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Some exegetical notes, observations, and tentative conclusions:

1. Among all the trees in the Garden of Eden, God identified two special trees: of life, and of the knowledge of good and evil.

“And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2:9)

2. God allowed Adam to eat from all the trees except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, warning him that death would result.

“The LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of 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.'” (Genesis 2:16-17)

3. After being tempted by the serpent, Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and Adam did the same.

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.” (Genesis 3:6)

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” (Genesis 3:7)

4. After eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—in part to become “wise”—Adam now possesses the knowledge of good and evil like God does, as well as knowledge of their nakedness.

. . . the woman saw that the tree . . . was to be desired to make one wise.” (Genesis 3:6)

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” (Genesis 3:7)

“Then the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.'” (Genesis 3:22b-24)

5. After Adam disobeyed God’s command regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God forbade Adam to eat from the tree of life lest he live forever in that state; therefore God guards the tree.

“Then the Lord God said, ‘. . . Now, lest [the man] reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord 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.” (Genesis 3:22b-24)

6. What does the Hebrew idiom “knowing/understanding/discerning good and evil” mean?

6.1. It is something God—and probably the angels—possess.

“Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:22a)

“And your servant thought, ‘The word of my lord the king will set me at rest,’ for my lord the king is like the angel of God to discern good and evil. The Lord your God be with you!” (2 Samuel 14:17)

6.2. It is something that young children do not possess.

And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it.” (Deuteronomy 1:39)

“He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” (Isaiah 7:15)

6.3. It is something that elderly people may no longer possess.

“I [=David] am this day eighty years old. Can I discern what is pleasant and what is not? . . .” (2 Samuel 19:35)

6.4. It is something that God may grant.

“Give your servant [=Solomon] therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” (1 Kings 3:9)

6.5. Perhaps it is best there to regard it at as something like “mature or independent wisdom, insight, discernment,” with the tree representing an improper way to attain it.

Franz Delitzch:

The tree of knowledge was to lead man to the knowledge of good and evil; and, according to the divine intention, this was to be attained through his not eating of its fruit. This end was to be accomplished, not only by his discerning in the limit imposed by the prohibition the difference between that which accorded with the will of God and that which opposed it, but also by his coming eventually, through obedience to the prohibition, to recognize the fact that all that is opposed to the will of God is an evil to be avoided, and through voluntary resistance to such evil, to the full development of the freedom of choice originally imparted to him into the actual freedom of a deliberate and self-conscious choice of good. By obedience to the divine will he would have attained to a godlike knowledge of good and evil, i.e. to one in accordance with his own likeness to God. He would have detected the evil in the approaching tempter; but instead of yielding to it, he would have resisted it, and thus have made good his own property acquired with consciousness and of his won free-will, and in this way by proper self-determination would gradually have advanced to the possession of the truest liberty. But as he failed to keep this divine appointed way, and ate the forbidden fruit in opposition to the command of God, the power imparted by God to the fruit was manifested in a different way. He learned the difference between good and evil from his own guilty experience, and by receiving the evil into his own soul, fell a victim to the threatened death. Thus through his own fault the tree, which should have helped him to attain true freedom, brought nothing but a sham liberty of sin, and with it death, and that without any demoniacal power of destruction being conjured into the tree itself, or any fatal poison being hidden in its fruit.

C. John Collins agrees:

God intended that through this tree humans would come to know good and evil: either from above, as masters of temptation, or from below, as slaves to sin.

7. In the book of Proverbs, the tree of life is used as imagery in conjunction with a wisdom and understanding, the fruit of righteousness, fulfilled desire, and a gentle tongue.

“She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.” (Proverbs 3:18)

“The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and whoever captures souls is wise.” (Proverbs 11:30)

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Proverbs 13:12)

“A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.” (Proverbs 15:4)

8. Those in the new heavens and the new earth will enjoy the fruit of the tree of life for all of eternity.

“To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:7b)

“On either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22:2)

“Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.” (Revelation 22:14)

“If anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Revelation 22:19)

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19 thoughts on “The Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”

  1. Gary says:

    A very helpful post, thank you!

  2. You might want to check the spelling in the post title.

  3. Byron says:

    Is the numbering a little confusing?

