Knowing good and evil

I recently stumbled upon another interesting passage. In 2 Sam 19:32-41 (MT), a character pops up named Barzillai the Gileadite (the original Iron Man?) who is a wealthy supporter of David. He had helped David out previously, so now that he is getting on in years, David invites him to come stay in Jerusalem. Barzillai politely declines, saying:

2Sam. 19:36‏ בֶּן־שְׁמֹנִים‭ ‬שָׁנָה‭ ‬אָנֹכִי‭ ‬הַיּוֹם‭ ‬הַאֵדַע‭ ‬בֵּין־טוֹב‭ ‬לְרָע‭ ‬אִם־יִטְעַם‭ ‬עַבְדְּךָ‭ ‬אֶת־אֲשֶׁר‭ ‬אֹכַל‭ ‬וְאֶת־אֲשֶׁר‭ ‬אֶשְׁתֶּה‭ ‬אִם־אֶשְׁמַע‭ ‬עוֹד‭ ‬בְּקוֹל‭ ‬שָׁרִים‭ ‬וְשָׁרוֹת‭ ‬וְלָמָּה‭ ‬יִהְיֶה‭ ‬עַבְדְּךָ‭ ‬עוֹד‭ ‬לְמַשָּׂא‭ ‬אֶל־אֲדֹנִי‭ ‬הַמֶּלֶךְ

“I am 80 years-old today. Do I know good from evil? Can your servant taste what he eats or drinks? Can I hear the voice of male or female singers? Why should your servant be a burden to my lord, the king?”

This passage immediately made me consider Genesis 2-3 (Warning: some wild speculation to follow), specifically the nature of the “knowledge of good and evil” there.  Traditionally, we take this as having a moral aspect—knowing what is right and what is wrong. In the narrative of Gen 2-3, there are two prominent trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Gen. 2:9‏ וַיַּצְמַח‭ ‬יְהוָה‭ ‬אֱלֹהִים‭ ‬מִן־הָאֲדָמָה‭ ‬כָּל־עֵץ‭ ‬נֶחְמָד‭ ‬לְמַרְאֶה‭ ‬וְטוֹב‭ ‬לְמַאֲכָל‭ ‬וְעֵץ‭ ‬הַחַיִּים‭ ‬בְּתוֹךְ‭ ‬הַגָּן‭ ‬וְעֵץ‭ ‬הַדַּעַת‭ ‬טוֹב‭ ‬וָרָע

“The Lord grew from the ground every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good to eat. The Tree of Life was in the midst of the garden and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The garden is filled with other trees that are “good to eat”, but eating from the fruit of these two is prohibited. In my tradition, the existence of the Tree of Knowledge is usually taken as a test. Eating from it is what is wrong, therefore by the very act of eating the first humans would experience knowledge of evil—the Fall—opening up a whole new can of worms.

This whole section has a very primeval quality to it, and I assume that (like the rest of Gen 1-11) it draws heavily on imagery and themes from contemporary creation mythologies whether directly or indirectly. Particularly, the garden seems to represent the original dwelling place of the gods upon earth, located at the source of the four great rivers. Even in the biblical narrative, God is pictured as abiding in and walking through the garden. Thus, I’ve always considered the trees of Life and Knowledge to have been prohibited because they were the food of the gods. The danger of eating from them is that humans would become too god-like.

As I mentioned earlier, we usually take “knowledge of good and evil” to be moral in nature, but what if it was more like 2 Sam 19:36, that is, it is the ability to experience pleasure and pain? Having tasted the food of the gods, humans would never want to go back to eating from the other trees which, relatively speaking, now tasted like crap. Imagine eating at sizzler your whole life, and then being given a nice thick-cut dry-aged ribeye and a full-bodied Cab to wash it down. Is it better to have loved and lost, or never to have loved at all?

Now, to be clear, I am (wildly) hypothesizing that this could have been a role of the tree in alternative myths and may explain some incongruency in Genesis (ie why it is bad to eat from the tree). Gen 3:6a, however, explicitly interprets the function of the tree as giving wisdom:

Gen 3:6a‏ וַתֵּרֶא‭ ‬הָאִשָּׁה‭ ‬כִּי‭ ‬טוֹב‭ ‬הָעֵץ‭ ‬לְמַאֲכָל‭ ‬וְכִי‭ ‬תַאֲוָה־הוּא‭ ‬לָעֵינַיִם‭ ‬וְנֶחְמָד‭ ‬הָעֵץ‭ ‬לְהַשְׂכִּיל‭  ‬

“And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat and that it was pleasing to the eyes and desirable to make one wise.”

Further, the result of eating is that Adam and Eve immediately realize that they are naked, implying that the fruit has some effect on cognition. So perhaps this little exercise in futility has been a waste of our time. Sorry. It would make a good episode of Lost though….

