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The Tree of Knowledge, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder

In the Book of Genesis, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or the tree of knowledge (and occasionally translated as the tree of conscience, Hebrew: עֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע, Etz haDaat tov V'ra) was a tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:9) from which God directly forbade Adam (Eve having not yet been created) to eat (Genesis 2:17). A serpent later tempted Eve, who was aware of the prohibition, to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge (Genesis 3:1-6). Adam also ate, and they became aware of their nakedness (Genesis 3:6-7). After this, in order to deny them access to the tree of life (and, hence, immortality), they were banished from the garden and forced to survive through agriculture "by the sweat of [their] brow" (Genesis 3:19-24).

A similar story is mentioned in the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam.

Interpretations of the tree itself

Translation Issues

God forbids Eve to pick the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil
marble bas-relief by Lorenzo Maitani on the Orvieto Cathedral, Italy

Gordon and Rendsburg[1] have suggested that the phrase טוֹב וָרָע, translated good and evil, is a merism. This is a figure of speech whereby a pair of opposites are used together to create the meaning all or everything, as in the English phrase, "they searched high and low", meaning that they searched everywhere. So the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they take to mean the tree of all knowledge. This meaning can be brought out by the alternative translations tree of the knowledge of good and of evil (the word of not being expressed in the Hebrew) or tree of knowledge, both good and evil. The phrase occurs twice as applied to the tree, Genesis 2:9, Genesis 2:17. It also occurs twice as describing the knowledge gained Genesis 3:5 and Genesis 3:22 where it may be translated perhaps with knowledge, both good and evil.

In Judaism

According to the Jewish tradition God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree that was to give free choice and allow them to earn, as opposed to receive, absolute perfection and intimate communion with God at a higher level than the one on which they were created. According to this tradition, Adam and Eve would have attained absolute perfection and retained immortality had they succeeded in withstanding the temptation to eat from the Tree. After failing at this task, they were condemned to a period of toil to rectify the fallen universe. Jewish tradition views the serpent, and sometimes the tree of the knowledge of good and evil itself, as representatives of evil and man's evil inclination.

Judaism generally recognizes no "evil" other than the evil actions of human beings. Eve's only transgression was that she disobeyed God's order. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden and had to live ordinary, human lives.

Rabbi David Fohrman of the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies, citing Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, states that "the tree did not give us moral awareness when we had none before. Rather, it transformed this awareness from one kind into another." After eating from the Tree, humanity's innate sense of moral awareness was transformed from concepts of true and false to concepts of good and evil. Genesis describes the tree as desirable (3:6), and our concepts of good and evil, unlike our concepts of true and false, also have an implicit measure of desire. [3]

In Christianity

In Christian theology, the tree of knowledge is connected to the doctrine of original sin. Augustine of Hippo believed that humanity inherited sin itself and the guilt for Adam and Eve's sin.[2] This doctrine of inherited guilt is not accepted by the Roman Catholic Church. By eating of the fruit of the Tree, Adam and Eve sought to be like God. (For a debate about the Western doctrine of original sin and the Eastern doctrine of ancestral sin see Ancestral Versus Original Sin [3]). There is a minority of Christians that affirm the doctrine of Pelagianism, which believes every individual faces the same choice between sin and salvation that Adam and Eve faced and that ultimately each person can by themselves and without God's assistance (grace) overcome sin or temptation. There are some non-denominational Christians who do not accept the idea of original sin, because they believe that we are not born into sin, we are born into a sinful world. Therefore, children are innocent until an age of accountability and the decision to accept Jesus Christ is possible with full understanding. Illuminism as per gnostic mysticism has been associated with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To the Christian, the tree of life is Jesus Christ, and not by higher knowledge, but only by faith in the atonement brought by His blood, true life in Him can be found and restored.

In Islam

Muslims believe that when God created Adam and Eve, he told them that they could enjoy everything in the Garden but this tree, and so, Satan appeared to them and told them that the only reason God wouldn't want them to eat from that tree is that they will become Angels or become immortals.

When they ate from this tree they became aware of their nakedness and realized the size of the mistake they had made: committing the first sin in all of human kind. As a result of their sin, they were removed from heaven and placed on Earth to live and die. Consequently, they repented to God and asked for his forgiveness and were forgiven.It was decided that those who obey God and follow his path shall be rewarded with everlasting life in Heaven, and those who disobey God and stray away from his path shall be punished in Hell.

Trees in other religions

Illustration from the Ockelbo Runestone, Sweden.

Similar trees appear in other religions. The same story with male, female, serpent and tree can be found - 22 centuries before the version of the story we know from the Bible - depicted on a mesopotamian cylinder seal, so the later versions are - more than probable - copies of the original. In the closest, most relevant comparison, the iconic image of the tree guarded by the Serpent appears on Sumerian seals; it is the central feature of the Garden of the Hesperides in Greek mythology, where the guardian serpent receives the name Ladon. In Buddhism, the Buddha became enlightened under the Bodhi tree. In Vedic Hinduism, the Tree of Jiva and Atman is usually interpreted as a metaphor concerning the soul, mind, and body. In the Norse sagas, the ash tree Yggdrasil draws from the magic springwater of knowledge. To some who believe the Bible is filled with allegories, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is actually a library or some other form of educational writings.

