The Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil
Lenten Season: Ash Wednesday, 5 March 2014.
Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado
No! Stop! Cease and desist! Don’t even think about it! After being startled, what was your initial gut reaction to the words I just uttered? Did you accept them with peaceful acquiescence or did you perhaps feel a little defiant and angry? If we are all being completely honest, I believe we would have to admit it was the latter and therein lay the problem. That was and still is the problem presented by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was the representation of God’s “No!” to humanity. And we don’t like to hear that word very much, yet that is precisely what God said to Adam in the garden of Eden concerning that tree. From chapter two verses 16 and 17:
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.
There it is, the whole of God’s law at the beginning of the world. Don’t eat from that one tree. Adam and Eve had it so much easier didn’t they? They didn’t have to memorize ten commandments like we do, because they had just one.
The question I’m most often asked about this is why did God put the tree there in the first place if knew they would eat of it? Just by asking that question we are very much following in the footsteps of our first parents when they were asked by God why they disobeyed Him.
Let us start with Eve’s excuse first. “The serpent deceived me and I ate?” Who is she blaming? Like Flip Wilson’s Geraldine she says “The devil made me do it?” But did he? Satan certainly provided the temptation and the lie, because he is a lair and the father of all lies, but Eve chose to believe his lie, and in so doing she chose his words over God’s. Just as we so often do. As St. Paul points out in chapter one of his epistle to the Romans:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened... They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised.
The first sin, the sin that leads to all other sins, is the rejection of the truth of God’s word. It is no different today than it was in the Garden of Eden. Either we take God at his word and believe it and seek to be obedient to it, or we play fast and loose with it and believe the lies the snake whispers in our ears. Yes, it is that black and white. Whether we like it or not the truth is always the truth and a lie is always a lie.
Now let us look at Adam’s excuse: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave fruit of the tree and I ate.” Now, initially when we read this it sounds like he is blaming Eve just as we often seek to blame our sins on others, but if you look a little closer you’ll notice that he is not really blaming Eve, he is blaming God. He is in essence pointing the finger at God and telling Him that it is His fault. “You made the woman. You made the tree. You made the snake. So, God you are to blame for my sin.
As ridiculous as that sounds that is exactly what many people believe. Whenever, they sin it is not their fault, it is their parent’s fault, their friends’ fault, it is their boss’s fault, it is society’s fault, and ultimately, since God made everything it is His fault.
By the way have you ever notice that when something terrible happens it is always an “act of God.” But whenever something good happens we are always more than willing to accept the accolades. Like JFK said: “Victory has a thousand fathers, but failure is always an orphan.”
At any rate from the excuses of our first parents we can see quite well what the true nature of sin is. It is not just some minor personality defect or a slight error or a little as some believe. It is not as Brittany Spears used to sing, “Oops. I did it again.” It is outright rebellion against our Creator. When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they not only said “No!” to God, they, in effect, declared war against him and denied His right to rule over them. And all of their descendants, including us, have been rebelling ever since. And, as with any rebellion or war, there are casualties, there is death.
It is no different in our war against God and because we all sin, we all will die a physical death, just as God had said, but now here is the interesting part, not all of the casualties would be on our side. You see, in His curse upon the snake, God also includes a word of hope for Adam and Eve and for us.
I will put enmity between you (Satan) and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.
This passage is often called the proto-evangel, because it is the first proclamation of the Gospel in the Scriptures. It tells of a savior who would not only come to destroy the power of the devil, but who would also die in the process. So we see that in spite of mankind’s rebellion against him, God, in his grace and foreknowledge, had already provided a solution. And that solution would be a man, a seed of the woman. Notice by the way, nothing is said about Adam or any man in the begetting of that seed of the woman. The virgin birth is already being subtly forecast. God would be the father of that saving seed of the woman and that seed’s name would be Jesus and he would be the Christ and He would succeed where Adam and Eve failed.
He came to end the war between God and mankind by reconciling us to God through his perfect obedience and death. He did not succumb to the devil’s tempting as did Adam and Eve, and all the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve, but He made full payment for all our sins with a perfect sacrifice.
And how did He do it? How did Jesus accomplish our salvation? With a tree, of all things. The curse brought by one tree, would be undone by another. The devil who had gained power over humankind by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, was undone by Christ on the tree of the cross. How perfectly and wonderfully appropriate. And that is, of course, what this penitential season of Lent is really all about. It is not simply about us giving things up as many believe. It is not about our works or actions at all, but about God’s work and action, seen in the life and death of His only begotten Son for us, so that we could be forgiven and redeemed.
That is why we made the sign of the cross on our foreheads with ashes on Ash Wednesday. We rightly acknowledge our many sins and our rebellion against our God, and remember that we are but animate dust and ashes, but most importantly we remember what Jesus has done for us on the tree of Calvary.
We must remember that all our sins, every single one, has been erased from the sight and memory of God, by faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. They were washed away in our baptism, where we were baptized into Christ’s death on the tree on Calvary. And, as we kneel at the wooden rail and partake of the sacrament of the altar, we remember that through Jesus’ body and his blood spilled on the wood of the cross, our sin is blotted out from God’s sight forever.
The evil done by Adam and Eve at the beginning in the garden of Eden and all the and all of us has been undone and our reward is the good that our Savior has won for us. And he did it all so that one day we might enter the garden again and eat from yet another tree, one mentioned at the end of this third chapter of Genesis.
And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good from evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and also take from the tree of life and eat and live forever.” So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.
I always find it interesting that this passage is often viewed as a punishment by God, when in fact, it is a blessing. He is saving Adam and Eve from the same fate as the devil. Who lives forever in his impenitence. No, by denying Adam and Eve the tree of life in their sin fallen state he is opening up the possibility for them to die and be raised up again, to be resurrected, with incorruptible bodies. And then they and we will be able to enter into Eden again and take from the tree of Life and live forever. And that is exactly what he will do with them and us as we see in the Revelation to St. John:
He who has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
Yes, by God’s grace and through faith in our Savior Jesus Christ we will all eat from that tree and live forever, with those we love who have died in the faith and with those who will come after us, and best of all with our loving Lord and Savior, who took away the curse of one tree by using another. To him be all the glory, wisdom, honor, power and might now and forever.