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.
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