Reading from the Garden—The Tree of the Knowing of Good and Evil

by David Hawkinson

Designing the set

A critical skill in reading bible is learning to notice the physical setting of the drama, its spatial design and presentation. If we assume that the choice of words and their careful placement in dialogue is a deliberate process in the telling of good stories, then, where staging is deliberately indicated we must also take notice. Playwrights, screenwriters and directors understand this. We often take it for granted or ignore it all together. Who cares what the stage looks like? Let’s get on with the play. And, to be honest, some staging can be ignored especially when it is presented in a haphazard or sloppy manner, leaving us sensually bored or disconnected to the narrative, or when there is an attempt to override the drama with the set, as in using special effects to support an inadequate plot. Too much focus on the set distracts us from the narrative or dialogue. Not enough attention to the set severs the drama from the spatial context necessary for our full human attention. There are many opportunities to explore the importance of set design within the whole range of biblical narrative. For the moment, let us return to where we left off reading the story of the garden in Genesis.

YHWH, God, planted a garden in Eden/land-of-pleasure, in the east, and there he placed the human who he had formed.

YHWH, God, caused to spring from the soil every type of tree, desirable to look at and good to eat, and the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden and the Tree of the Knowing of Good and Evil. (trans. Everett Fox)

The second creation narrative begins at 2.4b, with humans sculpted into form when there was not much more than dirt, dry dirt at that, for YHWH had “not yet made it rain upon the earth.” Rather, a ‘surge would well up from the ground and water the face of the soil’. We are told that out of this wet earthy mix, the human is formed and aptly named: adam, from the word for soil, adama. (Our Latin name retains this essential connection—human from humus.) We really are “earthlings.” Adam is not yet the proper name given to a particular person, since the human at this early juncture is not divided into male and female. That comes later. What does follow the initial forming of the human is the creating of the environment that seemingly supports human life, following an opposite sequence found in creation story number one.

As part of this creative process, trees are introduced into the garden, whereupon we given to know that these are all “desirable to look at and good to eat.” This two-fold acknowledgement is suggestive, hinting that humans may be more than belly. Creation is not just about the requirements for physical survival. There is, after all, beauty. From this initial planting, two trees are singled out: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowing of Good and Evil. We are unprepared for this particularity. Nothing to date has been given a proper name. However, once these sluice-gates are open, proper names flow as quickly as the rivers they are assigned to: Pishon, Gihon, Hiddekel, Perot. Soon human beings will join the naming process. To this day, we can’t get enough of it.

Additional information concerning one of the two trees is offered while the creation process continues, just after the human is placed on the stage in the midst of the garden. The human is told that one of these trees, the Tree of the Knowing of Good and Evil, is off limits in regards to eating the fruit. No reason is given. The humans may look, but not pluck and eat. Thus, the quality of relation between tree and human is defined, appointed limits with specific boundaries and protected by serious consequences, “for on the day that you eat from it, you must die, yes, die.”

With this strange and unexpected update, any doubt we might have harbored concerning the importance of the two trees to the drama vanishes. The narrator has twice asked us to adjust our focus to the center of the stage before any action begins. Our attention was first aroused by sight, now our hearing has also been engaged. This is the purpose of set design. Before any dialogue begins, before anyone steps out into the lights this question nudges us to attention; what is going to happen here? What does this place have to do with me? Our pulse is already raised in anticipation of the first act.

Ready! Set! Action!

We find ourselves once again, under the tree. The two figures, now male and female have been presented, but only in a very vague manner. We know little about them before the opening dialogue, which immediately concerns one of the two trees, the Tree of the Knowing of Good and Evil. The serpent begins, “Even though God said: you are not to eat from any of the trees of the garden…!” It takes no more than a casual repetition of the prohibition, an incomplete sentence, as Fox translates it, to get things rolling. The serpent changes the original command for some hidden purpose. We are told it is very a crafty creature (see my previous article in Pietisten on the word “arum”), but the serpent has a small bit part compared with the real beguiler here. The woman is not so much persuaded by the rhetoric of the serpent. (What rhetoric?) The woman is taken with the tree!

