely that eating from the tree was bad because it was a short cut towards that goal… Adam and Eve were willing to rely on their own strength and the advice of Satan rather than ask the Lord. In effect taking the fruit was making a choice to estrange oneself from the lord because it was a decision to make the journey individually at least to an extent.

  2. SilverRain said

    I like what Daniel said, but want to share one verse that shines a little light on it. Moses 5:56: “It is given unto them to know good from evil; wherefore they are agents unto themselves, and I have given unto you another law and commandment.”

    So the fruit of the tree of knowledge was agency.

    Also, in 2nd Nephi 2, it mentions the trees in opposition: that one fruit is sweet and the other bitter. Most of the time, we assume it is the tree of knowledge which is bitter, but if you read it, the parallels seem to suggest that the fruit of knowledge was actually sweet and the fruit of the tree of life was bitter. The fruit of the tree of knowledge was agency and the fruit of the tree of life was the Atonement.

    I could go into more depth, but not without a overly lengthy comment.

  3. SilverRain said

    Sorry for the unclosed link. I blame lack of sleep.

    [fixed—the link anyway; even as admin I can do nothing about your sleep]

  4. RobF said

    I think the emphasis is on good and evil, and that there can be no real “knowledge” of good or evil because those are judgments, not actual realities. When you start judging reality, and you start making distinctions between what you consider good and what you consider evil, you create separation and oppositions. Separations between yourself and God, you and your spouse, people and the earth, etc. I think we are too quick to take Satan at his word when he is enticing Eve in this story. Where else in the scriptures would we even consider getting our doctrine from Satan? What if we took EVERYTHING Satan says in this exchange as a lie? How might that change how we see this story?

  5. Karen said

    I’ve had similar questions as well.

    We can’t say that it was “agency” without qualifying it, since Lehi seems to say in 2 Ne 2 that it was precisely the setting up of the two trees that gave them agency (v.15-17).

    I think it would be an interesting reading that good and evil meant “desirable” or not desirable, since Eve’s conversation with Satan leaves her seeing the tree as “good for food,” “pleasant to the eyes,” and “desired to make one wise.”

    It seems they must have had some “knowledge” of good and evil since they were given a commandment.

    However, if the tree’s “knowledge” is something different, it could mean that they couldn’t really understand what a law was until they had experienced a consequence. Even if they could be told everything that was good or bad, could it have any meaning until there was a punishment at some point? (I’m thinking of my experience with 2 year olds here. They don’t really believe you until they get punished at some point!) So even though they had been told they had agency, had been given two trees with a law about them, could they really have an idea what bad or good meant? The tree of knowledge could only be experienced by breaking the law, and hence by receiving a punishment. The tree gave the knowledge of what a punishment was, and therefore they could construct the ideas of good and evil.

    The other reading I have played around with is that they didn’t discern who was evil and good until after the fruit. The reason Eve could fall for Satan’s beguiling is that she didn’t have any discernment of good or evil influences. It’s a thought. I confess I like reading of “tree as experience of punishment” better myself.

  6. RuthS said

    Karen: You make an interesting point about the three of life versus the tree of knowledge (tree of death). Lehi has not set out to explain what the symbolism of the trees he has set out to explain why we need opposites and since everything has an opposite there was a fall because they ate from the tree of knowledge there must be a tee of life standing in opposition to it. The thing that stands in opposition to the fall is the atonement or the tree of life or Jesus Christ.

    Eve tells Satan in Moses that she is free to eat of all the trees except one. She is not given a choice between two trees. She has the joice to obey or to disobey.

    I fully agree with your paragraph about understanding good and evil. You might try to explain hot to a child but until she gets burned she will not know what hot is. I think this is where Adam and Eve were there was no other way for them to know what mortality and all of its joys sorrows and pain and pleasure and even death means without actual experience.

    If you want the forbidden tree and its fruit to mean something allegorical then it must represent something concrete. It must represent some act of disobedience. I don’t know what that is. Maybe I don’t need to know.

  7. Matt W. said

    Here’s my current interpretive understanding, based on the lamplight of my own conceit and all that.

    The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is representative of the experiential knowledge gained via living a mortal life. Adam and Eve (Us), in their(Our) pre-mortal life chose to go through the mortal experience so as to gain this “knowledge”. Thus the Symbol of choosing to partake of the fruit.

    God then puts flaming swords to guard them from the “tree of life” so we would not “live forever in [our] sins”. This is symbolic to me of the necessity of sanctification, and that God can not simply justify us and bring us home to him to dwell in his perfect love. We have to become the person who can dwell in that love without it causing us to perpetually live in our sinful imperfect state.

  8. Karen said

    A quick clarification:
    From reading Alma 42 & other places, I wonder if we could say that a law doesn’t really exist unless there is a punishment attached (in opposition to a happiness). If this is the case, and you’ve never experienced ANY punishments, then what could a law mean to you? My two year old example may have been a bit misleading from what I was getting at. It’s not that my toddlers need to break every rule I give them to know I am serious, but there is a point in a kids’ life where they finally realize that their parents really do give rules and really can do something about them! There is a point where I see my kids put two and two together, that when I put them in their room it was because they disobeyed. Before that point they don’t connect the two so the punishment and the rule both have no real meaning. But when they link up the two, then I can start disciplining. They at least have the concept of a rule, whereas I’m not sure that they did before that. This was the idea I had with the tree: by experiencing a punishment once, they could receive more laws and those laws would have real meaning. They could then experiment, test, fail, repent, etc., because they could comprehend the order of rules and laws.

