by Josh Yarden
I posted a story last month about biblical metaphor, entitled “What Fruit Grows on the Tree of Knowledge?” The class discussion I related there continues with this question from a student:
“When you said that the Tree of Knowledge is not an actual tree, didn't you just make up a story that's completely different from the one in the Book of Genesis?”
“Ok, let's get back into to the mythical garden.”
“So, you're saying it's all just a myth?”
“It's not just a myth. When I say a text is mythic, I don't mean that it is false. I mean that the power of the story is in the way it reflects experiences that happen over and over again in our lives. That's how people in different cultures over thousands of years can relate to these essentially human stories. We do know for a fact that the story has existed for millennia, and it has had a powerful and a memorable impact on our society. That makes it real, whether or not the events happened as described.
“Ok, but that doesn't explain whether or not the tree of knowledge of good and bad is an actual tree.”
“You can decide for yourself, but keep in mind that Torah does not claim to be ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.' There aren't enough details in these brief stories to suggest that any of them are full accounts of actual events, but they do contain enough symbolism to be read on three levels: the myth, the moral and the metaphor.
“Let's take a look at the wording of the text itself. Why does such a short story take the time to refer to three kinds of ‘trees' if they are all the same type? Look how Genesis 2:9 breaks down naturally into three sections:
1: ‘and יהוה Elohim raises from the ground each tree that is a pleasant sight and good to eat'
2: ‘and the tree of life within the garden'
3: ‘and the tree of knowledge of good and bad'
The fruit trees in the first part are described as the kind that actually grow out of the ground. We can see them, and provide they food. That's clear. The ‘tree of life' in the second part of the verse is not described as growing from roots in the ground; it represents all the the entire ecosystem. Picture an evolutionary biology diagram that displays the relationships between various life forms, depicted on a ‘tree of life.' (A full diagram would probably look more like a dense forrest, rather than just one tree.) The third type, the tree of knowledge, doesn't have a physical form at all. It represents the ideas present and growing in the garden and beyond. We can say that the ‘fruit' that grows on the tree of knowledge is ‘food for thought.'
On the mythic level, it is a story about good and bad behavior, trees and animals with special attributes or powers. On the moral level, it is a lesson about following rules and punishment for rule breakers. On the metaphorical level it is a story about learning what is good and what is bad, the power to control knowledge, discovering truth and dealing with the consequences of taking risks to explore and experiment.”
“I get it. The snake is on one branch of the tree of life, and the human is on another. And they are talking about what they know about punishment for breaking the rules, which is really a discussion about the power to control people's thoughts and their behavior.
“That makes sense, and whether or not it happened in the the Garden of Eden, that sort of discussion takes place all the time in our lives.”
“So Charles Darwin kept quiet about his developing theory of evolution because he knew that he would be speaking truth to power, like the snake, and that he might get into big trouble. So you could say that the controversy between science vs. religion is foreshadowed in the Book of Genesis!”
“Even better. That's not where I was headed, but it works. You see? There is no contradiction between creation and evolution after all. People who place their religion in opposition to science cannot control our growing knowledge. And they can't control the meaning of the Bible either, unless we fail to question their authority.
“How can you tell whether your knowledge of the Bible is right or wrong?
“We can't really know anything until we test it out, examine our assumptions and go through the experience of trial and error. We set up experiments to investigate the ideas we think are important, and then we discuss them… at the dinner table and at community gatherings, at conferences and in academic journals, in the popular media and in elections. As standards of ‘good and bad' change over time, so does our culture, our customs and our laws.
“If interpretations change along with the people who are reading the Bible, you could say that it is evolving like the constitution that gets amended by congress and interpreted in the courts. Religious leaders use the text to explain their opposition to something, like woman in the clergy or gay marriage, and then new leaders come along and use their interpretations of the text to support their positions.
“That sounds right. It's all about the power of ideas, and the power of the people who hold them. Meaning evolves with the people who interpret the text, so the Bible can remain constant and evolve at the same time, because we have both the official text, and the many texts written to explore and explain it. The meaning we attach to the Bible is all bound up in our understanding of the world.