The book of Genesis contains many things that seem strange to modern people. One of the strangest to me when I was new to the story of the Bible was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It seemed arbitrary that God would choose a random tree in the Garden of Eden and tell Adam and Eve they would be put to death for eating from it. I even thought this was borderline cruel given that humans usually want to do exactly that which they are told not to do. Yet I eventually found that there was a good reason for God including this tree in the garden. In this blog post, I will share the biblical and theological reasons why I think God planted the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
God’s Reason for Creating and the Purpose of Humanity
One of the most important concepts to understanding the role of the special trees in the Garden of Eden is God’s reason for creating. In a previous post, I discussed some biblical and philosophical reasons for concluding that God created the universe for His glory. I want to quickly repeat some of the points that I touched on because they are important for this topic.
God is completely perfect, and this has big implications for why He might create something. Since God is infinitely perfect, it would seem that He would not create anything at all because there is nothing He could ever need or want. Yet, one thing about God gives a clue as to why He would create: God is love. People who have experienced love know that love easily spreads itself. Those who have love do not want to keep that love to themselves. Since God is love, it would make sense that He would want to create to share this love.1
Several biblical passages confirm this philosophical idea that God created to share His love. Many passages state (or indicate) that God created the world or humanity for His glory (e.g., Is. 43:5-7; 48:9-11; Ezek. 20:8-10; Rom. 11:36; and Eph. 1:3-6, 9-10). For example, the prophet Isaiah reports that God created the Jewish people for His glory:
Bring my sons from far away,
and my daughters from the ends of the earth—
everyone who bears my name
and is created for my glory.
I have formed them; indeed, I have made them (Is. 43:6b-7).2
Other passages state (or indicate) that the things that God creates display His glory (e.g., Ps. 19:1-2 and Rom. 1:18-21). One of the most famous passages like this is found in the Psalms:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour out speech;
night after night they communicate knowledge (Ps. 19:1-2).
Since God is creating to share His love and to glorify Himself, it makes sense that God would make creatures who are capable of knowing and loving Him. Thus, it is not surprising that God is seen capping His creation with human beings toward the end of Gen. 1. Moreover, in Gen. 3:8, God is seen dwelling and walking with Adam and Eve, the first two humans He made. These biblical and philosophical concepts are some of the reasons why Christian theologians have believed that God created the universe and humanity to spread His love and to display His glory.
The Trees and the Tabernacle and Temples
Besides the concept that God created everything for His glory, there is other biblical evidence that provides clues as to why God included the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Specifically, there is biblical evidence that ties the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge to important furnishings in the tabernacle and later temples of Israel. The purposes of these furnishings will give insight into the likely purposes of the trees in the garden.
First, biblical theologians have noted that the Tree of Life shares similarities with the menorah in the tabernacle/temples.3 The menorah, with its seven branches (Ex. 25:31-32), resembles a tree. Not only does the menorah have branches, but it is also described as having twenty-two almond blossoms on its branches (Ex. 25:33-36), further making it resemble a tree. Some biblical scholars believe the menorah was designed to look like an olive tree (see Zech. 4:2-3, 11-12).4 It is thought that the menorah of the tabernacle/temples symbolized God’s provision, Israel’s nationhood, and God’s supernatural deliverance of Israel.5 The light from the lampstand provided light for the priests in the holy place and symbolized God’s provision and constant watch over Israel. The olive-tree design of the lampstand symbolized the nationhood of Israel, and the almond blossoms on the tree symbolized God’s supernatural deliverance of Israel from Egypt (Moses’ and Aaron’s staffs were made of almond wood; see Num. 17:8).
Second, biblical theologians have noted that the Tree of Knowledge shares similarities with the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle/temples.6 Close to the menorah in the holy place was the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies within the tabernacle and temples of Israel. The ark of the covenant contained the tablets with the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses (Ex. 25:16). In Ps. 19:7-8, God’s instructions/precepts (i.e., God’s commandments) are said to make “the inexperienced wise,” “the heart glad,” and the “eyes light up.” This is strikingly similar to Gen. 3:6, where Eve “saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to look at, and that it was desirable for obtaining wisdom.” Also, anyone who touched the ark of the covenant was struck down by God (see 2 Sam. 6:7) just as Eve indicated that touching the Tree of Knowledge was punishable by death (Gen. 3:3). The ark of the covenant was the place where God met with Moses to give commands regarding the Israelites (Ex. 25:22). Both the ark and the lampstand were in the tabernacle/temples where God’s presence dwelled, and both the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge were in the midst of the Garden of Eden where God’s presence dwelled.
