Genesis 2:9

Translation

וַיַּצְמַח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים מִן־הָאֲדָמָה כָּל־עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָ֑ל וְעֵץ הַֽחַיִּים בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן וְעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָֽע

And from the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the eye and good for food; in the midst of the garden [were] the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.

Commentary

While the translation of this verse from Hebrew to English is straightforward and presents few, if any, difficulties, the author’s use of metaphor, or more correctly our understanding of the metaphors, is controversial. We encounter, in this verse, two of the most famous figures of speech in the Bible and arguably the English language – the “tree of life” and the “tree of the knowledge of good and bad” (hereafter called the tree of knowledge).

tree-of-life

From 9th Century BCE. Ashur-nasir-pal II conducting a ritual before the Tree of Life

the tree of life: this phrase is translated from the Hebrew words עֵץ הַֽחַיִּים  (eitz hachayyim) and serves as a functional metaphor for immortality; specifically its function is to confer immortality on those who have access to (and eats of) its fruit. In these stories and in the second creation story the fruit must be continually ingested to maintain immortality (Gen 3:22b).  This suggests that Adam was originally created mortal and did not become immortal until he was introduced to the Tree of LIfe. Interestingly, the tree of life metaphor symbolizing immortality occurs in most (all?) ANE creation stories and its symbolism is undisputed.

tree-of-knowledgeBy contrast, the metaphor of the tree of knowledge is not only enigmatic but is found nowhere outside the Bible1)(Sarna, 1989) p. 19. However, juxtaposed as it is with the tree of life (immortality) the tree of knowledge might be understood as a metaphor for mortality, i.e., inevitable death. Indeed, in verse 17 we learn that eating of its fruit does not kill the primordial couple. Rather eating from the tree of knowledge changes them from immortal to mortal.

the knowledge of good and bad: this phrase,  הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָֽע (hadda`at tov vara`) is almost universally translated as “the knowledge of good and evil“. However, I chose “good and bad” and this choice bears considerable explanation.

The Hebrew word ra` (bad, evil) has a wide semantic range2)(Harris, BibleWorks) #2191.0). As is the case with such words, its translation is very context dependent. But, no matter what the context, each definition can be categorized as falling into one of two basic camps:

  • bad — in the sense of inappropriateness, unacceptable, distasteful, unhealthy
  • evil — in the moral sense of wicked, cruel, evil, malevolent, hurtful.

In this verse, the context of this verse is a functional one, i.e., the function (or role) of man has just been presented as the solution to the problem of no cultivator. Man’s moral nature is simply not in view. In such a context the translation of ra` as evil is jarring because it comes out of the blue. Insofar as the functional context is concerned, the better choice is “bad”, not “evil”.

There is additional textual context however. The two trees are juxtaposed with each other and suggests that they are to be understood as metaphors for functionally opposite meanings. In other words, the two trees symbolize two opposing concepts: immortality (tree of life) and mortality (tree of knowledge). The idea of evil simply is not relevant here.

Finally, the use of  tov vara` elsewhere in the Bible supports the conclusion that, in this case, it should be translated as “good and bad”. But first, by way of background, tov vara` is a figure of speech called a merism. Merisms are common in all languages and are a kind of metaphor meaning  “everything”, “ultimate”, “all things”, etc. For example, the phrase “Betty knows cooking from A to Z” is a merism used to convey the idea that Betty knows all there is to know about cooking.

In 2 Sam 14:203)Referring back to 2 Sam 14:17 , for example tov vara` is translated as “to know all that is on the earth“, i.e., everything. Similarly, in 2 Sam 19:35 the phrase is translated in terms of enjoyment such that the king can no longer “enjoy all things”. In these two examples, tov vara` was not translated as good and evil because the contextual meaning contained no moral content. Likewise, the choice of ‘bad’ in the absence of any moral context is the better choice.

(This is further discussed in the commentary for verses 16 and 17 here)

Preliminary Translations

My translation conventions can be found here.

Mechanical

And-caused-to-grow, the LORD God, from-the-ground every-tree-of desiring for-appearance and-good for-food; and-the-tree-of-living in-the-midst-of the-enclosure and-the-tree-of the-knowledge-of good and-bad

Literal

(8.1) And the LORD God caused to grow from the ground every tree desireable in appearance and good for food; and the tree of life [was] in the midst of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.

(8.2)  And the LORD God caused to grow every tree pleasing to the eye and good for food; and the tree of life [was] in the midst of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of of good and bad.

Commercial Bible Translations

  • (nas) And out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
  • (kjv) And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
  • (niv) And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground–trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
  • (net) The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow from the soil, every tree that was pleasing to look at and good for food. (Now the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil were in the middle of the orchard.)

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