Why was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil placed in the garden? Put another way, if God is omniscient—and therefore would’ve known Adam and Eve were going to sin—why did He place the tree in the garden and allow them to sin?
American Christianity and the Catholic Church purport the following explanation: God was testing man. However, this would suggest God couldn’t really make us good without first testing us. This explanation is insufficient and undermines the sovereignty of God.
The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was not a test of faith; it was a promise for faith. There was nothing God had said to Adam and Eve they did not already know or experience, except for the knowledge of good and evil—that is, the distinction between good and evil. Here, for the first time, is a place where God has said something they could not know or experience. They could only trust God, i.e. have faith and trust in His Word already given to them.
Imagine it this way: They could look at the tree and say, “How nice it is that we never get to know evil. We know what good is because all the good we receive flows from God. I don’t even want to know what evil is!” Wow! What an awesome God! Today, when someone says evil or when we see it, we know what it is because of the repercussions for having eaten the fruit from the tree. Yet when God said evil, Adam and Eve literally had no clue what it was. All they knew was the good—the goodness that flowed from God.
The test explanation follows the idea that we need to justify ourselves by our works with the intrinsic idea that there is some good in all of us. There is no good in us, however. Pop culture fills us with this lie, such as Barry Allen’s strong belief that all people are inherently good in the Netflix TV series, The Flash. Yet as Christians, we know better (Romans 3:9-18; cf. Psalm 14:1-3; 53:1-3).
Let’s take a look at Genesis 3:1-24, verse by verse.
v. 1a, Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that Yahweh God had made. “Crafty” is defined more along the lines of “wise” or “clever.” The serpent—the Devil—was the cleverest of all God’s creatures, so why wouldn’t you listen to him? After all, he is an angel of the Lord. Adam and Eve had no reason not to trust him. Of course, they should’ve trusted ultimately in the Word of God alone, and that is their fault.
v. 1b-3, [The serpent] said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'”
“Did God actually say” is the heart of all evil, and the root of all doubt. Examples from today are, “Did God actually said homosexuality is a sin, that pedophilia is a sin, that I should go to church, etc.?” When the Devil tempts people, even when he tempted Jesus, he often comes with questions.
To use another example, consider the true presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the wine and bread of the Lord’s Supper. Ulrich Zwingli proposed—which the Calvinists promulgated—the following line of thought: “Did Jesus really mean is when He said His body is the bread and His blood is the wine?” Well, He said they are, so I’m going to err on the side of Jesus meaning what He actually said. If God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, then I’m going to believe Jesus when He said, “This is My body, this is My blood.”
They also say the finite cannot contain the infinite. If this were the case, then Jesus could not have become incarnate (Jesus’ finite human body containing the infinite God), and therefore Jesus could not be God but a simple man. For Calvinists and likeminded theologians to stay consistent with their beliefs, then, they have to admit they’re Nestorian. (Nestorianism is the heresy that purports Christ’s two natures—human and divine—have nothing to do with each other, and that a particular action of His is limited to one or the other nature. The correct orthodox view is the hypostatic union between Christ’s two natures—that they are united, neither separate persons nor commingled [Eutychianism], but substantially united. More on this another time.)
In our sin, however, we question the words of what God actually said (using semantics as a poor excuse in the case of the true presence), so people have accepted a deceptive view of the Eucharist. We say, “Of course God didn’t mean that because it makes no sense!” Sorry to break it to you, but that’s what He meant. What God says is not dependent on whether or not it make sense to your puny human brain. You simply have to believe it though it confounds reason. But I digress.
Eve also adds to God’s Word. He never said not to touch the tree. He specifically said, “You may surely eat of every tree in the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die” (2:16-17). God never said not to touch the tree. Eve was not yet created; that came after this command (vv. 18-25).
That Eve knew God’s command not to eat from the tree shows Adam taught Eve God’s Word. That she added to it suggests that either (a) Adam didn’t do a good job of teaching her God’s Word, or (b) Eve exaggerated what she was taught and added the touching bit on her own out of simple fear of eating it. Being taught not to eat from the tree, Eve could’ve thought to herself, “Well, to keep myself from temptation, I shouldn’t even touch the tree!”
