What is the Knowledge of Good and Evil?

Written by
Matt Johnson
Jul 16, 2021
Matt Johnson

enesis chapter 2 highlights two trees in the garden of Eden: the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God warns Adam against eating the fruit of the latter tree, telling him that doing so will result in certain death.

Gen. 2:16-17: “The LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may freely eat, but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day that you eat from it you will certainly die’”.

But what exactly is “the knowledge of good and evil”? Why would God want to withhold this knowledge from man? And why did its acquisition warrant death, and cause Adam and Eve to become afraid of God? Before we answer these questions, let’s first consider why it matters. Adam and Eve’s acquisition of “the knowledge of good and evil” is the origin of the problem that eventually necessitates the cross. A proper understanding of the nature of the problem will better inform our understanding of the solution which purports to solve it. The relevance of this event to our understanding of the Atonement warrants us taking a closer, more careful look at the Hebrew phrase in question. So what is “hada’ath tov wara”, or, “the knowledge of good and evil”, as our English translations render the phrase?

According to the popular interpretation of this phrase, as enshrined by word choices made by every English translation of this story, when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of “good” and “evil”, they are said to have acquired moral knowledge, allowing them, for the first time, to recognize and distinguish between right and wrong. The “knowledge of good and evil”, then, endowed man with the capacity for moral decision making, a responsibility which henceforth made them morally culpable for their actions.

This interpretation raises certain questions. Why wouldn't God want man to know the difference between right and wrong? Doesn’t God’s giving of a command presume an understanding of this basic distinction? Without any capacity to judge between right and wrong courses of action, in what sense were Adam and Eve morally culpable for their initial act of disobedience, if in fact done out of complete moral ignorance? And why would the acquisition of the ability to make such a distinction seem to cause the whole created order to fall apart, and so anger God that, on the basis of this single act of disobedience, he effectively condemns Adam, Eve, and all of their descendants to death (even hell, according to some Christians)? Because of the longstanding popularity of the “moral knowledge” interpretation, due in large part to how our English translations render the phrase in question, we have become used to this idea, and so fail to notice (or dismiss, if we do) the strangeness of the whole affair.

But there’s good reason to suspect that hada’ath tov wara does not refer to moral knowledge, and demonstrating this is fairly straightforward. The Hebrew words in question here are “tov”, translated into English as “good”, and “ra”, translated into English as “evil”.

Let's start by looking at the way the word tov is used. In the preceding chapter, Genesis 1, tov is used on seven occasions. These seven occurrences provide us with near-by usage examples, which can and should inform our understanding of the word as it occurs a few verses later in Genesis 2, verses 9 and 17. How, then, is tov used in Genesis 1? In each of its occurrences, it is used to describe things that are beneficial to man, and conducive to his well-being. For example, God says that the light, dry land, and plants are “good” for man. Now here's what I’d like to point out: the word tov is not being used in a moral sense here. God is not saying, for example, that the dry land was righteous, or morally superior to the sea. Inanimate objects are not moral agents. The word tov is used not in a moral sense, but rather to describe things that are beneficial to man’s well-being.

John Sailhamer notes in his book, “Genesis Unbound,”

“Throughout Genesis 1, the phrase ‘and God saw that it was good’ is the author’s way of saying that what God made was beneficial for mankind. The whole creation account is oriented toward God’s creation of the man and the woman on the sixth day. That which is ‘good’ in Genesis 1 is that which will benefit the man and woman.”[1]

John Walton adds to this point in “The Lost World of Genesis One,”

“Throughout Genesis 1 any number of possible meanings have been proposed for ‘good’. In the history of interpretation it has often been understood in moral/ethical terms or as a reference to the quality of the workmanship. While the Hebrew term could be used in any of those ways, the context indicates a different direction. We can find out what the author means when saying all of these things are ‘good’ by inquiring what it would mean for something not to be good. Fortunately the near context offers us just such an opportunity: ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ (Gen. 2:18). This verse has nothing to do with moral perfection or quality of workmanship--it is a comment concerning function. The human condition is not functionally complete without the woman. Thus throughout Genesis 1 the refrain ‘it was good’ expressed the functional readiness of the cosmos for human beings.”[2]

In Genesis 1, the Hebrew word tov is not used in a moral sense. This should inform our understanding of the phrase, “the knowledge of tov and ra”, when we read it only a few verses later in Genesis 2:9. Even in verse 9 itself, we find another occurrence of tov in which it is not used in a moral sense, but rather to describe food that is “beneficial” to man.

