What fruit grows on the Tree of Knowledge?

by Josh Yarden

Tree

from every tree of the garden eat
but from the tree of knowledge of good and bad
don't eat from it
because on the day you eat from it
you will die
(Genesis, 2:16-17)

What fruit grows on the Tree of Knowledge?

I posed that question to a class of intelligent high school students. A few were quick to provide the garden variety answer: “Apples.”

Of course. Who doesn't know that, after all? Those mediaeval, illuminated texts do show a woman holding an apple, and it's just… well, common knowledge. Right?

“Hmmm… But I think apples only grow on apple trees,” I replied.

“Figs!” one of them called, as if he had a winning lottery number. “I think I read that somewhere. They figured out it was a fig, because Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves.”

I could see I wasn't getting very far. “Well, I don't know who ‘they' are—the ones who figured that out—but I've only seen figs grow on fig trees,” I said, with a generous hint of ‘Get it?' in my voice. “If apples grow on apple trees, and figs grow on fig trees, what kind of fruit grows on a knowledge tree?”

“We don't really know,” another thoughtful student suggested. “The Bible just says ‘fruit.' Maybe we're not supposed to know.”

“Maybe…” I accepted that possibility, “Or, maybe we're not supposed to know until we can figure it out for ourselves, and then we are supposed to know.”

“Yeah, but it doesn't say that they are supposed to think for themselves. It says they are supposed to follow the rules. That's why it's a stupid story,” offered up one of my more unruly students.

“Oh, I don't know… It doesn't seem too stupid to me. Read between the lines.” There was still a blank look on many of their faces.

“It could be any fruit,” one of them concluded.

“Ok, so what would you call any of the fruits of a knowledge tree, in general?”

“… Knowledge?” One of them asked tentatively.

F1929-7-69v1-pma

“The Hand of God,” Auguste Rodin, Modeled 1898; cast 1925

“Do you know that? Or are you asking me?”

“I'm asking.”

“Have you ever tasted knowledge?” I answered her question with a question.

“Yes.”

“Then you know.”

“Yes.”

“So, what fruit grows on a Tree of Knowledge?”

“The fruits of knowledge!”

And then it dawned on one of them: “It's a story! Like the Giving Tree… that crabby apple tree in the Wizard of Oz, or… the Whomping Willow.”

That did not go uncontested by another student who took offense at the comparison. “It's not just a story. It's the Bible. It's a true story.”

“What makes something true?” I tossed the question back to her.

“If it happened,” she replied.

“Hmmm… Is there no truth in fiction?” I asked. “Can't truth be represented by a story that did not actually happen? And can't a story include imagined events, yet still reflect the truth?”

“Like what?”

“Like a talking snake telling a woman to eat the fruit, or pigs turning a farm into a dictatorship, or Harry Potter fighting the Dark Lord.”

“We studied Animal Farm. It's an allegory. And Harry Potter is just a children's story. Nobody believes it's true.”

“What's the difference between a snake talking to humans in the Garden of Eden and Harry Potter taking to a snake in the basement at Hogwarts?” asked one of the Potter fans in the class.

“The difference is that one has been in the Bible for thousands of years,” added another student, “but Harry Potter was just written a few years ago, and it's about a bunch of kids who love wands and magic spells.”

“Maybe that's what the first book is about,” another Potter fan spoke up, “but if you follow the character development, you can see that it isn't really about their love of magic.”

“Oh, I didn't know J. K. Rowling was in our class.” He was getting a little snarky. “I can't read between the lines because there are no words there. Tell me, J. K., what is it really about?”

“It's about the magic of love, Dudley!” She snarked back. “Harry defeats Voldemort, the violent racist, because he values life, and he loves his friends. He even sees the goodness in his enemy, who had a rough time as a kid, and yeah, having a deprived childhood is awful, but you don't have to become a murderer. Harry was also mistreated as a child, but he doesn't give up on being a good person, and he wins the fight. It's about defeating your own demons and trust and believing in something larger than yourself.”

“Can I get an Amen!”

“So… What? The Bible isn't true?”

“The question I am asking is not if it is true or not true, but rather, what sort of truths can we learn from reading the Bible? There are similarities and differences between ‘true' and ‘real' and ‘factual.' Facts are true, and there can also be truth in fiction and metaphor. I don't have to suspend my disbelief in talking snakes to think about why people break rules. Maybe the snake is there to remind us that we have free will, or maybe it symbolizes the times we feel compelled to do things we know we are not supposed to do, but the drive to taste ‘the forbidden fruit' is beyond our control. A story about that could end in disaster, but maybe not.”

“But how do you know whether or not you're headed for disaster?”

“You have to learn to use your own judgment. The reality of life is that knowledge doesn't grow on trees, and it doesn't only come from books. Knowing comes through experience. It is often revealed through critical thinking, speculation, innovation, and taking intelligent risks.”

