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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields — The Tree of the Knowing Good and Evil (Gen 2:9)

Categories Hebrew and You


Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 5.28.38 PMThis well-known verse describes the situation in the Garden of Eden before the fall. There is great theological import in all of these chapters on creation, but what concerns us here is an interesting point of grammar, the last clause, וְעֵץ הַדַּעַת טֹוב וָרָע (weʿēṣ haddaʿaṯ ṭôḇ wārāʿ)

What is the Problem?

The usual analysis of the grammar is that הַדַּעַת is a noun with the article in the construct with the next noun meaning “the knowledge of.” The difficulty with this is that if the article is used to mark the determination (or “definiteness”) in a construct chain, only the last word may have the article. For example, וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים (weʿēṣ haḥayyîm), “and the tree of life,” is the routine; only the last word has the article (bolded in the quotation and transliteration). In the phrase וְעֵץ הַדַּעַת טֹוב וָרָע, however, the article is found on a word in the middle of the chain.

Another Explanation

Jericho_-_Hisham's_Palace_mosaic3Another analysis of the grammar was proposed by Keil and Delitzsch in their commentary on the passage. They see הַדַּעַת not as a noun in the construct, but as an infinitive construct (InfC). (The form דַּעַת can be either the noun or the InfC.) But doesn’t this leave the same grammar problem?

An infinitive is a non-finite verbal form (as is a participle), by which is meant that it is not limited to a grammatical subject, specifically, the quality of person (I, you, she, we, etc.). By nature it is a verbal noun. This means that it has some qualities like verbs and some like nouns. Like a verb it describes an action and has the quality of stem (Qal, Nifal, etc.), and can take a direct object, etc. Like a noun, it can function as the subject of a verb or the object of a preposition or the direct object of a verb. It be followed by a genitive pronoun.

The problem with the explanation of Keil and Delitzsch is that the InfC does not normally take the article. They cite, though, another example, Jer 22:16הֲלוֹא־הִיא הַדַּעַת אֹתִי (hălôʾ-hîʾ haddaʿaṯ ʾōṯî), “Is that not what it means to know me?” (NIV), literally, “Is not this the ‘knowing me’?”

Why is the article attached to the InfC? Keil and Delitzsch explain that in both Gen 2:9 and Jer 22:16 the infinitive phrases are being treated as one word. In other words, the article is nominalizing the infinitival phrase, and the article is in the right place. A literal translation of the phrase וְעֵץ הַדַּעַת טֹוב וָרָע in Gen 2:9 would be “the tree of the ‘knowing good and evil.’”

The Meaning of וְעֵץ הַדַּעַת טֹוב וָרָע

There is a slight difference in meaning between the two analyses. Identifying דַּעַת as a noun, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” would draw attention to the abstract thing, knowledge, as though the fruit of the tree is that knowledge. Treating it as an infinitive focuses instead on the action of knowing, of knowing good and evil.

The verbal root for “knowing,” beyond simple awareness, can mean discovering or experiencing (see the lexicons). The tree is connected with the act of discovering or experiencing. Since the action only begins with the eating from the tree, the infinitive suggests a coming to know, discovering.

The word pair “good and evil” is a figure of speech known as a merism, i.e., two words that are opposites combined to form the totality of one idea. They are the direct object of the infinitive. Putting this together, the phrase seems to refer to discovering the totality of that which is good and that which is evil.

This interpretation seems to be supported by the Septuagint. It renders the phrase with τὸ ξύλον τοῦ εἰδέναι γνωστὸν καλοῦ καὶ πονηροῦ (to xylon tou eidenai gnōston kalou kai ponērou), “the tree of the knowing knowledge of good and evil.” (Incidentally, note the double translation of דַּעַת with two different words for knowing: τοῦ εἰδέναι, an infinitive with the article, and γνωστὸν, a noun.)

The Essence of the Sin

So why was it wrong for Adam and Eve to eat from the tree? It is not that the fruit from the tree is knowledge. It is not that this “knowing good and evil” is intrinsically wicked; God himself knows “good and evil” (Gen 3:5, 22). Rather the violating of God’s law not to eat resulted in the action of discovering the totality of what is good and evil. Only God is able to have this complete knowledge and remain sinless. The serpent was not incorrect to say that eating from the tree would make the man and the woman like God in this knowing. However, mankind is not able to know the totality of good and evil without sinning. This is the deception by the serpent.

We humans are lost because by violating God’s law we gave up the innocence of knowing only what was good. The act of discovering evil was more than we could handle. Thanks to God, we can be redeemed by faith in the sacrifice of Christ and purified by the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Let us work with the Spirit by choosing to know only good things (Phil 4:8).

(Image:"Jericho - Hisham's Palace mosaic3” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)


lee-fieldsLee M. Fields writes about the biblical Hebrew language, exegesis, Hebrew translation, and related topics at Koinonia. A trained Hebrew scholar, his education includes a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College. He is the author of Hebrew for the Rest of Us (Zondervan, 2008) and An Anonymous Dialogue with a Jew (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012). He currently serves as Professor of Bible and Chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies at Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, NC.

Learn more about Lee’s innovative work in biblical languages and instruction.

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