The woman saw that the tree was good for eating
and that it was a delight to the eyes,
and the tree was desirable to contemplate.
She took from its fruit and ate
and gave also to her husband beside her, and he ate.

The narrator has previously told us that the tree was “desirable to look at and good to eat.” Tradition has accused the woman of succumbing to devilish seduction, flagrant disobedience, lust after worldly things, arrogance, moral laxity and so on. However, her relation with the tree is exactly as it should be, save the eating of the fruit. Indeed, if we are not beguiled by this tree, then the set designer has done a poor job readying us for this drama, or, we have set aside our imaginations and done a poor job of reading. Most of us were taught to read this story by focusing upon the serpent’s role. But the serpent appears only to blow on the coals already glowing within the woman, reminding her and us at what is rooted at center stage. The tree is no mere prop! It is a full fledged actor, a vital and living presence. It compels the attention of actor and audience simply by being itself. There is no trick here, no magic, no slight of hand, no funny business. The tree stands by itself, full of beauty and nourishment, as intended in the beginning. The tree invites contemplation, an important addition to the original description. Everett Fox’s translation of the Hebrew root “s_k_l,” can be read as “to consider” or may understood causatively as “making (someone) wise/intelligent.” Either way, the sense here is that the tree has something to offer the woman in addition to beauty and nourishment. Contemplation is suggestive of a deepening relation of some kind which leads to knowledge, perhaps insight. Perhaps we should be a little patient while we watch the woman turn toward this tree and ask, “What might be occurring between them?” I am reminded of a similarly vivid moment in the life of Martin Buber, contemplating another tree in his back-yard in Heppenheim, Germany.

“I contemplate a tree. I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.
I can feel it as a movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air- and the growing itself in its darkness.
I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.
I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law-those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.
I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.
Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.” (I and Thou, trans. Kaufmann p. 58)

This tree also has much to teach, a particular knowledge flowing from a particular way of knowing. It is science and botany; chemistry and physics; it is categorization. In this way of knowing, the tree ‘remains my object’ says Buber. The human is the observer. To relate to the world in this way is intrinsic to being human. This way of knowing is not disparaged. It is an important way we know the world and each other. But it is not enough. There is another way of knowing, founded upon another quality of relation.

…it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me…
Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its color and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars-all this in its entirety.
The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it-only differently…
What I encountered is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.” (ibid.)

This is the moment of “meeting,” when genuine relation is expressed in terms of “between”–between I and Thou. It is a meeting between two unique, separate and particular beings. Both are fully present to each other which cannot happen if the other remains an object, a he or she or it. The meeting is not necessarily an emotional one, though emotion may be present. (This is not about hugging trees!) Once again in this way of knowing, knowledge flows, but it flows between two subjects, I and You. In his masterpiece, I and Thou, Buber outlines these kinds of meetings within the three spheres of nature, human relation, and spiritual relation. He suggests, as in our case, that encounters with nature, “vibrate in the dark and remain below language... We speak the word ‘I and You’ yet can only stand on the threshold of language.” Yet, in each sphere, “through everything that becomes present to us, we gaze toward the train of the eternal You; in each we perceive a breath of it; in every You we address the eternal You, in every sphere according to its manner” (p. 57).

For Martin Buber this difference in relation is expressed in terms of I-It or I-Thou. I wonder if this distinction may be brought to bear on this particular moment in the text as we contemplate the relation between the woman and the tree. For certainly her manner of consideration leads to reaching out, picking and eating. This action is a violation of the relation established by the gardener. Perhaps the prohibition is an expression of the divine encouragement that the tree may be more than object, a thing of utility for humanity. She cannot stand in this relation. Inevitably, she establishes the relation of I-It. And once “the barrier between subject and object has been erected…the word of separation has been spoken.” Separation indeed! The man and the woman hide from each other and from the gardener. Soon they will be ejected from the garden. The question now becomes imperative. Can we turn back into relation (teshuvah–repentance) living in genuine relation of I-Thou? Can we find our way back to the tree and “the train of the eternal You?”

This question lies behind everything that follows. Everything!

David Hawkinson is a teacher of Bible, editor of Pietisten, and Pastor of Covenant Community Church, Jericho, Vermont.

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