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In the spiritually symbolic garden that God planted eastward in Eden in Genesis 2—the garden where God placed Adam (a Hebrew word meaning “humankind”), and later Eve (a Hebrew word meaning “life”)—God also planted many trees.
Only two of the trees are specifically named. Their names make it clear that these are not literal trees—like oaks, maples, and hickories—but trees that represent something deeper about human character and life.
On the planting of those trees, some translations read something like this: “In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”
But that’s not exactly what it says in the original Hebrew language.
Here is the verse in which those trees are planted, in a fairly literal translation of the Hebrew:
And Jehovah God caused to grow from the ground every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. And the tree of life was in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:9)
Do you notice the difference?
The middle according to God or according to Eve?
The Hebrew makes it clear that the tree of life is in the middle of the garden. But the tree of knowledge of good and evil is just sort of tacked onto the end of the sentence; it’s not clear whether it’s in the middle of the garden or not.
Then why do some translations boldly step in and say that both trees were planted in the middle of the garden?
I think they got the idea from Eve.
Here’s what Eve says to the tempting serpent a little later in the story (once again in a fairly literal translation):
And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’” (Genesis 3:2–3)
Some of the translations are a bit off in this verse also. They have Eve quoting God as saying, “You must not eat from the tree that is in the middle of the garden.” But God had said no such thing. Here’s what God did say:
And Jehovah God commanded the man [Adam], saying, “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden. But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you may not eat, for on the day that you eat of it, you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16–17)
God named the tree. God didn’t say anything about its being in the middle of the garden. That was Eve’s addition.
And by the time Eve was casually saying to the serpent that the tree of knowledge of good and evil was in the center of the garden, the serpent easily tempted her into eating from it. That’s what she was longing to do anyway. Adam quickly followed his wife’s lead . . . and the rest, as they say, is history. (You can read all about it in Genesis 3.)
- In addition to many unnamed trees, God planted two named trees:
- The tree of life in the center of the garden
- The tree of knowledge of good and evil in an uncertain location
- God told Adam (who presumably told Eve) that he could eat from any tree except the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
- Eve put the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the center of the garden, because it looked mighty good!
- Both Eve and Adam ate from the forbidden tree, and lost their place in Eden as a result.
In other words, whatever tree we find most desirable, that is the tree we put at the center of our psychological and spiritual garden.
- God put the tree of life in the center.
- Eve and her husband Adam put the tree of knowledge of good and evil at the center.
The meaning of the two trees
What do these two trees mean? And why should we care which one is in the center of the garden, and which one we eat from?
First, the garden is a picture of the spiritual “habitat” in which we live at a deeper level. It is a picture of the inner life of our mind and heart. The animals in the garden—as living, moving, warm-blooded beings—represent our loves, feelings, and emotions. The plants and trees—being “cooler” and more stable and rooted—represent our thoughts, beliefs, and ideas.
So the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil represent two contrasting “big ideas,” or overarching principles, by which we can choose to guide our lives.
The tree of life represents the way of genuine spiritual life.
All of our spiritual life comes from God. So if we choose to eat from the tree of life, it means living by the love and understanding that comes to us from God. And since most of us don’t have a direct pipeline to God, this means turning to the sacred writings and teachings of our religion, accepting them as coming from God, and guiding our lives by those revealed insights of divine truth.
The tree of knowledge of good and evil represents a very different approach.
First, it helps to understand that the Hebrew word used here for “knowledge” does not mean theoretical, abstract “head” knowledge. It means knowledge gained through experience.
As a hint to its meaning, in Genesis 4:1, using the same word, it says that Adam “knew” Eve his wife. Now, lest you think this means he had a heart-to-heart talk with her and “grokked” her true nature, it goes on to say that as a result of Adam “knowing” her she became pregnant. This is a very experiential type of “knowing”!
So it should be clear enough that the tree of knowledge of good and evil means trying out and experiencing both good and evil for ourselves, and making our own decisions about what we think is good and what we think is evil. Another way of saying this is that the tree of knowledge of good and evil means deciding what we think is good and evil, true and false, based on what we learn through our five physical senses, and the conclusions we draw from that sensory experience.
To sum up:
- The tree of life means accepting what God teaches us about how to live our lives.
- The tree of knowledge of good and evil means making up our own mind what’s good and bad, and how to live, based on our own sensory experience of life.
God’s way or our own way?
Which tree is in the middle of your garden?
- Are you willing to take God’s word for it?
- Or do you have to try it your own way, right or wrong, and learn the hard way?
Unfortunately for us, we seem to spend most of our lives chomping away at the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We learn an awful lot of our lessons in the school of hard knocks.
It reminds me of a set of product assembly instructions I once saw. In big red letters on the front of the instruction booklet it said:
WAIT! PLEASE TRY IT OUR WAY FIRST!
That could have been God speaking to us in Genesis 2!
Fortunately for us, God has given us a lot of freedom, responsibility, and time on this earth to try things every which way we please. It’s all in the hope that eventually we’ll realize that our own way tends to get us into trouble, and that God’s way was the right way all along.
God is very patient with us, and is willing for us to learn our hard lessons in our own way, in our own time.
Regaining the tree of life
But do you want to hear something beautiful?
After Genesis 3, the tree of life disappears almost entirely from the Bible story . . . until the very end. In the last two chapters of Revelation, in the promised new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, we once again find that the tree of life occupies a central place:
Between the main street and the river was the tree of life producing twelve kinds of fruit, a different kind every month; and the leaves of the tree were for healing the nations. (Revelation 22:2)
Yes, after all of our struggles here on earth—after we’ve tried it every which way for ourselves, and probably gotten rather banged up in the process—God holds out the renewed promise that in the end, we may once again live in the love and light of God’s presence. We may once again live in a broad-based community of healing understanding and sympathy for one another.
For a video reading of this article on YouTube, click here.
This is one in a series of articles on the theme “The Bible Re-Viewed.” Each article takes a new look at a particular selection or story in the Bible, and explores how it relates to our lives today. For more on this spiritual way of interpreting the Bible, see “Can We Really Believe the Bible? Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could.”