Traditionally, theologians are prone to argue for the former, but I am prone to think the latter was more likely. I have two reasons for this. The first is theological and the second is personal.
Theologically, if Adam failed to teach Eve God’s Word correctly, this would mean sin already entered the world (since mankind was perfect before sin entered the world, meaning Adam would’ve taught her perfectly). Sin did not enter the world, however, until the moment of Eve’s deceit and Adam’s giving in to Eve’s sin.
Personally, I have addictive behaviour. I have my own self-given commands not to indulge certain substances lest I get addicted. As a precaution, I also won’t even touch these certain substances. So, Eve, when she was told not to eat from the tree, also could’ve told herself not to even touch the tree lest she become tempted, and to the point that she erroneously added to God’s Word when Satan deceived her. I’m not saying this is what happened, but I am saying it’s another possibility and one I think to be more likely than Adam being a poor husband before Satan deceived them.
vv. 4-5, But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Satan was essentially saying, “You will be better than you are now.” This is the line of thinking that leads to justification by works, which is faith in improving yourself. In this train of thought, we think, “However good I may be now, I want to be better,” and that is precisely what Satan uses here to tempt Adam and Eve. Clever, right?
However, God already said, “You are good [cf. 1:27-31]. You’re fine where you are. Trust me in this.” Then Satan comes along and says, “No, you can be better, and this is how.”
What’s interesting about this statement is that Satan actually tells both a truth and a lie, and he was very clever with it. The lie is, of course, “You will not surely die.” Adam and Eve did die; it simply was not immediate like they might have thought it would be. The truth was that Eve would know good and evil and be like God. The cleverness in Satan’s deceit here was mixing the lie and the truth together and insinuating that God would be jealous to have others like Him.
vv. 6-7, So, when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
Adam and Eve eat the fruit, their eyes are opened, and they know evil. Do things get better? No at all. They get worse—a lot worse. So, they tried to cover themselves. The first step was to hide their shame, and the second step was to hide from God.
Is this not the pattern of sin? We do something bad and we try to hide it—keep it secret. Then we try to hide it from God. Yet hiding our shame only worsens our shame, and hiding from the omniscient and omnipresent God proves to be fruitless. Think of a time when you did something wrong when you were a kid and you tried hiding it from your parents and it proved to be fruitless. They found out anyway. So it is with God. Yet the moment we sin, God knows it immediately. Thus, hiding from Him is utterly feckless.
vv. 8-13, And they heard the sound of Yahweh God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Yahweh God among the trees of the garden. But Yahweh God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then Yahweh God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
God arrives on the scene and He already knows where Adam is. God is calling Adam forth to confess his sin. When God asks Adam where he is, this is the test, not solely for Adam’s sake, but for ours as well. Yet Adam fails to repent and says, “The woman whom You gave to be with me.” Adam fails to accept the responsibility of his own actions. Instead, he blames his wife and God! Adam failed the test. He’s a sinner now, so that’s not surprising.
This is yet another pattern of sin. We would rather put the blame on someone else or God (or both) rather than owning up to our own sins and mistakes. This is recorded for us to see who we truly are; this original sin is our default position.
The woman isn’t any better either. She puts the blame on Satan. She is telling a bit of truth, however. Paul says she was deceived and didn’t know what she was doing (2 Corinthians 11:3). The insult is not to the woman; the insult is to the man because he knew what he was doing. Yet she is still at fault for being deceived because she ultimately failed to put her trust in God’s Word alone.
vv. 14-15, Yahweh God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly shall you go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.
In order to fix everything, God would have to destroy absolutely everything—including mankind—in order to get rid of the evil mankind let into the world via Satan’s deceit. As Creator of this world, God has every right to do that, but He doesn’t. Instead, God does something totally backwards than what we would expect from a righteous, just God.
He has mercy on mankind. Before He places our rightful curses upon us, He blesses us by cursing Satan first and providing a promise in verse 15. God’s first and initial response to our sin is not to destroy us as we deserve, but to promise salvation. He is essentially saying, “I am going to save you from the one in whom you have believed instead of Me. I am going to do this by sending a seed—an individual person born from you to achieve this by crushing the head of your enemy.” This is precisely what occurred in the passion-suffering of Jesus Christ.
vv. 16-19, To the woman He said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Now, this evil is going to do something to us, particularly not to believe the things God has said are good. God has given us two things: dominion (rule) and procreation (family). Our lack of faith in His Word is going to affect how we perceive these things and our sin is going to ruin these things as well.