Given these similarities and the roles that the ark and the lampstand played in the tabernacle and temples of Israel, biblical scholars have concluded that the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge both would have in part served as symbols for Adam and Eve and their offspring.7 The Tree of Life symbolized the fact that God is the sole source of life in the Garden of Eden and the world and symbolized that God is the only source of eternal life (see Gen. 3:22).8 This is supported by the role of the lampstand in the tabernacle/temples that served as a symbol of God’s provision and as the source of light in the world. The Tree of Knowledge is thought to symbolize the fact that God is the sole source of moral knowledge in the Garden and in the world; humans could either learn righteousness from God through patient obedience, or they could experience slavery to sin by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.9
The Role of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
Putting all this together, it seems the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil had a specific purpose that fits perfectly within the Genesis narrative. The Tree of Knowledge was not an arbitrary part of the story, and the command to stay away from the tree was not cruel.
As mentioned, God created the world and humanity to spread His love and glory. So, it should be no surprise that God creates human beings (who as rational animals are capable of knowing and loving) and commands them to spread across and cover the world He made (Gen. 1:28). Since God wants humans to know and love Him, He planted two trees in the Garden of Eden that served as symbols to teach humans about God’s nature. The Tree of Life was meant to teach Adam and Eve and their descendants that God is the sole source of life in the universe. The Tree of Knowledge was not arbitrary because it was meant to teach them that, as their Creator, God is the sole source of moral knowledge; He alone knows how they should act to flourish in the world and to carry out their mission to spread across the land.
Moreover, the prohibition to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was not cruel. First, the command gave a preview of what would happen if Adam and Eve and their offspring were to decide for themselves what was right and wrong. Since God created human beings, He knows the best ways they should act to flourish. Parting from God’s ways will eventually result in death, just as parting from God’s initial command to stay away from the Tree of Knowledge resulted in death. Second, trust is a major part of a loving relationship, and prohibiting the eating and touching of the Tree of Knowledge would have formed a bond of trust between humans and God. Humans could demonstrate that they trust God and are to be trusted if they would have refrained from going near the tree.
Although it might seem strange to modern ears, God had a specific, loving purpose for placing the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden and prohibiting Adam and Eve from eating its fruit. As was seen, there is good philosophical and biblical evidence supporting the idea that the trees in the Garden were meant to teach humans about God. First, God created to spread His love and to glorify Himself, so He created humans to know and to love Him. Second, the trees in the Garden served similar purposes as did the menorah and the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle and temples of Israel. Similar to the menorah, the Tree of Life symbolized God’s provision of life in the world; similar to the ark of the covenant, the Tree of Knowledge symbolized the fact that God is the sole source of morality in the world.
The Tree of Knowledge is not an arbitrary addition to the Genesis narrative because it fits with God’s purpose for creating in Gen. 1, and it serves a purpose that would have helped Adam and Eve fulfill their commission. The prohibition to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge was not cruel because it was meant to show humans that they ought to obey God or they would not survive in the world. Also, the tree was meant to establish trust between humans and God, trust being a necessary ingredient in the loving relationship that God has always wanted.
To be clear, it wasn’t necessary for God to create to share His love. God doesn’t need to share His love because the love of God is shared between the three Persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Christian Standard Bible.
See J. Daniel Hays, The Temple and the Tabernacle: A Study of God’s Dwelling Places from Genesis to Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016), 22.
Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2006), 580.
See Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, 2nd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 248.
See Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26 (Nashville: B&H Publishers, 1996), 202.
- Ibid., 205-206.
*The featured image of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is from The Kingstone Bible, vol. 1. Image used with permission: © 2016 Kingstone Comics.