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THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE.
GENESIS, II. 17.
Of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt
THIS is the first and the only law recorded to have been promulged in the state of man's innocence. It may, therefore, be reasonably supposed to have contained in itself the substance of many other laws. Its comprehension may be inferred likewise from its importance. The transgression of it occasioned the fall of the human race, and introduced the necessity of a redemption by the Son of God.
Could we ascertain with precision what is intended by the knowledge of good and evil, such a discovery might possibly furnish us with a key to this part of Scripture, and to the transactions relative to the trial of our first parents in Paradise. Let us, therefore, begin with an inquiry into the true meaning of these words.
By the knowledge of good and evil, the generality of commentators understand experimental knowledge; and they suppose the name to have been given to the tree by a prolepsis, because, in the event, through
man's transgression, it was to become the means of his attaining the experimental knowledge of evil; thus purchasing to himself a knowledge of good, manifested and illustrated by comparison with its opposite; as a person is then said to understand the nature and value of health, when he has been deprived of it by sickness.
That such was the effect of the transgression is certain but it is not, perhaps, so certain that this is the right interpretation of the phrase, which is by no means peculiar to this place, but occurs in other parts of the Sacred Writings, where it cannot be taken in the sense assigned. Nay, there are two passages even in the third chapter of Genesis itself, which do not admit of such exposition. The tempter assures the woman, that, on eating the fruit, they should be as gods, "knowing good and evil." And the Almighty afterwards says, "Man is become like "one of us, knowing good and evil." Now the knowledge of good and evil possessed by the Deity cannot possibly be that produced by the experimental knowledge of evil. Let us examine into the usage
of the words elsewhere.
In Deuteronomy we read-"Moreover "ones, which ye said should be a prey, and your "children, which in that day had no knowledge of "good and evil, they shall go in thither." Here, to know good and evil, is evidently, to know the nature of both, and so to form a judgement upon that knowledge, as to choose the one, and refuse the
a Deut. i. 39.
other. Thus, again, the same sentiment is expressed in the well-known passage of Isaiah, "Before the "child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the "good"." And again, the woman of Tekoah says to David, "As an angel of God, so is my lord the king "to discern good and bad," that is, to distinguish, judge, and act accordingly. This last passage is similar to those before cited from Genesis, and must explain them; namely, "Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil;" and, "Man is become like one of us, to know good and evil." It may be added, that a New Testament writer uses the words in the same sense. For the apostle, speaking of adults in Christianity, as opposed to babes in the faith, styles them such as have their "senses exer"cised to discern good and evila.'.
Such being the plain and acknowledged import of the expression in other parts of Scriptures, why should we suppose it to be different in the instance before us? Let us rather conclude it to be the
The question then will be, how could this tree in the garden of Eden confer a knowledge of good and evil? How could it enable man to discern the nature of each? How could it inform him which was to be pursued, and which to be avoided?
Shall we say, with the Jewish writers, that there was any virtue in the fruit, to clarify the understanding, and so to teach man knowledge? But if so, why was it prohibited? For the knowledge, which we
b Isa. vii. 16.
2 Sam. xiv. 17.
d Heb. v. 14.
suppose to be implied in the phrase, is perfective of man's nature; it is true wisdom: and if he really acquired it by tasting the forbidden fruit, he was much benefited by transgression. We must, therefore, determine, that the tree was designed to teach. the knowledge of good and evil, or to be productive of true wisdom, not in a physical, but in a moral way. It instructed our first parents to fly from, and avoid, death, and the cause of death, which must have been in some manner denoted by this tree; as they were directed to choose life, and the cause of life, signified to them by the other tree, which bore that appellation.
Such is the
The prohibition, being calculated for man's trial, was at the same time calculated to give him the information necessary for that purpose. nature and design of every law. It conveys the knowledge of good and evil, by prohibiting the latter, and consequently enjoining the former. By the "law," says St. Paul, "is the knowledge of sin. I "had not known lust except the law had said, Thou "shalt not covet"." It is the law, in every case respectively, which gives the knowledge of good and evil. Obedience to it is good, and the reward is life; disobedience is evil, and the penalty death. And the trial of man, thus informed, is, whether he will obey or disobey, in order to the manifestation of the lawgiver's justice, wisdom, power, and glory, by rewarding or punishing him, as he does the one or the other. The difficulty lies here: why an action to appear
e Romans, vii. 7.
ance so unimportant and insignificant as that of eating, or forbearing to eat, the fruit of a tree, should have been appointed as the test of his obedience?
To solve this difficulty, let it be considered, that, beside those laws usually termed moral, and supposed to speak their own fitness and propriety, from an obvious view of the nature and constitution of things, it is not strange nor uncommon for God to try the love and obedience of man by other precepts, styled positive and ceremonial. Such was the order for Abraham to quit his country and kindred, and afterward to offer his son Isaac: upon which latter occasion, notwithstanding the proofs before given by him of an obedient spirit, God was pleased to say, "Now I know thou fearest God." Such were the ritual observances regarding sacrificature, and other particulars observed among the patriarchs, and afterwards, with additions, republished in form by Moses. Such are the injunctions to abstinence and self-denial, with the institutions of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, among Christians. What hath been thus done under every other dispensation, was done likewise in Paradise.
And as touching the same precepts called positive, even they are not, what they are sometimes deemed to be, arbitrary precepts, given for no other reason, but because it is the will of God to give them. They carry in them a reason, which, though it may not be discoverable unless revealed, is yet nevertheless founded on the state of human nature, its relation to
! Gen. xxii. 12.