Freudian (psychological) interpretation

A rather Freudian interpretation is that knowledge of good and evil, or simply good and bad, refers to the recollection of a memory with an implied judgement. This is a natural process for neurological systems (humans and animals) to make to avoid pain or gain pleasure. However, human consciousness includes extensive recollection and teaching such as by the use of books, which could be called a fruit from the tree of knowledge. It is clearly distinguishable from the simple awareness of other animals. This allows human beings to make deliberate choices that they consider beneficial even if they include an element of pain.

The process of maturation occurring in the incidents around the tree describes, in an abstract way, the splitting of the human consciousness into the limited context of conscious thought and the underlying all-aware unconscious.

New Age interpretation

According to some, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis may mean the beginning of dualistic thinking, and the Garden of Eden represents the previous spiritual world, a world of enlightened mankind, a world of oneness. Ishmael, a 1992 novel by Daniel Quinn, discusses the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as representing the story of the Fall Of Man.

Fruit of the tree

The pseudepigraphic Book of Enoch 32:4, dating from the last few centuries before Christ and purporting to be by the antediluvian prophet Enoch, describes the tree of knowledge: "It was like a species of the Tamarind tree, bearing fruit which resembled grapes extremely fine; and its fragrance extended to a considerable distance. I exclaimed, How beautiful is this tree, and how delightful is its appearance!"

In the Talmud, Rabbi Meir says that the fruit was a grape.[4] Another Talmudic tradition suggests that Eve actually made and drank wine.[5] Rabbi Nechemia says that the fruit was a fig[4] while Rabbi Yehuda, is that the fruit was wheat.[4]

In Western Christian art, the fruit is commonly depicted as an apple, (they originated in central Asia). The source of this apparently lay in a Latin pun: by eating the malum (apple), Eve contracted mālum (evil).[6]

Proponents of the theory that the Garden of Eden was located somewhere in what is known now as the Middle East suggest that the fruit was actually a pomegranate, this is due in part to the fact the pomegranete was native in the region.[7] This ties in with the Greek myth of Persephone, where her consumption of six pomegranate seeds leads to her having to spend time in Hades.[8]

The Fall of Man

In Christian theology, the tree is closely connected to the doctrine of original sin. The Apostle Paul wrote that sin and death entered the world through Adam, but that Jesus saved us from the penalties of sin and death Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22. Western Christianity generally affirms St. Augustine's doctrine that all of humanity has inherited both sin itself and the guilt for Adam and Eve's sin. By eating of the fruit of the Tree, Adam and Eve chose to substitute their own knowledge of good and evil for God's. However, since human knowledge is limited, human morality is inherently flawed. From God's perspective, human morality is depraved, although different denominations debate whether this depravity is total or partial, and to what degree humanity can freely choose to follow God's morality. By contrast, Eastern Christianity believes that the fruit of the tree distorted humanity's nature; sin itself is inherited, but not the guilt for Adam and Eve's sin. A minority of Christians affirm the doctrine of Pelagius, which states that while Adam and Eve set a bad example by eating from the tree, their sin does not directly affect the rest of humanity. Rather, Pelagianism states that we all face the same choice between sin and salvation that Adam and Eve faced.

According to a medieval Christian legend, the Tree of Knowledge was the source of wood for the True Cross. In some interpretations, the Tree of Knowledge represented the cross, while the Tree of Life represented Jesus Christ. Martin Luther's Christmas sermons used this analogy.

Gordon Hugenberger notes that courts were often set up near trees in the ancient Near East. For some capital offenses, the condemned was hung from a tree Deuteronomy 21:22. Meredith G. Kline compares the Garden of Eden to a temple: The garden was a rectangle bounded by four rivers, and the temple was also a rectangle. God was present in the temple-garden, and Adam was the priest. The priest's duty was not only to obey God, but also to deal with offenders such as the serpent. Adam and Eve were thus meant to judge the serpent, but instead listened to the serpent and disobeyed God.

See also


  1. Gordon, Cyrus H.; Rendsburg, Gary A. (1997). The Bible and the Ancient Near East (4th ed. ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.. ISBN 0-393-03942-0. OCLC 35785632. 
  2. The City of God (Book XIII), Chapter 14.
  3. Hughes, Antony. "Ancestral Versus Original Sin: An Overview with Implications for Psychotherapy". Cambridge, Mass.: St. Mary Orthodox Church. Retrieved 2006-05-11. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Berachos 40a; Sanhedrin 70a. CF [1], accessed September 7, 2006.
  5. Bereishis Rabah 15:7; 19:1; Zohar Bereishis 36a and Noach 73a. CF [2], accessed September 7, 2006.
  6. Adams, Cecil (2006-11-24). "The Straight Dope: Was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden an apple?". The Straight Dope. Creative Loafing Media, Inc.. Retrieved 2008-10-06. 
  7. "Purdue New Crops Profile". 
  8. "Encyclopedia Mythica article on Persephone". 

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