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(i) The Two Trees  (Genesis 2)

The purpose of biblical exegesis is not to find a way of reconciling Scripture with science, but to find out the meaning of Scripture from clues found within itself. The futility of much secular criticism of the Genesis narrative arises from failure to follow this obvious rule.

The 'tree of life' is met with again in Revelation 2.7 and 22.2,14, the latter passage (in conjunction with Ezekiel 47.12) indicating that the fruit and leaves of the tree were for repeated use, and that their virtues depended upon the river flowing from the very presence of God. Other references to a 'tree of life' occur in Proverbs 3.18, 11.30 and 13.12. These passages surely indicate not only that the tree of life may be interpreted symbolically, but that it is meant to be. In the light of the passages from Revelation and Ezekiel, to be deprived of the tree of life may legitimately be interpreted as to be 'alienated from the life of God' (Eph. 4.18) and denied access to him (Eph. 2.18). The parallel metaphors of the 'path of life' and the 'fountain of life', both associated with joy in God's presence under a variety of images, point in the same direction (see Psalms 16.11 and 36.7‑9).

This understanding of the tree of life strongly suggests that the 'tree of the knowledge of good and evil' is also to be understood as a symbol. But a symbol of what? The interpretations of the phrase 'knowing good and evil'1 have been very many; the one which seems to have the best claim is that which equates it with the prerogative of moral judgement. As Blocher says, "The knowledge of good and evil corresponds to the ability to decide. It is the prerogative of the king who judges his subjects, and of the father who brings up his son."2 To take the fruit of the tree is to assert one's moral autonomy."I don't need to be told what to do. I can quite well decide for myself," is the meaning of the act. The forbidding of the fruit was an instruction to man not to "seek to be wiser than became him, nor by trusting to his own understanding cast off the yoke of God, and constitute himself an arbiter and judge of good and evil".3 "The serpent holds out less the prospect of an extension of the capacity for knowledge than the independence that enables a man to decide for himself what will help or hinder him. This is something completely new in that as a result man leaves the protection of divine providence . . . Now man . . . will decide for himself."4 "The guiding principle of his life is no longer obedience but his autonomous knowing and willing, and thus he has really ceased to understand himself as creature" (von Rad 5; my italics). One can say at once two things to this: it pinpoints the source of humanity's sickness; and it represents a movement decisively reversed in the life of Jesus Christ.6

The significance of this discussion of the two trees for apologetic is that it lays bare a message for humanity of such consummate importance that it justifies the narrative in surrendering every secondary (e.g. scientific) interest to get it across. It is nothing less than that 'the righteous shall live by faith'7 (i.e. deliberate dependence on God) and that 'faith works by love'8 (i.e. deliberate obedience to God). Besides these truths, the significance of any scientific data is almost trivial! One can live, and live to the full, without a knowledge of the workings of the digestive system, the circulation of the blood, the expanding universe, or even the wonders of DNA. One cannot live without faith and love.

Understanding the biblical language about the trees as a symbolic way of speaking of something spiritually profound does not necessarily mean that one rejects the interpretation that regards the trees as sacramental, i.e. as physically‑real trees divinely invested with a meaning for man which went beyond themselves. When we say that an officer 'saluted the flag' we may mean simply that he expressed deep love and reverence for his country (perhaps by an action peculiarly his own). But without denying this sense we may also mean that he made a physical gesture towards a particular piece of cloth. In that case (i.e. when both meanings are present) the physical action becomes a sacramental one. However.. we interpret them (sacra­mentally or as pure metaphor) the two trees in the centre of the garden (i.e. with a significance central to life) form an interesting parallel to the sacraments of the New Testament, Baptism and Holy Communion. Eating of the forbidden tree was a once‑for‑all assertion of independence; submission to Baptism is a once‑for‑all lowering of the rebel flag. The tree of life was to be the continuously‑available source of life and health; the bread and wine are symbols of the same. In so far as the gospel reverses (and more than reverses) the results of the Fall, this parallelism supports the interpretation of the two trees

discussed above..

(ii) The meaning of death

'In the day you eat of it you shall die' (Genesis 2:17). This raises two questions. What is meant by the phrase, 'in the day'? And what is meant by, 'you shall die'? Let us deal with these in order.

(1) Henri Blocher (with whom I find myself in general in almost perfect agreement) argues that the meaning of the judgement is, 'In that day you will fall under the power of a death sentence'9 – a sentence the date of whose actual execution remains unspecified. This permits 'you shall die' to refer to physical death in spite of the 900 years delay. Blocher quotes the story of Solomon and Shimei in 1 Kings 2.36‑46 in support of this interpretation. The act (of eating the forbidden fruit) will be by its very nature final and irrevocable; God is not merely forbidding what may tend to become a bad habit. But I believe the curse goes further; it means that actual death will come at once, without delay.

