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Good and Evil

the wisdom that comes from above

The Lord God commanded the man, saying,
“Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat;
but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil
you shall not eat…

Genesis 2:16

When God placed man in the garden, He permitted him the freedom to eat of any and every tree with one exception – the tree whereby he could gain the knowledge of good and evil. The passage that follows the above verses will help us discern God’s intent and purpose in withholding this fruit from man.  But before we can explore God’s purpose, we need to clarify what this knowledge is.

Knowledge of Good and Evil

Because we commonly use the term ‘evil’ to speak of wickedness, it’s natural to assume ‘good and evil’ are equivalent to ‘righteousness and wickedness’. However, the Hebrew terms for good and evil have a broader scope than simply moral issues.  They also speak of objects ‘beneficial and harmful’ that do not have a moral aspect. For example, in Genesis 1, God used the word ‘good’ to describe components of creation such as plants. When God called plants ‘good’, He wasn’t calling them righteous objects.  Another example is in Deuteronomy 7:15, where the diseases in Egypt were called ‘evil’. Diseases are not morally wicked, but they are harmful.

To aid our understanding, it may be useful to think of the tree as the tree of the knowledge of good and harm.  This may clarify that it was not a knowledge of morality (righteousness and wickedness) but a knowledge of what was beneficial or harmful in a more general sense.  This type of knowledge might be called ‘Wisdom’. Incidentally, that is what Eve believed she would gain by eating the fruit (Genesis 3:6). Understanding the meaning helps us understand what type of knowledge man was lacking when he was created.  It was not a knowledge of morality, but a lack of intrinsic wisdom.

Because God did not create man with internal wisdom, man was dependant on external sources to know what was good or harmful.  Presumably, God intended to be man’s source of wisdom and, in fact, the narrative will show us two examples of God imparting knowledge to man.


The first example is God’s statement concerning the food they could eat (Genesis 2:16-17).  God granted the fruit of trees as food but forbade eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, warning that it would lead to death.  The wisdom was straightforward: eating of fruit trees was good, eating of the forbidden tree was bad. Notice that God imparted this knowledge using the method of a plain, simple statement. 

The instruction was necessary because man would not have perceived the danger on his own.  The fruit of the tree appeared good to eat and was pleasant to look at (Genesis 3:6). Without God’s revealing of the consequences, man would have been completely ignorant.  Adam needed God to reveal what was good and evil.

Exposing the Need

The next story demonstrates a different method of imparting the knowledge of good and evil.  The narrative begins with God using an unexpected phrase: “It is not good…,” speaking of man’s solitude (Genesis 2:18).  Unlike the preceding example, God did not simply tell the man this bit of information. Instead, God tasked him with naming the animals (Genesis 2:19). As Adam carried out the task, he noticed he was the only created creature without a companion (Genesis 2:20).  Thus, God enlightened Adam by putting him in a situation where he could not help but discover what God wanted him to learn. 

Discovering his need through the process of naming the animals made Adam much more conscious of his lack than if God had merely told him of it.  We can only imagine Adam’s loneliness when he realized his great personal need. The experience of loneliness, although it was initially painful, turned out to be good because it prepared Adam to fully appreciate God’s provision.  If God had presented the woman before Adam knew of his need, his excitement would have been less. But by waiting until Adam saw his situation was not good, God created a situation where the man would more fully share in the joy of woman’s creation. 

As with before, it was God’s revelation that gave man understanding.  This time, the knowledge came through God arranging the circumstances.  Going through the experience prepared man for a full appreciation of God’s provision. 


God created man as a creature who had the capacity to learn and discover but did not have an instinctive knowledge of what was good or bad for life.  However, it wasn’t God’s purpose that man would stumble through life, discovering good and evil by trial and error. A significant component of God’s relationship with man was God revealing the knowledge of good and evil in all things pertaining to life.  His intent was that man would look to Him for wisdom, and that He would impart wisdom both by instruction and through engineering the circumstances of life.  


Throughout history, God has continually revealed good and evil to mankind.  Some revelation has been instructional, such as the Mosaic Law (which declared that righteousness was always good and sin was always bad).  Other revelation has been experiential, such as the Levitical sacrifices (that taught sinful people of God’s provision of atonement through a substitutionary sacrifice).  Even to the present day, God reveals to us using both methods. He instructs us of good and evil through His Word. He also arranges circumstances so we discover our great need in the guilt of our sin and our isolation from Him.  He does not reveal our need to condemn us but to create the potential for overwhelming joy when He reveals the full propitiation in His Son. 

God’s work of revealing good and evil is a fundamental aspect of His sovereign administration over mankind. Without His revelation, we could not know the extent of our need nor could we know of His provision.

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