Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Thursday, September 01, 2011

Student's Question on the Tree of Knowledge 

As I was looking over the notes from the other day and reflecting upon your lecture, a question arose. I agree that in order to love someone, you must first know them. Additionally, if the person is good (or perfect...aka God), then the more you learn about them, the more you grow in your love for them. God truly wants us to love (and therefore know) Him. Yet, He forbade Adam and Eve from eating from the Tree of Knowlege. Why would God take away that venue if it would only lead humans to a closer relationship to Him? As I said, it's just a little incongruity that popped into my mind. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Yes, of course God desires us to know Him, the better to love Him. Thus, He would never forbid us to have recourse to knowledge of Him. We just need to be cautious in our exegesis of the Genesis story.

The identity of the ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’ has been a great challenge to theologians. No one can claim with any confidence to understand exactly what the sacred writer meant by this symbol. Certainly, it cannot mean mere ‘knowledge’ of good and evil, in the way that we think of ‘knowledge’. Certainly, our first parents would have already had knowledge of good, since they were created good by God, and experienced communion with God (Adam ‘walked with God’ in the garden). And, while they would not have ‘known’ evil in an experiential way (in the sense that I ‘know’ what it feels like to step in a mud puddle), they would at least have had some ‘notional’ knowledge of evil, in the sense that, being free, they would have been aware that a rejection of God’s commands was at least a possibility open to them.

Most exegetes have preferred to see this tree not as a ‘knowledge’ of good and evil, straightforwardly, but as symbolizing the authority to define good and evil. In this way, God, as the author of good and the giver of the moral law, has supreme authority to dictate what actions are good, and what are evil. Our first parents had the responsibility to accept, humbly, their creatureliness and God’s deity, and to submit to His instruction as to what was good and what was evil. Instead, Satan invited them to refuse the state of creatureliness, and to attempt deification, i.e. to supplant the Creator Himself and become God: as he said, ‘your eyes will be opened and you will become like God, knowing good and evil’ [= ‘having the authority to define good and evil’]. By eating of this fruit, our first parents chose to reject God’s determination of good and evil, and to set for themselves good and evil. As Isaiah 5:20 says, ‘Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil’. They determined that accepting God’s command would be evil, to break it would be good.

Whether or not this understanding is faithful to the text, it seems the best way of handling the complicated issues involved. In any case, it is the understanding which the late John Paul II gives to the text in his encyclical Veritatis et splendor, from which my comments above are largely borrowed. Hope that helps,

# posted by Jamie : 10:21 AM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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