Welcome to part two in our series on reading the books of wisdom literature in the Bible.
In part one (0-19:15), Tim and Jon quickly review the last episode. Tim says the entire scriptural canon is to be viewed as “wisdom literature,” but the books that specifically connected to Solomon, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Job, are considered to be the classic wisdom books. The guys then dive into examining the trees in the garden of Eden. Specifically the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Tim notes that the Hebrew word ra doesn’t necessarily imply “evil;” it only means “bad.” Tim shares some other examples of the Hebrew word ra in the Bible.
Good/Bad condition or quality:
Jeremiah 24:1-2 the Lord showed me two baskets of figs placed in front of the temple of the Lord. One basket had very tov figs, like those that ripen early; the other basket had very ra’ figs, so ra’ they could not be eaten.
Proverbs 25:19 A ra’ tooth and an unsteady foot, is confidence in a faithless man in time of trouble.
Pleasant/unpleasant, beneficial/harmful: 1 Kings 5:4 But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side, and there is no enemy or ra’.
Judges 16:25 It so happened when they were tov of heart, that they said, “Call for Samson, that he may amuse us.” So they called for Samson from the prison, and he entertained them. And they made him stand between the pillars.
Ecclesiastes 2:16-17 For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die! So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was ra’ to me.
Tim’s point is that to use the English word “evil” loads in too many ideas about moral issues between good and evil. Because of this, a more accurate translation would be “the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.”
In part two (19:15-30:00), Tim notes that Adam and Eve are depicted as being in their moral infancy in the garden. They don’t know what is right and wrong. They need God to teach them how to be wise and how to choose what is right from wrong. Here are some other passages that use the Hebrew phrase “tov and ra’” or “good and bad” to illustrate this moral infancy in the Bible.
“Knowing tov and ra’” is a sign of maturity. The phrase appears elsewhere to describe children.
Deuteronomy 1:39 “...your little ones... and your sons, who today do not know good or evil, shall enter there, and I will give it to them and they shall possess it.
1 Kings 3:7-9 “Now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, yet I am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. So give your servant a heart that listens, to judge your people, to discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of yours?”
Isaiah 7:15-16 “[Immanuel] will eat curds and honey at the time he knows to refuse evil and choose good. For before the boy will know to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.
The narrative in Genesis 1-2 has shown that God knows what is “pleasant/beneficial,” and he will provide tov (the woman) when something is not tov (man being alone), that is, ra’. So the tree represents a choice: Will they live with God, allowing him to know/define tov and ra’? Presumably they need this knowledge as they mature, but the question is who will teach it to them? Will they learn from watching God’s knowledge at work? Adam and Eve are portrayed as “children.” The tree of knowing tov and ra’ represents two options or modes for how to know and experience tov and ra’: Will they “take” this knowledge for themselves, so that they “become like elohim,” knowing what is tov and ra’? Or instead, will they allow God to teach them wisdom? The gift of God to the man and woman became the means of the downfall.
Instead of waiting for God to teach them “knowing good and bad,” they chose to take it for themselves, in their own time and way.
Genesis 3:6 When the woman saw that the tree [of knowing good and bad] was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise (Heb. śekel), she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.
“Wisdom” = śekel (להשכיל)
“śekel refers to a kind of wisdom. Its core meaning is “insight,” the ability to grasp the meanings or implications of a situation or message. Śekel is consequently discernment or prudence, the ability to understand practical matters and interpersonal relations and make beneficial decisions. It later comes to include intellectual understanding and unusual expertise.” (Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 1–9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 18A, Anchor Yale Bible [New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008], 36.)
In part three (30:00-39:45), Tim and Jon discuss the fallout of Adam and Eve’s decision to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. When God holds “trial” with Adam and Eve, their response is to “fear” Yahweh, but in a way that drive them away from him.
Genesis 3:8-10 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.”
Then they blame each other: man and woman, united in their rebellion and divided by the fallout.
Genesis 3:16 “Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you.”
This is the opposite of the ideal vision in Genesis 1:26-28 where man and woman rule together. The two are no longer one, but rather two, trying to gain leverage over one another.
In part fouor (39:45-end), the guys discuss how God acts mercifully after Adam and Eve eat of the tree. Tim then starts to look forward to the stories of Solomon and how it hyperlinks back to the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.
