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….