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.

What Does the Tree of Life Look Like?

This morning’s reading was Isaiah 50-59. It was full of well-known scriptures that Christians quote repeatedly. Perhaps none more so than Isaiah 53, which is a wonderful prophecy of Jesus.

In particular, I focused on Isaiah 53:2-3, which says, “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

Recently, I’ve been meditating on the trees in the garden of Eden, particularly the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (there’s actually four types of trees in the garden).

I believe the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents Satan and his way, rebellion, and independence from God. We know that he deceived Eve to eat from it in an act of rebellion, causing her death. In Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, we see a picture of Satan in the garden. His beauty is described at length, and we are told it was great. In these chapters, Satan speaks of doing his will and going up, taking the place of God. And, in Daniel 4, Nebuchadnezzar has a dream of a great tree that reaches to the heavens and can be seen from the whole earth. The tree was his kingdom and he was proud of it.

As I’ve thought about these scriptures and others, it makes me think that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a grand tree, a beautiful tree, a magnificent looking tree, a large tree, a towering tree, likely rising above any other tree in the garden. It was a tree that would attract your attention, your gaze, and probably cause you to behold it in wonder. This is why Eve looked at it and saw that it was good for food and pleasant to the sight and would make her wise like God. Of course, this large, beautiful, magnificent tree that represents independence from God and living by our own knowledge of good and evil is a tree of death. It cannot sustain us. There’s no life in it at all.

But, I believe right next to this magnificent looking tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden was the tree of life. We know from scripture that Jesus was the tree of life. But, look at what it says in Isaiah 53 above about Jesus, this tree of life. The tree of life is described as young plant – it was small. It’s described as a root out of dry ground. Can a plant grow well in dry ground? How high would such a plant grow? This gives me the picture that the tree of life was a small, scrawny, scraggly looking tree.

In John 15, Jesus said he was the true vine. Where does a vine grow? On the ground. Indeed, Isaiah 53 says that Jesus, the tree of life, had no form or majesty that we would look at him. Jesus, the tree of life, had no beauty that we would desire him. Jesus, the tree of life, was despised and rejected. Then,

consider Philippians 2, which says that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. Instead, he made himself of no reputation and became a slave. The tree of life speaks of the lack of self will, going down, full submission to God.

This tree of life, that was completely free for Adam and Eve to eat free, that would sustain them with the very life of God, was right next to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden. Think of the stark contrast between these trees that is pictured in the paragraphs above. The great, huge tree of the knowledge of good and evil towering over the small, scrawny tree of life lying close to the ground.

Now, translate that to our lives today. There are two ways we can go, two options before us, two choices we can make in every moment of every day. One looks great. It seems grand. It looks like everything we could ever want. Look at the fulfillment it could provide. Life will be perfect if I can just have this. Certainly, everyone would make this choice, go this way. The other looks like nothing. It seems insignificant. It can’t possibly bring me anything good. No way could it ever fulfill me. Life will be terrible if I’m stuck with this, if I’m forced to choose this. Why would anyone take this way?

In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus says, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

In a sense, the entire Bible is about choosing between these two trees. It’s not easy choosing the one that looks like nothing and is despised by everyone else around you. But, that’s where life is.

Which Tree Are You Eating From?

Proverbs 3:13-15, 18

“Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her…She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.”

The Bible declares that Jesus Christ is the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). So, I believe when we read about wisdom in Proverbs, particularly the first eight chapters, we are reading about Jesus. According to the passage of above, finding Jesus, getting Jesus, is better than getting silver, gold, or precious jewels. In other words, spiritual riches are better than earthly riches. No earthly desire can compare with Jesus.

Verse 18 above says that wisdom, Jesus, is a tree of life. While I have not found any verse in the Bible that explicitly says that Jesus is the tree of life, I believe it is quite clear when you look at scripture in total.

But, in the garden of Eden, there was another tree right next to the tree of life – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This tree represents death – if mankind ate from it God said they would surely die. Also, this tree represented independence from God. The tree symbolizes all that Satan was and is.

In Ezekiel 28, we read a prophecy about the king of Tyre. But, this prophecy actually alludes to Satan. Think about the passage from Proverbs above as you see what it says about Satan, “By your wisdom and your understanding you have made wealth for yourself, and have gathered gold and silver into your treasuries…You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, sardius, topaz, and diamond, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, emerald, and carbuncle; and crafted in gold were your settings and your engravings.

See how Satan, whose ways are symbolized by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, is represented above. He was covered with every precious jewel that was set in gold. By his own wisdom, his independence from God, he brought gold and silver into his treasuries.

What does Proverbs 3:13-15, 18 compare wisdom, the tree of life, Jesus too? The gain from wisdom “is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels.”

Later in Proverbs 8, Solomon writes, “Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her…My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold, and my yield than choice silver.”

The way of Satan, the way of this world, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, looks very, very enticing with its precious jewels, gold, and silver. It seems beautiful. It seems like everything we could ever want. But, that way leads to destruction.

However, the fruit of the tree of life, the way of wisdom, Jesus, gives true life. No earthly desire can compare. It may not appear as beautiful at first glance, but it is so much more fulfilling to the soul that it is not even worth comparing anything with it. Solomon is urging his sons to choose this way, the fruit of the tree of life. But, this way is a narrow one.