WHICH TREE WAS THAT?
A little exegesis on the story of the garden and the two trees from Genesis. For a couple verses, I have given a word-by-word translation from the Hebrew, to indicate some of the word-play that goes on; otherwise I have used the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) Tanach, or the New Revised Standard (NRS) with slight modification from others. In the word-by-word, I have left out translators’ punctuation, which is not in the original.
The “twist” on conventional understandings that comes out is that the original adolescents may have missed the trees for the forest—that this could
be a tale of confusion and lack of understanding, more than one of disobedience.
A Tale of Two Trees—
And he sprouts YHVH Elohim from the ground (ha’adamah
) all (every) tree desirable to look at and good (tov
) to eat and tree of life in middle
and tree of knowledge good (tov
) and bad (ra
JPS translation: And from the ground YHVH God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden
, and the tree of knowledge of good and bad.
Genesis 2:16, 17—
And charged YHVH Elohim the earthling (ha’adam
) by saying from all (every) tree of the garden eat you may eat but from tree of knowledge good and bad not you may eat from part (mi’manu
)* because in time (day) you eat from part die you will die.
JPS: And YHVH God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.”
* Note: mi’manu
can also be translated as “more than
part (or a portion).” On this reading, the prohibition would be on quantity, not eating per se. I know of no translation or tradition that follows this possible reading.
JPS: The two of them were naked (arumim
), the man and his wife, yet felt no shame.**
** The Hebrew phrase translated as “felt no shame” could also be rendered “were not disappointed.”
NRS: Now the serpent was more crafty (arum
)*** than any other wild animal that YHVH God had made.
*** There is a word-play in these two verses between “naked” and “crafty.” Depending on the vowel-pointing, the Hebrew letters A-R-M can mean either. In this case, the difference is one vowel-point on the initial A. However, in the original Hebrew there were no
vowel-points! (as there are not on Hebrew scrolls today). arumim
in verse 2:25 is plural, referring to both humans; arum
in verse 3:1 is singular, referring only to the serpent.
In the original Hebrew, the words could be read either way. Thus, what we have here is a kind of pun
Genesis 3:1 to 3—
JPS: He said to the woman, “Did God really say: “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” The woman replied to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the other trees in the garden. It is only about fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden
that God said: “You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.”
So, first the naked (oops! crafty) serpent asks if God said not to eat of any
tree in the garden. Kind of a loaded question, that.
Then the woman says that they are forbidden to eat of the tree—in the middle of the garden
! Which tree is that? (Verse 2:9) The tree of life!
She got the trees confused!
(Or else she was lost.) And the serpent played on the confusion.
JPS: When the woman saw that the tree
was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree
was desirable as a source of understanding
, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate.
Now, she was looking at a
tree. And she recognized it as “a source of understanding.” Did she know which tree she was looking at? The serpent doesn’t tell her; he just begins talking about the tree they’re looking at, assuring them that they (actually, here the serpent speaks in the plural, implying that perhaps now both humans were present) won’t die if they “eat a portion.”
When God confronts them—after finding them hiding in the trees—he asks if they have eaten from the tree “from which I had forbidden you to eat.” Their responses— Adam: “She gave me of the tree, and I ate.” Woman: “The serpent duped me, and I ate.” Imagine here confused and disconcerted looks on their faces; after all, this is shortly after they have had some new and apparently disconcerting discovery about their nakedness.
The tree, the tree, the tree...
The woman thought she was in the middle of the garden, and was looking at that tree (the tree of life), in which case the old charge of temptation and disobedience may stand. (Although she is still not exactly alert and aware of what is going on—that is, she was lacking some understanding
. She's still confused about which tree is forbidden, or where it is.)
She believed she was eating a different tree, not the one “in the middle of the garden,” but another one that was “desirable as a source of understanding.”
Either way, there is enough confusion in this story—enough twists and turns among the trees—to seriously offer an alternative to the (more traditional) interpretation that this was about clear-sighted and knowing disobedience. As I have said before, part of the tradition of midrash
is to “search out” (d’rash
) all the possible readings.
Of course, this raises questions about God’s response to the whole thing (and I have explored that before), but that is another matter...