Tree of Knowledge by Kyle Greenwood

The tree of knowledge appears at Gen 2:9 and Gen 2:17, and is presumably the tree mentioned at Gen 3:4, 11, 12, and 22. In the Yahwist’s creation account, the tree of knowledge is one of two specific trees that God makes grow in the Garden of Eden. It is the only plant from which the human (Hebrew, ha’adam) is forbidden to eat, on consequence of death.

Both times it appears, the tree of knowledge is modified by the adjectives good (Hebrew, ṭov) and evil (Hebrew, ra‘). But what is this knowledge of good and evil that has been deemed off-limits to humanity? Here are four more common interpretations of what it means to know good and evil.

Sexual knowledge. Eating from the fruit of this tree represents the beginning of sexual desire. The Jewish commentator Ibn Ezra first proposed this view in the Middle Ages, noting that after eating the fruit Adam covered his nakedness and “knew (Hebrew, yada’) his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain” (Gen 4:1). Furthermore, in two other places in the Bible, knowing the distinction between good and evil is an indication of puberty (Deut 1:39, Isa 7:15–16). In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the wild hunter Enkidu becomes “like a god” after a week of exploits with a harlot. Scholars point out that this corresponds to the biblical first human becoming “like one of us” (that is, like a god) in Gen 3:22.

Omniscience. Consuming the tree’s fruit gives the eater knowledge of everything. When an author defines the entirety of something by referring to its extremities, it is known as a merism or merismus. Examples in the Bible are “the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1) and “when I sit down and when I rise up” (Ps 139:2), which may be understood as “the entire cosmos” and “all activity,” respectively. When Abraham’s servant asks permission to take Rebekah as Isaac’s wife, Laban and Bethuel respond, “We cannot speak to you anything bad (Hebrew, ra‘) or good (Hebrew, ṭov)” (Gen 24:50). That is, they have nothing to say that would prevent the marriage arrangement.

Moral discernment. In an attempt to flatter king David, the woman of Tekoa praises David for being able to discern good (Hebrew, ṭov) and evil (Hebrew, ra’) (2 Sam 14:17). Likewise, when the Lord appears to Solomon in a dream asking “what I should give you,” the new king requests the ability to discern between good (Hebrew, ṭov) and evil (Hebrew, ra’) (1 Kgs 3:5-9). According to this view, eating of the tree of knowledge offers humans the ability to evaluate moral situations and choose between good and evil.

Divine wisdom. Biblical wisdom literature implores its hearers to “get wisdom” (Prov 16:16; see also Prov 23:23). At the same time, it cautions that some wisdom lies beyond the human prerogative (Job 15:7-9; Prov 30:1-4). Proponents of this view point to the King of Tyre, who was metaphorically expelled from Eden for claiming to be a god (Ezek 28:2, 9, and 13) to have “the mind of a god” (Ezek 28:6). Moreover, in the wisdom tradition, life apart from the fear of God is a path that leads to death (Prov 14:12, Prov 16:25), while the one who delights in the law of the Lord thrives (Ps 1). In this view, true wisdom is found in the recognition that life flows from the fear of the Lord, rather than from self-dependent knowledge.

Since the tree of knowledge only appears explicitly in two verses, there is simply not enough information to know its precise meaning. Despite the compelling arguments for each interpretation, scholars remain divided over which view presents the most persuasive case.

Kyle Greenwood, "Tree of Knowledge", n.p. [cited 1 Oct 2022]. Online:


Kyle Greenwood

Kyle Greenwood
Associate Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew Language , Colorado Christian University

Kyle Greenwood is associate professor of Old Testament and Hebrew Language at Colorado Christian University. He is the author of Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science (IVP Academic, 2015), and the editor of Since the Beginning: Interpreting Gen 1–2 Through the Ages (Baker Academic, forthcoming).

The known universe.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A wild man created to be the equal and friend of Gilgamesh by the goddess Aruru. Enkidu’s death compels Gilgamesh to search for immortality.

A Mesopotamian epic centered around the king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, and his quest for immortality, with themes of humanity, friendship, and the duties of kings.

A Mesopotamian king from ~2500 B.C.E.; he became the hero of a major epic poem and was addressed as a deity in later religious texts.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The historical period generally spanning from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. in Europe and characterized by decreases in populations and the degeneration of urban life.

A category of biblical literature that typically deals with the nature of God and the moral and practical aspects of human experience.

Gen 2:9

9Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and t ... View more

Gen 2:17

17but 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 die.”

Gen 3:4

4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die;

Deut 1:39

39And as for your little ones, who you thought would become booty, your children, who today do not yet know right from wrong, they shall enter there; to them I ... View more

Gen 3:22

22Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of li ... View more

Gen 1:1

Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,

Ps 139:2

2You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.

Gen 24:50

50Then Laban and Bethuel answered, “The thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you anything bad or good.

Prov 16:16

16How much better to get wisdom than gold!
To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver.

Prov 23:23

23Buy truth, and do not sell it;
buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.

Job 15:7-9

7“Are you the firstborn of the human race?
Were you brought forth before the hills?8Have you listened in the council of God?
And do you limit wisdom to yourself ... View more

Prov 30:1-4

Sayings of Agur
1The words of Agur son of Jakeh. An oracle.

Thus says the man: I am weary, O God,
I am weary, O God. How can I prevail?2Surely I am too stupid ... View more

Ezek 28:2

2Mortal, say to the prince of Tyre, Thus says the Lord GOD:
Because your heart is proud
and you have said, “I am a god;
I sit in the seat of the gods,
in the he ... View more

Ezek 28:6

6Therefore thus says the Lord GOD:
Because you compare your mind
with the mind of a god,

Prov 14:12

12There is a way that seems right to a person,
but its end is the way to death.

Prov 16:25

25Sometimes there is a way that seems to be right,
but in the end it is the way to death.

Ps 1

(Psalms 1-41)
The Two Ways
1Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffe ... View more

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