    Regarding 6.1: perhaps the “knowledge of good and evil” was a Hebrew way of expressing judging like deciding what is good and evil/right and wrong. Adam and Even’s decision to eat the fruit was really their way of saying they wanted to call the moral shots of universe for themselves–being like God. That what human judges do, they assign “good” or “evil” to a particular action or situation.

  4. Doug Perry says:

    I’m wirh Byron, seems the numbering is a bit confusing.
    Not sure this is true: “6.1. It is something God and the angels possess.” the man has become like one of us I think refers to the trinity and the angel of the Lord is just as commonly refered to as a pre-incarnate visitation of the Jesus Christ (theophany).
    Since Peter says that the “angels long to look into these things”, I’m not so sure that angels possess the knowledge that God does.

    (And I definitely don’t know how many can dance on the head of a pin:)

  5. Garrett says:


    Under point 2, do you believe that Adam and Eve WERE eating from the tree of life prior to the fall? I know some hold this position, and I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on it!


    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Garrett: It’s a good question. I think the most we can say with certitude is that there weren’t prohibited from eating the fruit of the tree of life—but at the same time we are never told that they actually did eat from it. I would lean toward thinking they hadn’t yet eaten from it.

      1. pduggie says:

        Many people have the picture of Adam and Eve hanging out in garden for a long unspecified period of time before falling.

        There’s no reason for that position, and some reason to adopt the view that they fell almost immediately. Ate from the wrong tree from the get-go.

  6. Steve says:

    Interesting post in that the explanation here seems to pick up & expand on the answer that Tim Keller gave to the question asked by Dr. Eisenbach about why God placed the trees in the Garden.

    1:16:58 – Why did God put that tree in the Garden of Eden to begin with?

  7. Jim Stevens says:

    The temptation “know” good and evil is to “determine” it for oneself. Think about it. HOW does God KNOW good and evil? He didn’t discover it from a book or some other source. He did not consult a public opinion poll. God “knows” good and evil because, as God, He alone possesses the legitimate authority to determine what is good and what is evil. Good is good because God says it is; and evil is evil because God says it is. The temptation is to become like God in the capacity of determining good and evil for oneself. Only God has the right to determine what is evil and good. Our duty is to align our lives with God’s determinations.

    1. Andy says:

      Or, good is everything that is in accordance with God’s nature and evil is everything against it.

  8. YK says:

    Having read Proverbs 3 in its entirety, I think the comparison of the tree of life with a virtuous woman is highly inaccurate. The “She” refers to “wisdom” and “understanding”

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Good catch. I adjusted the wording. Thanks!

      1. YK says:

        That was fast. Other than that a great post. I’ve always wondered about the tree of life mentioned in Genesis.

        This is a good article :)

  9. Ken Temple says:

    But isn’t God’s knowledge of good and evil different than ours, in that man experienced evil by sinning, whereas God does not experience evil since He cannot sin. ?

    Is this right?

    The article does not discuss this issue, but the text naturally makes us (me) wonder about “God knowing evil” what it means; it seems like something is left out by not discussing this aspect.

    So, God discerns and knows the difference, and as another commenter put it, “determines” right vs. wrong; but God does not experience sin or evil.

    I have heard another take on Genesis 3:22, which says, “Behold the man has become like one apart from Us = “separated from us”, knowing good and evil . . . “

  10. Ken Temple says:

    Any thoughts on the relation of Romans 16:19-20 to this?

    “be wise in what is good, and innocent in what is evil” (v. 19)

    and verse 20 – allusion to Genesis 3:15 ?

    1. pduggie says:

      Heb 5:14

      “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”

  11. Caleb says:

    Justin, thanks for the article. I’ve been thinking on this topic for awhile because of how it ties into spiritual death. It would be fun to talk with you about this topic, but I guess this will have to do.

    It looks like the verses you list suggest that the term ‘good and evil’ does not always refer to ‘right and wrong’, but many times refers to good and evil in a general sense. Like how a person might comment on how today was a good day. Or they might say it was an evil day if they had been hit by a tornado. If you think of good and evil in a general sense, then the knowledge Adam and Eve gained was the ability to discern what was good for them and what was bad (or, evil), independent of God.
    First thing they decided, with their new-found knowledge, is running around naked was an evil best resolved with a suit of fig leaves. This differed from God’s idea of what a good covering was made of: skins.

    What do you think; could it be possible that ‘good and evil’ is a term more general in meaning than ‘right and wrong’?

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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