Troublesome Topic: What Is Meant by “Knowing Good and Evil”?

Genesis 3:22

Translation

And YHVH

ELOHIM (read Adonai Elohim) said, “Behold,

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the man has become like one of us,

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knowing good and evil.

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Now, lest he stretch

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out his hand and take even of the tree of life and eat, and live long …  (See comments below.)

Paraphrase

Then THE PERSONAL AND ETERNAL GOD, who is also THE CREATOR AND OWNER OF ALL THINGS, said, “Consider this, the man and his wife have acquired another attribute of deity, specifically that they understand that moral issues have consequences. Now, in order to prevent them from reaching out and taking fruit from that other tree that has important consequences, the tree that sustains life, and eating it and living worry free for a very long time… [we need to do something].  (See comments below.)

What Is Meant by “Knowing Good and Evil”?

I am convinced that “knowing good and evil” does not mean they would know what good is and know what evil is, rather it meant they would learn what good and evil bring, i.e. the consequences of good and of evil. They already knew what evil was; it was doing something that God had told them not to do (they just didn’t understand why). But they did not yet have a full understanding of the consequences. God had told them that the primary consequence would be death, but what did that mean? What would it feel like to be separated from God? Would it be medium bad, or really bad? There were only two ways they could learn the answer to those questions – through experiencing them both, or through understanding the good option so completely that they would not want the bad option.

  1. Learning evil through experience is like buying on credit.

At first their understanding of consequences was incomplete. The first consequence they learned about was that you can get what you want first and pay for it later. The fact that they ate the fruit and did not fall down dead reinforced this idea. Upon eating the fruit they felt strange; something was different. Then they felt shame. But the harshest consequence of all did not come until later.

Learning that doing good brings good consequences causes no harm to our soul because the cost of doing good is paid up front. But evil is like buying on credit. You can buy almost anything you want, enjoy your purchase, and then pay for it later. This yearning for instant gratification with delayed payments twists our souls; it bends the metal we are made of and damages our ability to keep a proper perspective on temptations. Adam and Eve had some hard consequences come quickly because God kicked them out of the garden. But what if God had not expelled them? The tendency to want something now and pay for it later would have ruined them. Shame alone was not enough because they thought they could cover that up with a flimsy handful of drying leaves.

Some consequences had to be strong and swift because they could not be allowed to stay in the garden and live an easy life while waiting for the consequences to come much later. The word “garden” meant “protected enclosure” and Eden meant “delicate delights.” They could not learn what they needed to learn while staying in the “protected enclosure of delicate delights”  They had to feel the separation to know that it was real.

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How does this apply to us?

I suggest to you that we, like Adam and Eve, are still learning about the consequences of good and evil and we are often learning it through experience. If a person does what is right in God’s eyes, what will it mean for his relationship with God? Will it bring closeness or create distance in the relationship? If someone does not follow God’s prescribed way, what will that do to his relationship with God? Will it bring closeness or create distance in the relationship?

Imagine a man who thinks he does not need God, so he rejects all restraints and begins to do whatever he wants to do. This will create more separation between him and God, but that separation will not feel like death to him so he will keep going. While there is a little bit of pleasure in that course of action, he will also find frustration, anger, bitterness, a lack of fulfillment, and enslavement to his own passions. He will come to hate everyone around him and he will even hate himself. He will freely tells others that there is no God, no such thing as sin and therefore no consequences for sin, yet his separation from God will become greater! He will be someone who is “dead in his trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1). We could say that he has eaten from the tree whose fruit is the learning of the consequences of sin, and he is in the process of learning from experience that sin is not all that it promised it would be.

But we also know that this life if like a test and our responses to God during this life will determine which set of consequences we will experience for the rest of eternity. The man in the example above is being given a chance to see what the consequences of sin are like. If he is willing to humble himself and repent, he can begin to learn about the consequences of living for God and experience true life for all eternity. If not, he will experience eternal death, a state of eternal and complete separation from God.

2. We can learn the consequences of both by coming to understand the good option so thoroughly that we don’t want the bad option.

A short cut:  If Adam and Eve had been obedient, they would have slowly learned the positive consequences of doing good and then wanted those consequences so much that they would never do anything to lose them. They would understand that evil is the opposite of the benefits they were experiencing. Bank tellers are taught to know real currency so well that their fingers and eyes will immediately recognize a counterfeit. They do not study all the counterfeits out there; they focus on the real thing. I don’t need to become addicted to alcohol or drugs to understand that I don’t want to go down that path. I prefer to keep the benefits I enjoy right now.

 However, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil provided a short-cut. By eating from it, man learned quickly about the consequences of doing evil; but he learned the hard way.

God could teach Adam and Eve about good and evil without experiencing evil because Evil is simply the absence of good in the same way that darkness is the absence of light, cold is the absence of heat, falsehood is the absence of the truth, etc. The Kendrick brothers explain it this way, “If you want to better understand evil, you don’t study evil; you study God… To dwell on sin and darkness is to lose discernment about what is and isn’t wrong in your life and in this world”  (p. 33 of Defined).

The next lesson in the short and medium length versions of this study is: Why Did They Try to Cover Up?

In the full length version the next lesson is: A Quote from Calvin Miller regarding Self-denial.

The next lesson in Lessons from Genesis Chapters 1, 2, & 3 is: A Quote from Calvin Miller regarding Self-denial

Footnotes

1

“Behold” would be a good translation of this word if not for the fact that we no longer speak like that. The word means “look!” and is intended to communicate amazement, or to call attention to something. I think it best to use a variety of English phrases to communicate its meaning depending on the situation in which it appears.

2: “like one of us”

We can be confident from the New Testament that God is three-in-one. However, until that doctrine is more fully developed through the full story of the Bible, many see the use of plurals such as Elohim, as signifying God is so powerful and capable that He cannot be described by a singular noun or adjective. Either explanation could be the right one here.

3: “knowing good and evil"

See my lengthy comment at the end of this verse.

4

This verb usually means “to send” but it can also mean “to stretch or extend.” It is used in a nice play on words in the very next verse.

5

Genesis tells us that when Adam and Eve sinned, God saw that the man and woman had stepped up to a new level of understanding which placed them, at least in one partial way, on the same level as God Himself. God was not afraid or threatened by them, rather He wanted their learning process to be correct and complete which required some harsh consequences.