Very few interpreters of the Garden of Eden story in Genesis 3 pay any attention to the identity of the fruit that supposedly corrupted humanity forever. In fact, the fruit is often labeled simply the forbidden fruit as though its actual identity has no significance. The mainstream interpretation of the story at least in western Christianity is that God said not to do something which Adam and Eve did, so God punished them for disobeying his command. The whole matter is reduced entirely to a question of authority, obedience, and punishment, and God’s nature is established as an arbitrary authoritarian who appoints arbitrary authoritarians to administer his religion (which is a convenient arrangement for arbitrary authoritarians).
But what if the fact that the forbidden fruit is the fruit of knowledge of good and evil actually matters a lot? What if its identity is in fact the reason for its consequences and when God describes its curse to Adam and Eve, he is not imposing an arbitrary punishment on them but simply explaining the natural consequences of their acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil? What if the serpent in the story who offers the knowledge of good and evil to Eve is actually representing religious authority as such since the knowledge of good and evil is what religious authority uses to manipulate its way into the power position from which it imprisons humanity in the shame and fear of its nakedness and interposes itself between humanity and direct mystical intimacy with God?
It makes sense that no theologian or bible teacher would ever interpret the story this way because it would involve admitting that they are the serpent in the story. But I would contend that any responsible interpretation of this story must give an account for why the fruit of knowledge of good and evil specifically results in the curses that fall upon Adam and Eve. So if you don’t like my interpretation, explain how your interpretation accounts for the knowledge of good and evil part rather than immediately reducing the fruit to its forbiddenness and making God an arbitrary authoritarian, which is the exact lie that the serpent tells about God (Genesis 3:5).
What’s more: in the story God seems to lie and the serpent seems to tell the truth about whether people will die on the day they eat the fruit. God didn’t say they would lose the immortality that the text never says that humans had before eating the fruit. He said they would die on the day they ate the fruit (Genesis 2:17). By the way, the NIV translators saw this problem so they just edited the text in English to airbrush out the threat to their theology which they do often throughout their translation, but look in the Hebrew and see if the word yom is in that verse.
The serpent told the humans they wouldn’t die but their eyes would be opened and they would become like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:5). So Eve is tricked into eating it and Adam doesn’t think for himself at all. And what happens? They don’t physically die, but when their eyes are opened to their nakedness, their innocence dies because the fact that they aren’t wearing clothes becomes a source of shame. So the serpent technically tells the truth but deceitfully so (kind of like how religious authority figures behave). The death of Adam and Eve’s innocence allegorically represents how humanity makes nakedness something to be ashamed of by developing a rigorous taboo system that divides the world into distinct good and evil categories.
This allegory represents a transition that happens in the history of humanity as well as in each individual human’s life. Each of us becomes ashamed of being naked in front of other people at some point in our childhood. It’s an inevitable part of our development process, at least in a world shaped by a knowledge of good and evil that says it’s evil to be naked and that people who don’t wear clothes are savages who should be enslaved and have their land stolen by the white Christians who possess the knowledge of good and evil that gives them the right to conquer the world. Do you see now how the fall of humanity has actually played out in history? Genesis 3 is a prophecy about what white Christians would later do, leveraging our knowledge of good and evil to build empire.
I think I’ve given a reasonably straightforward interpretation of the passage that is at least exegetically plausible. I don’t think it’s beyond the brilliant irony that the Hebrew poets display in other places to think that this could actually be the meaning they intended. What if they meant to give us a disclaimer about the fruit of knowledge of good and evil in the third chapter of the first book in that very fruit of knowledge of good and evil?
Why would the fruit of knowledge of good and evil be something other than the Bible itself? It’s the most obvious candidate for the object represented in the metaphor, and it’s an absolutely brilliant move by the Hebrew poets. At the very least, the fruit of knowledge of good and evil metaphorically represents an approach to biblical interpretation that reduces the rich poetry and intricately contextual testimony of scripture into oversimplified, unnuanced, universal, legalistic categories of good and evil that “biblical truth” has become for the evangelicals who have ruined American Christianity.
