Notes on Genesis (ii)
‘…from the tree of knowledge of good and evil you may not eat; for in whatever day you eat from it, you shall die by death.’ (Gen 2:17)
These are hard words, and emphatic; apparently an intensifying Hebrew expression lies behind the inelegant expression ‘die by death’ , which translators have struggled with; cf ‘thou shalt surely die’ (Authorized Version), ‘you must die, yes, die’ (Everett Fox). Something very serious is being said here, and it may seen unfair: why should the knowledge of good and evil, surely something humans should be entitled to, entail such a heavy consequence? But ‘knowledge’, here and elsewhere, may have the sense not of intellectual understanding, which would presumably be innocent, but of a deeper involvement; not of coming to have information about something, but participating in it. On this reading, given that increasing knowledge of good would have come automatically in the unfallen state, what the tree offers for the first time is the experience of evil, and the eating of its fruit a choosing of it.
Disobedience of the instruction not to eat leads to death; ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom 6:23). Death in what sense? Doubtless a kind of spiritual death, but perhaps also physical death as well; ‘he fell under death’s sway on account of the fall.’ (John Chrysostom) Taken in this way, perhaps the words of God are intended not as an ominous threat but as a prediction with the air of a promise: evil having intruded into human lives, death will prevent it from going on for ever. Hence it has been described as ‘the gift of the One to the many.’ (Tolkien?)
An instinct to bind together different parts of the Bible led to an association being made between this tree and the Cross, sometimes referred to as a tree in Scripture: the first was the origin of all that is wrong and the second its remedy. So Donne:
We think that paradise and Calvary
Christ’s Cross and Adam’s tree
Stood in one place.
Look Lord and find both Adams met in me.
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.