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4 Comments on “Knowing good and evil”

  1. Recently I have been thinking about good and evil in the sense of refined fine gold such as is spoken of in Job 28:17, Song 5:11, 15 and Lamentations 4:2. These three passages liken such gold to wisdom, to the beloved’s body, and to the children of Zion. Whatever the ‘meaning’ of the Genesis story, it is now the human condition to be refined as such fine gold. [why would a word glossed as fine gold need refining?] So the intermission in Job on wisdom and the preciousness of the beloved’s body and the sadness of the destruction of Jerusalem – almost in order that the children of Zion might know the extremes as one of those examples from which we are to learn. It seems to me that each of us uniquely should search out to learn this truth of this treasure in our earthen vessels.

  2. John Hobbins Says:

    Fun post, Peter.

    I would want to suggest that both 2 Sam 19 and Gen 2-3 are about discernment. Don’t forget 2 Sam 14:17, 20 and Isa 7:15-16. I would also want to suggest that being at the height of one’s ability to process pleasure and pain and being at the height of one’s cognitive abilities go hand in hand.

    This I gather from modern science, but I wouldn’t be surprised if ancient protology anticipates it. It happens more often than one might think.

    Antonio Damasio’s research with patients with prefrontal damage points the way. Such patients are able to reason logically, but their damaged emotional capacity impairs their ability to make (so-called) rational decisions. They are able to endlessly enumerate advantages and disadvantages, but without emotions they did not know what to choose in the end (see Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain [New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1994] 44-51, 191-96).

    Cool, huh? We can’t be discerning or make choices for ourselves if we cannot process pleasure and pain.

    Qohelet, who was a bit of a grouch, saw the cruddy side of this: the more you know, the more it hurts (1:18).

    I think you may be making unintended inferences when you suggest that after eating from the tree of discernment, the first couple would not want to eat from regular trees again. That’s not the point. Presumably, however, they would now discern that the tree of (everlasting) life was desirable, and eat from that.

    But I think you are right to push back at the notion that moral discernment is what is at stake in any of these passage. No, it is discernment tout court, the ability to identify and choose between alternatives, that is at stake in all these passages.

    The insidious nature of Mr. Slick’s discourse is that defiance of God’s command becomes the precondition of becoming like God. This has it all backwards. Becoming like God, the telos of salvation, is conditioned upon obedience to God’s command. That truth goes without saying Gen 2-3, because every Israelite knew it by heart. It’s clear from the first principles of instructional literature as in Prov 1-9 and Pss 111 and 112. It’s clear from P/H with “be holy, because I am holy.”

    Finally, how much do we know, even after having eaten from the tree of discernment? Job 28 looks at that, and comes up with very interesting conclusions.

    Sorry, I rambled on here.

  3. Actually, I really like Marc Zvi Brettler’s interpretation, vis, that in the text in question, da’at (“knowledge”) is being used in the sexual sense and “Good and bad” is a merism for all things sexual. Viewed this way, the phrase “good and bad” has no moral connotation.

    Brettler then goes on to propose and defend the thesis that the second creation story is all about immortality lost and procreativity gained.

    Anyway, great topic. Thanks.


    P.S. Marc Zvi Brettler, “How to Read the Jewish Bible”.

  4. Florin Lăiu Says:

    Very interesting your site and this topic. I also hav thought sometime that “knowing good and evil” might have meant “experience pleasure and pain”, according to the words of Barzilai in 2Sam 19. However, the exact expression of “[not] knowing good and evil” is used in Deuteronomy 1:39:
    וְטַפְּכֶם אֲשֶׁר אֲמַרְתֶּם לָבַז יִהְיֶה וּבְנֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר לא־יָדְעוּ הַיּוֹם טוֹב וָרָע הֵמָּה יָבאוּ שָׁמָּה וְלָהֶם אֶתְּנֶנָּה וְהֵם יִירָשׁוּהָ
    “And the little ones …, your children who [b]do not yet know good from bad [/b]–they will enter the land.”(NIV)
    Thus it is more probable that דַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע means moral discrimination, moral responsability and thus moral autonomy. Adam was made after God’s image, but not immortal (since his “immortality depended on the tree of life”) and not omnipotent, omniscient or morally autonomous (since God gave him “commandment”). Eating from the tree of “knowing good and evil/bad” meant rebellion towards God, not acknowledging His sovereign right to define what is good and what is bad. The tempting serpent challenged God’s right to have moral sovereignty on His creatures, and by its own example it “proved” that one may break God’s word and experience progress instead of death. I find now the expression of Deuteronomy the most relevant answer to the question of “knowing good and bad”.

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