Genesis 2:17
But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
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Genesis 2:17. Of the tree of knowledge thou shalt not eat — Hitherto God has been manifested as man’s powerful Creator and bountiful Benefactor: now he appears as his Ruler and Lawgiver, and, as such, enters into covenant with him. He gives him but one positive precept, to try his obedience, which, as his Sovereign Lord, he had a right to do, annexing death to the breach, and, of consequence, life and immortality to the observance of it. It is evident, however, that this was not all God required of man, but that a law was written on his heart, requiring him to love God to the utmost extent of his capacity, and to imitate him in all holiness and righteousness. Thou shalt surely die — The death here threatened is evidently to be considered as opposed to the life (or lives rather, Genesis 2:7) which God had bestowed on him. This was not only the natural life of his body, in its union with his soul, but the spiritual life of his soul, in its union with God, and the eternal life of both. The threatening then implies: Thou shalt not only lose all the happiness thou hast, either in possession or prospect, and become liable to the death of thy body, and all the miseries which precede and accompany it; but thou shalt lose thy spiritual life, and become dead to God and things divine, and shalt even forfeit thy title to immortality, and be liable to death eternal. And all this in the day thou eatest thereof.

2:16,17 Let us never set up our own will against the holy will of God. There was not only liberty allowed to man, in taking the fruits of paradise, but everlasting life made sure to him upon his obedience. There was a trial appointed of his obedience. By transgression he would forfeit his Maker's favour, and deserve his displeasure, with all its awful effects; so that he would become liable to pain, disease, and death. Worse than that, he would lose the holy image of God, and all the comfort of his favour; and feel the torment of sinful passions, and the terror of his Maker's vengeance, which must endure for ever with his never dying soul. The forbidding to eat of the fruit of a particular tree was wisely suited to the state of our first parents. In their state of innocence, and separated from any others, what opportunity or what temptation had they to break any of the ten commandments? The event proves that the whole human race were concerned in the trial and fall of our first parents. To argue against these things is to strive against stubborn facts, as well as Divine revelation; for man is sinful, and shows by his first actions, and his conduct ever afterwards, that he is ready to do evil. He is under the Divine displeasure, exposed to sufferings and death. The Scriptures always speak of man as of this sinful character, and in this miserable state; and these things are true of men in all ages, and of all nations.And the Lord God commanded the man, saying. - This is a pregnant sentence. It involves the first principles of our intellectual and moral philosophy.

I. The command here given in words brings into activity the intellectual nature of man. First, the power of understanding language is called forth. The command here addressed to him by his Maker is totally different from the blessings addressed to the animals in the preceding chapter. It was not necessary that these blessings should be understood in order to be carried into effect, inasmuch as He who pronounced them gave the instincts and powers requisite to their accomplishment. But this command addressed to man in words must be understood in order to be obeyed. The capacity for understanding language, then, was originally lodged in the constitution of man, and only required to be called out by the articulate voice of God. Still there is something wonderful here, something beyond the present grasp and promptitude of human apprehension. If we except the blessing, which may not have been heard, or may not have been uttered before this command, these words were absolutely the first that were heard by man.

The significance of the sentences they formed must have been at the same time conveyed to man by immediate divine teaching. How the lesson was taught in an instant of time we cannot explain, though we have a distant resemblance of it in an infant learning to understand its mother-tongue. This process, indeed, goes over a space of two years; but still there is an instant in which the first conception of a sign is formed, the first word is apprehended, the first sentence is understood. In that instant the knowledge of language is virtually attained. With man, created at once in his full though undeveloped powers, and still unaffected by any moral taint, this instant came with the first words spoken to his ear and to his soul by his Maker's impressive voice, and the first lesson of language was at once thoroughly taught and learned. Man is now master of the theory of speech; the conception of a sign has been conveyed into his mind. This is the passive lesson of elocution: the practice, the active lesson, will speedily follow.

Not only the secondary part, however, but at the same time the primary and fundamental part of man's intellectual nature is here developed. The understanding of the sign necessarily implies the knowledge of the thing signified. The objective is represented here by the "trees of the garden." The subjective comes before his mind in the pronoun "thou." The physical constitution of man appears in the process of "eating." The moral part of his nature comes out in the significance of the words "mayest" and "shalt not." The distinction of merit in actions and things is expressed in the epithets "good and evil." The notion of reward is conveyed in the terms "life" and "death." And, lastly, the presence and authority of "the Lord God" is implied in the very nature of a command. Here is at least the opening of a wide field of observation for the nascent powers of the mind. He, indeed, must bear the image of God in perceptive powers, who shall scan with heedful eye the loftiest as well as the lowest in these varied scenes of reality. But as with the sign, so with the thing signified, a glance of intelligence instantaneously begins the converse of the susceptible mind with the world of reality around, and the enlargement of the sphere of human knowledge is merely a matter of time without end. How rapidly the process of apprehension would go on in the opening dawn of man's intellectual activity, how many flashes of intelligence would be compressed into a few moments of his first consciousness, we cannot tell. But we can readily believe that he would soon be able to form a just yet an infantile conception of the varied themes which are presented to his mind in this brief command.

