The Knowledge of Good and Evil – The First Temptation

Since I wrote my last post on the topic of the Fear of the Lord, something’s been bugging me. In that post, there is one topic that I have left untouched and upon that very topic, I have based my reasoning. I have stated that, “You should obey the Lord, when you don’t know what is right and what is wrong.”. This statement assumes at least some knowledge about what is right and what is wrong. Where does this knowledge come from? This, I have not addressed.

How can I know what is good and what is evil? I will address that question later. But for now, let’s go back to genesis and look at that unfortunate event that sent the whole world into disarray. As Eve was walking in that blessed garden of Eden, she unintentionally wandered too close to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It wasn’t a significant event, as I’m sure that she would’ve waked past that tree countless times. But this time, something was different. She heard a serpent calling her. She responded. And the snake had one of the most intriguing proposition. As I read the words of this most preposterous utterance, I’m amazed that how can anyone tell so many lies in such a short sentence and still sound convincing?

But the serpent said to the woman, You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. (Gen 3:4-5)

With this simple statement, the devil accomplished two things.

  1. He sow the seeds of the very pride in the heart of humanity that had been the instrument of his own downfall.
  2. He laid the foundation of all the vanities of man that are based on lies.

Let me explain what these two things mean. The devil begins by saying that when God said that you will die, he was telling a lie. Actually, you won’t die. The reason God was telling a lie is because he is afraid. In fact, if you eat the fruit of this tree, you will become like him. He doesn’t want you to be like him. All powerful, all knowing. That’s why he has told you not to eat the fruit of the tree. That’s what the devil says to Eve.

Now if you take that statement and look at it under a microscope, you won’t find a single thread of truth in it. You will not surely die? A plain lie. (Although Eve did not immediately die, in the sense as we normally perceive death, that is a topic for another essay) Your eyes will be opened? Nonsense. My eyes are already open and I can see plenty fine, thank you. I will be like God? I’m already like God. He made me this way. You will know good and evil? I already know what is good. And why in the nine hells would I ever want to know evil?

If that’s so plain to see, then why couldn’t Eve see through the deception? Pride. It blinds you. If you begin to see, it binds you. The devil was playing with her pride as an independent sentient being. Independence and freedom. Two of the many invaluable gifts that her creator had bestowed upon her. And pride is a possible by-product of the mixture of these two. That pride once blinded the archangel Lucifer and led to his downfall into the infernal lake of fire. That same pride also blinded Adam and Eve from seeing the truth, which consequently corrupted a perfect world.

But that wasn’t the only thing that the devil accomplished. Leveraging on the opportunity of having sown the seeds of pride in the heart of humanity, the devil told a lie and made it look like a truth. The devil made the fruit of the tree of good and evil desirable when in fact it was the most useless fruit in the whole garden. The fruit certainly had a purpose as I have pointed out earlier, but it was not advantageous for humans to eat it. We all know that prior to eating that fruit, humans already understood what good and evil was. Even after knowing that they would be doing a bad thing, they did it. And that was the first sin. They did it because they believed a lie to be true. This lie sent them in the wild-goose chase of the knowledge of good and evil that will make them like God (forgetting that they are already like God) instead of only focusing on God. It was the very first instance of man’s pride getting better of him and believing a lie, they sinned rejecting the truth that they already knew.

The same thing continues to happen to this very day. All the lures and attractions of this world are lies. Partial truths made to look like the ultimate truths. Temporary pleasures decorated to look like eternal nirvana. Because the man believes that these things are true, he runs after it. Trying to grab hold of it. And as Solomon says in the book of Ecclesiastes, all these things are futile and like chasing after wind. A lie can never deliver what it promises. But the one who believes a lie, will go chasing after it; because for him, it is the truth. And truth is the only thing worth following. And thus, the man who does evil, only does it because somewhere is his outlook of the world, he has mistaken a lie for a truth. And to this day, these things keeps us in the tangled mess of evil and away from good.

Now that we’ve taken a closer look at what it was that caused us to sin in the first place, only now we can go about its undoing. If we are to avoid sin, if we are to regain the perfect knowledge of good that our race held at its very inception, we must see through that very first temptation. After truly seeing the temptations for what it is, in my opinion, we must focus on undoing the second accomplishment and deal with the first as we encounter it. Because without having the truth by your side, you will not know when pride deceives you.

