Two Trees



And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Gen. 2:8-9)


Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there…

-- William Butler Yeats, “The Two Trees”

For purposes of the story, there are only two trees in the Garden of Eden that matter, both presumably pleasant to the sight but only one good for food. The Lord warns the man he has formed from the dust of the ground that he must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for if he does he will surely die. What parent has not had similar conversations with his or her young children about toxic substances, hoping they will listen? But why did the Lord put that tree in the garden in the first place, knowing that it was harmful? And why did he stock the garden with a cunning serpent to entice those innocents he has created in his own image? After all, he could have put a guardian angel there to talk them out of eating the forbidden fruit. There are a lot of details about the situation that don’t quite add up, but then we are talking about a myth, not a crime story.

The story that unfolds in the garden presents humankind with the essential choice of whether to be or to know. The choice is symbolized by two fruit trees: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We might well imagine that they stand side by side in the garden, outwardly indistinguishable, save for the serpent coiled alluringly around the tree of knowledge. The serpent is introduced as the subtlest of God’s creatures, but he is God’s creature all the same. He is truth turned upside down, appearing most beguilingly as truth itself to give voice to humanity’s innermost desires. “You shall be like gods, knowing good and evil,” the serpent assures those odd creatures who don’t realize you can’t become what you already are. Their simple delight in being has been overtaken by the desire to know. They eat the forbidden fruit, and in the act of knowing know only that they are sudden strangers in paradise, naked and exposed.

"Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil,” the Lord observes before expelling the man and the woman from the garden. (It was not clear whom he meant by “us,” unless there are other divine beings besides himself.) Then, lest the man eat from the tree of life and live forever, the Lord sets an angel with a flaming sword to guard the way. As already noted, this is something he might have done earlier to protect the tree of knowledge from poachers and thereby save everyone a lot of trouble – another of those details that doesn’t quite add up. And why is it so bad to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? You would think a working knowledge of good and evil might have come in handy when the serpent was trying to work his mischief. But then I suspect good and evil aren’t so much the issue as the act of knowing itself. The Hebrew phrase translated as “good and evil” in the Genesis account is a figure of speech that is commonly used to mean “everything.” The man and the woman are seduced by their desire to know everything.

To know something is to name it, which the ancient Hebrews and many other cultures equated with defining its essence. To give a name to something is virtually to call it into being, much as God called forth light from darkness by first naming it. Obviously, things exist independently of the names we put on them. But without names our field of consciousness is without form and void, a “great blooming, buzzing confusion,” as the pioneering psychologist William James once described the world of pure sensation that greets the newborn. Words give shape to the world. They provide definition and meaning and allow us to establish a fundamental order to things. Words are the building blocks of our reality.

The Lord not only creates the man in his own image but also gives him dominion over all living things. That dominion is first exercised in naming the creatures the Lord has formed, like the man himself, from the dust of the ground. All living things are the man’s to name, except for the man himself and the God who made him. The man is called Adam after the Hebrew word for mankind, a play on the word for the earth from which he is formed (adamah). At first the man has no name to call himself, not until he eats the forbidden fruit. Then, fleeing from the Lord’s presence, the man pronounces the name by which he will know himself and in so doing calls into being a whole new world centered in himself. He utters the fateful “I.” He tells his Maker, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid.”

To have dominion means that the man has the power to remake the world with his words. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, he discovers to his horror that his every utterance works like an incantation. Indeed, a single syllable is enough to turn his world inside out, wrenching him from Eden’s womb and giving violent birth to his self. “I heard the sound of thee –“ he says to the God whom he has displaced from the center of his being and whom he now perceives to be apart from himself, “and I was afraid.” Fear is the inevitable consequence of his separation.

The Lord has warned the man that if he eats the forbidden fruit he will surely die, but obviously he does not die. At first it might appear this is another of those details that doesn’t quite add up, except that now the man has been expelled from paradise, and the other tree is guarded by an angel with a flaming sword. The Genesis account has little to say about the tree of life. The Lord has not warned the man to stay away from it. As far as Adam is concerned, it is just another tree in the garden that is pleasing to the eye and good for food. Presumably he could have reached out at any time and eaten its fruit and lived forever. But he and the woman had a fatal hankering for forbidden fruit – and it did prove fatal, because now the fruit that would have given them immortality is forever beyond human reach.

Or is it? As it turns out, paradise may have been lost, but the tree of life is not. It reappears at the end of the New Testament in John the Evangelist’s vision of the New Jerusalem. The tree is found in the midst of the heavenly city along the banks of a river flowing from the throne of God. You can say that the whole of the Bible describes a journey between two trees. They once stood side by side in a garden. But now they are separated by the vast distance of human suffering. Once the journey has begun, there is no turning back to reclaim paradise by the way we came. We were innocents once but no longer. There is only the way forward, and it is difficult. “No one can come to the tree of life except by these two ways, that is, by endurance of troubles and the fullness of knowledge,” St. Augustine wrote.

Where is the tree of life to be found? Many pious souls take the biblical account literally and believe New Jerusalem must be a physical destination, while others assume the heavenly city must be in heaven. Jesus of Nazareth had an altogether different answer when asked about it. “Behold,” he said, “the kingdom of God is within you.” Look within and you will still find two trees growing side by side, both pleasing to the eye but only one good for food. They are separated now by a vast gulf of human suffering. But the choice remains as it has always been, whether to be or to know. So which do we choose?

Genesis 2-3
St. Augustine, Against the Manichees

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