Another blogger writing a series of thoughts on biblical stories asked last week about those two famous trees in the garden of Eden – the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Why weren’t they just called the Tree of Life and the Tree of Death?
That tree of knowledge caused me a certain amount of consternation in my earlier days. It was suggested to me more than once that using my intelligence was a sign of hubris and unwillingness to serve others with humility. And indeed, it did seem to me that the Genesis story did teach that the pursuit of knowledge is what began the cascade of good and evil which ultimately leads to death.
Obviously I don’t agree with that interpretation. But I don’t think either that is what the original story in Genesis was meant to convey at all. First of all, I think the word “knowledge” does not refer to information or intelligence, but to behavior. I think it is used here with the same meaning often used in the bible to refer to carnal knowledge – to “know” one’s wife is to have sexual intercourse with her. In this case, I think the “knowledge” of good and evil refers to engaging in behaviors that are destructive. Like Cain murdering Abel.
I’m not convinced either that the Genesis story meant to suggest that before Adam and Eve human death did not exist. The Hebrews do not seem to have preached this.
My own view is that what Genesis was saying is that there is a kind of alienation from life which the human kind of knowledge seems uniquely capable of creating. In our religious, philosophical, and scientific pursuits, we often set ourselves apart and above every other being in the universe. We separate ourselves, we see ourselves as totally different. In this isolation, our individual death really is the end of everything. We do not see ourselves as part of a larger world, as participating in a process that is far greater than our few measured years.
We also often cut ourselves off from learning from other life forms which have not tasted of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” All living beings do not flee death in terror. Although I am in good health, as I am getting older, I can even feel a potential letting go in myself. I have had the privilege of being with animals and with some humans as they have reached the end of their lives. In both, I have sometimes seen a deep, almost transcendent, sense that it is time to go. There has not been a terrified struggle, but a peaceful letting go, a sense that this part of the story is finished.
I’m not talking about the frenzied rush which engulfs living things faced with premature death. I saw it in the spider which managed to get into my shower at eleven o’clock last night. I saw it on the face of a woman today who thought she had stepped into the path of an on-coming car. It is something that most of us have experienced in the face of grave danger.
I’m talking about the general knowledge that we are going to die some day in the unspecified future. I’m not convinced that the fear that engulfs many people as a result of simply knowing that at some point this life is going to end is intrinsically “natural.” It is a fear that comes with the tree of Knowledge. But it’s not a tree of true Knowledge. It’s a tree of denial, of false superiority, of losing contact with what we really are, and where we truly belong.
That tree of knowledge of good and evil is the Genesis explanation of death because it is a tree of alienation. Metaphorically, it is we who walked out of the Garden of Eden, and are now spinning around in ungrounded fear.
But I think we can go home again. I think we can learn again to love what we are and our place in the universe – however mysterious that is.