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Show Resources: Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 1–9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 18A, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 36.
Show Music: • Defender Instrumental • The Size of Sin by Beautiful Eulogy • Come Alive by Beautiful Eulogy • The Size of Grace by Beautiful Eulogy
Show Produced by: Dan Gummel, Jon Collins
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Speakers in the audio file:
Jon: Hey, this is Jon at The Bible Project and today on the podcast we're going to continue a conversation on how to read the wisdom books in the Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and Job. And like we tend to do, we first are spending a lot of time in Genesis 1 through 3.
Tim: Genesis 1 through 3 is crucial for grasping why the books of Solomon are what they are.
Jon: In the garden are two trees. The tree of life, which God wants us to eat of and also the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which if we eat of, we will die. Today we're going to talk about that second tree. And Tim points out that calling it the tree of good and evil is problematic.
Tim: The word "evil" in English is pretty much narrowly connected to moral evil or essential evil. The Hebrew word "ra’" is not. Evil loads in too much cosmic moral meaning.
Jon: If you look at other places in the Hebrew Scriptures where that phrase "the knowledge of good and bad" or in Hebrew "the knowledge of tov and ra’," you'll notice this phrase...
Tim: ...is a way of talking about a mature adult human with discernment between good and bad. In other words, Adam and Eve are depicted as being in their moral infancy.
Jon: So eating of the tree isn't just about whether we will choose evil. It's about how we're going to learn wisdom so that we can rule the world with God, because...
Tim: ...he's called the child to rule. So the tree represents a choice about two different ways of learning what is tov and ra’. I can take it for myself because it's good in my eyes - that's what's going to happen - or hands-off, I will allow God in His own time to give me the knowledge of tov and ra.
Jon: All that and more on today's episode. Thanks for joining us. Here we go.
All right, we're going to continue our conversation about the books in the Bible that we're calling the wisdom literature, which I just learned from you is a modern construct. But there's something about these books as they're related to wisdom and to Solomon that it's important to understand that the entire the Hebrew Scriptures is intended for us to find wisdom.
Tim: And it's actually called the wisdom literature within the Hebrew Bible itself.
Jon: Psalm 119.
Tim: Yeah, Psalm 19, the whole Hebrew Bible is wisdom literature.
Jon: And this is so crucially important because the whole setup to the story of the Bible is humans trying to decide how they're going to get wisdom.
Tim: Human's on a quest for wisdom. God as the provider and definer of what is good, and then humans are given a responsibility that also requires them to have wisdom
about good and evil. The question is, what kind of wisdom and what's the baseline of that wisdom, and how will they get it? That's the drama.
Jon: But we need wisdom.
Tim: We need wisdom.
Jon: And not just because our lives will be better but because we have this calling to rule with God.
Tim: That's right.
Jon: And how are you going to do that?
Tim: Humans are given the responsibility to bear God's image and to rule it, steward to creation on the creator's behalf that requires decision making. And to make decisions, you need wisdom - how to evaluate and weigh factors on the other side of a decision. But the question is, what's your baseline? What are the different metaphors? What's your true north on your compass? What defines true wisdom? And how do you attain that wisdom?
Jon: I think a lot of people will want a guidebook or a set of rules. That's kind of the cleanest way to know what to do between good and bad. In a way, in the story of the Bible, God does give a bunch of laws/rules to people. And so it's kind of easy to start thinking like, "Okay, well, then that's how you get wisdom is you just find the divine rulebook and adhere to it with your own grit."
Tim: What this narrative is going to put in front of us is that even when humans get very specific rules and directives from God Himself, they still prove themselves unable to live by true wisdom. Because it's not just following a rule. The deeper set of issues are my motives and long term habits and character formation. You know, you can obey rules out of really bad motives?
Jon: Wouldn't it be amazing if you had like an app where like at any given moment you can just open it up and it tells you the next right thing to do?
Tim: That sounds terrible.
Jon: It is a bit of a dystopia.
Tim: That is a little bit what my phone does for me. It just doesn't for things that I don't care about. I've given it the responsibility to tell me where to go.
Jon: Like maps.
Tim: Like maps.