Thus, the susceptible part of man's intellect is evoked. The conceptive part will speedily follow, and display itself in the many inventions that will be sought out and applied to the objects which are placed at his disposal.

II. First. Next, the moral part of man's nature is here called into play. Mark God's mode of teaching. He issues a command. This is required in order to bring forth into consciousness the hitherto latent sensibility to moral obligation which was laid in the original constitution of man's being. A command implies a superior, whose right it is to command, and an inferior, whose duty it is to obey. The only ultimate and absolute ground of supremacy is creating, and of inferiority, being created. The Creator is the only proper and entire owner; and, within legitimate bounds, the owner has the right to do what he will with his own. The laying on of this command, therefore, brings man to the recognition of his dependence for being and for the character of that being on his Maker. From the knowledge of the fundamental relation of the creature to the Creator springs an immediate sense of the obligation he is under to render implicit obedience to the Author of his being. This is, therefore, man's first lesson in morals. It calls up in his breast the sense of duty, of right, of responsibility. These feelings could not have been elicited unless the moral susceptibility had been laid in the soul, and only waited for the first command to awaken it into consciousness. This lesson, however, is only the incidental effect of the command, and not the primary ground of its imposition.

Second. The special mandate here given is not arbitrary in its form, as is sometimes hastily supposed, but absolutely essential to the legal adjustment of things in this new stage of creation. Antecedent to the behest of the Creator, the only indefeasible right to all the creatures lay in himself. These creatures may be related to one another. In the great system of things, through the wonderful wisdom of the grand Designer, the use of some may be needful to the well-being, the development, and perpetuation of others. Nevertheless, no one has a shadow of right in the original nature of things to the use of any other. And when a moral agent comes upon the stage of being, in order to mark out the sphere of his legitimate action, an explicit declaration of the rights over other creatures granted and reserved must be made. The very issue of the command proclaims man's original right of property to be, not inherent, but derived.

As might be expected in these circumstances, the command has two clauses, - a permissive and a prohibitive. "Of every tree of the garden thou mayst freely eat." This displays in conspicuous terms the benignity of the Creator. "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil thou shalt not eat." This signalizes the absolute right of the Creator over all the trees, and over man himself. One tree only is withheld, which, whatever were its qualities, was at all events not necessary to the well-being of man. All the others that were likely for sight and good for food, including the tree of life, are made over to him by free grant. In this original provision for the vested rights of man in creation, we cannot but acknowledge with gratitude and humility the generous and considerate bounty of the Creator. This is not more conspicuous in the bestowment of all the other trees than in the withholding of the one, the participation of which was fraught with evil to mankind.

Third. The prohibitory part of this enactment is not a matter of indifference, as is sometimes imagined, but indispensable to the nature of a command, and, in particular, of a permissive act or declaration of granted rights. Every command has a negative part, expressed or implied, without which it would be no command at all. The command, "Go work today in my vineyard," implies thou shalt not do anything else; otherwise the son who works not obeys as well as the son who works. The present address of God to Adam, without the exceptive clause, would be a mere license, and not a command. But with the exceptive clause it is a command, and tantamount in meaning to the following positive injunction: Thou mayest eat of these trees only. An edict of license with a restrictive clause is the mildest form of command that could have been imposed for the trial of human obedience. Some may have thought that it would have been better for man if there had been no tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

But second thoughts will correct this rash and wrong conclusion. First. This tree may have had other purposes to serve in the economy of things of which we are not aware; and, if so, it could not have been absent without detriment to the general good. Second. But without any supposition at all, the tree was fraught with no evil whatever to man in itself. It was in the first instance the instrument of great good, of the most precious kind, to him. It served the purpose of calling up into view out of the depths of his nature the notion of moral obligation, with all the kindred notions of the inherent authority of the Creator and the innate subordination of himself, the creature, of the aboriginal right of the Creator alone in all the creatures, and the utter absence of any right in himself to any other creature whatsoever. The command concerning this tree thus set his moral convictions agoing, and awakened in him the new and pleasing consciousness that he was a moral being, and not a mere clod of the valley or brute of the field.

