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.

69 COMMENTS

  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.

  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.

  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.

      • Dr Nicholas, I do not here have enough words available in comments to expand and clarify my syntax. Jeremiah confirms only that God returned the land to be formless and void, back to ‘raw materials’ (not chaos) ready for further habitation as God works. You will disagree perhaps. God Bless.

  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.

      • Certainly, I can’t agree that a man is half a person w/o a wife (split adam article) but my question is, since ontological parity does not address the submissive role of the wife to the husband, does gender equality void said submissive role?

        • There’s no hint of any “submissive role” for the woman at creation (Genesis 2). The only place this idea might start to come into play is after the primordial pair transgresses God’s command and receives punishments (see Gen 3:16). That is, any submission is a post-transgression reality that does not reflect God’s original plan for humanity. More, most of Israel’s Scriptures and the New Testament militate against sole female submission; the Tankah has many women in roles of authority, and Ephesians calls for mutual submission between men and women (see Eph 5:21).

          • The woman is created as the man’s helper.That is a submission role in Creation.The basis for the submissive role of the wife to the husband is the creative order, not sin. 1 Tim 2:13. Eph 5:21 does not nullify 1 Tim 2:13 because the format for Eph 5:21 is

          • Joda, outside of the reference to Eve in Gen 2:18-20, “helper” (עזר; ezer) refers to God. Thus, “helper” doesn’t denote “submission” in Hebrew thought. 1 Tim 2:11-14 is one of only two texts in the entire NT that explicitly teaches female submission, but this passage is also in tension with a mountain of biblical texts that uphold female autonomy. Contra 1 Tim 2, Scripture is replete with women teaching and/or having authority over men (e.g., Genesis 38:24-26; Judges 4:4-5; Proverbs 31: 11, 26-28; Matt 12:42; Acts 18:26; Romans 16:1-2); and the contention that “Adam was not deceived, but the woman” goes against what Paul says in Romans 5:12-17 about the sin of Adam. As a rule, when we have one passage that says “A,” and one hundred passages that say “B,” it is best to build our worldview on “B” — this holds particularly well for the question of female leadership in Bible.

          • The usual way out of this is for a person with no way scholarly way to compare and contrast the Bible is to pit one verse or a set of verses against other verses and say we pick these verses and reject the others.

          • Joda, it’s not a matter of “rejecting” 1 Tim 2. It’s a matter of not letting two sentences dictate one’s entire view of women’s roles in the Bible. That doesn’t mean we “reject” 1 Tim 2 — it’s part of Scripture and we need to take that seriously. At the same time, we must allow 1 Tim 2 to coexist with all the other texts that reflect female leadership, teaching, and authority, which 1 Tim 2 simply cannot “outweigh.” That is, one can’t cite one or two verses and think that those verses constitute the last word on biblical gender dynamics. If we do that, then we close the mouth of Scripture, and don’t allow it to speak to us in its entirety.

          • Light and darkness, good and evil and two opposing views of the same teaching cannot co-exist in the same place. I have created a full response to this issue, longer than this space allows Thank you. Have great day.

  6. All the work done by God during the five creation days is described as ‘good / God was pleased(?) and in Gen.1:31 as ‘very pleased.’ (Good news bible.) Yet the creation story for man is initially described as ‘the man alone as not good.’ Was man alone not ordered?

        • Thanks for your question, Linda. Yes, a single person is the pinnacle of God’s ordered creation and has a special place in that divine order (cf. Ps 8:4-9). And, also, the equality expressed between men and women in Genesis highlights the order of human relationality and productivity. Genesis is not saying that there’s something “disordered” with those who remain single, but rather that there is a further order in the way that humans couple up and reproduce.

  7. Thanks! Good grist for the mental and spiritual mill. I wondered, at the outset, how you were going to support your contention linguistically, and the examples you cite from Genesis itself support your argument. From Chaos to Order, from Non productivity to productivity. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Richard. Yep, the name of the game in biblical interpretation is collecting linguistic and contextual data to support a thesis — in that way, it’s not unlike a science (data collection in support of an hypothesis); though the Bible itself is the highest form of literary art. So I suppose one gets the best of both worlds when studying Scripture 🙂 Thanks again for commenting and reading.

  8. Translation-wise, ra’ does not mean ‘evil’ but ‘bad’ (as in Harry Orlinsky’s JPS translation). The Hebrew word best translated as evil/wicked is ‘rasha’ with its morality connotation. “Bad” may have a moral connotation, but also a functional one. A “bad” cook is not a wicked person, but an incompent chef.

  9. I think of bad, not evil, being the opposite of good and evil being the opposite of holiness. God does not create bad or evil they appear as the negative aspect of God’s creations. All sin is bad, some sins are evil.

  10. I found this very interesting. I understand what you are saying about the morality of “good and evil” but doesn’t ‘good’ produce or bring about order, and ‘evil’ disorder? Can I say that man’s original sin was that he disobedyed God, not that he ate from the tree?

    • Thanks for your question, Lisa. The couple transgressed because they ate from the tree and, therefore, disobeyed God. That is, the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

  11. Good and bad are much more neutral than the way you look at it. When the text speaks about material things then order and disorder may be applicable, but when the text speaks about non-material reality then good and bad become immaterial.

  12. God had placed his very essence inside of Adam and Eve. They had innate spiritual insight. They didn’t need to go outside of themselves to know “good” and “evil.” They were complete beings — lacking nothing in both the spiritual and physical realm.

