The Two Trees
By Don DeMarco, Ph. D.
Reprinted with permission from Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum. www.truthandcharityforum.org/the-two-trees/
We are told in Genesis 2:9 that among the many trees God planted in the Garden of Eden, two were of special significance: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. God had commanded Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the former. There was no such prohibition concerning the fruit of the latter, although our primal parents, for whatever reason, did not partake of the fruit of that tree. There are deep mysteries associated with these trees. Nonetheless, there is fairly agreed upon consensus concerning their basic meaning. Moreover, this meaning is not only theological, attested by faith, but profoundly moral, with rich application for people of all ages.
In the Epistle of Diogenes, a text of the first century, the author makes the following comment: “Indeed, there is a deep meaning in the passage of Scripture which tells how God planted a tree of knowledge and a tree of life in the midst of paradise, to show that life is attained through knowledge . . . And so the two were planted close together” (Sect. 12). Life, however, does not begin with knowledge; it is nourished and advanced through knowledge. Evidently the kind of life mentioned in Genesis was not biological life, but a spiritual life that is indeed cultivated through knowledge. The obvious question that arises, then, concerns what reason God may have had in forbidding Adam and Eve from eating the fruit from a tree that clearly symbolizes something good.
It appears that God wanted to put his first human creatures to an initial test. Adam and Eve needed to demonstrate, through obedience, their trust in God. This was required before they could advance to the next step that involved the knowledge of good and evil. Life evolves in stages, as we well know. We must walk before we can run. Parents do need feed steak to their infant children. The immature digestive system first needs to produce the appropriate enzymes. Teachers begin math instruction with arithmetic, not with higher algebra. St. Paul speaks of the “mature” as “those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14).
Adam and Eve needed to put the knowledge of good and evil in the context of trust in God. Otherwise, the great danger for them was to put trust in themselves, thereby running the risk of believing that they, and not God, determine what is good and what is evil. They needed the virtue of humility before they could safely venture into the realm of choosing good and avoiding evil. The application here to the contemporary world is evident. Abortion advocates argue that it is the pregnant woman who determines the morality of abortion and not the fact that, objectively, abortion kills a human being. Pride can blind a person the nature of the moral act while placing too much emphasis on indiscriminate freedom.
The Tempter, in the image of a serpent, convinces Eve that eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil will strengthen her and make her an equal of God. He argues that God wants to keep her and her husband in a subservient position, limiting their rightful freedom. The Tempter seduces Eve into trusting him rather than God. The result, as we know, was calamitous, a Fall of tragic and prodigious proportions. Our first parents were banished from the Garden and were not able to return. They were no longer eligible to eat from the tree of life. To ensure that they were kept from this tree, God “placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3:24).
Just as the “life” the tree of life offered is spiritual, so too the “death” that God told would come to those who ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is also spiritual. The Culture of Life and the Culture of Death, therefore, have a profoundly spiritual significance. In order to enrich our own life, we must first honor the order of creation, which includes the life that God has made. The God of the New Testament commands us first to love. Through love, we advance to the next stage of enjoying “life” on a higher, more Godly plane. By rejecting His commandment, we experience a kind of “death,” one that keeps us in darkness, riveted to our pride.
The struggle between the two cultures has its prototype in the allegory of the two trees. The struggle is essentially spiritual and rests on a most fundamental question: do we as mere human beings determine what is good and what is evil? Or does God make that determination? If we answer the latter in the affirmative, we begin by honoring the life that God has created, and then allow God’s blessings to enrich our lives so that we enjoy life on a higher, more joyful, and more lasting level.
Dr. Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. Doctor DeMarco is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and he is Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, CT. He is the author of 22 books, including; Architects of the Culture of Death, The Many Faces of Virtue, The Heart of Virtue, and New Perspectives on Contraception. He has authored several hundred articles in scholarly journals and in anthologies, and articles and essays appearing in other journals and magazines and in newspapers; and innumerable book reviews in a variety of publications. His education includes: B.S. Stonehill College, North Easton, MA 1959 (General Science); A.B. Stonehill College, 1961 (Philosophy); Gregorian University, Rome, Italy, 1961-2 (Theology); M.A. St. John’s University, Jamaica, NY, 1965 (Philosophy); and Ph.D. At. John’s Univ., 1969 (Philosophy). His Master’s dissertation was “The Basic Concept in Hegel’s Dialectical Method” and his Doctor’s dissertation was “The Nature of the Relationship between the Mathematical and the Beautiful in Music”. He is married to Mary Arendt DeMarco and they have five children.