Genesis According to Wenham: The Knowledge of Good and Evil

I am currently reading through Gordon Wenham's commentary on the first few chapters of Genesis in order to gain a better understanding of what has been a controversial issue in the church for some time, and especially in recent decades (the issue I am referring to is, as you might have guessed, the relationship between modern science and the Genesis creation narratives).  After an exhaustive study of the issue from different viewpoints (or at least as exhaustive as two full time engineers can muster!), Steve and I plan to systematically explain our perspective and understanding of the doctrine of creation (though we may not necessarily agree on everything).  In the meantime, because the literature is so fascinating, I thought I would begin posting on other themes learned while studying the issue of origins.  Today's post will focus on Wenham's discussion of the meaning of "knowledge of good and evil" as used in the context of Genesis chapter two.

Much has been said about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (mentioned first in Genesis 2:9 and further discussed throughout this chapter and the next), but there seems to be no unanimous agreement among scholars about what exactly it represents.  I will start here by quoting Wenham's own translation of the Hebrew text of Genesis 2:8-13.
The LORD God planted a garden in Eden in the east and placed the man there whom he had formed.  And the LORD God made all kinds of trees to sprout from the land, trees desirable to look at and good to eat; the tree of life was in the middle of the garden and also the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. [...]
Then the LORD God took man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and guard it.  The LORD God commanded man:  "You may freely eat of every garden tree, but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil never eat, for on the day you do, you will certainly die.1
Wenham starts with a few initial points before explicating several competing theories about the meaning of the text.  The Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil here stand in contrast and provide necessary context for each other.  Since consumption of fruit from the one will lead to immortality, consumption of fruit from the other will lead to death.  Wenham explicates several competing theories about what the knowledge of good and evil entails:

1.  "'The knowledge of good and evil' is simply a description of the consequences of obeying or disobeying the commandments."2

According to this theory, held by Kidner and Gispen, the tree's meaning comes from its utility; the "knowledge of good and evil" is offered by the command to refrain from eating of the fruit.  Obedience to the command allows man to "know good," while disobedience to the command allows man to "know evil."  There is nothing characteristically special about the tree that would give man the power to know good and evil.

Wenham holds this view to be inadequate for several reasons: first, it does not fit with the fact that the Tree of Life actually does characteristically offer immortality.  As such, it would be inconsistent for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil not to actually offer knowledge of good and evil.  Second, this theory does not fit with similar Hebrew phrases in Deuteronomy 1:39 and 2 Samuel 19:36 "which observe that neither the very young nor the elderly know good and evil" (surely both the young and elderly have both obeyed and disobeyed commands in their life).

2.  "'Knowledge of good and evil' means moral discernment, knowing the difference between right and wrong.   Last held by Budde (1183), this interpretation is not taken seriously by modern commentators, because, given the narrator's assumptions, it is absurd to suppose man was not always expected to exercise moral discretion or that he acquired such capacity through eating the fruit."3

The view is also logically inconsistent with the remainder of the narrative. God having commanded man not to eat the fruit of a specific tree presupposes man's ability to morally discern the difference between obeying or disobeying God's command. But if man had not this moral discernment prior to eating of the tree, what good was the command in the first place?

3. "'Knowledge of good and evil' means sexual knowledge (e.g., Weinfield)."4

There is no hint in the passage here that sexuality is in focus, nor that sexual knowledge is reserved for God alone and not for man.

4.  "'Knowledge of good and evil' means omniscience (von Rad; cf. Wallace, Eden Narrative, 128.")5

The remainder of the narrative makes it clear that though man did eat the fruit from the tree, he did not gain omniscience in any sense of the word, "merely shame and a recognition of their nakedness."

5.  "'Knowledge of good and evil' is wisdom (Cassuto, Westermann, Vawter; cf. Clark)."6

Prima facie this view as unlikely as option two.  The wisdom literature in the Bible seems to make the acquisition of wisdom one of the highest goals of man (hence the category name "wisdom literature"), which would be contrary to this interpretation.  However, these same books differentiate between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of man.  "To pursue [moral wisdom] without reference to revelation is to assert human autonomy, and to neglect the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of knowledge (Prov 1:7)" It is therefore not wisdom pertaining to evil, per se, that is wrong here, but the pride in thinking that man can gain this wisdom on his own.  Adam and Eve sought out wisdom of good in evil in a way that was contrary to what God had revealed to them.

The preceding represents what Wenham believes about the meaning of "good and evil" in Genesis 2, so I thought I would add a short bit about my own understanding of the passage.  Of the five views listed above, the fifth definitely seems the most likely.  View number two was one that I always accepted growing up, but realized to be obviously false upon further thought.  Adam and Eve must have had at least an elementary understanding of right and wrong prior to their disobeying God, or else the command would not have made sense to them to begin with.  View number one is slightly plausible, but seems to be missing the point.  As Wenham pointed out (in different words), if there is something metaphysically significant about the Tree of Life, in that it actually gives the consumer eternal life, then there must also be something metaphysically significant about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  This means that the tree must actually have given Adam and Eve knowledge of good and evil in some way beyond a symbolic representation of their actions.  Views three and four were ideas that I had never considered, but seem fairly ridiculous.  While I would be open to hearing arguments in their favor, there does not seem to be anything in the text to support these views.

As mentioned, I find the fifth view to be correct, but propose the following clarification/nuance.  In opposition to the second view which advocates understanding the phrase as a sort of propositional knowledge, I think that the correct interpretation is a view of experiential understanding.  For a couple who had never sinned prior to eating from this tree, the act of rebelling against God's authority had to have drastic spiritual and emotional consequences.  The tree is not just a description of man's choosing good or evil, but actually gives man an experiential knowledge of good and evil in a very significant way.


1.  Wenham, 1987
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
Next Post Newer Post Previous Post Older Post Home


  1. Yeah I'd(unno) go with five as well ;)

    And I've heard Don Carson propose that the knowledge was experiential, which also makes sense. If you'd like to listen to a lecture by him here's the link

  2. Woops, just realized I forgot to respond to this (a mistake if I want people to interact on here more often)...


    I'll give the lecture a listen when I get a chance and let you know what I think.