The Bible begins with the story of God creating the heavens and the earth and all that is in it. On the sixth day of creation God makes man (both male and female) in his own likeness and image and blesses them and then immediately gives them the command to be fruitful and multiply so that they can fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over it (Gen 1:26–28). This delegated authority was second only to God and we should immediately recognize the prominent position that God placed them in because once we realize how high they were it exposes just how far they fell. God goes on to tell the original man and woman that he has given them every plant and tree that yields fruit for food (Gen 1:29), which may seem like a trivial statement at first but is actually quite important for understanding the events that follow.
The second chapter of Genesis gives a more detailed account of the creation of the first man and woman and their original home in the garden of Eden. The text says that “out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:9). We’re told shortly after this that “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Gen 2:15–17). Their temptation and subsequent fall was documented for us in Genesis 3.
The Fall (Genesis 3:1–13)
3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.
He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
8 And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
Much could be said about this passage but we’ll limit ourselves to a few important observations. First, the serpent (who will later be identified as the devil in Revelation 12:9) began his deception by twisting the command of God.
16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”
God said that they could eat from every tree but one while the serpent changes this to any tree. The woman (Eve) responds by twisting the command herself in saying that they couldn’t eat of the one tree nor could they touch it or they would die. Yet God never said anything about touching the tree. It stands to reason that touching the tree would have been a part of their duty to work and keep the garden (Gen 2:15).
But notice how the serpent tempts the woman. He begins by denying the consequence that God promised for disobedience. His second line of attack is to point out that the woman lacks something that God has. Let’s look at the text again:
4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
He doesn’t focus on how good the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil looked. He doesn’t focus on how good it would have tasted or the fact that it was good for food (these things were already obvious from Gen 2:9). He focuses on the fact that eating it would open her eyes and make her like God in knowing good and evil. It wasn’t simply the allure of being like God that drew the woman in. She was already created in his image and likeness (Gen 1:26). It was the allure of being like God in knowing good and evil that was the ultimate temptation. This desire for knowledge and wisdom is what ultimately drew the woman and her husband into disobedience.
The Knowledge of Good and Evil
This raises the question of what exactly the knowledge of good and evil is and what it means to know or to have knowledge. How do we come to know anything? We know through:
- Learning (Someone told us)
- Experiencing (We have gone through it)
- Determining (We have determined—in the sense of caused or decided—a matter)
Now remember the serpent’s sales pitch. He tempted the woman with being like God in knowing good and evil. So how exactly does God know? Does God learn? That is, does God acquire knowledge through someone else telling him? It doesn’t seem so. God speaks through the prophet Isaiah saying:
9 remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
10 declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ (Isa 46:9–10)
God “declares” the end from the beginning. “Declaring” in this context means to “make known” or “announce.” In other words, God can make the end known from the beginning because he knows the end from the beginning. He doesn’t acquire knowledge of things as they happen. This is also not an instance of God simply looking into the future to see what will happen and having a passive knowledge of what will occur. He “declares” or “makes known” the end from the beginning because he determines the end from the beginning. This is made clear when he says that his counsel shall stand and he will accomplish all his purpose (cf. Eph 1:11).
Job asks the rhetorical question, “Will any teach God knowledge, seeing that he judges those who are on high?” (Job 21:22 cf. Isa 40:14). This type of question expects a negative answer. Of course no one will teach God knowledge! But the clearest statement comes from the First Epistle of John when he says, “for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:20).
If God doesn’t learn then he certainly couldn’t have had the knowledge of good and evil through someone telling him what good and evil were. Is it possible that God acquired the knowledge of good and evil through experience? John again tells us that “God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Darkness is often used as a metaphor for evil in Scripture. This is certainly how John used it throughout his writings. For example, he says that “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). Darkness and evil are synonymous in this passage. He records Jesus saying, “the light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going” (John 12:35). So when John tells us that there is no darkness in God he means to communicate that there is no evil in God.
Later in his first epistle John says that “everyone who hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). Again, God is pure, and thus not tainted by evil. In Mark’s Gospel a man runs up to Jesus and calls him “Good Teacher” (Mark 10:17) to which Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Goodness rather than evil is attributed to God. It stands to reason that since God is without darkness, pure, and good that he does not experience evil. And yet God has the knowledge of good and evil, so if he doesn’t gain it through learning or experience, then how does God know good and evil?
God knows through determination, that is, he determines what good and evil are. Returning to the First Epistle of John we read that “everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). The “lawlessness” here is specifically a disregard for God’s law. Repeatedly throughout the Old Testament we read of people doing what was “evil in the sight of the LORD.” This phrase has reference to various sinful acts, namely:
- Making idols (Deut 4:25; 31:29)
- Worshipping idols (Judg 2:11; 3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1; 1 Kings 11:6; 15:26, 34; 16:25–26, 30 and dozens of other passages in 1–2 Kings and 1–2 Chronicles)
- Transgressing God’s covenant (Deut 17:2)
- Abandoning the Law of the LORD (1 Kings 14:22 cf. 2 Chron 12:1, 14)
- Human sacrifice (2 Kings 17:17; 21:6; 2 Chron 33:6)
- Consulting evil spirits & consulting the dead (2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chron 33:6)
- Forsaking God (2 Chron 29:6)
God explicitly forbids such practices (Exod 20:3–5; Deut 18:10; Lev 18:21; 26:14–46), so in committing them one does what is “evil in the sight of the LORD,” which is to say that God is the one who determines what evil is.
So was the allure of being like God in knowing good and evil a desire to acquire knowledge through learning or experience? No. It was a desire to determine what good and evil were as God had already done. The Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck said, “The knowledge of good and evil is not the knowledge of the useful and the harmful, of the world and how to control it, but… the right and capacity to distinguish good and evil on one’s own” (Reformed Dogmatics, 3:33). We see this play out immediately after they eat the fruit of the tree.
4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
Once their eyes were opened they knew they were naked and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths (Gen 3:7). But why? The text tells us that when God went to meet them they hid themselves from his presence and when he called them Adam answered and admitted that he hid himself because he was afraid and he was afraid because he was naked (Gen 3:9–10). When and where did God tell them that being naked was a problem? God created them naked and called that act of creation “very good” (Gen 1:31). They determined for themselves that their nakedness was something to be covered.
Immediately after pronouncing the curse for their disobedience (Gen 3:14–19) God clothes them in animal skins and says that “the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:22). In other words, it’s not that they now recognized that their nakedness was evil and had been all along, it’s that they determined that this was so. God was saying that the man and the woman had become determiners of good and evil like him although in their case they didn’t have this by right.
This was the beginning of the disordering of God’s creation. Once sin entered the world everything was out of alignment. The “original sin” was a desire for autonomy. Autonomy comes from the Greek words “autos,” which means “self” and “nomos,” which means “law.” A literal way of understanding autonomy is as a “law unto one’s self, or self–rule.” A standard dictionary defines autonomy as “freedom from external control or influence.” Humanity in general now wants to call the shots and determine the parameters of good and evil. The repeated references to doing “evil in the sight of the LORD” that we find in the book of Judges can be paralleled with another phrase that we see repeated in the same book, namely that “in those days there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg 17:6; 21:25).
Centuries later the prophet Isaiah cried out:
20 Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter! (Isa 5:20)
This woe is reserved specifically for those who deny God’s pronouncements and substitute them with their own and unfortunately we have all at one time or another gone astray in the same way as our first parents.