Genesis 2:9 tells us, “Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” What is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? What is its meaning?
God forbade Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The penalty was death, physical and eternal. By implication, obedience to God’s command meant life. This was not continued life in Eden in perpetuity. The tree of life pointed Adam to the possibility of a higher life of greater and unchangeable perfection in closer communion with God. While the tree of life pointed to the possibility of eternal life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil offered Adam a way of achieving it. We call this opportunity to achieve eternal life the Covenant of Works. Commenting, Geerhadus Vos says, “In so far as the covenant of works posited for mankind an absolute goal and unchangeable future, the eschatological may be even said to have preceded the soteric religion” (“Eschatology of the Psalter,” note 1). That is, before there was a need for saving grace, God set forth a way into eternity with Him by works.
But what is the meaning of the knowledge of good and evil? The note in The Reformation Study Bible says that good and evil “is a figure for potentially unlimited knowledge.” This figure is one in which a totality is expressed by two contrasting parts. It is a merism. Although this possibility exists grammatically, it is impossible theologically. Adam can never be omniscient. Only the Creator has unlimited knowledge. The Creator is not giving Adam a symbol of “potentially unlimited knowledge.”
Scripture is using another figure of speech. It is a figure in which an idea may be expressed by two nouns connected by “and” rather than by a noun and an adjective. This figure is hendiadys. See my previous post, “Five Figures of Speech the Bible Uses,” for further explanation. For example, brimstone and fire refers to burning brimstone. Bullinger’s Figures of Speech Used in the Bible suggests the following. The knowledge of good and evil refers to the knowledge “of evil enjoyment.” That is, the tree sets before Adam the prospect of using the supremely good for evil purposes. We know, for example, that sexual intimacy is supremely good within the confines of marriage. It is often perverted and used in the most unseemly and evil ways.
The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is therefore a warning to Adam and Eve. They must not use the good things of God and His creation for evil purposes. They must obey God. The tree of life shows them such obedience will lead them into an unchangeable and more blessed relationship with God.
When Satan temps Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, he changes the hendiadys into a merism. He declares to Eve, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Satan was a liar from the beginning. He perverts the truth. He intimates that by way of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve have the opportunity to gain unlimited knowledge. They can be omniscient like God. This is the great lie.
This also gives us a tactic of Satan. He turns the words of God into the very opposite of their intended meaning. Beware, as the devil persuaded Eve he can persuade you and me that his interpretation of Scripture is the proper one.