Trees for the Gods

What do you think of this interpretation?

In the Garden of Eden story…Yahweh places the two trees in the garden for the benefit of the elohim. I infer this because Yahweh did not allow the humans to eat from them, and the trees impart qualities by which the gods are identified. Apparently the elohim regularly consume the fruit provided by the two trees. Yahweh intended neither for the humans. The tree of life imparted to the elohim eternal life or immortality. The other tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Imparted divine insight and gave the elohim their unique knowledge. When humans eat the fruit from the tree, Yahweh addresses his council with the problem: “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:22).

— David Penchansky, Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005) pp.29-30.

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  • Rachel

    Wow – certainly a bit radical

  • JSA

    Pretty speculative.  I’m not sure why he would say that the elohim “eat from them regularly”, or even that they were intended for the elohim at all.  It seems that one bite was enough, so there would presumably be no need to “regularly” dine from the tree, and it seems that the elohim could just as easily have been created from the start with the relevant properties.

    The trees could just have plausibly been meant for humans to consume, upon God’s permission at some later point in time.

  • Beau Quilter

    The Greek goddess Hera was given the the famous golden fruit of immortality as a wedding gift from Gaia the mother goddess of Earth. These were planted in the orchard of the garden of Hesperides, and guarded by Ladon, a serpent-like dragon, later killed by Heracles. As trees bearing a fruit of immortality, they are more akin to the tree of life, from which Adam and Eve were barred in the banishment from the garden.

    There are similar mythologies involving humans (male and female), serpents and trees from ancient Mesopotamia.

    There are also similarities in the story of the Prometheus, who brings heavenly fire (meant only for the gods) to humanity, changing them forever.

  • Thom Stark

    It’s interesting but not persuasive. Adam and Eve seem to have been created for immortality. Perhaps the two trees were for the elohim, but only the Tree of Life was for Adam and Eve. They were forbidden from eating from the Tree of Knowledge because that was the only thing separating them from the elohim. Once they ate from that tree, they were no longer permitted to eat from the Tree of Life because they would be just as the gods. I can see all this in the background of the composition, but I don’t think it’s the point of the composition itself. 

  • Nan

    This is preparation for a novel?

  • James F. McGrath

    Nan, I’m not working on a novel (as cool and fun as that might be) but have been working on an article on monotheism for a reference work, and it was in reading related to that that I happened across Penchansky’s interpretation.

    Thom, my instinct is to say that you are right – certainly that has long been my understanding. But it seems that one could read the story (or the story as it might have been understood prior to its inclusion in the Hebrew Bible and the interpretative context that provides) as indicating that the gods are willing to share one of their prerogatives with humans – longevity of life – as long as we are lacking the other one – knowledge/wisdom. But our having both is unacceptable, since then the distinction between humans and gods is broken down.

    There does seem to be a difference between the effect of the two trees. Or is that just us reading into the text, too? Having eaten once from the tree of knowledge, are humans forever possessors of the knowledge thus obtained? Certainly living forever could seem to require regular eating from the tree, rather than just eating it on a single occasion. 

    Anyway, I found Penchansky’s reading stimulating and that it got me thinking of interpretative possibilities other than the ones I am used to. Whether it makes sufficient sense of all the details of the text in its present form is another question. Penchansky’s book is also of interest to you and me, Thom, because it addresses the question of whether the Israelites ever had a story explaining Yahweh’s rise from member of the pantheon to supreme deity. And so whatever you think of his ideas, he is certainly worth reading and interacting with, since he offers some creative suggestions on that topic.

  • Gary

    OK, so much for deep theology. “Yahweh places the two trees in the garden for the benefit of the elohim. I infer this because Yahweh did not allow the humans to eat from them, and the trees impart qualities by which the gods are identified”…Trees are in the Garden of Eden. All trees need pollinators to produce fruit. Therefore, there are insects in the Garden of Eden. Therefore, there are certain insects that will be attracted to and eat the fruit, including the two “special” trees. Therefore, insects are the first to become Gods….Or it is a simple allegory. Or it explains why cockroaches will survive a human nuclear war.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    To me, Penchansky seems to have invented this interpretation in an attempt to explain the phrase “become like one of us.” But before I give my view of that phrase, a couple other things need addressed first. Adam and Eve were not banned from eating from the tree of life, there was only one ban at this time.

    Genesis 2:16 “And YHWH 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.”

    The ban on the tree of life was only after they had eaten from the tree of knowledge. And the tree of the knowledge of Good and evil did not represent divine knowledge, but it represented the freedom to make choices apart from God’s direction. They were “like God” in the sense that they were no longer under anyone’s authority, but were free to decide for themselves what is good and bad to do and to think. This is verified by the very next line. The oddly out of place verse that mentions them being ashamed that they were naked, shows a new line of thinking that was not there before, they had now decided for themselves that it was bad or shameful to be naked. This never occurred to them before while they were under God’s guidance, and obviously this was not divine knowledge either, or God would have clothed them before this if divine knowledge considered naked humans to be bad.

