The Two Trees of Eden

As those who have read John Paul II’s Theology of the Body will attest, the Creation story of Genesis is the foundation of everything that follows in the Pope’s catechesis.  Following that model, Anderson and Granados devote a considerable amount of time to the first pages of Scripture in their book Called to Love.  In their discussion of the original sin, we find what is either a little-known detail of the account of the fall or, at the very least, an aspect of the story that often goes overlooked.

 

Everyone knows of the tree from which the original couple was forbidden to eat.  What is often forgotten is the care that the Book of Genesis takes to highlight not one, but two trees in the garden.

 

“And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.  And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:8-9)

 

With two trees on the scene, let us see which of the two that the Lord places off limits to the original couple.

 

“And the Lord God commanded the man saying, ‘You may freely eat of every tree in 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 die” (Genesis, 2:16-17)

 

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil stands for the proper order of things: God as the author of reality and man as the recipient of his love.  It a the sign of distinction between Creator and creation (sign here understood as more than a symbol, but as containing something of the reality of which it signifies).  Grasping the fruit from the tree is an attempt to invert reality; it is an attempt to make the creature the author of reality.  “It stands for a false independence based on the attempt to determine the meaning of existence without God, to be a self-sufficient spring with no need to draw the water of life from the original Source” (Called to Love, 105).

 

The death that eating from this tree brings is not merely a punishment, but is also a metaphysical necessity.  If the tree is a sign of the proper order of Creator and creation, then it is also a sign of the meaning of existence for man.  Man can only exist in and through God’s Love and Law.  In violating the command of God, man actually cuts himself off from the Source of his existence.  Instead, he attempts to find (or define) the source of his life somewhere other than God, namely man attempts to find this source in himself.  In doing so, he brings about his own destruction.  The only thing that will eventually save man from himself is the redemption won by the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of the same God that gave man his existence “in the beginning.”

 

The whole story of the fall obtains more clarity when we examine the serpent’s temptation of man.

 

“[The serpent] said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat of any tree of the garden”?’  And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die” ’ ” (Genesis, 3:1-4).

 

It is interesting that the serpent accuses God of forbidding Adam and Even to eat of any tree in the garden.  This is a deliberate attempt to set up God as a tyrant that seeks to cut the couple off from all of creation (including the tree of life), the same creation that God had given as a gift.  At first, the woman repudiates this lie, clarifying that God’s command “not to eat” was restricted to but one tree in the garden.  The serpent’s next move is the most cunning.

 

“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die.  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis, 3:4-5).

 

In his deception, the serpent tells the woman, “You will not die,” and implies that in eating of this tree the woman will find life and fulfillment.  After all, what is it to “be like God” if not complete fulfillment/beatitude?  “The serpent’s temptation, however, consists precisely in blurring the distinction in Adam’s and Eve’s minds between the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life” (Called to Love, 105).  The serpent’s lie is twofold: (1) he claims that true life is found not from the tree of life, but instead from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and (2) he claims that God, by withholding them from this tree is preventing them from attaining life.

 

“The purpose of this maneuver, of course, is to make the first couple doubt God’s goodness.  After all, if the two trees really were identical, then the Creator’s commandment to avoid the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would be a blatant tactic designed to hold man back from attaining the fulness of life” (Called to Love, 105).

 

This is the exact opposite of God’s reality and purpose for man.  Instead of withholding life, he explicitly gave them life (and continues to hold them in existence), of which the tree of life is a sign.  The specific mention of the tree of life in the Book of Genesis indicates that God’s intention is for man to eat and drink of the gift of life.  God is not a tyrant, but a gift-giver, a giver of life.  He is prepared to give to man everything that man needs in order to be fully human, even his very own Son.  What he is not prepared to give to man is what he cannot in fact give, not because of a lack of desire or a lack of power, but out of metaphysical necessity.  God cannot give to man the ability to be something he is not.  Just as he cannot give man the ability to be a horse, God also cannot give man divinity properly speaking (though in the Paschal Mystery, man is divinized in a certain sense), simply because the creature can never be the Creator.  This does not contradict God’s omnipotence or omnibenevolence; on the contrary the Paschal Mystery only serves to exhibit the perfect power and goodness of God.

 

In the end, “the truth, of course, is that the two trees are not at all identical, and that the Creator has planned all along to let man eat from the tree of life.  God is not envious but generous, and he wishes man to live forever in the joy that comes from the acceptance of the divine gift” (Called to Love, 105).

 

God’s gift for us is the same as his gift to all of creation, to ability to perfect itself.  His gift to us is the ability to be fully human, and this gift begins with the act of creation.  One way of defining sin is the rejection of this gift, or the attempt to be something other than what we are.  In some cases, the sin of man is the attempt to be less than what he is, to be merely an animal (for instance, sins of sexual excess), whereas in other cases, man’s sin is the attempt to be more than what he is (for instance, the sin of cloning wherein man attempts to be the author of life).  Holiness, seen here as the opposite of sin, is the humble acceptance of God’s grace so man can be fully human and enjoy the vision of God face to face.  Comprehending this is parallel to comprehending the difference between the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

 

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