Two Trees: A Wisdom Story

Within God’s cosmic temple, God created place called Eden, and this holy sanctuary had a garden. But don’t imagine backyard tomatoes, but visualize something like the garden of Versailles, a royal garden with manicured trees, flowers, and water. Agriculture and horticulture are not the point. God planted this garden for communion, joy, and rest. It is the holy of holies of the cosmic temple, and the place where God walks with humanity.

Humanity, created out of the dust of the earth, is placed in the Garden to protect it and serve it, much like the priests of Israel protected and served the temple. This is another aspect of our human vocation: we are priests and priestesses. We lead the creation in the praise of God, and we serve God in God’s holy space and protect that space.

In the heart of the garden are two trees:  the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. One tree gives life, and the other, if eaten before its time, leads to death. These trees are symbols in Hebrew wisdom literature. The tree of life represents the wisdom to live long upon the earth. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents a maturity to live wisely in the world by discerning the difference between two paths, between good and evil, between life and death. Children, or the inexperienced, do not yet have this wisdom, and therefore they must not eat from it too quickly.

Eden is like a wisdom play. Adam and Eve are inexperienced, like children who do not know how to live wisely in the world. They lack maturity, knowledge, and discernment to make appropriate life-giving decisions, like what Proverbs calls the “simple.” What they need is wisdom. As children, learning to grow into wisdom, Adam and Eve are not yet prepared for knowledge. To download that knowledge without wisdom learned through life experience is like giving a ten year-old a nuclear weapon. It leads to disaster. God, therefore, forbids eating from the tree of knowledge. They are not yet mature enough for such knowledge.

The garden is a safe place but it has risks. One is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Why is this tree in the garden at all? It represents both choice and the goal of maturity, that is, to be like God. Adam and Eve are free to choose; they can grow into the likeness of God by trusting, listening to, and walking with God, which ultimately leads to the knowledge of good and evil, or they can act foolishly by eating too soon, and that leads to death. The choice is theirs.

The story of Adam and Eve is our story. We all begin innocent, inexperienced, and immature. We grow by making choices, and we each, in some sense, have this freedom. These choices have real consequences.  When we listen to wisdom and trust God’s direction, there is life. When we listen to folly and distrust God’s wisdom, there is death. This is the human condition. Life and death lie before us, and we must choose a path. When we build on the sand of folly, our lives will collapse. When we build on the rock of wisdom, our lives will flourish. Alas, we typically don’t know how to build well, and that is the next part of the story.

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