Jon: You don't think about where to turn anymore. You let the computer algorithms decide that for you.
Tim: That's right. I made a decision that I'm going to focus on other decisions that I'm given over directional guidance to a computer in my pocket.
Jon: This is a tangent, but as machine learning gets more and more advanced, we will offload more and more decisions that we don't want to make.
Tim: That's right.
Jon: I think we've talked about this before.
Tim: We have. But who decides what can be decided by an algorithm and what should be decided by a human who we would say has moral capacities?
Jon: Obviously, if God designed an algorithm.
Tim: Oh, understand. Yeah, I got it. But that's the whole point is that God wants humans to mature and grow into divine like wisdom so that their will and decisions imitate ultimate goodness and wisdom.
Jon: He doesn't want us just checking things off lists.
Tim: No. This is partners, true partners so that our wills are aligned. You don't have to be me and I don't have to be you. We can exist as to others in the world whose wills are aligned. But yet, I haven't assimilated you into me. We can have a unified will, that moves the world forward but both exist in our uniqueness and otherness. That's the depiction of God's will, and designed for the world on page one.
And then that's imitated by the human that the humans are one species, Adam, humanity, but yet they are also consist of others. The two are one but also more than one. And then that explored the imagery of male and female and in Genesis 2. The two who become one. That's a whole other thing. But it's connected with God wants humans to become wise and to rule the world well on His behalf, to create more of the garden that he first provided.
Jon: And that's the image of eating from the tree of life?
Jon: I kind of imagine it's like you take one bite and you're set? you're like, "I got the magic tree of life apple in my belly and now I can live forever."
Tim: Well, to be in the garden in God's presence, ruling with Him forever, eating from the tree of life, that's like one package image. But that is a fragile condition. It can be compromised. It can be lost. Even just on one choice, it can all go terribly wrong. And who doesn't know? That's life, man. That's life. The Eden story is very much trying to connect and be in tune with the way that we experience life.
Jon: Which makes it so difficult to imagine what new creation really could be like. Tim: Yeah, totally. Sure. Sure.
Jon: Because of the fragility, like you just mentioned, how easy would it be to screw things up? And how can creation get to a place where we stop doing that?
Tim: Well, but if you have creatures who have become one with their creator so that his life presence inhabits them...
Jon: The Borg.
Tim: No, Borg is different. The Borg is everything gets assimilated into the one. That's what we're just talking about. But the biblical vision is now a universe of others, but that are one through love for one another. Now we're talking the biblical storyline. And love doesn't erase the identity of the other, it allows them to exist in their uniqueness. But it also acts in a way that will sacrificially find a way so that our wills can be unified in mutual honor. Now we're talking. That's wisdom. Wisdom is finding that way.
So in the Garden of Eden, this Eden state is fragile. That's the whole point of how it starts. Because God gives humans a choice. He puts them in this garden, loaded with goodness that God's provided by his wisdom. You have the two who are one there. Humans aren't making powerplays on each other. They're both ruling like kings and queens. They're naked. They're vulnerable. Everything is known, nothing is hidden, no one is hiding. Everything's open and everything is received in love. I mean, it's Eden, right?
Jon: Yeah. And at the same time, they're exploring and they are building and creating.
Jon: It's easy for my mind to slip into just some sort of boring utopia.
Tim: Got it. But that's the environment where they care and work. Just what God told them to do in the garden - to care for it and working.
Jon: I still imagine there are surprises and disappointments and all these things. It's not like you never experienced something uncomfortable. It's just everyone is loving each other, and there's wisdom.
Tim: So part of that good setup is in Genesis 2:9. "Out of the ground, the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is good to the eyes, then good for food. The Tree of Life was also in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowing tov and ra’ - good and bad." First, the whole garden is full of goodness. That's Genesis 1.
Jon: A variety of goodness.
Tim: Variety of goodness. The tree of life is there. That's God's providing. Jon: The pinnacle of the goodness.
Tim: Yeah, that's right. But then the last thing to be mentioned it's kind of like the most dramatic thing. The tree of knowing good and ra’. This is the first time the word is used in the Bible. I've made significant development in how I talk about the word ra’
that I want to talk about with you. Because I think I found a great English word. Or at least I think. I think the English word "bad" actually does better in English what the Hebrew word ra’ does in Hebrew.
