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The knowledge of good and evil

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Systematic theology is that science that sits at the pinnacle of all the other theological sciences; those dealing with biblical studies, church history and pastoral theology. The great system builders of the Church have been St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Karl Barth to name the most prominent. It has been their task to build rational systems that treat the great topics of creation, redemption and the last things so that Christian faith may be understood in its fullness.

This is necessary because biblical texts have various theological orientations of their own depending on the situation of their writers. It is the task of the systematician to stand back from these various biblical theologies, which in themselves do not amount to a comprehensive view of theology, and construct a view that selectively incorporates these views. This is why a naïve reading of the bible can and does take us down some very strange paths. Scripture must be read through the lens of theology. The one who should know this well is the preacher. It is not good enough to cherry pick snippets of wisdom from the set texts of a Sunday and present them as a sermon.

Having said this, it is obvious that not all of the vast collection of biblical texts in Scripture are equally important. Indeed, many never see the light of day on any Sunday of the year. For example, of all the texts we find in the Hebrew bible, the creation narratives in Genesis 1-3 are the most important for systematic theology. They are so because they set out, in the form of saga or legend, the relationship between God, humanity and the world. It is generally accepted that the first narrative from Gen.1-4a was written by the Priestly writer whose focus was on the six days of creation and the Sabbath rest. The language is liturgical and consists of repeated phrases that signify the creation of the night and day, earth and sky, sea and land, vegetation, the sun and the moon, living creatures in the sea and sky, creatures of the land and finally human kind "in our image". It may seem strange that creatures of the sea and sky are created on a different day than the creatures of the land. This artificial stretching of creation is designed to fill out the six days of work from the Sabbath rest, a key concern of the Priestly writer. After each day of creation God saw that it was good. On the sixth day, after the creation of humanity, he observed all that he had made was "very good". Our heritage from this narrative is that the world is an objective reality and not a dream and that it is natural ie does not contain spirit.


It is significant that God created the world through edict; "God said, let their be…" In other words he creates with his Word, a theme that is taken up in the prologue of the gospel according to John which knits together the theology of redemption with creation, since Jesus, is the Word made flesh.

The second creation narrative is attributed to the Yahwist because the name for God that he uses is the unpronounceable tetragrammaton YHWE. This is a much more complicated affair that is quite different from the Priestly narrative. Indeed, it does not seem to deal with creation much at all. Rather, it is preoccupied with the first couple, Adam and Eve, how they relate to each other and to God. It seems as though God sets a trap for them by setting in the garden two trees, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. While they may eat of the fruit of all of the other trees in the garden they must not eat of these trees.

Eden is a paradise but a paradise with a contradiction at its centre, two trees, the fruit of which may not be eaten. The contradiction is extended because, among the animals in the garden exists the serpent (a creature created by God) that was "more crafty than any wild animal that the Lord God has made." The God of the Priestly writer may have proclaimed that all of the creation was good, but he missed this little and deadly worm. There is no explaining this contradiction, it is a narrative device used to get to what the writer needs to say. The serpent approaches Eve and says "Did God say, You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?" This, of course, is a lie and the first theological question. Eve corrects the serpent and says: " We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, "You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die." The serpent responds: "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." The rest, as they say is history, or rather prehistory.

After both have eaten they do not die but, unexpectedly, they realise that they were naked and felt shame and sowed clothes for themselves. They have seen each other's pudendum, a word derived from the Latin pudere meaning "shame". They have made the transition from being the pinnacle of the good creation in which nothing was bad and shame was unknown, to having to cover themselves. The corruption of the first couple occurs within the most intimate aspect of their relationship. They have made the transition between the grace of the garden to a world that knows shame and demands the necessity of law.

To quote Karl Barth:

When their knowledge became the inappropriate knowledge of good and evil, it was corrupted. And when this was corrupted, their nakedness was also corrupted. Coming under the divine accusation, they had to accuse themselves. When their relationship with God was disturbed, their mutual relationship was also disturbed; everything that belongs together disintegrated; everything that was created in a definite order was thrown into confusion.CDIII.1 p310.


After they had eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil they were expelled from the garden to scratch a living in the world by the sweat of their brow and to die, a description of human life that we well know because it coincides with our own. The event known as the Fall consists of the first couple's acquiescence to the temptation to be like God, knowing good and evil in a world that had been created "very good". It is a temptation that lies at the centre of religious life; reaching out for the things of God exposes us to the utmost danger because we abandon what we are, creatures living in mortal bodies.

This is all a rather uncontroversial prelude to what I am trying to get at. Why the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Surely we all rightly pursue such knowledge so that we may navigate a world full of hidden dangers and temptations. The Church has spent much time in the study of ethics and moral theology trying to trace out good and evil so that believers can be "good". Why, then, does reaching out for the knowledge of good and evil bring the first couple and their decedents down into a world of pain, death and separation from each other and God?

The answer to this is found in the story itself. Living in the Garden of Eden did not require a moral sense because it was the creation of God and as such was good. However, the aim of the author was to write a narrative for readers whose lives were subject to hazard, torn by conflict in the very middle of their lives and death bound. The narrative provides an explanation for the parlous state of our lives in the form of a legend with mythical elements ie not a history of what actually happened. It is not entirely incorrect to describe the story as a morality tale. The gist of it is that the first couple received their lives as the gracious gift of God in which they lacked nothing. But this was not enough, they reached out for the thing that only God, as God, had, the knowledge of good and evil. In other words they were not content to live as creatures of God's creation but desired to be "like God" even though the first creation story relates how they were made in the image of God. They were not willing to accept their creatureliness in gratitude but wanted to transcend it.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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