How can we characterize the main element in the creation we read about in chapters 1-2 of Bereshit? Coherence? How about the challenge of maintaining healthy boundaries?
If we think about it for a minute, we see that the six days of creation deal with assigning elements to their own place without overstepping the boundaries of their opposites. There’s light and darkness. Water and earth. Sun and moon. Man and woman. Human beings and all the various plants and other animals. Distinctions and connections.
In the second chapter we learn about ultimate boundaries, pertaining to two of the most important elements in life: knowledge and life itself. Why we were forbidden to eat from the tree of life is understandable: eternal life is not intended for us. But not eating from the tree of knowledge of right and wrong? Can that be right? Are we not supposed to be able to distinguish between right and wrong? Here’s one possible explanation.
We said that creation created distinctions between opposites or different elements and boundaries between them. But the picture we get in the early part of chapter 2 is of an overall unity. Adam has been given a task – to tend the Garden of Eden. Eventually, Eve, his mate, assists in the task, as do all the animals in the garden. There is unity of purpose, unity of action. According to the story, everyone is focused on the garden and fulfilling God’s command to nurture that garden.
Right in the middle of the garden are two trees off-limits to man and animal. This is like the gun that appears in Act One of a play – you know it will be used in Act Three. In our story, it is used in Act Two.
In keeping with the Torah’s style, we don’t have any dialogue between Adam and Eve about eating the fruit – enough comedians have created skits to help us envision it – but we feel Adam and Eve hesitating about going against God’s wishes. The role of the snake is that of the “evil inclination” we are all supposed to have, to prod us out of the straight and narrow into something more adventurous and exciting and forbidden.
In one sense, that’s an anachronism because before the knowledge of good and evil we shouldn’t have had any evil inclination. That was supposed to have come with the knowledge of good and evil! But we’ll let that slide.
What is the essence of the knowledge that Adam and Eve gain from that eponymous tree? In this reading, the knowledge exposes Adam and Eve to self-interest. The knowledge that while you can keep working for whatever cause you want selflessly as before, alternatively you can work for something that interests you personally, something that will benefit you and not necessarily others. That something can be material or spiritual or – knowledge for the sake of knowledge. The important thing is that it does not necessarily serve the greater good.
We understand immediately where this leads. From desiring greater knowledge about esoteric subjects that have no immediate or foreseeable application, we can easily move to knowledge about how to gain more wheat or fruit or money or stocks or cars or land than others, and then how to use this surfeit of capital for our own benefit rather than for the common good.
What is not clear is why the two trees were placed within the reach of Adam and Eve in the first place. If they are not for them, don’t put them there. If they are there, perhaps they were intended for the young couple!
I see a parallel in the Exodus story. According to the pace of movement, the original plan seems to have been for the Israelites to reach Canaan about two and half to three years after exiting Egypt. Then the spies do their thing and penalty time is added and they spend forty years counting sand. Beyond the question of “didn’t God know this was going to happen” is the question – shouldn’t it have been obvious that two-three years would not be enough? In other words, forty years in the desert may/should have been the original plan.
The same in Eden. Perhaps the intention of placing the tree there was to tempt man to gain the knowledge of good and evil. It was only when Adam and Eve had learned all they could about tending the garden – or got bored with it – only then did they begin to search for more – more knowledge, more interest, more something. And they found that something, right there in the garden, pre-planted and waiting for them.
In other words, things worked out the way they were supposed to.