Garden of Eden

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Creation, Old Testament


The Bible speaks of the tree in the midst of the Garden of Eden being the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and of the Tree of Life being in the midst of the Garden. It sounds like there are two Trees or are there two different names for the same Tree?


In Hebrew, the verse reads, "And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." (Gen 2:9 -- NIV) Most scholars think there were two trees. Most agree that the tree of life had something to do with immortality, though it is not at all clear whether taking one bite would do it or if an ongoing diet was required. Its location at this point in the story suggests that humans were mortal from the beginning, but the possibility of immortality existed. References to this tree are found in Proverbs and Revelation.

Reference to the tree of "the knowledge of good and evil" is only found in Genesis. If eating the fruit of the first tree would lead to immortality, then eating the fruit of this tree should lead to "the knowledge of good and evil." Unfortunately, scholars don't actually know what this means. Some scholars take this to be a merism – it simply means everything, a totality, all that there is. It would be like saying from A to Z or from "soup to nuts." It would suggest everything that's out there to know. The problem is, of course, that after Adam and Eve ate from this tree, they didn't know everything. They knew they were naked, but that's hardly "everything."

More recently, scholars think this relates to maturity. In its other biblical uses, having "the knowledge of good and evil" seems to be a quality that adults possess, but children do not. There is the oft-quoted passage in Deut. 1:39, which states, "Your little ones, who you thought would become spoils of war, your children who do not yet know good from evil – they will enter the land." When Solomon has been made king, God asks him in a dream what he would have. Solomon replies, "I am a mere child, unskilled in leadership…Give to your servant therefore a heart with skill to listen, so that he may govern your people justly and distinguish good and evil" (I Kings 3:7-9, NEB). Even though he is grown up, he makes his request from the standpoint of a child, unskilled in leadership. Lastly, when King David was returning to Jerusalem after a successful campaign, he met his old political ally, Barzilla. He invites him to return with him to Jerusalem to live out his final days at the palace. At the ripe old age of 80, Barzilla says, "Can I tell the difference between what is good and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats and drinks? Can I still hear the voices of men and women singers?" He declines King David's offer, not wanting to be a burden to the throne (II Sam. 19:35). However, in II Sam 14:17, the woman of Tekoa praises David, "For my Lord the king is like an angel of God in discerning good and evil. May the Lord your God be with you."

The common thread among these examples seems to be one of maturity. The first two had not yet reached that point, whereas Barzilla had gone past it. King David has it just right.

We may never know with any certainty what the author intended this phrase to mean, but suffice it to say that for the moment, there is a lovely garden, filled with trees, delightful to look at, and bursting with fruit to be eaten. Man should be content. He is to care for this garden and enjoy it.

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