The way to go about acquiring knowledge about good is to go to God. Because he is the source of every good and perfect thing. When we begin to reach out from the ashes of this fallen world to the eternal God enthroned in heaven, we must study his methods and his ways. To all who seek him, he reveals himself for he is the God who loved us first. I have found a book called the Bible. It contains his words. There is truth in it. It will cleanses the windows of your eyes that have been stained by the dirt of this world. The truth for a truth and a lie for a lie it makes plain to see. But this book has a singular purpose. It is not self contained, rather it points towards a person who claimed to be THE Truth. But, there’s more…

Soon, you will come at the crossroads of the cross. Upon that cross, hangs the lamb of God about whom a voice in the wilderness cries, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”. You may be a thief, a widow, a beggar or just a kid but to him it doesn’t matter who you are or what the world calls you. He loved you, and love is blind. When you encounter the cross for the first time, do not run away. It is not there to condemn you but it is the instrument of your salvation. The very pride that led us to sin in the early parts of genesis, will be laid to ruin by the sight of the cross. For when the devil sought to become the greatest of all, Christ became the lowest of all, the servant of all and he took up the cross on behalf of me and you. And as if it was not enough, he rose from the grave for love’s sake. He became the light of hope in a dark, cruel and unforgiving world. He is the truth. And his cross is the remedy for our pride. He will come to you when you call him. He will tell you what is good, when you ask him.

The Fear of the Lord

Proverbs 1:7: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. (ESV)

Interesting. Isn’t it? Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. It is one of those verses of the bible that is quoted so many times that we don’t even think about what it means. When I was in school and exams came, pastors and believers reminded me of this verse. Meaning, if you fear the Lord, you will pass your exams with good marks. I wonder if Solomon was thinking of our 21st century exams when he wrote that…

Is academical exams really the right context to this verse? Well, I’m really not gonna answer that… Figure it out for yourself! Although, I think you’ll know the answer by the end of this essay. But first, we’ll have to understand what the verse says. As you can see, only the first part of the verse is cryptic and the latter part is just descriptive. So, I’m going to focus on the first part only.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”

Let’s break it down. There are two different components in the sentence. First is, “Fear of the Lord” and second is “Beginning of knowledge”. I’d also like you to note that some translations say, “beginning of knowledge” and some translations say, “beginning of wisdom”.

You may ask, what’s so interesting about these two components? Well, I don’t know about you but they are plenty interesting to me. The reason is, when I was younger (and still), I wanted to become very wise. But, the verse made no sense whatsoever to me. Why? Because it makes no sense. How can the fear of the Lord be the beginning of wisdom? And, what exactly is this fear of the Lord? Am I to tremble in his presence?

Certainly, that can not be. Because somewhere else the bible tells about how this God loved me so much that he sent his only begotten son to take up the cross that was mine to bear. This son, Jesus, beyond the miracles he did and the dead he raised, brought hope into a hopeless world. Then, when time came, he carried the cross of my shame upon his shoulders and died for my sin. Are you telling me that this is the God that I should fear? How can I fear him who loves me so much?

This was the reasoning of my childhood that made the verse so cryptic. If I can not fear God then I wouldn’t be wise. If I do fear God, it wouldn’t be fair. Since, would God, after going through all of that want me to be afraid of him? If not, what does the verse mean?

Well, the key to this puzzle of fear and love lies in the second part of the verse. ESV translation says, “Beginning of knowledge”. NET translation is a little more elaborate and says, “Beginning of moral knowledge”. And then there are some other translations that uses the word “wisdom”. So, I think some definitions are in order.

I don’t know if there are any official definitions of knowledge and wisdom, but I think the general idea is knowledge is the things that you know and wisdom is the application of that knowledge in the right way. In the verse “beginning of knowledge” is too general. Plus, taken literally it can’t be true because from the day you are born you start gaining knowledge. Doesn’t matter if you fear the Lord or not. So, it must mean something more specific than general knowledge. And we do have a contender. It is “wisdom”. So, why does some translations say “wisdom” and others say “knowledge”? And even more importantly, why can’t the translators just agree upon one and stop making bible more cryptic than it already is? 😉

Well, I can see their difficulty and I’m also having a difficult time describing the difficulty. I’ll try my best to explain. First, think of wisdom. Application of knowledge in the right way. Now, I’m (almost) certain that everybody applies their knowledge in some way or the other. However, only the people who use their knowledge in the right way are considered wise. Others are called fools. OK. So far so good. Now, if you notice, in the verse it is not talking about just plain old wisdom. It’s talking about the beginning of wisdom. So, if we are just beginning to be wise, then we aren’t exactly sure which one is right and which one is wrong. And if we are not sure which way is right and which way is wrong then how will we apply our knowledge in the right way? Thus, becoming wise? How will we become wise?