  13. The serpent convinced Eve that they had been “short-changed” by their Creator. However, the innate sense of good and evil was within her and her mate. But, by entertaining the idea that they were somehow deficient, and then turning to/relying on the creation rather than the Creator, they fell.

  14. Dr: I find your article very interesting. Do you think Adam And Eve knew good before they ate from the tree and the act of disobedience was the addition of knowing evil? Thus; knowing both good and evil?

    • Thanks for reading, Dennis. Adam and Eve certainly knew moral good (i.e., the right or wrong thing to do) before eating from the tree, since God commands them not to eat at the outset — if the pair didn’t know right from wrong, then God’s command would be both futile and meaningless. They knew both moral good and moral evil — what they didn’t know is how to create “order” from “chaos,” which is the brand of knowledge that eating from the tree supplied for them.

      • Genesis 3:5 (ESV) For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing how to create order from chaos.” How to create, be like God. Makes more sense this way. Thanks!

  15. “Genesis encourages us to find our purpose, not through the tree, but through the Deity.” The contrast between Proverbs 18:2 and 23:26 agrees much with you. One that has eaten of the tree becomes self-willed (Proverbs 18:2) while the repentant seeks Yahweh’s will (Proverbs 23:26).

  16. Reading Septuagint in Greek nothing else comes to your understanding than how you explain it, Dr Schaser. Many times “good” is synonymous with functionable, as in Gen.1.31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.

    • Thanks for this comment, Giorgos. Yes, “functionality” is the best way to understand “good” in Genesis 1 (in both Hebrew and Greek!)

  17. Dr. Eli, thank you very muchos for the expose. It is inusual but I can not complete your words. I think what creates this interrupted harmony was not the apple.I emcourage you all to think about. Toda raba.
    Shalom. Ramon

  18. Just one additional thought. Doesn’t the Hebrew verb yadah have a component of “knowing experientially” not just intellectually. That seems to be the implication when a man is said to “know” his wife and she becomes pregnant. So, Adam and Eve, after disobeying God and eating of the forbidden fruit,

  19. Absolutely love these tidbits you share! Many thanks! I wonder why God did not want Adam and Eve to understand making order from chaos?

    The thought has been that evil or Satan was introduced into the world but actually Satan was already present in the Eden. Or perhaps he found a way to reach Eve through the serpent. I don’t know.

    But my question is about man creating order from chaos. That would seem like a good thing. I wonder if it ties into Dr. Eli’s recent posting about the mark of the beast.

    The mark being the mark of death from not choosing God’s way to life Torah instructions) but rather living life on our own terms. Another way to say that would be making our own order out of chaos?

    So now we must all choose between life and death. Follow God’s order or our own.

    • Thanks for your questions and comments, Meredith. It’s not that understanding the difference between chaos and order is a bad thing for humans to know, it’s that Adam and Eve tried to access that information on their own terms (by eating from the tree) rather than learning it through relationship with God. You’re right that taking the mark of the beast in Revelation is of a piece with the blunder in Eden insofar as they both represent humanity making a way in life apart from God. On the serpent in Eden, see the following article: https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/snake-garden-serpent-satan/

  20. I have always looked at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as the source and power of creativity, engineering, and science. Was the tree of ‘order and chaos’ as you identify it a sort of covenantal tree between God and Adam?

    • Thanks for your question, Randal. It wasn’t a “covenantal” tree, per se, since the word for “covenant” doesn’t appear in the narrative. However, it did symbolize the forum of God’s commands for the first humans, so in that sense it functioned in a kind of precursor to the covenants that God would make in the future with Israel.

      • Conhecimento, ato ou efeito de conhecer ou compreender pela razão ou experiência. Deus ordena no singular que faça-se a luz, faça-se o firmamento, produza a terra planta, mas disse: façamos o homem, criou a sua imagem e semelhança homem e mulher, Gênises 1-27. Sexto dia viu que tudo era bom.

  21. Bom, organizado, já no versículo 2, 18, Deus diz não é bom que o homem esteja só, vou dar-lhe uma companheira, opa, a primeira falhou? 21 Homem cai em topor profundo, anestisia geral, tira-se uma célula tronco e cria-se a segunda mulher… Iria eu ficar em Ecleciastico 3,24-25.

    • A sabedoria inspira a vida aos seus filhos, ela toma sob a sua proteção aqueles que a procuram, ela os precede no caminho da justiça, Aquele que a ama , ama a vida; aqueles que vela para encontra-la sentirão sua doçura. Obrigado.

  22. Did the ingesting of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of order/function and chaos/dysfunction provide humanity with the knowledge of dysfunctional behavior? Prior to that, was it the Lord’s intent for humanity to only know function? Was the fall a decent that allowed humanity to choose dysfunction over function?

    • Thanks for your questions, Deborah. Judging by the continued spiral into chaos (or dysfunction) after Eden — e.g., Cain’s murder of Abel, the violence that leads to the flood, Noah’s cursing of his descendants, and the tower of Babel — it seems that the eating from the tree of “order and chaos” expands humanity’s capacity for chaotic behavior.

  23. Possibly the competitively antagonistic twins (Cain and Abel) represent the internal hostility that arose within the human condition between these dual dueling natures of function and dysfunction. Ingesting this “fruit” introduced an alternative human nature that could not abide with the Lord. “Oh wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:24)

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