Jon: Bad. Good and bad.
Tim: Yeah, good and bad, which are also pairs in English. Jon: The tree of good and bad.
Tim: Yes. Dude, that's exactly right.
Jon: It sounds really silly right now but...
Tim: No, trust me, it will help us in spades.
Tim: The word "evil" in English is pretty much narrowly connected to moral evil or essential evil. The Hebrew word ra’ is not. Let's focus on "good." "Good" in English can mean moral goodness, like inherently good in a way that corresponds to a cosmic principle or goodness. But good is also we can ratchet it down a few levels to just mean pleasant or enjoyable.
Jon: It's got a wide range.
Tim: "That was a good milkshake." It's not cosmically right. You know, it's just like I enjoyed it. It brought me pleasure. It was beneficial. Well, milkshake is beneficial? That was a good smoothie with all my fruits and vegetables for today. So tov is the same. It can refer to moral goodness that corresponds to God's character and wisdom, or it can describe pleasant or beneficial. The same with ra’. "Ra’" can be used in a moral sense. The opposite of God's character.
Jon: What we would say evil.
Tim: What we would say evil. But ra’ can also mean unpleasant, harmful, or just...Here, let me show you some examples.
Jon: And you're saying in that situation, evil just is too much punch.
Tim: Evil loads in too much cosmic moral meaning. But our English word "bad" can refer to both. He's a bad person. That was a bad decision. It can mean morally bad.
Jon: Right. That was a bad burrito.
Tim: That was a bad burrito. Good and bad. This is perfect. Jon: Okay.
Tim: I'm on like let's start a movement the tree of knowing good and bad. It's worked perfect.
Jon: We've got a lot of history to undo then. We've been calling it the tree of good and evil...
Tim: Well, we can start with this video.
Jon: All right.
Tim: All right. Let me just show you some examples and you'll see what I mean - of the words tov and ra’ and how they work.
Tim: In Jeremiah 24, he has a dream. The prophet Jeremiah has a dream. He says, "The Lord showed me two baskets of figs. One basket had very tov figs. The other basket had ra’ figs. They were so ra’ that they could not be eaten."
Jon: They were morally bad figs. They're evil figs.
Tim: Yeah, right? Of course not evil figs. But they're bad. They're rotten. They taste bad, whatever. They're bad. Tov and ra’.
Jon: Tov and ra’.
Tim: Tov and ra’. Good and bad. There's a proverb about having ra’ tooth - a tooth that is ra’, meaning...
Jon: A ra’ tooth would be ra’.
Tim: ...meaning you can't bite with it. It's broken. It's cracked. It's ra’. So a cracked tooth can be called ra’ in Proverbs 25:19. Solomon, when he becomes king in a time of peace, he says, "God has given me rest on every side. There is no enemy and there is no ra’." It doesn't mean there's no evil.
Jon: No, it doesn't mean that?
Tim: There's no enemy. There's no ra’. There's nothing bad. There's no catastrophes. There are no famines. There are no bad guys out to get me. So, ra’, this means harmful situations.
Jon: Not beneficial.
Tim: Not beneficial. However, ra’ can be used to refer to moral evil. In Psalm 140, the poet says, "Rescue me, O Lord, from ra’ people. Preserve me from the violent man who devises ra’ in his heart." So that's evil.
Jon: So if a moral agent is ra’, then it becomes a moral issue. Tim: Oh, that's good. That's might be a helpful way.
Jon: Because a fig is not a moral agent.
Tim: If a person is ra’, they are evil. If a fig is ra’, it's just bad.
Jon: It's gone bad.
Tim: Yeah, it's gone bad.
Jon: Can a person be bad and not evil? If your body was broken in some way, you will be bad.
Tim: A ra’ person can do ra. And the doing of ra’ will refer to just a harmful act. Jon: A bad act.
Tim: An act that brings harm.
Jon: When we're there, I'm more comfortable using the word evil.
Tim: Okay. Okay. Then dude, check this out.
Tim: God does ra’. God says here in Jeremiah 18. "At one moment, I might speak concerning a nation or a kingdom to uproot it, to pull it down, to destroy it. If that nation against which I have spoken, if they turn from their ra’...
