…where “that tree” is the Tree-of-Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil — Genesis 2:16-17, The Message.
What a great question! I wasn’t sure what I thought about it. My assumption was that this incident wasn’t historical, that this story was in Genesis to say we’re a race of a moral agents rather than a race of mindless slaves (the predominant creation myth of the day implied the latter). But looking at Romans 5:14, as well as other passages, it became clear that Paul considered Genesis 2-3 historical.
So the tree was historical — why did God put it there? I looked at an Old Testament commentary (Keil and Delitzsch), which said the tree was put there “to train his (Adam’s) spirit through the exercise of obedience to the word of God” (p. 84–parenthesis mine). This reminded me of what Lewis wrote in Perelandra, book #2 of his space trilogy: that some commands are given just so we’ll have an opportunity to obey.
I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless he bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason? When we spoke last you said that if you told the beasts to walk on their heads, they would delight to do so. So I know that you understand well what I am saying.
C.S. Lewis, Perelandra
(MacMillan Paperbacks Edition 1965) p.118
In other words, we can’t exercise obedience by doing what we were going to do anyway; it’s when we do what we wouldn’t otherwise do, and we do it because God commands it — that’s exercising obedience.
Keil and Delitzsch have more to say about the tree, and the effects of this kind of voluntary and joyful obedience:
The tree of knowledge was to lead man to the knowledge of good and evil; and, according to the divine intention, this was to be attained through his not eating of its fruit. This end was to be accomplished, not only by his discerning in the limit imposed by the prohibition the difference between that which accorded with the will of God and that which opposed it, but also by his coming eventually, through obedience to the prohibition, to recognise the fact that all that is opposed to the will of God is an evil to be avoided, and, through voluntary resistance to such evil, to the full development of the freedom of choice originally imparted to him into the actual freedom of a deliberate and self-conscious choice of good. By obedience to the divine will he would have attained to a godlike knowledge of good and evil, i.e. to one in accordance with his own likeness to God.
That is, Adam was supposed to learn about good and evil by abstaining from that fruit. As he continued in abstinence, he would
- come to see that [against-God’s-will ⇒ evil ⇒ to be avoided];
- develop real freedom (become better at resisting evil); and
- come to a true knowledge of good and evil.
This knowledge would have been of a “godlike” nature, i.e., corresponding to the fact that we were created in God’s image. That sounds really good, actually! If only he had listened….
This idea, that obedience brings strength and knowledge, reminded me of a theory that if we obey God in little things, we become better able to obey him in the big things. Oh, right, that theory came from Jesus, in Luke 16:
“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
I’ve usually taken this to mean that if we esteem material things correctly (i.e., not taking them to be more important than they actually are), that’s a kind of prerequisite for being trusted with really important things — the care of men’s souls for example. So that’s why it’s important for me to tell the truth on expense reports and tax returns, even if I were certain I wouldn’t ever be caught. And why it’s also important to be kind to all, patient when wronged, etc. (from 2 Timothy 2:24).
One more thing this reminded me of:
[Y]ou need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
This passage, too, points to the way things work: by obedience, we gain strength and discernment and maturity. I’m not saying we should go looking for more things to obey (e.g., giving up bacon and shrimp), but that by doing what we already know we should do and avoiding what we know we should avoid, the Lord will help us to grow up in every way (Ephesians 4:15 NCV). That sounds pretty good.