Sermon: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
In my end is my beginning.”

— T.S. Elliot, East Coker


Primary Scripture: Genesis 2:4-9, 2:15-17, 2:25-3:10, 3:21-24

And Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 10:24-39

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How do you know what is good? This is a problem that is basic to human experience.

When I was growing up, at Thanksgiving, my grandma would always make two dishes of stuffing. One would be the very standard American recipe, and the other would have lots of canned oysters added in. And as a kid, I just thought that was about the grossest thing possible. But my dad loved the stuff. It was his favorite part of Thanksgiving. And when I would complain that the cooking oysters were stinking up the whole house, my dad would say, “Aw, you don’t know what’s good!”

And when he’d say that, it would always kind of sting a bit – it felt like he was being in some way prophetic without meaning to. And now, as a much older person, I can look back at the list of what I would consider my biggest mistakes in life and say that, in the times in which I made those mistakes, I truly didn’t know what was good. I choose the wrong path. I hoped for the wrong thing. I ate from the wrong proverbial tree. Does that sound familiar?

It’s a problem of wisdom. How do you know what’s good and what’s bad? Where do you get the wisdom to discern? Job 28 says:

'Humans can explore the inner places of the earth; they bring hidden things to light. But where shall wisdom be found? It is not found in the land of the living.'

The story that Genesis 2-3 tells is very much about wisdom. It’s about knowing good and bad. And that is quite fitting, isn’t it? Proverbs and the Psalms tell us that God made the world with wisdom; wisdom saturated the creative process. And those books also tell us that a central problem for humanity is a lack of wisdom. Sin itself is the result of lacking wisdom. And we’ll see that Genesis 2-3 shares that perspective, but has, I think, something unique to say about it.

The Story Genesis 2-3 is Telling

Genesis 2-3 picks up where Genesis 1 left off, but whereas Genesis 1 told the cosmic story of how God created the heavens and earth, Genesis 2-3 tells the more personal, human side of how Yahweh God created the earth and heavens.

We learned in Genesis 1 that God created humanity to join Him in His vocation of ruling over and cultivating the earth. Humanity were deputized as governors of the animals and invited to put their own stamp on the created order.

In Genesis 2, we see that reality in action as God has the human name the animals and Adam is commissioned to tend the garden, but Genesis 2 also shows us that the humans are to be servants to creation. They are servant governors and guardian gardeners, in the place where the special presence of God dwells powerfully.

And in the center of God’s garden palace, there are two trees. One of life, which the humans are free to share in, and one of the knowledge of good and evil, which God prohibits them from eating the fruit of.

But, let’s stop here and notice that this is a bit odd. Why can’t they eat of the fruit of the good and bad knowledge tree? The work of a servant governor or a guardian gardener absolutely needs to have knowledge of good and evil – the Hebrew word for evil is pretty generic, and is often translated as simply “bad.”

Did the humans not know good from bad?

Well, let’s look at the story, in both Genesis 1 and 2, God is the one who declares things good or bad. Creation after the sixth day is very good. And a human tending the garden on its own is not good. God, not Adam, makes that assessment. 

And when God brings all the animals to Adam, it is not Adam on his own who makes the assessment that none is a suitable coworker for him, it seems to be a decision that God makes, or that God and Adam make together. But then again, when man meets woman, it’s pretty clear that he recognizes her as something extremely good!

So, it’s not that the humans didn’t have any discernment, the issue is that they are not the arbiters of what is good and bad. The right to declare things to be good or evil belongs to God alone. God is the only one with the wisdom and authority to do so. He is the one who defines what is good and what is bad.

Therefore, when the humans to take from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they are – in a very significant way – usurping God’s authority.

The serpent says to the woman, hey, aren’t you supposed to save Adam from himself? Here’s what he and you both really need: knowledge of good and evil. God’s trying to keep it from you. He wants you to be dependent on Him. But if you take it, you’ll become like gods; you’ll be able to judge for yourselves, what is good and bad.

That’s the temptation for all of humanity. We reject or ignore what God says is good for the world and good for us, and we make ourselves arbiters of good and evil, right and wrong, fair and unfair, beautiful and ugly. And look at the story, Eve is already doing that before she eats. God said the tree was bad, but she decides that the tree looks good; Adam apparently agrees; and they eat.

The Fallout

But then what happens? Do they really become wise? Well, the text does say that their eyes become open. But in what way? They see that they are naked. What does that mean?

In the Bible, nakedness is often a sign of poverty and vulnerability. The first humans were totally exposed in the garden; all the limitations and weakness of their physical flesh were uncovered – and unlike all humans to come after then, it didn’t bother them. Why? Because they trusted God and what he said about them. God called them good and they believed it.

But when their eyes were opened, it became possible to imagine a more negative assessment. They could judge each other and themselves, and suddenly they wanted covering.

There is an irony here that is subtly hinted at in the language. The Hebrew word that describes the snake’s cleverness, arum, and the word used to describe Adam and Eve’s nakedness, arumim, sound a lot alike. Everett Fox picks this up in his translation by using the words shrewd and nude. So, Adam and Eve think that they are going to become shrewd, and instead they end up nude. They don’t get the wisdom that they were looking for. As St. Paul will say of later human generations, “claiming to be wise, they became fools.”

Continuing Fallout

This is a very powerful story. In just a few short verses we find the explanation of the core of humanity’s problems. Let’s just briefly consider two aspects of that.

Problem one, humans judging one another and themselves (who’s good, who’s bad; who’s superior, who’s inferior) leads to so much of the sin we have in the world.

You don’t steal from someone, or enslave them, or murder them, or even gossip about them, unless you’ve judged them less worthy than yourself – you’ve decided that their needs and rights are less important than your wants. Adam and Eve seem to immediately recognize the potential for this, and so hide themselves.

Second, humanity has this persistent problem of deeming things “good” that the Lord would say are bad, or calling things “evil” that the Lord permits and loves.

One of my best friends in high school did a lot of drugs (thankfully I was never interested in any of that). But I would listen to his stories of how he tried just about every kind of popular illegal drug on the market. And he told me once, that he thought most of them were all right, but he wished he’d never tried heroine – because, he said, it was too good. He wished he’d never felt that good. It was always going to haunt him with temptation.

So many things seem good to us. But there are reasons – even reasons we don’t know, even reasons we cannot know – that make them bad for us. God knows far better than we possibly can, the things in our lives that we should prohibit, and the things in our lives that we should embrace.

Where Then, Do We Find Wisdom?

Where then do we find wisdom? What’s the cure for the world’s disease?

One interesting thing about this passage is that the curse God puts on disobedience is ultimately going to fall on Jesus, that is death. In all the saving activity God does through the rest of the Bible, God never takes away the ultimate reality of physical death.

Rather than taking it away, He takes the sting of it upon Himself. Jesus then, doesn’t lead us on a path that avoids death, he leads us on a path through death and out into new life.

And what’s more, while we are still alive he calls us to die to ourselves. Jesus says, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

What does that mean? It means letting go of the things in our lives that we deem good. The things we say, I can’t live without this. Jesus calls us to be willing to lay everything down so that we can follow him to something far better, eternal life in the presence of God.

You might say, I don’t know what all those things are for me. I’m not always sure what God wants for me. That’s why God gives us prayer, and scripture, and the church, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Discernment is hard, and sometimes we’re called just to wait.  

As T.S. Elliot “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope. For hope would be hope for the wrong thing. Wait without love. For love would be love of the wrong thing. … In my end is my beginning.”

The solution, is not to cling to life, to cling to our notions of what is good and evil, but to follow Jesus, as he leads us on the path through death and out into eternal life.