Among the arboreal life in Eden was “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:9). When we read the phrase “good and evil,” we might think in terms of morality—in other words, of “right and wrong.” However, the term translated “good” (טוב; tov) in Genesis 1-3 never has to do with moral goodness or ethical righteousness, but rather with functionality, quality, and organization. Therefore, rather than describing moral “good and evil” the sense of the Hebrew is closer to “the tree of the knowledge of order and disorder.”

At creation, Scripture states, “God saw that the light was good (טוב; tov) and God separated the light from the darkness” (1:4). “Light” (אור; ‘or) cannot be morally good or bad; it is “good” as a counterpoint to darkness—its goodness is based in its organizational function (cf. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). God also makes trees spring up that are “good (טוב; tov) for food” (2:9; cf. 3:6), and the land of Havilah has “good” gold (2:12)—both the food and gold are “good” insofar as God has constructed them to the highest quality or function. Finally, God creates the woman as an equal counterpart because it’s “not good (טוב; tov) for the human to be alone” (2:18); rather than making a moral value judgment, God sees the woman as a “relational balance” and creates her to achieve human gender equality and equilibrium.

Based on the linguistic data in Genesis 1-3, it would be imprecise to think of “good” (טוב; tov) as the same as “right” or “righteousness” in English—for which the Hebrew word צדק (tsedeq) would be more appropriate. In Eden, “good” means “ordered.” Rather than understanding “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” as the nexus of morality, the original Israelite reader would have seen it as the symbolic site of God’s creative capacities where humans access the ability to bring order out of chaos. When Adam and Eve transgress God’s command and eat from the tree, they attempt to gain God’s organizational understanding without recourse to relationship with the Lord. The Eden event cautions against people finding their function and creativity in themselves; Genesis encourages us to find our purpose, not through the tree, but through the Deity.



  1. Would the opening of the scroll (Rev 5:4-6) be a type of order and disorder? I have always used the words good and evil to describe God’s Power vs my power. (I had a language problem. I was saved by God prior to reading about Jesus or the Holy Spirit.
    • Thanks, Kat. Certainly, Revelation is built on the themes of order and disorder that we also see in Genesis. A very nice point!
  2. In my regular daily blog, translating the "heaven" of the Christian scriptures, I use the term "Realm of what is right," I do not like the word "realm" as it is more of a community, family and/or tribe, but the word "right" is the equivalent of the Tob.
  3. As I recall, and it has been quite some time, Genesis Chapter 1 was a form of apologetic countering the "theological" beliefs of the time. Man was evil, not good, made from the effluence of the gods. Creation was chaos and also not ordered/good, just an afterthought of the gods. The deliberate order shown in Gen 1 was totally countering this. God said Let there be... deliberate and ordered. Then God said it was good. After God created man, He used a double emphasis "very good". Not only that but man was made in His image, Order, not chaos, beautiful and purposeful, not evil, nor an afterthought.
    • That's a good way to put it, Thomas. Thanks for this very helpful input. Genesis 1 constitutes the sacred history of the ancient Israelites, and that includes Israelite theology and polemic against other nations and gods. For a more on this, see
  4. With respect, surely an assumption has been made : In Eden, “good” means “ordered.” The implication that the raw materials in the earth God had prepared from which he created and formed man and the animals were not ordered is not right. Tohu boho formless and void are not disordered.
    • John, I'm having trouble following the syntax of your objection, but "tohu va'vohu" (formless and void) is precisely a Hebrew phrase for "disorder" and "non-productivity." At creation, God makes order out of the chaos of tohu va'vohu. For confirmation of the meaning of this phrase, see how Jeremiah 4:23 uses it to speak of the destruction and disorder of Israel during the Babylonian siege (see Jer 4:23-26). More, that "good" means "ordered" in Genesis 1-3 isn't an "assumption," it's an *argument* based on semantic data.

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  5. This insight is fantastic. I never quite understood why God would be upset with man knowing what is good and what is evil since that is what the Torah emphasizes. This makes more sense:. God doesn't want man trying to assume His throne.
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