“So, why were Adam and Eve punished?”

“I'm not sure they were punished.”

“It says they are expelled from the garden. They have to work the land for their food, and Eve will experience the pain of childbirth. That sounds like punishment to me.”

“That sounds like adulthood to me. What's so bad about growing up, leaving home, getting a job and providing for yourself? Everybody seems to want to do it. How many of you are looking forward to going off to college next year? Who wants to live at home forever, playing in the garden and having all your needs and strict rules provided for you like a small child?”

“Sounds good to me!” One of them spoke up with a huge smile.

“Sure it does. Do you also want to be told what you are allowed to read and who you are allowed to know?”

“Not unless I can schedule my own play dates…” That got a laugh.

“Yeah, I'm sure a lot of us will want to come over to play with you while we're in college and you're out in the yard, eating fruit, naked.”

“Hey, I got some good fruit. You don't know what you're missing.”

“Believe me. I don't want to see your fruit.” That got a bigger laugh.

“Ouch! Ok, let's get back to the text.”

“What about the pain?”

“Pain is part of life too. You know that. We have to learn the hard way sometimes, but that helps us to appreciate the sweetness of the joys of life.”

“So what's the point of the story?”

“That's up to you, as much as it's up to me.”

“Cop-out!” one of them said accusingly, and actually pointed a finger at me. “Why can't you just answer the question?”

“I did. The answer is that you are almost 18; you're moving out of your parents' house in about six months, and you don't really want me to think for you, do you? We all get to figure it out for ourselves, and we get to taste of the fruit of Tree of Knowledge when we do.”

“Cop-out,” he repeated.

“I think you're just giving me a hard time for the fun of it. That's ok. I probably deserve it, but you are about to get kicked out of the garden, so you better be able to figure things out for yourself. I will say that part of the story is about understanding the truth and telling the truth. It says that the man and the woman are naked, but the snake is the most naked of all. So maybe the story is about figuring out the naked truth.”

“What do you mean by ‘naked' truth?”

“It's the honest truth, the part that isn't dressed up to serve someone's interests or trick people into thinking they know the truth, when they are really being fed a pack of lies.”

“Like The Emperor's new Clothes?”

“Keep going. What about it?”

“The emperor wants everyone to believe he's the best dressed man in the kingdom, but the truth is that he's naked, and a little boy is the only one who has the courage to say so.”

“That boy is the only one willing to speak truth to power. No matter what the emperor was wearing, he was a fake. Everyone knew it, but they were still afraid of him. Of course that story didn't actually happen, but how many real people are afraid to speak up when powerful people are putting on a show, lying, shutting down debate and interrupting the free flow of information?”

“People might not challenge the government, but they break smaller rules. The point is that we can't resist taking risks, and we have to deal with consequences.”

“Everybody breaks some kind of rules. Some of them were sort of made to be broken, but others can actually save your life.”

“Such as…?” I asked him to continue. “Can you give us an example?”

“It's illegal to serve alcohol to minors, but after the first time you have a drink you realize that you don't die from tasting beer, but if you get drunk and stupid and steal your father's car, you could easily kill someone without even trying. So, saying you can't even taste beer doesn't make sense. It just turns it into a forbidden fruit, right? But making it illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol makes a lot of sense to everybody… at least everybody who isn't drunk.”

“Unfortunately, that one is not a metaphor.” I added. “I lost a friend who was killed by a driver who was too drunk to realize that he committed a hit and run. He took someone's life. That's the sad truth, and it is also a cold hard fact. Anyone else have any fruit from the knowledge tree to share?”

“We're pretty much on our own, once we leave home, even if we just go out for the evening. We're on our own to figure out which rules are stupid and which ones you'd have to be stupid to break.”

“Yeah, but sometimes you don't know what's dangerous until you try.”

“Like I said before – Maybe we don't know until we can figure it out for ourselves. It's not a bad idea to start by following the rules. Then learn to use your judgment about the ones that you need to break for good reason. Can anyone think of a law that should have been broken?”

“Slavery.”

“Only men being allowed to vote.”

“Allowing polluters to ruin the air we breathe and destroy drinking water for the next generation.”

“Wow! All that from a talking snake.”

“All that and more, but we're out of time for today.”

“Wait! One more thing I read between the lines before you let us go: If you have a good friend to rely on, someone you can trust to tell you the truth, it'll be a lot easier to figure out what's really going on in the world. So don't be so quick to blame your best friend when you make a mistake.”

“Ain't that the truth?! It looks like you're ready to leave the garden. Ok. We'll pick this up next week with Cain and Abel.”

Follow this link to “Darwin in the Garden,” the continuation of this essay.

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