This is the first thing this tree did for man; and we shall find it would have done a still better thing for him if he had only made a proper use of it. Third. The absence of this tree would not at all have secured Adam from the possibility or the consequence of disobedience. Any grant to him whatsoever must have been made "with the reserve," implicit or explicit, of the rights of all others. "The thing reserved" must in equity have been made known to him. In the present course of things it must have come in his way, and his trial would have been inevitable, and therefore his fall possible. Now, the forbidden tree is merely the thing reserved. Besides, even if man had been introduced into a sphere of existence where no reserved tree or other thing could ever have come within the range of his observation, and so no outward act of disobedience could have been perpetrated, still, as a being of moral susceptibility, he must come to the acknowledgment, express or implied, of the rights of the heavenly crown, before a mutual good understanding could have been established between him and his Maker. Thus, we perceive that even in the impossible Utopia of metaphysical abstraction there is a virtual forbidden tree which forms the test of a man's moral relation to his Creator. Now, if the reserve be necessary, and therefore the test of obedience inevitable, to a moral being, it only remains to inquire whether the test employed be suitable and seasonable.

Fourth. What is here made the matter of reserve, and so the test of obedience, is so far from being trivial or out of place, as has been imagined, that it is the proper and the only object immediately available for these purposes. The immediate need of man is food. The kind of food primarily designed for him is the fruit of trees. Grain, the secondary kind of vegetable diet, is the product of the farm rather than of the garden, and therefore does not now come into use. As the law must be laid down before man proceeds to an act of appropriation, the matter of reserve and consequent test of obedience is the fruit of a tree. Only by this can man at present learn the lessons of morality. To devise any other means, not arising from the actual state of things in which man was placed, would have been arbitrary and unreasonable. The immediate sphere of obedience lies in the circumstances in which he actually stands. These afforded no occasion for any other command than what is given. Adam had no father, or mother, or neighbor, male or female, and therefore the second table of the law could not apply. But he had a relation to his Maker, and legislation on this could not be postponed. The command assumes the kindest, most intelligible, and convenient form for the infantile mind of primeval man.

Fifth. We are now prepared to understand why this tree is called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The prohibition of this tree brings man to the knowledge of good and evil. The products of creative power were all very good Genesis 1:31. Even this tree itself is good, and productive of unspeakable good in the first instance to man. The discernment of merit comes up in his mind by this tree. Obedience to the command of God not to partake of this tree is a moral good. Disobedience to God by partaking of it is a moral evil. When we have formed an idea of a quality, we have at the same time an idea of its contrary. By the command concerning this tree man became possessed of the conceptions of good and evil, and so, theoretically, acquainted with their nature. This was that first lesson in morals of which we have spoken. It is quite evident that this knowledge could not be any physical effect of the tree, seeing its fruit was forbidden. It is obvious also that evil is as yet known in this fair world only as the negative of good. Hence, the tree is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because by the command concerning it man comes to this knowledge.

Sixth. "In the day of thy eating thereof, die surely shalt thou." The divine command is accompanied with its awful sanction - death. The man could not at this time have any practical knowledge of the physical dissolution called death. We must, therefore, suppose either that God made him preternaturally acquainted with it, or that he conveyed to him the knowledge of it simply as the negation of life. The latter hypothesis is to be preferred, for several reasons. First, it is the more economical mode of instruction. Such knowledge may be imparted to man without anticipating experience. He was already conscious of life as a pure blessing. He was therefore capable of forming an idea of its loss. And death in the physical sense of the cessation of animal life and the disorganization of the body, he would come to understand in due time by experience. Secondly, death in reference to man is regarded in Scripture much more as the privation of life in the sense of a state of favor with God and consequent happiness than as the mere cessation of animal life Genesis 28:13; Exodus 3:6; Matthew 22:32. Thirdly, the presence and privilege of the tree of life would enable man to see how easily he could be deprived of life, especially when he began to drink in its life-sustaining juices and feel the flow of vitality rushing through his veins and refreshing his whole physical nature. Take away this tree, and with all the other resources of nature he cannot but eventually droop and die. Fourthly, the man would thus regard his exclusion from the tree of life as the earnest of the sentence which would come to its fullness, when the animal frame would at length sink down under the wear and tear of life like the beasts that perish. Then would ensue to the dead but perpetually existing soul of man the total privation of all the sweets of life, and the experience of all the ills of penal death.


17. thou shalt not eat of it … thou shalt surely die—no reason assigned for the prohibition, but death was to be the punishment of disobedience. A positive command like this was not only the simplest and easiest, but the only trial to which their fidelity could be exposed. With a threefold death.