Gen. 2:9: “Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good [tov] for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of [tov] and [ra].

This understanding tov, as referring to that which is beneficial to man, also allows us to ascertain the meaning of ra, in so far as ra is the opposite of tov, and stands in contrast to it. While tov describes that which is beneficial to man, ra, then, is the condition of things that are dangerous, harmful, or destructive to man. Neither tov nor ra are being used here in a moral sense, even though our English translations imply otherwise.

The Hebrew noun ra comes from a root verb, ra’ah, the literal meaning of which is, “to make a loud noise”. Both ra and ra’ah can, and often are, used in moral contexts to describe something that is wicked or evil. But they are also used in contexts in which “evil” would be an inappropriate translation, and are instead used to mean things like “disaster” (Gen. 19:19, note that this “disaster” [ra] is an act of judgment executed by God) or “deformed”/”ugly” (Gen. 41:3).

While the English word “good” has some ambiguity to its meaning, and can be used in both a moral sense (“that was a good deed”) and also a nonmoral sense (“you are a good painter”), the English word, “evil”, has no such ambiguity, unlike the Hebrew word it is being used to translate. The English word “evil” is inherently concerned with matters of morality. When you say that someone or something is evil, you are commenting on its condition as a moral agent. By translating ra as “evil”, here, our English translations mistakenly cast the Hebrew phrase hada’ath tov wara as referring to moral knowledge.

       Given that tov and ra are not used in a moral sense here, what are some alternative renderings that better represent the dichotomy present in the Hebrew phrase? We can think of tov and ra as the difference between “well-being and calamity”, “blessedness and disaster”, or “goodness and destruction”.

Having examined the usage of tov and ra, let’s briefly turn to the Hebrew noun, da’ath, here translated as “knowledge”. The “knowledge” of tov and ra is said to be a unique and defining attribute of God (c.f. Gen. 3:5, 22). The noun da’ath comes from the root word, yada, a verb often translated as “to know”. This verb, yada, is used in verse 5 and 22.

Gen. 3:5: “‘For God knows [yada] that on the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God, knowing [yada] good and evil.’”

Gen 3:22: “Then the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing [yada] good and evil; and now, he might reach out with his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’”

       The noun, da’ath, and verb, yada, sometimes convey more than abstract intellectual knowledge or knowing, and instead signify an experiential knowledge or knowing. For example, yada is used as an euphemism for sexual relations in Gen. 4:1 and elsewhere (c.f. Gen. 4:17, 25, 19:5).

Gen. 4:1a: “Now the man had relations [yada] with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain...’”

To “know” tov and ra, or have “knowledge” of these two opposites, is probably more than merely knowing about them as abstract categories.  It is, instead, something that is known experientially. And indeed, there is a clear connection between tov and God's actions. In Gen. 1, it's God who causes tov. Tov is a condition that results from God's intervention in the physical world. For example, after God causes the appearance of dry land (Gen. 1:10), the text reads, "and God saw that it was tov". This is a pattern that repeats throughout the narrative. The physical world was once hostile to man (see Gen. 1:2, where the land is described as tohu and bohu, words meaning something along the lines of, “desolation” and “wasteland”, respectively). God then reorders and restructures the world, making it tov, or “good-for-man”. Tov is a finely-tuned state of affairs brought about by God. It is the telos or purpose towards which God's actions aim.

Seen in this light, tov and ra, then, are alternate, contrasting states which God can bring about. They are two different ways in which he can act and be experienced. God can bring about tov (think, Eden), but also ra (think, the flood). Putting this all together, the "knowledge of tov and ra" acquired by Adam and Eve brought about the realization that God, whom Adam and Eve had, up until now, experienced only as the giver of blessings, was, in fact, quite dangerous. It was the realization that God poses a very real hazard to mankind: he could cause man both tov and ra.

Isaiah 45:7: "The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating disaster; I am the LORD who does all these things."

The fruit of this tree opens their eyes to how potentially hazardous God can be to man. They come to realize that God, in his raw, inconceivable power, is not only able to create, but also to destroy. Not only can he bless, but also curse. God is able not only to create objects of serene beauty, but also objects of awesome terror. God “knows” both tov and ra not in a merely abstract, intellectual sense, but by experience. Tov and ra are dual modes in which God may act; two contrasting ways in which he can be experienced by his creatures. When Adam and Eve are made aware of this fuller vision of God, they become terrified of him, hide, and no longer trust him.  Who can behold the face of God, and be confronted by the fullness and power of his being, and live?

