One of the challenges we face with interpreting some biblical stories is the problem of familiarity. We don’t really read the text carefully because we already know what it means. This is the case for many of us when we come to the stories of the man and the woman in Genesis 2-3. It’s interesting to try to read it again for the first time.
The account of the forming of the man and the building of the woman and their subsequent eating of the fruit and expulsion from the garden in Genesis 2-3 brings many additional challenges to the interpreter. One such crux interpretum in the significance of the tree of “the knowledge of good and evil” עץ הדעת טוב ורע (Gen 2:9). This particular tree is only found here in the entire Bible. While it is difficult to understand, it is clearly a key phrase in the narrative, occurring four times (Gen 2:9, 17; 3:5, 22).
Most take “good and evil” as a merism, a figure of speech where the whole is expressed by contrasting parts. Thus, “good and evil” means a whole range of knowledge, not two isolated things. Some, such as Karl Barth, take the phrase to refer to omniscience:
To know good and evil, to be able to distinguish and therefore judge between what ought to be and ought not to be, between Yea and No, between salvation and perdition, between life and death, is to be like God, to be oneself the Creator and Lord of the creature. (Barth CD III/1 258)
It is much more likely that it doesn’t refer to all knowledge in general, i.e., omniscience (especially considering that after eating of the tree, the first couple doesn’t appear to be omniscient!), but knowledge related to “good and evil.”
Significantly, the expression “good and evil” (טוב ורע) is used elsewhere in the Bible of the human ability to be discriminating, something that is lacking in children (Deut 1:39; Isa 7:15-16), the elderly (2Sam 19:35), and the inexperienced (1Kings 3:9). This discerning and discriminating wisdom is a faculty normally experienced in the “prime of life”; it is a mark of maturity in a person.
The fact that the knowledge of good and evil is actually something good to have when one is an adult, may suggest that the man and the woman are presented in the garden as innocent preadolescent children. Think about it: they are naked and not ashamed (2:25), which is a child-like trait (this is not a recent idea, some early church fathers also suggested this). So the prohibition related to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:15-16) may be more an issue of timing and obedience, rather than there being something inherently wrong with eating of it. “When the time was right, the first couple would be able to eat from it” (Walton, 205). In eating the fruit they prematurely mature, they gain autonomy and sexual awareness. “God has prohibited the tree because autonomy and sexuality should come only at the end of an appropriate process” (Walton, Genesis, 216).
The narrative also seems to suggest that the first couple’s stay in the garden was meant to be temporary. The state of the earth at the beginning of the account was desolate and “there was no human (אדם) to work/serve/cultivate (עבד) the ground (אדמה).” This may suggest that the goal of the human was outside of Eden.
The fact that God, rather than the human creature, planted the garden suggests that the garden was not intended to be the dwelling place of humans. After all, the garden of Eden is the garden of God. Humans were created to till the ground and in this manner bring life to the sterile desert. This is their destiny, and the earth outside the garden will be their dwelling. But just as children must remain in the house of their parents until they reach maturity so also the human creature is placed temporarily in the garden of God (Ronald Simkins, Creator & Creation, p. 180).
So perhaps we don’t know these opening chapters as Genesis as well as we think we might. The man and the woman getting kicked out of the garden was perhaps more an issue of “premature ejection” rather than than something entirely unforeseen.