Tree of Knowledge
TREE OF KNOWLEDGE
The tree in paradise whose fruit Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat. Like the tree of life, this tree with the full name of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gn 2.9, 17) was thus called from its effect: the eating of its fruit gave the knowledge of good and evil. The tree, the focal point in the narrative, is linked to bodily death, which is not to occur immediately after its fruit is eaten, but eventually (2.17; 3.3). However, the tree is linked also to the knowledge of good and evil, which, in context, is a liability to man and woman. The phrase, the knowledge of good and evil, occurs several times in the Old Testament, sometimes with reference to all knowledge that lies between the two extremes of good and evil (2 Sm 14.17, 20), and then it can mean "everything or anything" (Gn 31.24). But the phrase may refer also to a knowledge that judges what is authentically good, or evil, or both (2 Sm 19.36; 1 Kgs 3.9). This second notion seems to be present here. But it is not for man to decide lightly, arbitrarily, or in opposition to Yahweh what is right or wrong—as man has always tended to do, and was doing when the yahwist tradition took shape. The aptness, even though deceptive, of Gn 3.5 should be underscored; for man does become, by presumption, like ' Ělōhîm (meaning either God or superior beings), as the serpent in Paradise had claimed he would and as Yahweh Himself admitted (3.5, 22). To eat of the tree is tantamount to insolence and open rebellion against God. The tree is a literary and pedagogical device not to be taken at face value, and yet implying a much deeper reality than any tree—a reality inherent in man's condition. The tree's identification as an apple tree is pure fancy, resting on Ct 8.5 (mistranslated and misunderstood), or on a Latin wordplay involving malum, or on a later meaning of pomum. The tree has no close analogy (as a tree) in ancient Near Eastern literature; but note gilgamesh epic11.29, 34 for a similarity in effect: "wisdom, broader understanding," and "like a god" (see J. B. Pritchard, Ancient
Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament 75b).
Over and beyond what has been said, however, the phrase probably has a sexual implication already in such Old Testament texts as Dt 1.39 and 2 Sm 19.36. That the term as used in the Yahwist's story of the fall of man should have this additional connotation is borne out, too, by a usage of the phrase in the Qumran Rule of the Congregation (Serek ha-' Ēdâh ), 1.1.11, where "sexual maturity" has been suggested as an adequate translation for the Hebrew that is literally "the knowledge of good and evil." Such an interpretation fits in with what many scholars think about the serpent in Paradise.
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, translated and adapted by l. hartman (New York, 1963) 1288–90. h. junker, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65); suppl., Das Zweite-Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) 2:67–68. l. f. hartman, "Sin in Paradise," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 20 (Washington 1958) 26–40. j. coppens, La Connaisance du bien et du mal et le Péché du Paradis (Louvain 1948) and review by r. de vaux, Revue Biblique 56 (1949) 300–308. b. j. lefrois, "The Forbidden Fruit," American Ecclesiastical Review 136 (1957) 175–183. h. renckens, Israel's Concept of the Beginning, tr. c. napier (New York 1964) 272–282.