What Are the Two Trees in the Garden of Eden Really About?

A tree of life. And, a tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Man could eat from the first but not the second. And, if man ate from the second tree, then he would die.

The names of these two trees have caused a lot of confusion.

The tree of life does not symbolize living forever. In other words, if you eat the fruit of the tree of life that you doesn’t mean you will achieve some sort of immortality and live forever.

As for the other tree, what’s the problem with having a knowledge of whether or not a thing is good or evil? Why would knowing if something is good or evil lead to my dying? Isn’t a knowledge a good thing? But, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil isn’t about actual knowledge.

So, if what seems to be the common understanding of the symbolism of these two trees is not really what these two trees represent, then just exactly what are the two trees in the middle of the garden of Eden all about?

We could say that the middle of the garden was the heart of the garden. Therefore, these trees represent two ways of living from the heart.

What are the two ways of living from the heart that the trees represent?

Study the Bible long enough and you will find that it equates life with wisdom. Life, eternal life, does not mean living forever and ever and ever. Rather, it means living with true wisdom. The tree of life is the tree of wisdom.

At its root, wisdom is knowledge applied to a specific situation that brings about the best possible outcome for all. This requires discernment. Therefore, we could think of the tree of life as the tree of discernment.

Wisdom and discernment imply that there are gray areas to life. Gray areas require contemplative thought to discern the best solution to the situation or problem at hand.

Also, if you study the Bible long enough you will find that the simple adherence to rules and laws lead to death. Merely following rules and laws requires no thought and no wisdom. This leads to death, not in the sense that you are eternally dead forever and ever, but in the sense that you have arrived at the worst possible outcome for all involved.

Therefore, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents the opposite of wisdom and discernment, which is judgement. In the Bible, judgment means to decide something ahead of time as always good or always bad.

While the tree of life symbolizes living in the gray areas of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents living as if everything is black and white. This tree symbolizes a dualistic way of thinking in which everything resides in either the good or the bad all the time without ever thinking about particular situations.

For example, heterosexuality is good and homosexuality is evil. Always.

This is how most Christians think. But, this is to live by judgment and discernment. This is to live by black and white rules instead of the gray of wisdom.

How so?

Is homosexuality always evil? If it is a practice used to worship a god or gods falsely, then yes it is evil. If it is a practice of sexual debauchery, which the mainstream seems to equate it with, then yes it is evil. But, what if it is two people committed to a loving relationship where the highest good is truly sought for both people through self-sacrificial love? Then homosexuality would be good.

Now consider heterosexuality. Is it always good? Well, if it is two people committed to a loving relationship where the highest good is truly sought for both people through self-sacrificial love, then it is good. But, what if the heterosexuality is a man raping a woman? That’s clearly evil.

The same kind of argument could be used for white and black people. Throughout history white people have been judged good and black people have been judged evil. Clearly, this is not true though. Sometimes white people are good and sometimes white people are evil. The same is true of black people.

Or, what about communism and democracy? One system is not always good and the other always evil. It depends.

Or, what about individual people? An individual is not always good or always evil. Each individual does some good things and some evil things.

What is good and evil cannot be determined by an a priori judgment. It requires discernment.

The life of Jesus in the gospels shows us just this distinction. Jesus lived by wisdom or discernment. Jesus lived in the gray areas. Jesus did not live by judgment. He did not live by the knowledge of good and evil. He did not live by the letter of the law as if something was always good or always evil.

Consider Jesus’ handling of the situation of the woman caught in the act of adultery. According to the law, the woman should have been stoned to death. It’s obvious adultery is evil, right? But, not in this particular case for Jesus. In this case, Jesus discerned that this woman was suffering under a patriarchal culture that made the woman the scapegoat. For, why wasn’t the man she was caught in the adulterous act also brought to Jesus?

Consider the time Jesus and the disciples ate the grain from the field on the Sabbath. That was clearly against the law and therefore evil. But, Jesus used discernment and pointed out that they were hungry. It would be better to feed a hungry person than let them starve because of a rule.

Or, how about when Jesus asked those in the synagogue if a man’s withered hand should be healed on the Sabbath? Working on the Sabbath was deemed to be always evil. But, Jesus showed that if you were actually doing something good, like healing someone, then it was okay to work on the Sabbath.

The nature of the questions Jesus was asked in the gospels often set up the distinction between wisdom or discernment and judgment. They often contrast gray versus black-and-white thinking.

Which is the greatest commandment?

One rule has to be better and more important than other. Surely, the questioner expected Jesus to pick on of the ten commandments. But, Jesus quoted two “commandments” that weren’t even part of the ten commandments. And, both of Jesus’ commandments were about love. Love requires wisdom and discernment not judgment. Is it loving to give someone $100? It depends, doesn’t it? Is it better to give someone a hug or a stern word? They both can be love in the right situation. It depends.

Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?

The expected answer was yes or no. Paying taxes to Caesar is either good or evil. Tell us which one Jesus. Jesus answers without answering. He doesn’t give a black and white answer. Instead render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. If think that is clear, black and white, easy to apply, then please tell me in exactly every situation if I should pay taxes or not.

Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?

The very nature of the question is begging for a black and white answer. But, Jesus does not give one. Read Jesus’ answer and you will quickly see that it creates quite a bit of confusion among the disciples and still does today.

I think the following quote from The Wisdom of the Enneagram really sums up the difference between the two trees, between discernment and judgment.

What we “are actually seeking is not judgment but the quality of discernment. Discernment is noticing that things have different qualities. Judgment, however, includes an emotional reaction that actually interferes with discernment. It is one thing to say that a carpet is a different color from the wall. It is another thing to say that one is better, more important, or more righteous than the other. In other words, a witness and judge are not the same thing. Discernment requires us to be a witness.

“Note that we are not talking about situation ethics or ethical relativism but about the ability to see that as situations and facts change, so does what can be expected as a best outcome for them. Wisdom allows us to see reality exactly as it is, not as we wish it to be. Wisdom does not ignore right and wrong or deny that there are better or worse choices a person might have made. Rather, wisdom looks at the choices that have been made, at the situation in which we find ourselves now, and considers the best possible thing to do. Wisdom always sees what is truly necessary and for the best – although it can only arise in the present moment and spring forth from an absence of preconceived values, opinions, and judgments. Even if we have created some kind of hell for ourselves, wisdom can show us a way out – if we are willing to suspend judgment about what we “should” do, or how we “must” respond.”

I find this to be a succinct and beautiful summary of what Jesus lived and taught. It captures the essence of living by the tree of life and not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.