Jon: From their bad.
Tim: They're evil.
Jon: But they're evil.
Tim: They're evil.
Tim: "If they turn from their moral evil, I will relent concerning the ra’ that I plan to bring upon it."
Jon: So is God's ra’ evil?
Tim: So what is the ra’? To pull it down, to destroy it and uproot it. Catastrophe. A kingdom falling.
Jon: Which we would say is a bad thing.
Tim: It's bad for the people who are...
Jon: It's unbeneficial.
Tim: It's harmful. It's a catastrophe. So unpleasant, harmful, destructive. Jon: But not all destructive things are evil.
Tim: It is morally evil at least from the perspective of the biblical authors. From the perspective of Jeremiah, God spoke to do ra’ to Jerusalem. How? By allowing Babylon to come to...
Jon: I understand that like it's not always evil to destroy something.
Tim: Yeah, that's right. To do something that someone might experience as ra’ might from another person's perspective be the exact right thing to do or the good thing to do.
Tim: And so these are the passages where God does ra’. Oh, when King Saul disqualifies himself to be the king of Israel, the narrator says God sent a ra’ spirit to torment Saul.
Jon: That's right. That's usually translated evil spirit. It should be a harmful...Basically, he starts to go mad. He starts to go mad from his power complex. And he's so jealous to guard his own seat of power from any rivals he starts to go mad.
Jon: Going mad from a power complex is a bad spirit.
Tim: Is a ra’ spirit. Yeah, that's right. It's usually gets translated "God sent an evil spirit." How many times someone's read that and they come to me in crisis? Like, "What God does...
Jon: ...sends evil spirits? Because they're imagining like a demon at that point.
Tim: But it is a portrait of God that we have to reckon with in the Bible, that He will allow or do ra’ - bring about what is destructive for people who do ra’. For evil people, God will deal with them by doing ra’. By bringing them down.
Jon: The Knowledge of Good and bad is not just they only do good, because there might be situations where you need to do something that tears something down or is to some people feels bad.
Tim: That's the first step. First step is what tov and ra’ are. Good and bad. Second step, the phrase knowing tov and ra’.
Jon: Yeah, knowing it.
Tim: This phrase appears four times in the Hebrew Bible. One of them is the tree. Here's the other three. Deuteronomy 1, Moses says, "Your children, your little ones, your sons who today do not know tov and ra’ are going to go into the land." So knowing tov and ra’ is a way of talking about a mature adult human with discernment between good and bad.
1 Kings 3, Solomon says, "I am but a little child. I don't know how to rule these people or how to discern between tov and ra’." That's why he asked God for wisdom. Then in Isaiah 7, the child will eat curds and honey around the time that he
knows to refuse ra’ and choose tov, for the boy will know to refuse ra’ and choose tov at a certain age. In all three cases, it describes children who are yet to mature unto a knowledge of tov and ra’.
Jon: Solomon wasn't a child.
Tim: That's right. In two, its actual children. In one, it's an adult who's confessing that he's....
Jon: He's like a kid.
Tim: ...like a child. So what does it mean to have the first humans, right? They're the humans in the garden...
Jon: The baby human.
Tim: ...and they've just been given great responsibility to rule.
Jon: They are in their infancy.
Tim: They're depicted as children who are yet to mature.
Jon: It's so funny, I always picture Adam and Eve like in their 30s or 40s. But also had this picture of them at 14 or something.
Tim: That's funny.
Jon: Right? It's like, "Whoa."
Tim: Well, I don't think this is about their age.
Tim: All right. Yeah. Yeah.
Jon: I'm just saying like...
Tim: That is the assumptions built in the depictions of Adam and Eve. It's true. Jon: It's true.
Tim: I mean, most of Western art history, they're white Europeans. In other words, Adam and Eve are depicted as being in their moral infancy. Of course, if they're going to rule the world, they're going to have to have wisdom. So what the tree represents is not whether or not they're going to gain knowledge of tov and ra. They have to have that. They must have it.
Jon: We've talked about that. But we've talked about it in terms of just an assumption of like they're going to rule. But you're actually bringing even more of a case saying, "Look at how this phrase is used. It's used about growing into a moral aptitude. "