The Other I

July 17, 2013

The tree of knowledge of good and evil

A comment following my post two days ago “What’s good for the goose…” suggests that sometimes we are introduced to an idea that we somehow recognize without further analysis, that resonate with a depth that cannot be fully described.  As I said, I’ve had this experience in what we sometimes call “love at first sight.”  I’ve also had it in relation to music.  I can’t tell you why a piece speaks to me, or even put into words what it means.  But it is sometimes immensely powerful.

Ideas, on the other hand, rarely bowl me over in that way.  I love ideas, but I so often see their potential limitations that I am rarely stunned into silent awe.   “And the greatest of these is love,” probably belongs to that very small group of ideas that seem to reflect a transcendent truth.  And Chomsky’s exploration of the implications of Einstein’s e=mc2 which completely eliminates my need for another “spiritual” world beyond the world of energy and matter in which we exist.

Today I was introduced to a third idea that I find simply stunning.  It is an explanation of the “sin” committed by Adam and Eve which drove them out of Eden.  The Sin was to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, an action which always mystified me.  Until now, I thought this sin was a violation of some supposed arbitrary rule like eating pork or having meat on Friday.  Or far more destructively, the sin was the desire to understand, a definition that in my view represented nothing more than the attempt by those in positions of power to maintain that power by keeping the “plebs” in a state of ignorance by naming the attempt to gain knowledge “hubris.”

But today I was introduced to a third possibility.  The sin of eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is exactly that.  It is believing that we can judge who is bad and who is good.  It is believing that we know who is pleasing to God and who isn’t, who is on their way to hell and who is going to heaven.  It is knowing who the enemy is who deserves to be killed, it knowing what other people’s motives are, it is knowing who is “one of us,” and who isn’t.

Believing that we can make these kinds of judgements with accuracy and impunity is what destroyed life in the Garden of Eden.  It divided the human community into good and bad, into “us” and “them.”  It gave war and revenge a legitimate evil justification.  No wonder the authors of Genesis made this an idea of the devil.

I need to think about this more deeply, but I am wondering if ultimately Genesis sees a willingness to settle our differences through physical power rather than through listening and negotiation and compromise as THE great sin of mankind.

Is all war, then, always wrong?

I have been greatly influenced by World War II.  Could we, in all conscience, simply have let Hitler complete his ghastly work of ethnic cleansing?

Clearly Chamberlain’s agreement with Hitler, his “peace in our time,” was a charade.

But could we have, should we have, negotiated?  Could we, in the worst case, negotiated to accept all of the Jews and all the other people Hitler claimed were “inferior,” into our own countries?

And what of Afghanistan today?  From what I am reading, outsiders from the British, the French, the Russians, and now the Americans, have,  for centuries, misunderstood the tribes living there.  Today we Americans have vilified the Taliban, with the “knowledge” that they are evil.  It’s an attitude which is making negotiations with these “terrorists,” and  our withdrawal from Afghanistan extremely difficult.  Because we already know who is right.  We already know that anybody who disagrees with us are the “bad guys.”

Of course we have to live by principles, and by our convictions.

But eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil might just be that terrible sin of judgement by which we think we know not only ourselves but everybody else too.

What if we had the conviction that war is always a Great Sin, always the wrong way to solve our differences?  Yes, I know this is immensely idealistic.  But as an ideal, how does it stand up against the nuclear option?  or sending in “more troops”?  or “dying for one’s country”?

As I say, I need to think about this more.  But I’m stunned.


  1. “Knowledge” can mean knowing about something, such as knowing about European history or invertebrate paleontology. I think that is what Halstead had in mind; that somehow God wanted Adam and Eve to live in some sort of ignorant bliss. The passage, however, implies that God wanted Adam and Eve to have a kind of scientific knowledge about their world; how could they have dominion over the garden as God’s representatives on Earth if they were clueless about caring for the Earth?


    Comment by Silver Price — August 7, 2013 @ 10:43 pm | Reply

  2. Thank you for your interesting comment. I agree that “knowledge” can mean many different things depending on the context, including, importantly, the cultural context, in which the word is used. What the original meaning of “knowledge” was in the book of Genesis has been the object of study and debate for millenia, which paradoxically, gives all of us the opportunity to make our own decisions.

