Victor Nuovo: Good and evil, gods and humans


It is impossible to reach an understanding of the meaning of life without a knowledge of good and evil, for lacking it we would not be able to decide how to act, what goals to pursue, how to direct the course of our lives. But now comes the question: What does it mean to know good and evil? The question led me to the Bible, in particular, to Genesis, chapters 2 and 3.

Before reading further in this essay, I recommend reading the biblical text. There are several things in it to be noted. First, that the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Genesis give a second account of the original creation. The first account (in the 1st chapter of Genesis) tells how “God” (Elohim) created the heavens and the earth in six days and rested on the seventh. The second tells a different story. It begins by remarking that “the Lord God” (Yahweh Elohim) created the earth and the heavens in a single day. On the same day, he created Adam, the first man, from “the dust of the ground” (which is what the name “Adam” means); it tells how the Lord God fashioned a human figure out of dust and “breathed into its nostrils the breath of life.” The Lord God’s reason for creating Adam was that there might be someone to cultivate the soil of the newly created earth. And to this end, he fashioned a garden at a place that was well watered and pleasant — which is what it name “Eden” means.

The Lord God observed that Adam was alone, and needed a companion, a partner, to assist him in cultivating the garden. He caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep (i.e., anaesthetized him) and removed one of his ribs, from which he created a second human being, whom Adam would name “woman.” She would become the “mother of all the living.”

It should be noted that this account of the creation of mankind differs significantly from the account given in the first chapter of Genesis. There it is said that God created man “in his image,” “male and female he created them,” suggesting that the image of God is bisexual (note that “Elohim” is a plural noun).

But to return to the story: We learn that among the trees that the Lord God planted in the garden was a tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam is told that he may eat freely of the fruit from all of the trees in the garden except this one, and he is warned that if he should violate this prohibition, on that very day he would die, that is, become mortal.

What followed is well known. Eve is tempted by a snake, a clever animal; the fruit looks tasty, and besides, it will make one wise, just like God; she tastes the fruit and induces Adam to taste it also; their minds are opened (“enlightened?”) by this forbidden knowledge, the knowledge of good and evil.

What did they learn from this knowledge? They became aware of their nakedness, aware also that they had done something wrong. And this knowledge caused them to feel ashamed. Hearing the Lord God walking in the garden, they hide. But the Lord God finds them, questions them, condemns them, clothes them, and expels from the garden. They have become mortal, able to feel guilt and sorrow and pain; life becomes burdensome to them; it is no longer pleasant; paradise is lost.

We learn from the narrative that there was another reason why the Lord God expelled Adam and Eve from the garden: anxiety. There is another tree, the tree of life, whose fruit presumably makes anyone who eats of it immortal, and the Lord God is anxious that having the knowledge of Good and Evil, the man and woman might eat also of another tree in the garden, the tree of life, and already knowing good and evil, they would “become like one of us,” that is, like God. Is this meant ironically? Why should a God be anxious? Why should a creature cause its creator to become anxious?

So, what is the knowledge of good and evil, and why does possessing it make one like God? Biblical scholars advise that we should not treat this narrative as a philosophical discourse, but as a work of folklore, which probably originated in the oral tradition of some ancient Hebrew tribal community. This does not mean that it does not convey a sophisticated wisdom; it does indeed, but of a sort that cannot easily or routinely be reduced to rational concepts. It’s meaning must be intuited by the imagination also. It is, after all, a story. This does not diminish its profundity; rather, it deepens it.

And there is humor and irony: playing on a human fear of snakes and reptiles; making a mockery of it. And the two trees: If the Lord God created the garden, why did he put them there? And the discovery by Adam and Eve of their sexuality, and their feeling of shame in their nakedness. All of these themes might be better explained by a psychoanalyst than a philosopher, or by a philosopher who takes seriously the insights of psychology and psychoanalysis. In any case, the story should not be trivialized, or dogmatized, but by reflecting on it, plumbing its depths, which run deep.

I have not finished with this ancient story. Instead, I will conclude this essay with a question. When Adam and Eve disobeyed the Lord God’s prohibition of the forbidden fruit, was their action evil, or was it merely wrong? A prohibition, in this instance a divine prohibition, is a rule, and to disobey a rule is, in general, wrong. But “Right and Wrong,” “Good and Evil” don’t mean the same thing. What’s the difference?

Postscript 1: The name Yahweh Elohim requires an explanation. Elohim, as already noted, is a plural noun, it means not God but Gods. Yahweh, is a curious noun, derived from the verb to be; so one may translate it “He who is of the Gods,” or “one of the Gods,” or a prominent member of a divine council that created all things. The use of Elohim as a name for God in the first creation story given in Genesis, and in the same story, the account of the creation of man in God’s image: “male and female he created them” implies that Elohim is not so much bisexual, but dual: male and female. The opening chapters of Genesis are not, strictly speaking, monotheistic.

Postscript 2: The second chapter of Genesis is noteworthy in another respect: Verse 24 treats the institution of marriage: “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves unto his wife, and they become one flesh,” that is, they become one life, even one person. Cleaving together refers to the sexual act, which suggests that, at least according to the Biblical text, premarital sex is a contradiction in terms, for the very act constitutes marriage.

Postscript 3: There is still another respect that gives significance to the second chapter of Genesis. The author of the narrative was doubtless gynophobic, blaming original sin on “the woman,” and making this a reason to decree that women be subservient to men, which is sufficient reason to conclude that he — for it was doubtless a man — was not divinely inspired.

Share this story:

More News

Editorial: Learning to cope with floods

As lightning flashes outside my office window this Wednesday evening and weather forecaste … (read more)


Community Forum: Taking on health care costs

The 2024 Legislative session started and finished the same way — with universal concern ab … (read more)


Ways of Seeing: What I’ve been reading

Three years ago, I joined Goodreads’ annual reading challenge. Since then, I’ve read betwe … (read more)

Share this story: