How Could Adam and Eve Sin Before ‘Knowing Good and Evil’?

September 25, 2012 § 28 Comments

Genesis 3 says that Adam and Eve didn’t know good and evil before they sinned. How could they be held morally responsible for sin without the knowledge of good and evil?

The text in question is from Genesis 3:22, where, following Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, “the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of Us, knowing good and evil.’” (NIV)

The Hebrew term for “knowing” in this verse (also in verse 5) is not unique to this passage or chapter; it’s the same word “yada” used elsewhere, some 960 times in the Hebrew scriptures. “Yada” can mean to learn, to perceive, to discern, to distinguish, to know by experience, to recognize, to consider, to be acquainted with, and other fairly ordinary definitions of the word listed in Hebrew lexicons (Strong’s #3045). But, there is no particular sense of “knowing” indicated in Genesis 3.

So what meaning of “knowing” is intended? I think the definition “to know by experience” best fits this usage of “knowing”. Imagine what life would have been like for Adam and Eve. At the end of the description for each day of creation, God’s calls His creation “good” or “very good.” (Gen. 1:4,10,12,18,25,31) Adam and Eve knew the “good” that God had made for them, but they would probably not have had the mindset to identify it as good. God knew good and evil; Adam and Eve knew only good, because they had experienced only good. For Adam and Eve to say “all that God has made is good” might mean they would have to understand a distinction between good and evil. They had witnessed or practiced nothing with which to contrast good. Before their own sin, no evil had been known to them in the experiential sense.

Does this mean they didn’t know right from wrong before they sinned? I don’t think so. God tells Adam in Genesis 2:16-17: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” God’s command no doubt informed Adam that there was a specific standard and that a deviation from the standard was possible. He would have been innately aware of God’s moral law, being created in His image, but here he received a specific moral directive. He was also taught about the presence of something called “the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” Adam may have inferred the existence of “evil” as 1) something that was tantamount to deviation from God’s law or directive, and 2) something he was to avoid knowledge about. (Related: Good Ignorance: Handling the Knowledge of Evil)

From that deduction, Adam would have known of evil only as a vague concept, or a theory. Similarly, the consequence God warned Adam about—“you will certainly die”— for disobedience wouldn’t have been fully understood without experiencing death in any of God’s creatures. But he would have perhaps recognized it as a potential ending to what God had provided, a consequence Adam naturally would want to avoid.

I suppose before the fall Adam would have knowledge of evil as someone like myself has knowledge of the President. Do I know the President? Well, I know who he is, and I know about him, but I don’t know him personally. If I met the President, I would know him in a very different sense than simply having heard of him or read about him. When Eve and then Adam in turn disobeyed God’s command, they came to know sin first hand. They had experiential knowledge of both good and evil.

I think it’s fitting and nothing approaching revisionism to say that Adam and Eve knew good because it was all they truly knew, and that they knew only of the potential of evil at Creation, but came to know evil by experience when “their eyes were opened” (Gen. 3:7) following their acts of disobedience to God.

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