    As far as who God was talking to at 3:22, a similar expression occurs at Genesis 1:26, we read that God said: “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.” To whom was he addressing these words? What other person is ever mentioned in the Bible to have taken part in the creation? He was referring to the divine entity who would later become the perfect man Jesus, the apostle Paul said: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; because by means of him all things were created in the heavens and upon the earth.” (Colossians 1:15, 16) So it seems logical that at Genesis 3:22, God was speaking to his only-begotten Son, the “master worker,” who was at his side during the creation of the heavens and the earth. (Proverbs 8:22-31)

  • James F. McGrath

    @Howard, do you believe that the author or earliest readers of Genesis (who I think you will agree would not have read Colossians) would have understood the meaning the way you suggest?

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    Well you caught me in mid research. I was just on my way to see how Jewish commentators interpreted the verses. However, I was not aware that the discussion was limited to the original Genesis audience. It is common knowledge that the NT brings new revelation to OT theology, therefore it should not be a surprise that a post-NT interpretation is different from a pre-NT interpretation.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    More information on ancient Hebrew interpretations, from

    Targum of Palestine (Jonathan ben Uzziel) on Gen 1:26
    The Lord said to the angels who ministered before Him, who had been created in the second day of the creation of the world, Let us make man in Our image.

    Targum of Palestine (Jonathan ben Uzziel) on Gen 3:22
    The Lord God said to the angels who ministered before Him, Behold, Adam is sole [yechidai—unicus, unigenitus] on the earth, as I am sole in the heavens above.

    Targum of Palestine (Jonathan ben Uzziel) on Gen 11:7
    The Lord said to the seventy angels which stand before Him, Come, we will descend …

    Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 8, 3, 1 [trans. Jacob Neusner]
    “And God said, ‘Let us make man’ ” (Gen 1:26). And with whom did he take counsel? R. Joshua b. Levi said, “With the works of heaven and earth he took counsel. . . .” R. Ammi said, “He took counsel with his own heart.”

    Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 21, 5, 1-2 [trans. Jacob Neusner]
    “Behold, the man has become like one of us” (Gen 3:22): R. Pappias interpreted the verse as follows: “‘Behold, the man has become like one of us’ means, like one of the ministering angels.” . . . [5, 2] R. Judah bar Simon said, “[‘Like One of us’ means] like the One of the world: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one’ (Deut 6:4).” Rabbis say, “[‘Like One of us’ means] like Gabriel: ‘And one man in the midst of them clothed in linen’ (Ezek 9:2) . . .”

  • Michael Wilson

    The story expressed in “J” is a variant of a wide spread myth of mans loss of immortality as a result of a trick by snake or god. The people of Israel Judah may have had a number of variants floating in its culture. The one here suggest that it is only adult human intellectual capacity that YHWH wanted to deny humanity, not immortality. Once they took fruit of the wrong tree, then the gods have to deny them immortal life lest humanity become competitors to the gods and not servants. Presumably, had they eaten from the fruit of life, humans would have lived for ever the obedient pets of YHWH. I do think it possible that this story was meant to replace one where it is YHWH who is the snake and El who curses humanity. The YHWH snake then would either be trying to trick humanity to create a loyal slave for the gods, or (more likely in my opinion) be trying to trick the gods out of a slave but the scheme foolishly backfires as he has them eat of the trees in the wrong order.

  • Thom Stark


    Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll definitely pick it up. 

    If you haven’t already seen it, this is what I think the Garden of Eden was originally all about:

  • Robert

    (Sorry for the late response…I’m catching up on old posts I’ve missed.)

    On the surface, the story implies several things: The tree of life imparts eternal life but requires eating its fruit regularly. The fruit of the tree are intended for both the gods and Adam & Eve. A single taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge seems to be enough to impart its gifts. (Perhaps there is a difference between a taste and constant access, but that difference isn’t germane to the story.) While the fruit of this tree is explicitly forbidden to Adam & Eve, it is unclear whether the gods needed to eat this fruit to gain its gifts. What is clear is that the gods have those gifts.

    So, it seems clear to me that the god who put all the elements of this drama in place knew that—eventually—exactly what happened would happen. His pretending at innocence and surprise is not convincing. So, the true intention was that Adam & Eve would one day eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

    At least, I choose to believe that the gods are smart rather than simpletons, which I think the story implies.

    And if paradise is Adam & Eve being the only two humans living for eternity in innocence, I’m glad it was lost. I like our world, with all its faults, better.

  • Mercury

    Yes: The Sumerian Kings List detailed accounting records left for posterity inform the searcher for the Garden of Ea-den, Land of Dilmun Persian Gulf at the north side of Bahrain, “Land of the Living,” that merchant traders from other countries interviewing the inhabitants of Dilmun were told “they knew not disease or death,” and that most of those Sumerian Kings reigned for ten’s of thousands of years.

