There is a story that God put the man and the woman in a garden and told them that all the trees of the garden were theirs to eat from, except for one: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then the serpent came and asked them, “Did God really say that you could not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge… Assuredly, you will not die when you eat the fruit, but will become like God, knowing both good and evil.” So the man and the woman looked at the tree of knowledge of good and evil and decided to eat its fruit.
To many people this sounds like a story about how God made an arbitrary rule and punishment and then decided to visit all the evil in the world on humankind because a couple human beings decided that they weren’t going to follow an arbitrary and purposeless rule. Maybe that is how a lot of people understand it, and I think it is entirely reasonable that they understand it this way, since a lot of people seem to teach – whatever they say – that God is like man, and that is how human beings behave and how many human mothers and fathers treat their children – even to telling them that they do not and can not know themselves, but must submit to what they – the parents – think best for them, even when it is clearly the children’s business. However, I do not think this is what the story means and, whatever those who have told the tale meant with it, this is certainly never what it has meant to me.
Let me start with a question: How much evil has come about in human history and life because people know – because humans think they know, and, therefore, have a right to enforce their ‘knowledge’ of good and evil? How do human beings in general and en masse act when they think they have the ‘knowledge of good and evil’?
There’s nothing wrong with knowledge, even with knowledge of good and evil, but there is something wrong when the focus becomes on our knowledge. In the story, Adam and Eve did not eat the fruit because they needed to know the next right thing for them to do. They had no such dilemma. In the same way, in the modern world in which we all live, how often do people seek ‘knowledge of good and evil’ that has no personal impact in their lives, that has nothing to do with their need to know what they should or should not be doing? And, when this happens, is it not prone to cause much evil, suffering, and death? What but these result when someone thinks he or she knows what is good and evil in a general, all-encompassing sense (by which I do not mean general as in ‘love is good’ but general as in ‘this rule applies to people in general’)? Do not such people often try to control others (in ways more or less coercive, but none of them good) in order to make them conform to what this person sees as good and avoid what this person sees as bad, instead of pursuing and knowing the good right in front of them? And is damage not done also to an individual when he or she thinks she has a defining, water-tight system of good and evil because she found that something was the right response in one circumstance and thinks that means it is the right response in another? (Pardon my inconsistent use of pronouns.)
I do not read the story in Genesis as one of God making an arbitrary rule and an arbitrary punishment. I read as one of the choice that inherently lies before human beings, and God warning them not of what He would do to punish them, but of the very natural consequences to actions. I do not think it is possible for human beings to seek comprehensive knowledge of good and evil, not as ever-developing understanding of truth, but as dogma, a final characterization that will not bear correcting, without harming both themselves and others in one way or another. It is good to ask, “What is right?” It is good to ask, “What is a good for me now?” It is not good to say, “This is always right. This is always wrong. Now at last I know perfectly the nature of good and evil. Now at last I know what is right and what is wrong for all creatures at all times ever,” and I believe this latter is the eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
To seek knowledge, not out of desire to know what is right, but out of desire to be the judge of all good and evil, is a root of evil.
Copyright 2020 Raina Nightingale