When knowledge of good and evil isn’t a good thing

Genesis 3:8-15 (NIV)

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,

“Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.
15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”



            Here we are at the beginning of the summer, and already we are talking about the Fall. No, not autumn, but the fall of humanity. We often refer to the first recorded sin in the Bible as “The Fall.”

            We have all heard the story before. God creates Adam and Eve, places them in the Garden of Eden, and tells them to enjoy everything that God has made. Enjoy the animals; enjoy the flowers; enjoy the fruit and vegetables that are growing naturally around you. Adam and Eve even enjoyed the company of God himself as Genesis tells us that God took walks in the garden in the cool of the day. Life was good; no, life was very good!

            But there was one rule that Adam and Eve were required to keep: Don’t eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What happens in the next chapter? *Sigh,* they eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

This brings us to today’s scripture with Adam and Eve hearing God out on his evening walk and jumping behind some trees and shrubs. But God is looking for them and calls out to them. Adam speaks up saying that they hid because they had heard his voice and they were naked.

            God replies in verse 11, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

            Then the blame game starts. Adam tells God “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” He doesn’t say Eve gave the fruit to him. He doesn’t say “My wife” gave it to him. He refers to Eve as the woman you put here with me. Notice that Adam puts some of the blame on Eve and some of the blame on God. If God hadn’t put the woman there, she couldn’t have tempted him in the first place.

            Eve, not about to take all of the blame herself, points out that the serpent tricked her. It is the first sin, and the first time that someone uses the whole, “The Devil made me do it” excuse.

            The problem with knowing a story like this so well is that we often read through it too quickly and we can miss a lot of good stuff. When I slow down and read this story again, I find myself asking some difficult questions, questions that I really don’t have answers for, but will ask anyway.

            When I slow down and read this story again, I ask myself, “Why did God even put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden?” Some people will surely say that God put the tree there so that the people would sin. These people tend to hold the belief that God predetermines everything that happens, that nothing happens without God willing it to happen.

            This argument makes some sense to me when I think about it. It is like us sitting in a room together alone in the silence and I yell out, “Don’t think about a pink elephant!” What are you going to do? You will think about a pink elephant. The person who told you not to think about pink elephants actually caused you to think about pink elephants. So in putting the tree in the garden and telling Adam and Eve not to eat of it, did God make Adam and Eve sin?

            While I understand this perspective, I disagree with it. I believe that there is evidence for this kind of interpretation throughout the Bible, but there is more evidence for the opposite interpretation, which we often call free will.

            The free will approach does not explain why God put the tree there, but the Bible doesn’t really dwell on that question either. What I believe this story is intended to tell us is that there is a certain order to things and a certain way that God calls us to live. We have the choice to follow God’s will or to do something else entirely. But the point of this entire story seems to be that our choices have consequences.

            The consequences for breaking God’s commandment to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil include, but are not limited to, being kicked out of the Garden of Eden. And though the text does not directly say it, it is implied that Adam and Eve would have lived forever in the garden, perhaps because they had access to the tree of life. But as Paul tells us in Romans 6, the wages of sin is death and both Adam and Eve do eventually die a physical death.

            So I’ll just tell you right now that we aren’t going to figure out why God puts or allows some temptations to be in this world. I don’t have adequate answers to that question. And since we are asking difficult questions why don’t we keep asking questions that don’t have good answers. Like what’s so wrong with having knowledge of good and evil?

            I want knowledge of good and evil. I hope that you want knowledge of good and evil. How else can we do what is right and avoid what is wrong?

            I recently read a couple of books that can help better understand the issue at hand, though both can only offer theories. The first book is called Genesis for Normal People by Jared Byas and Peter Enns. Byas and Enns discuss how Adam and Eve were in every way naïve; they had no life experiences, no history, no wise older siblings or cousins to take them under their wing. Adam and Eve were naked and didn’t think anything of it! So in this way, they were like children.

            Kids don’t care one bit if they are naked. They run around the house naked at bath time, they refuse to put clothes on when they don’t want to wear them. Like Adam and Eve, they are naked and they don’t have any problem with it because they don’t know any different.

            Age those kids a bit and put them in Jr. High. What is the most common nightmare that kids in Jr. High have? Going to school naked. And you don’t even have to be completely naked in this dream to make it a nightmare. Some kids have the nightmare that they go to school in their underwear and it is just as traumatic.

            But we don’t just wake up one day and realize that we shouldn’t go around without clothes. It is something that we develop over a period of time. We begin to better understand our social norms and what is expected of us. We develop an understanding of what is “right and wrong.”

            We all want our children to grow up to know good and evil; we don’t expect them to run around naked the rest of their lives (Not that there is anything evil about being naked. It is a metaphor). I want my children to grow up to make the right decisions because the choices we make do have consequences, both positive and negative consequences. So why did God not want Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Byas and Enns say that in doing so, they gained wisdom and knowledge too soon. They gained wisdom and knowledge without maturity and that isn’t the way that God intended for things to be.

