Some Thoughts on the Garden of Eden

This past fall, I took an English literature class in which we studied Milton’s Paradise Lost. And my professor began one lecture by saying that he would convince us that if God were in an American court of law, He would find it very hard to defend himself for His actions in the Garden of Eden. He then proceeded to explain how, if you leave something dangerous out and someone else gets injured by it, then you’re responsible for it by law. He also called into question the justness of withholding from Adam and Eve the knowledge of good and evil (because the forbidden tree is called “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” and God forbids them from eating of it).

Now, first of all, there’s the claim that God is not allowed to leave dangerous things out where people can get hurt by them. This is the type of thing that’s deep enough that you can write entire books about it, so I don’t claim to have a complete answer here. But suffice it to say, this claim presupposes a moral obligation on God on the model of human moral obligations. However, as Just Thomism points out in many places (such as here, here, part 4 in here, and here), God is completely different from humans. There is no reason to think that God’s moral obligations are the same as those of humans.

Consider, for example, how much moral obligations vary between people in different social positions. If a child hits another child, the parent would scold him. But the parent is allowed to spank the child if he deems it necessary. The owner of a store can decide what to name the store and how to advertise it, how to organize workers, what price to sell merchandise at, etc., things that regular employees aren’t allowed to do. Taking it up to higher levels of authority, the difference becomes greater. A civilian isn’t allowed to force someone else to sell his house to him, but the state can do essentially the same thing under eminent domain. A civilian isn’t allowed to kill someone for revenge, but a court of law can with due process. If, then, people’s moral status varies so much with each increase of authority even within one species, how much more will the moral status of God (Who isn’t just one limited authority among many, but infinite authority and the source of all other authority) be different from ours?

Further, what it means for something to be good varies according to what that thing is. For an engine, being good is making things move; for a squirrel, being good is eating nuts, storing food for the winter, etc.; and for a black widow, being good includes eating the male after mating. Now, we humans are fragile creatures who can’t survive without the help of others, so it makes sense that it would be in our nature to desire the good of others and help people when we can. But God is in no such position. God contains all the goodness and therefore all the powers of every nature that exists or could exist. He has no other people that share His species, and He certainly doesn’t depend on other people to survive. So there’s no reason to think that it’s a necessary part of being good for God that He do every single good deed He lays eyes on in the same way that it’s a necessary part of being good for a human to do good deeds whenever it’s reasonable. The conditions that cause that obligation to fall on humans just aren’t present with God.

As for the claim that God was unjust in withholding the knowledge of good and evil from Adam and Eve… I would say He wasn’t withholding the knowledge of good and evil from them at all. First of all, good and evil aren’t something you need a magical fruit to understand; the unaided intellect can see that an eye that can’t see is a bad eye, and a parent who kills his children is a bad parent. So the moment God gave us intellects, I think it became impossible for Him to keep us from the knowledge of good and evil.

Second, I doubt that the name of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil necessarily carries any information about the tree in itself. In the Bible, you often find passages where God speaks in terms of effects rather than causes as though they were primary. Thus in Isaiah, we see God saying, “Go, make this people’s eyes heavy and their ears fat, lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and turn for me to heal them.” But is that really what He wants? No; what He’s really telling Isaiah is, “Go, tell the people to repent; but I know that, when they hear you, they will close their eyes and ears to you and refuse to repent.” The effect of the action is spoken of as though it were the primary action.

I think the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the same. The tree’s fruit in and of itself doesn’t cause Adam and Eve to understand good and evil. But because they eat it, they will end up learning good and evil the hard way, through experience, rather than through reflection and observation. The fruit’s name doesn’t tell us that the fruit has any special powers by virtue of itself; rather, it’s the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil by virtue of a purpose that God imposed on it. So by telling Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, I don’t think God was literally depriving them of the knowledge of good and evil.

And third and most importantly, by the mere act of giving Adam and Eve a command, God is already forcing Adam and Eve to contemplate good and evil. A command presents a kind of choice: You can choose to follow the command, or to break it. And a choice is a weighing of the good and bad points of a given course of action. You can decide that it’s good to follow the command and evil to rebel against your Creator, or you can decide that it’s good to follow your own desires and bad to be tied down by authority. By presenting Adam and Eve with a command, God is asking them to consider these possibilities. So far from depriving them of the knowledge of good and evil, He is forcing them to contemplate them.

By the way, on an unrelated note, one of the things I find most interesting about the story of the Garden of Eden is that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is actually a foreshadowing of Christ by inversion. My Scripture teacher in high school pointed this out to the class:

-The tree in the garden is a living tree, and its fruit is beautiful to look at (Gen. 3:6).
-The Cross is a dead tree, and its “fruit” (Jesus Himself) is mangled and bloody.

-By eating of the fruit of the tree in the garden, Adam and Eve brought death into the world.
-By eating of the fruit of the Cross, Jesus’s Body, we gain eternal life.

So already within the first three chapters of the Bible, we have some subtle hints at Jesus.