What’s the alternative to hiding in the allegorical bushes from God in the fear and shame of your nakedness because you live in a dungeon of religious legalism? Walking naked with God in the cool of evening in the garden of Eden, which means being in synchronicity with divine intuition (a.k.a. “in the spirit”) to such a degree that you are no longer under the judgment of oversimplified one-size-fits-all legalistic categories (1 Corinthians 2:15).
Look again at every letter the apostle Paul wrote; look at who he feuded with and why. What does he say about “the law” and “grace”? Why does he say, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1)? Do you think the man who becomes all things to all people to win some would ever endorse taking his pastoral exhortations out of their context in order to build an abstract universal knowledge of good and evil that keeps Christians from becoming all things to all people since they’re focused on passing loyalty litmus tests they give each other?
Now tell me whether you’re confident that an outsider would never get the impression that evangelical Christians believe having an exhaustive knowledge of good and evil (a.k.a. orthodoxy) is what saves us from hell rather than God’s grace itself. Of course they would never say that directly, because it would be obviously heretical. But why are they so obsessed with saying everything correctly when Jesus is screaming out to them, “Actually I paid the price for all your sin completely so you would chill out and stop doing things like scapegoating gay people to prove to yourself how hardcore your zeal for holiness is”?
Are you starting to see now what we’ve done? We didn’t want the gift God offered us; we wanted to make grace contingent upon our “belief” in what we will never own up to being the knowledge of good and evil Genesis 3 warned us against idolizing. That way we can sneakily turn salvation into a reward we earn instead of a gift. The idolatry of orthodoxy (a.k.a. the knowledge of good and evil) is the fall from grace that Genesis 3 describes. Why is the reward of correct doctrine better than the gift of grace? Because it gives us the basis for having authority over others and we’d rather have authority than submit ourselves to the mercy of God.
But but but… what about the four spiritual laws and the Romans Road to salvation? Let’s look at the dramatic endpoint of the Romans Road in Romans 11:32 to see what God is really up to: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” Those all’s are not qualified in any way. It is not limited to all the elect, though I’m sure John Calvin and all his ilk have written thousands of books trying to scratch out those all’s. Sorry John. ALL MEANS ALL.
God wants all of us to realize that none of us are more authoritative or less disobedient than anyone else so that we come to a place of knowing nothing more than Christ crucified, i.e. the fact that we have received God’s mercy. When the defining reality of my life is that I am a recipient of God’s mercy, then I become that mercy in the lives of other people. I am not slavishly clinging to a knowledge of good and evil in order to be able to claim authority and righteousness. The righteousness written into my heart is an organic byproduct of knowing God has shown me mercy. I just want to love others because of how loved I feel in my bones. My love doesn’t have to pass through an “Is it good or evil?” filter, because I flow organically with divinity straight from the source.
Recall the Good Samaritan. Why did he do what he did? Was it because he was trying to obey Torah perfectly like the priest and Levite who passed the wounded man in the road? No. It was because his heart was moved by mercy. Twice in Matthew, Jesus quotes the same passage from Hosea 6:6: “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” God doesn’t want us to prove ourselves to him sacrificially by memorizing the Bible and coming up with loyalty litmus tests to showcase our zeal for holiness (like standing up to the gays). The point of memorizing scripture and every other religious thing we do is to be filled with mercy. Atheists who have nothing to do with Jesus and nonetheless have discovered his mercy are more Christlike than evangelicals whose zeal for proving themselves through sacrifice has made them unmerciful.
So stop trying to save yourself with the knowledge of good and evil. That’s what the garden of Eden story is trying to rescue you from doing. Just accept God’s mercy instead so that you can become God’s mercy for others who will themselves become God’s mercy until it spreads organically throughout the human family.