Chapter 5: Paradise the First (cont.)

The late Homer Hoeksema was professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (1)

Concerning the tree of knowledge of good and evil we read, first of all, in Genesis 2:9: "And out of the ground made the Lord God 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 the tree of knowledge of good and evil." Further, in Genesis 2:16, 17 we read of the so-called probationary command: "And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."

First of all, we must emphasize that this tree was a real tree. It was that, or it was nothing. It was perceptible to the senses, or it had no reality whatsoever; and, in the latter case, then all that stands connected with that tree — the command of the Lord God, the threatened penalty of death, the temptation, the eating of that tree, and sin — all these have, then, no reality. Besides, the tree of life, which is mentioned in the same breath with this tree, and all the other trees concerning which we read specifically that the Lord God made them to grow out of the ground and that they were pleasant to the sight and good for food — these also, then, would have no reality. You see, every presentation that would deny in one way or another the reality of these trees is a Bible-contradicting and faith-destroying presentation. The tree of knowledge of good and evil, unique though it was, was a real tree.

As to the place of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we may note that the Bible is not definite. Some have said that also this tree was in the midst of the garden. Others have insisted that it could not have been in the midst of the garden because this would be excluded by the very idea of this tree in relation to the significance of that part of the garden as the place of God's fellowship with man. We may note that Genesis 2:9 places the tree of life in the midst of the garden, but does not specifically locate the tree of the knowledge of good and evil there. And while Eve, in Genesis 3:3, speaks of this tree as being in the midst of the garden, this can hardly be regarded as conclusive. Suffice it to say that this unique tree was in the garden, that is, right in man's very home. The point is that this tree, and the Word of God attached to it, constituted an essential element in man's life in Paradise the First.

Moreover, it is also evident that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was very closely related to the tree of life — but related in significance and purpose by way of contrast. Not only is the close relationship between the two evident from the fact that they are mentioned together in Genesis 2:9 as the two special trees in the garden, in distinction from all the other trees which the Lord God caused to grow there; but this is plain especially from the fact that only in the way of obedience, that is, in the way of not eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, was the way to the tree of life open for man. This tree, therefore, is in a way the very opposite, the antithesis, of the tree of life.

We may ask: wherein did the peculiar character of this unique tree consist?

On the one hand, it was a good tree in itself. This we must bear in mind. That tree was not as such a bad tree, but a good tree. It was a creature of God's hand: the Lord God caused it to grow from the ground even as He made all the trees of the garden to grow out of the ground. Even as in all the trees of the garden God proffered the fruit of the earth to man, so also in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Whatever the nature of the fruit of that tree may have been, the tree of knowledge of good and evil was a fruit tree; like the other trees, that tree was, in itself, pleasant to the sight and good for food. It was not, as a tree, an ugly tree. Nor was it, as a tree, a poison tree. This we must keep in mind, lest we fall into the error, in connection with the history and meaning of the Fall, that sin consists in things — mere natural, physical, material things as such. Nor is death a mere natural process. That tree as such was not a poison tree, a death-dealing tree, as though the eating and digesting and assimilation of its fruit would have disastrous and fatal effects of one kind or another upon man's physical existence. It was not like a bottle of medicine which you may have in your home, on which you may find the insignia of a skull and crossbones and the words, "poison if taken internally." Not at all! That tree was in itself a perfectly good fruit tree, pleasant to the sight and good for food, and proffering to Adam the fruit of the ground out of which the Lord God made it grow.

Yet, on the other hand, the Lord forbids Adam to eat of this tree. For thus we read in Genesis 2:16, 17. Hence, in that tree in itself was presented to Adam the fruit of the ground; and, at the same time, the Lord attached His commandment to that tree, forbidding Adam to eat of it. Just as in all the trees, so in this tree the fruit of the ground, on which Adam's earthly existence was physically dependent, was offered to him. But unlike any other tree, this tree represented a divine prohibition.

Herein lies undoubtedly the key to the correct interpretation of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In distinction from the tree of life, it is prohibitive. For Adam the blessing of that tree of life lay in his freely partaking of it; but the blessing of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil lay in his freely abstaining from it.

The question is: why?

The answer is that the tree of knowledge of good and evil represents antithetically a great, a fundamental principle of man's existence, a determinative principle, a life-and-death principle. It is a principle which held true in Paradise, in the original state of righteousness. It is a principle which remains true even when man has fallen and the abiding truth of which he is made to taste by bitter experience. It is a principle which underlies the gospel of grace as well, and the truth of which becomes the glad experience and willing confession of God's people as they are saved in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What is that all-important principle of man's existence?