(2) But what is meant by 'death'? It has been argued that 'the New Testament concept of spiritual death is never found in the early books of the Old Testament; the only kind of death the ancient Hebrews spoke of was physical death.'10 This would be a serious objection if it were true. But that is hardly the case. In a noble passage towards the end of Deuteronomy11 Moses gives his last exhortation to the people of Israel. 'I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and the curse; therefore choose life.' What is life? It is 'loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him' (v. 20). That will mean 'length of days' in the promised land. Correspondingly, death is also spiritually defined; it is 'a trembling heart . . . a languishing soul . . . dread . . . no assurance'. Time is burdensome; it is length of days under conditions of slavery in a foreign land (Deut. 28.65‑68). One might almost say that physical death is a release, a boon! No; the Pentateuch, no less than the rest of the Bible, regards the gravity of death to lie in the spiritual sphere, not in the physical.12 Is there indeed any reason why these very words of Moses should not be regarded as an exposition (in the light of experience) of just what is meant by the words of the Lord God in Eden? I can see none. If this is agreed they can serve as a definition of what the latter mean by 'death'– a spiritually wretched existence, devoid of the warm response of love to God, of the vivid sense of sonship, and of God's fatherly care, till physical dissolution brings down the curtain on a sad episode of existence.

With this understanding of, 'in the day you eat . . . you shall die', the problem of the 900 years' delay ceases to exist. But another problem seems to intrude itself. What are we to make of Paul's insist­ence that death entered the world through Adam's transgression? Isn't it plain that he means physical death, as nearly all commentators have argued? My suggestion is that the traditional understanding of Paul is right – in part. In part, because Paul is not thinking of death simply as something which man shares with the lower animals. He is thinking of death as the King of Terrors, 13 as the exit‑from‑physical-­life‑to‑judgement, as a physical termination with a spiritual sting.14 When he says that Adam brought this into the world of man's experience we must take his conception in its totality. When we do so we see that death in the purely animal sense (which is all that Darwin's theory is concerned with) is not as such something which Adam intro­duced. It may have been included, but we are not entitled to insist from Paul's words that it must have been. In making the distinction (between animal death and death as the King of Terrors) we are following good New Testament precedent; compare our Lord's words in John 8.51 'Truly, truly, I say to you, if any one keeps my word, he will never see death.' Clearly, this does not refer to animal death in whole or in part; it refers to death‑as‑a‑prelude‑to‑judgement.15

To sum up in concrete terms: we can think tentatively of Adam's sub‑human original as subject to physical death‑without‑terrors‑and‑without‑sting. When into its nostrils was breathed the 'breath of life' (nešāmâ) the sub-human became Adam, the first man. To Adam was spoken in Eden a word corresponding to Deuteronomy 30.19,20. Had he chosen life his earthly existence would have endured for a millennium,16 and then with a transformed body17 he would have been translated to a higher existence 18.  Such would have been the bliss of his family and friends that they would have felt no pain at his going, only joy.19 As it was, Adam chose death. He began to experience its conse­quences the instant he sinned. His earthly existence continued for 900 years but its close was marked not by translation but by the grave, and bodily decomposition,20 and by the sorrowing of those left behind.

Much of this is speculation, but it is biblically‑guided.


1     Gen. 3.5,22.

2     Henri Blocher, op. cit., p. 132 cf. 2 Sam. 14.17; 1 Kings 3.9.

3     J. Calvin, Commentary on Genesis (1554), p. 118.

4     G. von Rad. op. cit., p. 89.

5     Ibid., p. 97.

6     Matt. 26.38,39; John 6.38; 8.29; Heb. 10.5,7.

7     Deut. 32.20 (RV); Hab. 2:4; John 3.16; Rom. 1.17.

8     Deut. 6.4,5; Ps. 91.9,14; John 14.15; Gal. 5.6; 1 Tim. 1.5; 1 John 4.16; 5.3.

9     Henri Blocher, op. cit., p. 184.

10   Alan Hayward, op. cit., p. 199 (my italics).

11   Deut. 30.19,20.

12   Cf. Jesus' words in Matt. 10.28.

13   Job 18.14.

14   1 Cor. 15.56; cf. also Heb. 9:27.

15   See also John 5.24; 11:26; Rom. 8.2,6.

16   In fact, Scripture records that it did (approximately). This maybe a clue to the significance of this otherwise enigmatic period; see the references in Rev. 20.1‑10. Isaiah foretells that in the messianic 'new heavens and new earth' the earthly life of the redeemed will be of this order (Isaiah 65.20,22). On this supposition the righteous will live the millennium through.

17   1 Cor. 15.50‑54; Phil. 3.20,21.

18   Heb. 6:20.

19   Cf. Luke 24.52,53.

20   Our Forerunner, restoring what Adam lost, Jesus never 'saw' this – Acts 2.24,27.