1. Spiritual, by the guilt and power of sin: at that instant thou shalt be dead in trespasses and sins, Ephesians 2:1.

2. Temporal, or the death of the body, which shall then begin in thee, by decays, infirmities, terrors, dangers, and other harbingers of death.

3. Eternal, which shall immediately succeed the other.

But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil,.... Of the name of this tree, and the reasons of it; see Gill on Genesis 2:9.

thou shalt not eat of it; not that this tree had any efficacy in it to increase knowledge, and improve in science and understanding, as Satan suggested God knew; and therefore forbid the eating of it out of envy to man, which the divine Being is capable of; or that there was anything hurtful in it to the bodies of men, if they had eaten of it; or that it was unlawful and evil of itself, if it had not been expressly prohibited: but it was, previous to this injunction, a quite indifferent thing whether man ate of it or not; and therefore was pitched upon as a trial of man's obedience to God, under whose government he was, and whom it was fit he should obey in all things; and since he had a grant of all the trees of the garden but this, it was the greater aggravation of his offence that he should not abstain from it:

for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die; or "in dying, die" (z); which denotes the certainty of it, as our version expresses it; and may have regard to more deaths than one; not only a corporeal one, which in some sense immediately took place, man became at once a mortal creature, who otherwise continuing in a state of innocence, and by eating of the tree of life, he was allowed to do, would have lived an immortal life; of the eating of which tree, by sinning he was debarred, his natural life not now to be continued long, at least not for ever; he was immediately arraigned, tried, and condemned to death, was found guilty of it, and became obnoxious to it, and death at once began to work in him; sin sowed the seeds of it in his body, and a train of miseries, afflictions, and diseases, began to appear, which at length issued in death. Moreover, a spiritual or moral death immediately ensued; he lost his original righteousness, in which he was created; the image of God in him was deformed; the powers and faculties of his soul were corrupted, and he became dead in sins and trespasses; the consequence of which, had it not been for the interposition of a surety and Saviour, who engaged to make satisfaction to law and justice, must have been eternal death, or an everlasting separation from God, to him and all his posterity; for the wages of sin is death, even death eternal, Romans 6:23. So the Jews (a) interpret this of death, both in this world and in the world to come.

(z) Pagninus, Montanus, &c. (a) Tikkune Zohar, correct. 24. fol. 68. 1. correct. 54. fol. 90. 2. correct. 66. fol. 100. 1.

But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely {m} die.

(m) By death he means the separation of man from God, who is our life and chief happiness: and also that our disobedience is the cause of it.

17. of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] See above, on Genesis 2:9. Here only one tree is mentioned, as in Genesis 3:3; and it seems not unlikely that the mention of “the tree of life” did not belong to the main original version of the story, but was derived from a separate source.

thou shalt not eat of it] In this prohibition man is apprised of another element in the discipline to which he is subjected in the garden of the Lord God. In Genesis 2:15 it is his physical and intellectual powers which are to be exercised: in this verse he receives warning of a moral discipline. His moral being is to be tested by a simple injunction for which no reason is assigned. No hardship is imposed: but a limitation to self-gratification is required. He who makes the requisition has given freely the enjoyment of everything beside. Man’s character is to be tested in the simplest manner. Will he shew obedience to the Divine will and trust in the Divine goodness?

in the day that … die] Literally, in the day that Adam ate of the fruit, he did not die. This is one of the minor inconsistencies in the story which are not explained for us. Either we are to assume that, in some fuller version of it, the Lord God was described as “repenting” of the sentence of immediate death, as changing His mind and sparing man in His mercy: or the words “in the day, &c.” are to be regarded as metaphorical, and the doom, “thou shalt surely die,” merely means “thou shalt become mortal.”

We must not infer from this verse that the Lord God was considered, to have made man other than mortal. It is clear from Genesis 3:22, that man was created a mortal being. Perhaps, in one version of the story, he was intended to eat of the tree of life “and live for ever.”