It was announced to the children of Israel in the plains of Moab as they were about to enter the land of promise, when the Lord through Moses reminded them of all His wonder-provisions for them while they were in the wilderness on the way to the land of Canaan. For thus we read in Deuteronomy 8:2, 3: "And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no. And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know (and here is the principle I referred to — HCH) that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live." So fundamental, so abiding is this principle, that when 4,000 years later the last Adam appears and, at the very beginning of His public ministry, is confronted by the devil and his temptations, He cites it in answer to the temptation to command the stones to be made bread: "It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Matt. 4:4). The devil said in the wilderness: "Eat!" The last Adam, the Son of God in the flesh, replied: "Eating is not all of life! Man shall live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."

This was the principle of man's existence from the very beginning, and it was embodied and represented in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree whose fruit Adam was prohibited to eat.

What does that principle mean?

It does not mean, as it is so often interpreted and as seems to be the assumption when it is frequently used in prayers preceding mealtime, that bread in itself does not feed man, nourish his physical existence, but that God's Word must bless it in order to make that bread nourishing. This idea is rather superficial, shallow; and it possibly even contains an element of superstition. For the fact of the matter is that when a profane man, an unbeliever, eats his bread (and his pie and his cake, besides), he wipes his mouth and gets up from his meal without ever thinking of God and His Word. But that man is nourished physically by the bread that he eats just as well as is the child of God who bows his head with the prayer, "Give us this day our daily bread," before he takes a bite of food. Nor is this explanation in harmony with the context in Deuteronomy, which certainly emphasizes that the Lord our God can make man live, if He pleases to do so, without the ordinary means of subsistence. Moreover, it is rather in conflict, too, with the use which our Savior makes of these words.

Nor is the meaning of this principle merely this, that man's natural existence is always sustained, not by things, but by the providential Word of God. In that case, the meaning would be that wheat and rain and sunshine are but one Word of God, and the manna which Israel received in the wilderness is another Word of God, the purpose of which was to teach that we must learn to see the Word of God in all things and to trust in God instead of in things as such. Now this is, of course, true in itself and as far as it goes. But this is not the final truth of this principle, as is again evident from our Lord and Savior's application of this passage in answer to the devil's temptation.

This deep, abiding principle means, rather, that man's life is such that it cannot be sustained by bread, by mere earthly bread. Indeed, man is earthy. He is taken from the earth. There is an earthy aspect to his existence. If that earthy side were all of man's existence, then mere bread, the mere fruit of the ground, would be sufficient to sustain him. Thus it is for a horse or a cow: all they need is the fruit of the ground. But thus it is not with man, who was made after God's image and who therefore stands related to God. Because the one man, the one living soul, has not only that earthy aspect to his existence, but also that other, spiritual side, he needs more than bread. For man, life, true life, consists in fellowship with God. To know God and His will, to love God and have fellowship with Him — that is life, true life, for man. To be directed by the Word of God and to obey in love, and thus to hear the Word of God's favor — that is life for man. Man cannot live by bread alone. His life must be sustained by God's blessing, by the Word of His grace.

This was the principle that was expressed in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That tree offers bread to Adam, good bread, prepared from the earth. And yet: it offers bread not to eat! Instead comes the Word of God, commanding him that, while he may freely eat of every tree, from this one tree he must abstain, and thus directing his life in the way of obedience to God. By abstaining from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Adam would exercise that other, that higher, spiritual side of his life: he would obey in loving friendship and service of the Lord his God, and thus truly live.

All of this, we must remember, is significant with respect to the fall and with respect to salvation. For it is this principle that man denied in Paradise when he fell. He chose the fruit of the ground, mere earthly bread, apart from God and His Word; and he died. It is this principle that the natural man has forgotten and denied ever since. He is by nature always prone to seek the things that are below, mere earthy things, as if he could live by them. It is in this light, too, that we can understand the true significance of Christ's application of the words from Deuteronomy at the occasion of His temptation by the devil. The choice for Him was: bread or God's fellowship in the way of obedience. That choice He confronted as the last Adam, the Mediator of His elect people. He chose the way of God's fellowship, the way of obedience, all the way to the bitter and shameful death of the cross, in order that all His redeemed people in Him might, for the sake of His perfect obedience, have the right to and the enjoyment of God's fellowship forever, through faith in His Name and in the way of covenant obedience.