Genesis 2:17

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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez

What is the meaning of the expression “the knowledge of good and evil” in Genesis 2:s17?

This phrase, in the context of the Creation narrative, has been debated among Bible students for centuries, and various interpretations have been given to it.

Among the most common is the sexual theory, which argues that the verb “to know” refers here to the sexual act. It is then pointed out that after eating of the tree, Adam and Eve realized that they were naked. This interpretation implies that sexual knowledge belongs to the exclusive domain of God. This is not, however, what the narrative indicates (see Gen. 2:18-20).

Another suggestion is that the phrase “good and evil” is an idiomatic expression used in the Bible to indicate everything, the totality of knowledge; similar to the phrase “heaven and earth,” which designates the totality of God’s creation. To know good and evil would then mean to be omniscient. Needless to say, the context rules out this possibility. Adam and Eve did not become omniscient after eating of the tree.

Another interpretation argues that the knowledge of good and evil consisted of the ability to distinguish between what is morally right or wrong. I find it highly unconvincing that God would not want Adam and Eve to develop their moral judgment. The fact that He gave them a command implies moral discrimination on their part.

We must ask ourselves what the narrative itself says about the phrase under discussion. First, we are told that knowing good and evil is a characteristic of God. Second, Adam and Eve did not naturally possess this type of knowledge; it was not a deficiency, simply the way the Lord created them. Third, this knowledge leads to the dissolution of the creatures, their return to nothingness, to death. Fourth, humans can misappropriate this knowledge; they can attempt to break away from the loving limits imposed by the Creator.

Any interpretation of the phrase “knowledge of good and evil” must be in agreement with the facts provided for us by the context itself. The totality of the story uncovers the meaning or significance of the phrase. It makes clear that to know good and evil is to claim complete and absolute autonomy for our existence; to attempt to eliminate any sense of accountability to anyone else, including God. It is humans deciding by themselves what is good or evil without taking into consideration God’s revealed will.

God is the only totally autonomous being, not accountable to anyone except to His own character. This type of existence is not possible for us. To be a creature is by definition to be accountable to the Creator. Any attempt to exist in total independence from God would ultimately result in extinction. The serpent led Adam and Eve to believe that they could aspire to and experience—come to know—this kind of autonomy and continue to enjoy life apart from God. They could certainly live in rebellion against God, perceiving themselves as unaccountable to Him. This is what the Lord meant when He said that Adam and Eve were “like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:22, RSV).

We must go a step further in attempting to understand what the biblical writer is communicating. The same phrase “good and evil” is used once more in the Old Testament in conjunction with the verb “to know,” and it would be good to see whether that usage supports, modifies, or rejects our interpretation.

In Deuteronomy 1:39 we read, “Moreover your little ones, . . . and your children, who this day have no knowledge of good or evil, shall go in [to the Promised Land]” (RSV). The phrase is used here in a positive way. Children do not know good and evil; they exist in total dependence on their parents; they are not autonomous. Once they grow they will assume responsibility for their own lives, becoming independent of their parents. Even here the phrase expresses or at least implies the ideas of independence and autonomy.

God granted us freedom, but our existence depends on our relationship with Him. To claim autonomy is tantamount to rejecting the gift of life. The knowledge condemned by God is that which is sought in rejecting or rebelling against His revealed will. To rely on Him in our search for knowledge requires that we become dependent, like children.