Genesis 2:17After the preparation of the garden in Eden God placed the man there, to dress it and to keep it. ינּיחהוּ not merely expresses removal thither, but the fact that the man was placed there to lead a life of repose, not indeed in inactivity, but in fulfilment of the course assigned him, which was very different from the trouble and restlessness of the weary toil into which he was plunged by sin. In paradise he was to dress (colere) the garden; for the earth was meant to be tended and cultivated by man, so that without human culture, plants and even the different varieties of corn degenerate and grow wild. Cultivation therefore preserved (שׁמר to keep) the divine plantation, not merely from injury on the part of any evil power, either penetrating into, or already existing in the creation, but also from running wild through natural degeneracy. As nature was created for man, it was his vocation not only to ennoble it by his work, to make it subservient to himself, but also to raise it into the sphere of the spirit and further its glorification. This applied not merely to the soil beyond the limits of paradise, but to the garden itself, which, although the most perfect portion of the terrestrial creation, was nevertheless susceptible of development, and which was allotted to man, in order that by his care and culture he might make it into a transparent mirror of the glory of the Creator. - Here too the man was to commence his own spiritual development. To this end God had planted two trees in the midst of the garden of Eden; the one to train his spirit through the exercise of obedience to the word of God, the other to transform his earthly nature into the spiritual essence of eternal life. These trees received their names from their relation to man, that is to say, from the effect which the eating of their fruit was destined to produce upon human life and its development. The fruit of the tree of life conferred the power of eternal, immortal life; and the tree of knowledge was planted, to lead men to the knowledge of good and evil. The knowledge of good and evil was no mere experience of good and ill, but a moral element in that spiritual development, through which the man created in the image of God was to attain to the filling out of that nature, which had already been planned in the likeness of God. For not to know what good and evil are, is a sign of either the immaturity of infancy (Deuteronomy 1:39), or the imbecility of age (2 Samuel 19:35); whereas the power to distinguish good and evil is commended as the gift of a king (1 Kings 3:9) and the wisdom of angels (2 Samuel 14:17), and in the highest sense is ascribed to God Himself (Genesis 3:5, Genesis 3:22). Why then did God prohibit man from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, with the threat that, as soon as he ate thereof, he would surely die? (The inf. abs. before the finite verb intensifies the latter: vid., Ewald, 312a). Are we to regard the tree as poisonous, and suppose that some fatal property resided in the fruit? A supposition which so completely ignores the ethical nature of sin is neither warranted by the antithesis, nor by what is said in Genesis 3:22 of the tree of life, nor by the fact that the eating of the forbidden fruit was actually the cause of death. Even in the case of the tree of life, the power is not to be sought in the physical character of the fruit. No earthly fruit possesses the power to give immortality to the life which it helps to sustain. Life is not rooted in man's corporeal nature; it was in his spiritual nature that it had its origin, and from this it derives its stability and permanence also. It may, indeed, be brought to an end through the destruction of the body; but it cannot be exalted to perpetual duration, i.e., to immortality, through its preservation and sustenance. And this applies quite as much to the original nature of man, as to man after the fall. A body formed from earthly materials could not be essentially immortal: it would of necessity either be turned to earth, and fall into dust again, or be transformed by the spirit into the immortality of the soul. The power which transforms corporeality into immortality is spiritual in its nature, and could only be imparted to the earthly tree or its fruit through the word of God, through a special operation of the Spirit of God, an operation which we can only picture to ourselves as sacramental in its character, rendering earthly elements the receptacles and vehicles of celestial powers. God had given such a sacramental nature and significance to the two trees in the midst of the garden, that their fruit could and would produce supersensual, mental, and spiritual effects upon the nature of the first human pair. The tree of life was to impart the power of transformation into eternal life. The tree of knowledge was to lead man to the knowledge of good and evil; and, according to the divine intention, this was to be attained through his not eating of its fruit. This end was to be accomplished, not only by his discerning in the limit imposed by the prohibition the difference between that which accorded with the will of God and that which opposed it, but also by his coming eventually, through obedience to the prohibition, to recognise the fact that all that is opposed to the will of God is an evil to be avoided, and, through voluntary resistance to such evil, to the full development of the freedom of choice originally imparted to him into the actual freedom of a deliberate and self-conscious choice of good. By obedience to the divine will he would have attained to a godlike knowledge of good and evil, i.e., to one in accordance with his own likeness to God. He would have detected the evil in the approaching tempter; but instead of yielding to it, he would have resisted it, and thus have made good his own property acquired with consciousness and of his own free-will, and in this way by proper self-determination would gradually have advanced to the possession of the truest liberty. But as he failed to keep this divinely appointed way, and ate the forbidden fruit in opposition to the command of God, the power imparted by God to the fruit was manifested in a different way. He learned the difference between good and evil from his own guilty experience, and by receiving the evil into his own soul, fell a victim to the threatened death. Thus through his own fault the tree, which should have helped him to attain true freedom, brought nothing but the sham liberty of sin, and with it death, and that without any demoniacal power of destruction being conjured into the tree itself, or any fatal poison being hidden in its fruit.
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