One of the most mysterious events described in the Bible is the fall of man. This story has at all times posed many questions to readers. And here is one of them: what is that mysterious "tree of knowledge of good and evil", after eating the fruit of which man lost his first home, known as Eden or Paradise, lost his former gracious "neighborhood" with God, who "easily" walked near Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?
It is known that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil described in the Bible book of Genesis, the very thing that led Adam and Eve to sin, like any other plant, was planted in the Garden of Eden by God Himself. As the Bible tells us, "The Lord God brought forth out of the ground every tree that was pleasant to the eye and good for food, and the tree of life in the midst of paradise, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Genesis 2:9). But if this is so, why did God prepare such a "provocation" for man to sin in the first place? Why did He grow such a plant that proved to be poisonous to the human soul? Is all this compatible with the statement that God is merciful and loving towards His creatures? After all, God can in no way want evil for man; on the contrary, He must seek to protect people from all danger. But at the same time, we clearly see from the biblical account that He prepares for Adam and Eve a kind of deadly "bait". It is true, having created the "tree of knowledge", God immediately warns man of the danger coming from this plant: "And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'Of every tree of the garden you will eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you will die by death'" (Genesis 2:15-17). And yet the perplexity remains: why did He need to create this "dangerous" tree at all?
So, we are faced with a number of questions. The first is whether this tree was inherently evil? The answer here is given by the Bible itself, which states that absolutely everything created by God was "very good" (Genesis 1:31). The ancient church writers, theologians, and the Holy Fathers, testify to the same. For example, St. Theophilus of Antioch, who lived in the second century, writes about it this way: "The tree of knowledge itself was beautiful, and beautiful was its fruit.” Another ancient Christian writer, St. Gregory the Theologian (4th century) says: "The tree of knowledge was not planted ... maliciously, nor was it forbidden because of envy; on the contrary, it was good for those who were well-meaningful.”
But if this is true, then why did Adam and Eve's eating of the fruit of the tree prove to be sinful and even deadly?
Before answering this question and expounding the teaching of the Church about the tree of knowledge, it should be noted: we should not think that in interpreting and explaining some of the aspects of the Orthodox doctrine, all church writers only mechanically repeat one after another those or other thoughts and statements. In the ancient Holy Fathers one can sometimes find occasional differences of opinion. But all the Fathers agree on the main point, without which Orthodoxy would cease to be Orthodoxy. That is why, in the matter of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the Fathers' opinions always agree in the most important, basic thing, although they sometimes differ in particulars. For example, all of the Holy Fathers assert that this tree was not in itself bad, poisonous, destructive to the person who wanted to eat of its fruit. It was only the human act itself that was bad. But the question of why God created the tree and what it was originally intended for is differently answered by the church writers.
Some of them believe that the natural essence, the "breed" of the tree plays no role here at all. By the way, if some ancient Christian interpreters of the Bible began to argue about what "kind" of tree the tree of knowledge was, most often they called it not the apple tree, as many would probably expect, but the fig tree. The idea that Eve ate an apple is quite late in origin. It appeared in medieval Europe, and from there, thanks to the masterpieces of Western European painting and acquaintance with Catholic spiritual literature, it came to us in Russia. The consequences of such borrowings can be seen today, for example, in the Moscow subway in the form of billboards with an appeal to "give in to temptation," with a picture of a girl biting off a big bite of a ripe apple with pleasure...
But those Christian commentators who consider the fruit of the tree of knowledge to be the most common tree fruit, do not speak first of the nature of the plant, but of the meaning of the commandment associated with it. According to them, God chooses, as it were, "at random" out of many similar trees only one tree, while forbidding people to eat its fruit, to test the faithfulness and moral firmness of man. And if Adam and Eve had passed the test offered to them and fulfilled the commandment given to them by God, then sooner or later they would have received the blessing of God to taste the fruit from this "forbidden" tree as well. Then the fruit could not hurt them in any way.
What, then, is the significance of God's establishment of this Edenic commandment?
First, as Church teaching explains to us, God is testing human freedom here, giving people the right to choose between Him, their Creator, and a life outside of God, according to their own proud will. Man is created free, and in this freedom, he is even given such a terrible right as the possibility of renouncing his Creator, even if only to his own perdition. Then in the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve chose exactly this: instead of loyalty to God and His commandment, instead of realizing that the true power over the universe does not belong to them, they chose the momentary and transient pleasure, the consequence of which was their moral and physical destruction.