  9. The whole Garden story is an allegory, based on cosmological archetypes. That’s why there is a garden story in the traditions of almost all ancient cultures. They shared an experience paraded before them in Earth’s ancient skies. From that cosmological manifestation, they each created their Creation and Garden stories. These astral events were seen in the epoch that Orson Hyde cited as the “grand constellation of worlds,” an arrangement of planets in close proximity to Earth that presented the Patriarchs with a celestial pageant of epic proportions. All the Garden and Creation imagery draws upon those astral events and images (archetypes) to create a narrative or allegory. The two trees, Life and Knowledge, are the traditional Tree of Heaven, with it’s roots in the Earth and it’s branches spread among the stars. It was the Axis Mundi, the celestial axle of the Wheel in Heaven. For more information on this I suggest: http://www.mormonprophecy.blogspot.com.

  10. RobF said

    Anthony, thanks for stopping by. Enjoyed your books back in the 80s before my mission. Would be interested to get your take on The Ignorant Schoolmaster that we are reading and discussing here as well.

  11. NathanG said

    I would be satisfied if the answer centered on your last point. They disobeyed. It wouldn’t break my heart to find out the fruit was something common and simple, like an apple today, that God had simply forbidden them to eat. They ate and they faced consequences for their action. Then they spend a lifetime of getting additional commandments from God (voice of God from the garden commanding sacrifice, angels coming to give the second commandments mentioned by Alma.) As they kept or disobeyed those commandments by the exercise of their agency, they continued to learn good and evil, or they learned to embrace the good and reject the evil.

    Maybe good and evil is the separation of things that lead to God and lead away from God. This is defined by the laws and commandments given. Some seem to be no brainers and fairly universally applicable (murder, adultery, stealing). Some seem to be specific for specific people or groups of people (Law of Moses, Word of Wisdom, individual callings). In each case a command is given and it is an opportunity to gain a little more knowledge of the good or evil that comes from obeying or disobeying. The fruit, in this line of thought, simply being the first command.

    The fruit is a good first command as it was something that fit within the conditions Adam was in. Here’s this garden that will sustain you. Eat, but don’t eat this one thing. Other commands wouldn’t have fit the setting of the garden as well as something to eat.

  12. kirkcaudle said

    Karen #8, that was great example was the 2 year old. And I love this line, “I wonder if we could say that a law doesn’t really exist unless there is a punishment attached (in opposition to a happiness).”

  13. Robert C. said

    Great discussion. I’d add that I think that knowledge can/should also be understood in contrast to faith, as discussed in Alma 32 for example. Understanding good and evil requires disobedience, I think, and yet like Karen’s kids, we too can learn to have faith in our parents’ advice. We can learn to obey in faith, without repeatedly partaking of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, so-to-speak. By obeying in faith, grasping the iron rod and pressing toward the tree of life, we are like Karen’s kids who learn obedience, not making the same mistake of disobedience over and over…?

  14. BrianJ said

    All: thanks for your input. I’ve been swamped lately so I couldn’t respond earlier.

    Daniel: “…it was a short cut towards [having knowledge].” I hesitate to accept this reading because it’s not clear that the Tree of Knowledge offers the same type of knowledge that the Lord promised to return and provide. If there are two types of knowledge, are both types of knowledge necessary for full enlightenment? Nevertheless, you would still be right that Adam and Eve may have thought the Tree was a short-cut to whatever knowledge they could wait and get from God. I wonder: does the Tree’s knowledge always lead to death? i.e., was there ever a way for Adam and Eve to gain that knowledge in a way that would not lead to the Fall?

    SilverRain: Are you suggesting that Adam and Eve did not have agency before they ate the fruit? I’ve always believed that agency is as eternal as we are; i.e., we have always existed and we have always had agency. I agree that 2 Nephi 2 could be read in parallel to suggest that the Tree of Knowledge is sweet, but since I still don’t have a way to interpret that tree, I’m not sure how to think of its sweetness. (P.S. Feel free to post as lengthy a comment as you want!)

    RobF: It’s hard to know how to read Satan here. Are those really his words, and therefore lies, or are true words being put in his mouth—he’s just being used in the narrative? And can Satan only lie, or is some of it true and some false? Since we can’t know the answers to those questions, I think we have to essentially ignore everything he says.

    Karen: by your reading, the Tree was not really a tree of knowledge—it did not itself provide any knowledge. Rather, it was a setup—a placebo of sorts: it only worked to bring about knowledge/experience/wisdom because of the constraints placed around it. If there had been no rule about eating it, or at least no consequence attached to breaking that rule, then the tree would not have provided any knowledge at all.

    I confess I kinda like your “discernment of good/evil influences” interpretation. :)

    RuthS: “[The Tree] must represent some act of disobedience.” Only if “disobedience” is what we determine the tree to be about in the first place.

    MattW: so do you think there was some other way for us to gain this experiential knowledge, or that this experiential knowledge is somehow unnecessary for our progress from premortal life to exaltation?

    Nathan: you wouldn’t be even a little bit disappointed that the tree was given this fancy name—Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil—when in fact it was just a tree to test obedience? Why not call it the Tree of Obedience?

    Robert: “Understanding good and evil requires disobedience.” Would you say that God also disobeyed then, or conversely that he does not understand good and evil? (Obviously, if we accept the Lorenzo Snow couplet then this question is moot—but I don’t wholly accept the couplet.)

  15. kirkcaudle said

    Brian, I would also agree that agency is eternal. I also think Adam and Eve understood they had agency before the fall.

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