Through the Bible: A Tale of Two Trees


What is the meaning of the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?

Yesterday I wrote about some key themes we learn from Genesis 1 and 2, but I left out one key detail (actually two!).  Genesis 2:8-9 form a sort of summary section (of which there are several throughout these chapters) that highlight something really important:

“Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 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.” (Genesis 2:8-9, NIV)

These two trees symbolize a major theme throughout Scripture.  By saying they are symbols does not necessarily mean they are not real.  God, as the great author of history, can make real things that have great symbolic value!  But whether they were actual trees or not (and I tend to believe they were) is not the real issue.  The real issue is why does God point them out in the creation story?  What are we supposed to learn from them?

The Tree of Life

If you have a tree that bears fruit consistently year in and year out, then you have a good source of fruit.  If that tree is bearing fruit that gives life then you have a constant source of life!  Throughout Scripture God is described as the source of and the one who sustains all life.  There are other metaphors for this as well, such as a river or (or water of) life (which is beautifully combined with the Tree of Life and God’s presence in Revelation 22:1-3).  In yesterday’s post I noted that the key theme in the Garden of Eden is the presence of God.  This is what the Tree of Life is about.  To be near the tree of life and to be able to eat of it’s fruit is to be in the presence of the creator and sustainer of life – God!

Before we move on to talk about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, there is one more very important aspect of the Tree of Life to note:  Adam and Eve were allowed to eat from it!  God does not give any restriction on eating from the Tree of Life until after Adam and Eve sin.  The removal of Adam and Eve from the presence of the Tree of life is significant and I will deal with this when we look at the Fall in Genesis 3, but for now it is enough to note that God’s action in keeping Adam and Eve from the Tree of Life after their sin is as much an act of grace as it is of judgment.  God knew that in their sinful state, to live forever in his presence would not be the wonderful plan he has for them, it would in fact be absolute and unending misery –  an eternal hell.

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was not bad.  If it was, then why would God, after creating all things – including the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – declare creation “very good” (Gen. 1:31)?  The problem was not that the fruit was bad, evil or even poison, as if God put it there to test them.  No, the point of this tree is that it was not for Adam and Eve.  This is a difficult point for us who believe the whole universe revolves around us to accept, but not everything is actually about us!  This tree was about authority – the authority to declare good and evil.  It is about the ability to set the definition of what is good and what is evil and to exercise proper judgement in setting that definition.  This authority, this ability, and this judgement IS NOT FOR US!  It is God’s job and he does it quite well.  We, on the other hand, do this quiet poorly – as all of  human history since Adam and Eve took the fruit has shown.  The problem in taking the fruit was more than simply breaking a command – though it was this.  When Adam and Eve (and yes I know Eve took it first, but Gen. 3:6 says Adam was with her and presumably could have stopped it at any time!) took the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they were making a choice to dethrone God and put themselves in his place.  This is the essence of all sin – it is the failure to recognize and submit to God’s authority and instead replace his wisdom with ours, his judgment with ours, his sense of right and wrong with our twisted, distorted, and extremely limited understanding.  This is why eating the fruit was so bad that it affects all of the human race – it was an act of rebellion against God.

One Tree Remains

As I write this blog series, I am preaching through the book of Revelation at the church where I pastor (Orchard Community Church in Rochester, NY).  Toward the end of the book of Revelation, which is all about God appropriately judging and removing all effects of sin from the world, there is a scene that shows that God’s purposes in the Garden of Eden have never failed and will be ultimately realized forever and ever.  I mentioned the text above, but let me quote it here because I believe it is significant:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life,bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. (Revelation 22:1-3, NIV)

Where is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?  IT IS GONE!  I believe the point is very clear – we are living in the time of the knowledge of Good and Evil now.  We are still digesting this fruit that was not meant for us.  The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not mentioned again in Scripture, but if I may be so bold as to put in my own idea, I do believe it comes up in one key place.  I think it is not without purpose that cross where Jesus was crucified is sometimes referred to as a “tree.”  This was the end result of the eating of that forbidden fruit.  The death he died was because we ate – and keep eating – what is rightfully only God’s.  His death forever uprooted the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and by so doing the cross becomes the ultimate tree of life!  In eternity with God we will forever enjoy it’s fruits day after day.

But for now, in a way we live between these two trees.  We face the constant choice to live recognizing God’s authority, truth, and provision of life through the cross of Christ or to live the lie that we are in control and have the ability or even the right to say what is right and wrong.  Which are you living?

photo by Flickr user BeingandBecoming

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