            Think of an eldest child that has to grow up in a dysfunctional family where the parents abuse drugs, dad beats mom on a regular basis, mom has male friends over frequently, the children aren’t cared for by the parents, and oldest child has to help feed and clothe the younger children. The child that grows up in this kind of situation, we might say, was robbed of his or her childhood. This child was forced to grow up too soon and see things that he or she was not ready to experience. There are certain things that we are never ready to see, but unfortunately sometimes we have to gain knowledge of good and evil before we are ready.

            In his book, Repenting of Religion, Greg Boyd goes to great length (239 pages) to discuss what happens when we acquire knowledge of good and evil without first having acquired adequate maturity. Boyd suggests that this is the cause of us becoming judgmental. We judge others rather than loving them. He writes, “Our fundamental sin is that we place ourselves in the position of God and divide the world between what we judge to be good and what we judge to be evil. And this judgment is the primary thing that keeps us from doing the central thing God created and saved us to do, namely, love like he loves.” (p. 17)

            The tempter says in Genesis 3:5 that if Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil their eyes would be opened and they would be like God, knowing good and evil. And that seems to at least be a half-truth (v. 22). But they were not ready for that knowledge because they had not first learned something even more important to being human. They hadn’t first learned to love.

            I thought of a sponge as a prepared for today’s message. A sponge has really one purpose in life: to soak up water. That’s it, not too complicated. I have a sponge that is used for grouting tile, so it is a decent sized sponge, as far as sponges go. I checked the capacity of this sponge and it will hold about 2 cups of water. It is kind of a remarkable thing to see it soak up all of that water!

            I tried a bit of an experiment last week: I placed the sponge in a casserole dish and then took 2 cups of water and poured it over the sponge. Very little of the water was absorbed by the sponge. Much of it was deflected onto my shirt and floor. And even the water that made it into the casserole dish sat in the bottom of the dish rather than being absorbed by the sponge. Remember, the sponge has one purpose: to absorb water. And even after letting it sit in the water for a few minutes, it only absorbed about ½ of the water that I had poured out on it.

            I then took the sponge and I compressed it while it was sitting in the water. When I released the sponge, it drew all of the water up into itself, leaving the casserole dish rather dry (or at least without standing water in it). When done correctly and in the appropriate way, the sponge was able to hold all of that water rather than deflect it off on others.

            Eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was like pouring water on a sponge. Sure, some of it will be absorbed, but much of it will be deflected in the form of judgment of others. Our primary job as followers of Jesus is not to judge others. Our primary job is to love others, so much so that Jesus named this as one of the greatest commandments. Love God and love your neighbors.

            Love and judgment are antithetical; they are opposites. You can’t have both at the same time. In this way, they are like darkness and light, hot and cold. You can’t have both at the same time. So if eating of the tree led Adam and Eve to be judgmental, they may never have learned to love.

            You may think that I am being a little overdramatic in this, but I have seen it in my own life and in my own teachings as a pastor. I have always known that the Bible teaches us that issues of peace and justice should be important to us because they are important to Jesus. This was taught to me at a young age and I have just always assumed it to be true. I grew up learning about how we need to care for the “least of these” (Matt. 25) and “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5). But in seminary I became more and more convinced that these weren’t just nice things that we were called to do as Christians. I became more and more convinced that these were essential aspects of the Gospel, which I still believe today.

            The problem was, and continues to be, that if you didn’t agree with me, I would look down on you. If you didn’t have the same opinion about violence, gun control, war, welfare, and immigration, I would have a sense of superiority over you because I had it figured out and you didn’t. I’m just more holy, more intelligent, more biblical, more compassionate than you are. Look at me, I know something you don’t know!

            Do you know what we call that? Judgment. And the funny thing is, just two chapters further in Matthew after Jesus talks about turning the other cheek he also says in chapter 7:1-2, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged.” Then he goes on to talk about a speck of saw dust in your neighbor’s eye and a plank in your own eye. I don’t know for sure, I was having trouble reading with all of the lumber protruding from my cornea.

            I was not mature enough to have the knowledge of good and evil that I had been given to not use that knowledge to judge others. Knowledge of good and evil is a good thing, but if we are not spiritually mature enough for it, we become judgmental and we stop loving others.

            We need to seek to better understand what God is calling us to and how God is calling us to live. That is knowledge of good and evil and that is a good thing. But we are not called to judge other people. That is God’s job. I’m not saying that we never speak into another person’s life when we believe that they are doing something that is hurting them and their relationship with God and others. We do that, particularly in close groups when others have invited us into their lives. We are at times called to judge actions, but we are never called to judge people on their actions.

            When we acquire knowledge of good and evil, we must make sure that we are also spiritually mature enough to know how to handle that knowledge. If we aren’t spiritually mature, we will simply deflect it and it will hit others in the form of judgment. But when we absorb this knowledge in the way that God intended for us to, we can hold a lot more, and we can serve the purpose that God has for us. We can love God and love our neighbors.



About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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