The curse upon procreation (family) comes in the form of polygamy, homosexuality, transgenderism, promiscuity, premarital sex, adultery, divorce, and other sexual and familial perversions. Children are a good thing that are now cursed, too. Children are born in pain and they cause pain to others as they sin, starting from infancy. No matter how good they appear to be, they’re going to cause other people pain, especially as they grow into adults. It is inevitable because of our condition of original sin.
“Your desire will be for your husband, but he shall rule over you.” “Desire” here would be better translated as “envy.” When God says to Cain that sin is crouching at his door and desires him, it is the same Hebrew word. It is not a romantic desire; it is a destructive craving. The word for “husband” here is the same word for “man.” Thus, this is not only a curse on the marital relationship between man and woman, but also between men and women in general. Next to painful childbearing, woman’s curse is her envy to be like man, but he will rule over her. Just look at today’s “feminists” who are calling for “equality” (that already exists) but are actually calling for superiority, but they keep failing to acquire it and it is precisely because of this curse. Feminism, then, as it is today, is a futile endeavour.
It’s not that the woman doesn’t experience the man’s curse and vice versa. It is interesting, however, that the woman desire’s man’s curse.
Dominion and rule became work and labour, which, at its core, is a good thing. Work, at its core, is good because we receive it from God. However, work is now cursed, and that is not good. Not many of us grow up on farms these days and so may not know the pains of thorns and thistles in the fields, but in our offices we have to face typos, technology malfunctioning and breaking, heat and air conditioning malfunctioning, and competition in the workplace to receive promotions, bonuses, etc.
Our very lives are cursed as well. Now, we experience death in a myriad of ways. No one can escape the curse of death, except in Jesus Christ alone.
v. 20, The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. What happens next? The man changes his wife’s name. Until this point, she was simply called “woman” (from man) just as Adam was simply called “man” (they were the only ones, after all). Adam knows that from her, the seed to save them all will come. This, I believe, is why he names her “Eve.” The name “Eve” has the same consonantal root for the Hebrew word “living,” hence “she was the mother of all living.” She is the mother of all living not just genealogically, but also because life would come from her through her seed (offspring), Jesus Christ.
And so, after they threw it away, God gives faith back to them. Even in the midst of the outfall of their rebellion, God gives faith back to them. Even in the Old Testament, faith comes as a gift, not something we somehow acquire for ourselves. What an amazing, faithful God we have.
vv. 21-24, And Yahweh God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. Then Yahweh God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore Yahweh God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.
God slaughters animals right in front of them to clothe them, another example of God’s mercy. After the promise, God’s first gracious act toward Adam and Eve required the spilling of blood, just as God’s ultimate gracious act toward all of us would require the spilling of the blood of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ.
The text would suggest that the garden of Eden is on earth somewhere, not up in heaven. Where did the garden go? We don’t know. Maybe it is in heaven. The point is that we’re no longer able to get there. We have no access to Eden again. We can no longer access the tree of life, and thank goodness, too. Could you imagine immortal sinners? Yet we have the promise that we will once again have access to the tree of life upon Christ’s return (Revelation 22:2, 14, 19).
Why was the tree placed in the garden? Not for a test of faith, but for a promise of faith. The test of man came not when God gave the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but when God called Adam and Eve forth to confess their sin. They both failed miserably and placed the blame on someone else, even upon God Himself. Yet instead of condemning them (and us) as they justly deserve, God promises a seed will come through Eve to save all humanity and all creation.
By placing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden, God said in essence, “Do not eat of this tree because you will die and know the difference between good and evil. You do not know what death and evil are; you know only what good is, which I give to you freely. Therefore, trust Me. I am all you need.” This was not a test. This was a call to faith—a call to trust. Adam and Eve failed to trust God, and this is the grand curse placed upon us all—failing to trust God in His Word alone.
Yet thanks be to God that Christ the Word dwelt among us and delivers us from the grip of sin and death by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).
©Featured image is Paradise and the Fall by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625).