Exodus 33:20: “But He said, ‘You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!’”

Due to this newfound perspective on God, Adam and Eve are said to realize their nakedness before him. Nakedness conveys a sense of extreme vulnerability. It's worth pointing out that Adam and Eve were not literally naked when Adam answered God in Gen. 3:10. They were, by that time, already wearing loincloths (see verse 7). Nakedness appears to be used here in a sense which goes beyond the literal. They realize their defenseless, vulnerable state before God, a relational situation which requires a trust, or faith, in the person of God which they have not yet acquired.

The knowledge of tov and ra which Adam and Eve experienced was not the meager realization that some things were right, and some things were wrong. God’s issuing of a command to Adam and Eve presumes a basic moral capacity on their part. Why also would God desire to withhold such “moral knowledge” from man? God’s command itself imparts moral knowledge. Tov and ra are not used in the moral sense implied by the English translation of this phrase as “the knowledge of good and evil”. Rather, eating the fruit of this tree opened Adam and Eve’s eyes to the fearsome reality that God, while good, is also supremely dangerous. This idea brings to mind Psalm 111:10.

Psalm 111:10a: ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…”

When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they did so seeking wisdom. What they got was fear of God.

Now let’s consider how this understanding of “the knowledge of tov and ra” might inform our understanding of the Atonement. Humanity’s fearful distrust of God, which began with Adam and Eve, could only be overcome by the vision of God’s goodness as seen on the cross. When God made himself vulnerable to mankind through the incarnation, we did our worst to him. But instead of retaliating with destructive, all-consuming wrath, which is certainly within God’s power, he instead refrained, and chose the path of mercy. It is within God’s power to destroy, but he desires reconciliation. The cross was the ultimate exposition of the merciful restraint of which God is capable. It is an invitation to trust in the goodness of his heart. Is God safe? By no means. But the cross shows us that he is good.

In this view of Atonement, which I have called, “Divine Restraint Theory of Atonement”, the cross saves us, not from God, but from our fearful distrust of him. It does this by revealing his deepest nature: love. Humankind once knew God only as the supreme object of our fears; a hazard to be avoided by fragile mortals such as ourselves, or, when we fail to do this, to be assuaged by some bloody sacrifice. God was the one before whose terrible power we stood utterly vulnerable, defenseless, and naked. But in the person of Christ we are given a vision of God's innermost being: we are shown a heart bent not on retaliation, self-aggrandizement, or wrathful vengeance (that is, a vainglorious God made in our image, the way many Christians today still conceive of God). Jesus instead reveals a God willing to bear our worst abuses, and refrain from retaliation, in ceaseless pursuit of reconciliation.

Jesus’s steadfast refusal to retaliate in the midst of his passion, and his commitment to the path of mercy and forgiveness, offers us a more complete vision of the Divine, allowing us to see God as what he always was and will be: our Father. When we are confronted by the overwhelming, fearsome power of God's presence, Jesus shows us our defense, and provides the ultimate covering for our shame and nakedness: God’s own love for us.

1 John 4:18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.

This is, I believe, the gospel. In Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (they are called the four “Gospels” for a reason), Jesus' emphasis seems to be: God is here, now--he's still striving with humanity--always and continually reaching out. The good news is an invitation to trust in God’s goodness, as opposed to a relationship built on fear.  God is not the easily angered, exacting, vainglorious God we had believed him to be, and presented him as to others. Humanity had previously imagined God in its own image. But Jesus says, God’s not like that. He is, instead, a patient, forgiving God who desires mercy, not sacrifice. The almighty "Judge" we had so feared, is, in fact, bias in our favor, because he loves us. He need not be experienced or seen as "Judge", but can instead be related to as "Abba, Father". Jesus redefines God for us, and presents him in a new, unexpected way. This is the good news, and the resolution of the problem that began in Eden, when man, naked and afraid, first became distrustful of his God.

[1] Sailhamer, “Genesis Unbound,” pgs. 126-127

[2] John Walton, “The Lost World of Genesis One,” pg. 50

[3] See Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon of the Old Testament, entry on רָעַע, pg. 775 in 1979 edition. Also available here: H7489 - rāʿaʿ - Strong's Hebrew Lexicon (nasb95) (blueletterbible.org)

Matt is a husband and stay-at-home dad of two. He enjoys working on his house and yard, making fishing lures for his hobby business (the Chautauqua Bait Company), as well as hiking, writing, and thinking about difficult questions. He has a particular interest in understanding the opening chapters of Genesis.