    There is a strong symbiotic relationship between soil fungi-various mushrooms, including vital mineral nutrients and the roots, branches, solar rays and systemic biogenetic processes of physically immortal trees…that even can regenerate if injured by frost, fire, or flood. There is in like manner a symbiotic relationship with certain fungi-compounds of mushrooms or Soma “Elixir of Life”, vital minerals (both of which are lacking epidemically in developed nations especially among city dwellers) whereas one may live in the remote sacred mountains covered with immortal trees and mushrooms live in a real man cave or Asram Temple Shambala heaven on earth, ritually perform Prana Yoga breathing exercises and Qi-Gong daily in a without fail disciplined manner, and far outlive 99.99% of people dying so quickly all over this world. Even so, purity of the heart, etereal And physical, purity of the mind, ethereal and physical, as well as the digestive system, large and small intestines, circulatory system, cardio-lungs system. Generally speaking the animal kingdom including so called stock and foul which ends it’s short life in the slaughter houses and domestic pets as well as mothers that emotionally and psychologically both nurture and raise their young then mourn the loss of their young…incompassion, indifference, neither peace with kin and tribes, and rulers of domains nor peace with the animals will not get an immortal spirit past the alluring electromagnetic wave trap without memory being shocked away and being sent back to reform prison…and so along came Enoch-Hermes-Mercury…Eliyah…Mt Carmel…Yeshua the Holy…for to be Pure-Holy Spiritually minded is both physically beneficial and after the biogenetic suit or vessel is no longer operable or this world has become too unstable to sustain a civilzation, where will the immortal spirit unable to return to earth, yet unpermitted to enter heaven, go to seek rest for itself.

  • Holly

    Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge and became aware, at that time, who
    they were; lesser gods (Ps 82:6) with access to immortality or the tree of life. But,
    they must have realized who they were or they would not be eating from the
    tree of life to sustain immortality. Also, they could not have suddenly
    become aware that disobedience would cause their expulsion as they had
    refrained from eating from that tree before the snakeenticed them to partake
    of it. This indicates that they were aware of the punishment that would
    follow. It must have dawned upon them that the tree did not impart knowledge,
    but rather a negative emotional response to their behavior or fear because
    they realized their inability to challenge the Pantheon Chief, YHWH. However,
    that fear must have already been present as they had refrained from eating
    from that tree before the snake enticed them. What really happened is that
    the snake’s promise had aroused a desire for independence from YHWH; a desire
    not to be dependent upon His tree. After they ate from the tree,
    belatedly realized that they were in no position to challenge YHWH’s
    The whole episode portrays Eden’s God’s intolerance for rival
    gods, even if they
    were not a particular threat to his position in the
    pantheon. He cripled the
    snake god and expelled the lesser gods which he
    The whole episode seems to be a reflection of the cleansing of the
    temple of the nehushtan under Hezekiah and Asherah under Josiah. Neither king
    was really successful for 4 of the kings that followed, including Josiah’s
    son, Jehoahaz, put Asherah right back in her place in the temple. As for
    Hezekiah’s attempt to rid the temple of YHWH’s image as a snake, the Migdal
    stone, where the Garden of Eden tale is pictured, indicates that the Hebrews were carving that image on their temples as
    late as 50 BC. It remained their until 100 AD when the synagogue was
    The Galilean Migdal Synagogue Stone:
    On the Stone face:
    2 trees of life: These are stylized images of the frankincense tree. Around the trunks of the trees, one can see a coiling snake.
    Center of Stone: The flower of life, often referred to as the tree of life by the Hebrews. The flower contains 6 petals and may be a stylized depiction of the 5 petaled flowers on the branches of the frankincense tree.
    The ourobouros: the snake consuming its own tail surrounds the flower of life, also known as the tree of life to the Hebrews. The eye and the mouth of the snake are clearly visible on the right side of the flower. The ourobouros is ancient Egyptian in origin and is contained in “The Book of the Netherworld”. The ourobouros is a symbol of the cyclical nature of creation. Here, the ourobouros represents YHWH as the guardian of the tree of life.
    The leaves: The 4 stylized leaves of the frankincense tree can be seen as heart shapes. These heart shapes can also represent the flared hoods of spitting cobras.
    Geometric Designs: Cross inside diamond inside square: Stylized ankhs or the Egyptian key of life.
    Menorah: stylized tree of life or frankincense tree. Also, a depiction of the epigraphic south arabic ‘H’ which is the same ‘H’ used to write the name YH in the Negev glyphs. The ‘Y’ is written as a stylized snake’s head and the ‘H’ is written as the forked tongue. This image (>——–O) appears throughout the page cited below. A good example is the third image under Section III, 2nd line, last image reading right to left, snake head with protruding forked tongue.
    Amphorae: Offering vessels, possibly wine offerings