If Adam and Eve don’t know right from wrong, why is it just to punish them for acquiring this very potential?

The Bible contains its fair share of cryptic passages, but none is more baffling than the second commandment God gives man:

וּמֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ מוֹת תָּמוּת

Do not eat from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, for on the day that you eat from it, you shall surely die.

(Genesis 2:17).

Only minutes earlier formed from dust, Adam has no sense of right or wrong; he is not a moral agent. In fact, he is not even recognisably human: all the great works of Western philosophy consider man’s power of reason to be the defining characteristic that distinguishes him from mere beast. For Kant, it is man’s ability to discern the moral law using reason, and then submit to it in the face of inclination. For Aristotle, it is the faculty of ‘practical wisdom’ (φρονησις, phronesis), which enables man to know what is good and necessitates him to act upon it.

It is difficult to comprehend why Adam should be considered responsible for his own actions at all: we do not hold infants or animals accountable for their deeds, because we recognise that they don’t know good from bad. At this point, neither do Adam and Eve: only after eating the fruit do they feel shame and understand that they acted wrongly. God still sees fit to punish them, however, for disobeying his infantilising and dehumanising command. He creates the first humans in a bestial, unreflective state, and then chastises them acquiring the capacity for moral knowledge and thereby making themselves human. This is monstrously unfair.

So why does God do it? The answer, I suspect, is buried deep in the letters of the text. 

The Hebrew for ‘knowledge’ is דַּעַת (da’at), a word similar in its orthography and pronunciation to דָּת (dat): religion, or faith. To the casual observer, the two words can be easily confused. More importantly, the meanings of the two words are also easily confused: religion can be mistaken for knowledge, as knowledge is mistaken for religion.

Those who embrace the magnificent myths of scripture as literal truth in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence mistake religion for knowledge. Those who believe that all the answers to life’s most pressing questions are found in scripture are guilty of this mistake too. It was Plato who identified the problem of taking scriptural stories as gospel (pardon the pun): stories require interpretation, and for interpretation one must always look beyond the words themselves. Religion is not the same as knowledge. Those who think it is, also mistake real knowledge for religion: they conflate scientific theories grounded in hard evidence with more frivolous theories that end with conjecture, treating scientific reasoning as a cult of its own.

Religion and science both employ rigorous reasoning; the Talmud offers some of the most turgid and tortuous argumentation ever immortalised on paper. Yet the difference between pure religion and knowledge is quite subtle, turning on the presence of one feature: empirical evidence. The distinction between the words דַּעַת and דָּת is also subtle: the addition of the letter ע (‘ayin). The Hebrew עַיִן (‘ayin) means ‘eye’; the letter ע, which uses its name, has traditionally been taken to symbolise sight and empirical affirmation. 

The difference between religion in and of itself and knowledge, the Hebrew seems to suggest, is that the former is blind: it is what remains when a system of reasoning and thought is stripped of anything that could validate its conclusions. Knowledge exists when the rich heritage and teachings of religion are fused with real-world experience, and when people are willing to judge what they have been told in light of what they see, and evaluate what they have been taught in light of what they can learn. Religion and knowledge are not mutually exclusive, as some more haughty atheists might sneer: knowledge is religion built beyond its bare bones.

So why does God punish man for acquiring moral knowledge? The answer is that the expulsion from the Garden of Eden is not a punishment: it is a liberation. In Eden, amid conditions of plenty, where every want is sated, there are few opportunities for wrongdoing. It is sufficient for Adam and Eve’s moral code to include only two laws: be fruitful and multiply, and don’t eat the fruit from that tree. In short, it is enough for religion (God’s commandment) to provide the foundation for human living.

Once man has acquired this awesome power to divine right from wrong for himself, however, Eden is an infantilising habitat: for without the trials and tribulations of a difficult world replete with moral dilemmas, there are few opportunities for man to exercise this power of his. The power of moral reasoning is superfluous when it rarely needs to be exercised. God banishes Adam and Eve in order to allow them to make tough moral decisions for themselves, and thereby redeem this extraordinary potential of moral agency within them.

Shabbat shalom.