Secondly, the commandment given to Adam and Eve is not only some "negative" prohibition, testing their "moral fortitude". This commandment also has its positive meaning, similar to that of Orthodox fasting today. For the Orthodox Lent is not just a prohibition to eat all kinds of meat and dairy products. Its meaning is first of all voluntary self-denial, humble cutting off one's own will for the sake of obedience to Christ, and from this reason comes spiritual perfection. Through self-purification from passions and secondary worldly attachments, the Christian must prepare himself to meet the feast that awaits him at the end of his long fast (whether it be Easter or Christmas), as a new and worthy encounter with God. The same probably should have happened to Adam and Eve if they had endured that most ancient fast in human history, as an imposed obedience to the patient cultivation of their own souls. However, things happened quite differently...
Among the Holy Fathers there is, however, another point of view on the nature of this heavenly tree. Many of them did not consider it a common fig tree, but as a "spiritual plant", giving deep meaning to both its fruits and the possibility of eating them. They thought that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil might indeed give man some higher knowledge of God and the world. But at the same time, they argued that God forbade man to eat from this tree not because He wanted to hide from Adam some more perfect knowledge about Himself, but because He considered such eating to be untimely. As St. Theophilus of Antioch writes, in the fruit of this tree "there was nothing else but knowledge. Knowledge is beautiful if one makes good use of it. For this Adam was yet a child, why he could not receive knowledge properly. For even now a child, immediately after birth, cannot eat bread, but first eats milk, then, with increasing age, passes to solid food, so it was with Adam.”
We do not know for certain what would have been the result of the "lawful," blessed by God Himself, first eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge... The Holy Fathers never speak of this in detail. Would Adam and Eve have gained here some special wisdom, a new spiritual experience of communion with the Godhead? We find almost no answers in the Holy Fathers. And yet they do say something about it. For example, St. Ephrem the Syrian (IV century) writes, almost equating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil to the fruit of another paradise plant, the tree of life: "God planted two trees in paradise, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge: both are blessed sources of all good things. Through them man may become like God, through life not to know death, and through wisdom not to know error.” In another monument of Eastern Christian literature, in a sermon on the Feast of the Presentation, attributed to St. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century), Christ himself is called the tree of life and the tree of knowledge. At the same time, the images of the two trees of paradise clearly correlate the ancient church writer with the sacrament of sacraments of the Orthodox Church - the Communion, otherwise known as the Eucharist. For St. Cyril, the trees of paradise are, first of all, prototypes of that Christian Sacrament in which believers can reach the ultimate unity with Christ by partaking of His Holy Body and His Holy Blood. Probably something similar in the sense of achieving ultimate communion with God and fullness of communion with God should have happened to Adam and Eve, if they had been spiritually ready to eat from the tree of knowledge. But instead of waiting for their time and receiving the fruit of this tree as a gift, as a reward from the hands of their Creator, they boldly ate of that fruit of their own free will, to their own ruin.
Divine grace can work differently on a person. If he is ready and worthy to receive it, it can elevate him to the ultimate heights of divine communion. But if a person turns out not to be able to receive one or another of the divine gifts, it can become a cause of suffering, illness and even death. Paul already wrote that many of those who received the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily were sick and even died (1 Corinthians 11:27-30). Probably, something of this kind happened to the first people: having tasted from the tree of paradise in a state of haughty self-exaltation and, in fact, internal opposition to God, they were burnt by the sea of grace, to which they dared to trespass arbitrarily. And, instead of possible communion with God and free participation in the glory of divine life, they "yielded to temptation," became "slaves of sin," and condemned themselves to suffering and death...
Man never knew the true taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He tasted them at the instigation of the "serpent", but at the same moment their juice was mixed for him with the bitterness of haughty self-aggrandizement, with the poison of apostasy. And yet now, in our new redeemed state, after the coming of Christ into the world, we can finally taste their pure fragrance. This happens to us in the Orthodox Church: in its sacraments and worship, in its inherent ways of sanctification and true knowledge of God. For here we enter that new Garden of Eden, which, as it turns out, even surpasses the ancient Eden in its glory, the Christian temple, often called "heaven on earth. It is there that we partake of those fruits of heavenly glory that are bestowed by an all-loving God upon His regenerated creation.
Source: Derzava (Russian)