    Like you, I find it difficult to think that Adam and Eve were meant to have dominion over the garden if they were ignorant about how to care for it.


    Comment by theotheri — August 10, 2013 @ 4:28 pm | Reply

  3. I realize I’m a couple of years late in my comment, but I just happened to stumble across your blog and this post (the internet is funny that way!).

    I’ve always believed we’ve gotten it completely wrong in terms of “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” To me, it’s pretty clear; without the ability to discern good and evil, we cannot judge. Most evil is rooted in judgment; the judgment that one person’s needs or wants takes precedence over another’s, the judgment that “others” are less than we are, the judgment “this” is better than “that,” and therefore we must have “this,” no matter the cost.

    You said “Could we, in all conscience, simply have let Hitler complete his ghastly work of ethnic cleansing?” But Hitler judged his desire for power as more important than the lives of Jews, and judged the Jews as being a “lesser” race. Would the Holocaust have happened if Hitler had not had the ability to judge the Jews as being inferior to the Aryans? I would argue “No.”

    Human beings do not have the wisdom or objectivity to judge others or their actions fairly. We like to THINK we do (and that is the deception). That is why, IMO, the original plan was to let God take charge of that.

    Think about the Michael Brown/Darren Wilson situation in Ferguson, MO. That all began with judgments; the store clerk judged Michael Brown as being dangerous and dishonest, and Michael Brown judged the clerk as being racist and out to get him. The situation spiraled out of control, Michael Brown was killed, rioting occurred …and at every step along the way, judgments were made that led to the final outcome.

    It interests me that so many gloss over the “Knowledge of GOOD” part of the equation. Why, we wonder, would knowledge of GOOD be so destructive?

    God filled the Garden of Eden with “good” things – everything Adam and Eve needed to live happily in eternity. However, they did not recognize it as “good.” To many, that seems unbearably sad. But is it? Because everything in their world was good, but they were unable to acknowledge it as such, they did not want for MORE. The ability to judge something as “good” can lead to materialism and greed and a destructive skewing of our priorities. More power? GOOD. Bigger house, nicer car, designer clothes = GOOD. The most attractive spouse? GOOD. We spend our lives chasing after more of what we judge as “good,” don’t we? Yet, most of us are never satisfied, nor do we recognize what chasing after all that “good” has cost us (and I’m not referring to monetary cost).

    All of Adam and Eve’s basic needs were met, and they were satisfied with just that.


    Comment by TwirlyGirly — January 28, 2015 @ 12:44 pm | Reply

  4. It may be two years late, but your comment was worth waiting for, and I thank you. You bring up what seem to me several ideas that are so important in this day and age. This materialistic urge that seems to plague so many of us for more stuff. I think sometimes it’s an addiction not dissimilar from a drug addiction or gambling compulsion. We don’t need it. Does it make us happy in a deep, fulfilling sense? Rarely. But sometimes it’s almost as if we can’t stop.

    Like you, I too think Hitler did judge that his gaining power and “cleansing” his empire to be the greater good.

    My position, though, creates a dilemma: when, if ever, should we judge the behavior of others? should we all be allowed to pursue what we judge to be the greater good? even if it means exterminating six million Jews and another eight million “undesirables” in gas chambers? Should ISIS be allowed to carry on enforcing their idea of God’s will just because they are sincere? Should parents be allowed to submit their children to rights of torture in order to expel the devil, because the parents actually believe the child is possessed? For me, the answer to questions like this is that we have a moral obligation to try to stop such behaviors. Through explanation, negotiation, compromise, education if possible. But in some cases through sheer physical force if no other means is effective.

    But there is a grave risk in my answer. Because it does mean that I believe that sometimes individuals or societies must judge what others are doing and step in to stop it. And unfortunately history is full of examples of powerful individuals, institutions and societies persecuting behaviors that they judge to be sinful or criminal. And they are wrong. Horribly, destructively wrong.

    I hope you’ll be back again to share more thoughts on issues like this.


    Comment by theotheri — January 28, 2015 @ 9:12 pm | Reply

  5. […] the tree of knowledge of good and evil […]


    Pingback by 烏克蘭郵票 – 歐洲花楸 | 科科儲思盆 — April 30, 2016 @ 7:10 am | Reply

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