“Of every tree in the garden you may surely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, not shall you eat from it.” Genesis 2:16-17
Knowledge – Often the most important thing we learn from the Bible is what it does not say. What I mean is that every biblical story, poem, letter or narrative is set in a particular context; an historical-cultural situation that governs the vocabulary, thought forms and implications of the passage. Just as Paul’s letters to the believers in Corinth must be read against the backdrop of first century Corinth, so Moses’ retelling of the creation story must be set against the backdrop of the Mesopotamian cosmological myths. What we discover (in both cases) is that what is not said is extremely important for understanding what is said. You can’t read the Declaration of Independence without knowing the history of taxation under English rule. You can’t read Genesis 1 and 2 without knowing the competing mythology of ancient Mesopotamia.
What does the Bible leave out of this historical-cultural background? Well, one thing that is conspicuously absent is the concern with immortality. You see, in all the other ancient myths, the focus would have been on the Tree of Life, not of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. All of the civilizations of Mesopotamia were preoccupied with death. So, their mythology included ways to avoid dying by finding the secret to living forever. Funny thing. We seem to have the same cultural preoccupation, don’t we? From Ponce De Leon to cryogenics, from Max Factor to the movies, we are all trying to at least pretend that we can live forever. The Bible doesn’t even bother with this nonsense. Why? Because the focus of the Bible is not death, but life. And for life, the issue is not immortality but morality! That’s why the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is at the center of the story, although it is not at the center of the Garden. The issue is about obedience that brings life, not magic that brings unending existence.
What the Bible says about the critical issue of life is this: obedience is in our hands. If you want to live, follow God’s instructions. It’s really that simple. Of course, the Bible also clearly says that we, collectively and individually, have rebelled and disobeyed. So, we have a big problem. Life is found in obedience. We have disobeyed. We deserve death – and it cannot be avoided by anything that we can do. No point in looking for the mythological solution to our dilemma. There isn’t one! The only one who can fix this is God, not you, me or good ol’ Ponce.
There is something else that isn’t said here. It’s not the Tree of Good and Evil. It’s the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Bible doesn’t say something else that ancient mythology embraces (and that we still find today). Human consciousness in the natural man is not about good versus evil. That’s the view of the ancient mythologies. The Hebrew view is different. The problem is the desire to know the difference between good and evil. In other words, the real issue is our choice to decide for ourselves what is good and what is not good.
The two are tied together. If I determine what is right and what is wrong, if I can control my ethics, then I have a claim on immortality. If I do everything I’m supposed to do, then I should live forever, right? Wrong! Morality is ultimately a function of doing what God says is right, not what I think is right. And because my will asserts itself against His, I am not holy as He is holy. I need a Savior, not an elixir.
Is that how you view the Bible? Do you see that it is all about living, not dying? And the only way to live is God’s way, not yours.
Topical Index: immortality, morality, good, evil, Genesis 2:16-17, knowledge