That last question is the theme of the whole book of proverbs. Wise sayings from the wisest man that ever lived. And in the very beginning of this book he says, “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of moral knowledge” (NET). Great translation! It is not too general like knowledge and doesn’t self destruct like wisdom!

Now, if we look at the situations in our lives, in regards of knowing the right thing we will understand that in some areas of our life we know exactly what is the right thing to do and in other areas we aren’t sure. So, if we are sure what is the right thing to do then, we should just do it. (There may be times when we think that something is right but is not… but that’s another matter and I’m not going to discuss it here). We would be wise to do it, and doing that thing wouldn’t be called beginning of wisdom but it will be just an exercise of our already present wisdom. Although failing to exercise wisdom will be foolishness of epic proportions! But let’s get back to the topic at hand. The verse seems to suggest that when we are not sure, we should fear the Lord.

So, the problem that I faced in my childhood is solved. I used to ask, would it be fair to be afraid of him who loves me so much? I know the answer. No, it wouldn’t be fair to fear him. It would be foolish to do so considering the knowledge of the love of God. So, you shouldn’t fear God as a mouse fears a cat. To summarize, “one should fear the Lord when he is not sure which is good and which is bad”. If you know which is good and which is bad, then there is no point in sitting on the intersection thinking what I should do. It’d be waste of time. Just as bad as doing the bad thing.

But we still don’t understand exactly what it means. We eliminated one possibility of the meaning of “the fear of the Lord”, but we do not know it’s exact meaning. Does the “Fear of the Lord” has a bit more subtle meaning? Let us examine another place in the bible where similar advice is given. It is in psalms. Most probably, also written by Solomon.

Psalms 111:10: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever! (ESV)

And, NET translation:

Psalms 111:10: To obey the LORD is the fundamental principle for wise living; all who carry out his precepts acquire good moral insight. He will receive praise forever. (NET)

Compare the two. It is basically the same advice but a bit more elaborate. Interesting. One translation says, “The fear of the Lord” another says “To obey the Lord”. I think we just hit the jackpot! The so called “fear” is nothing but obedience. How so simple! So, if we replace this newfound insight in our original summary statement, it becomes “One should obey the Lord when he is not sure which is good and which is bad” And that, indeed will be the beginning of wisdom. Since it is him, who defines good and bad. If you are not sure, ask him who defined the two!

That’s my reasoning of the matter. However unorthodox, it does lead to the truth that is contained in it. However, I think I must also address one other view that is prominent among Christians. It says, the “fear” is not literal fear rather a kind of reverence and awe. And I do agree with it to some degree… but not in this context. I find it insufficient.

The reason is, people who ask the question “What does this verse mean?” are mostly new believers or youngsters. People who don’t have much knowledge and experience with the mysterious ways of God. And to them it seems as if you just bent the meaning of scriptures. You just gave your own interpretation which doesn’t really connect to what is written. If that was really the meaning, why isn’t it translated like that? Why doesn’t it say, “The reverence of the Lord is beginning of knowledge”?

The view that it should be interpreted as reverence and awe doesn’t really make sense to everyone. It could be said that it is a correct answer to a wrong person. If the questioner is just a skeptic, would it make sense? To him it would seem like you are reading your own meaning into the scripture. If the questioner is a new believer, would the answer help him when he has yet to learn to revere God? Is it so easy to revere him when you are living in a fallen world?

Let me try to answer it. Why is the word fear used if it meant reverence or awe? Maybe because it didn’t mean that. Especially in regards to new believers. To answer this question, we must examine the nature of fear and the nature of reverence and awe.

The origin of fear lies in the lack of knowledge whereas the origin of reverence lies in knowledge. You can not revere someone without knowing them. But you can certainly fear someone without knowing them. Awe, I think, is a higher form of reverence. It is fueled with knowledge acquired through dramatic bursts of revelation! So, only when you know God intimately, you can revere or be awestruck by him. Whereas you can very easily fear things that you don’t know or only partially know about.

In our lives we incrementally gain knowledge about God. When we learn about God for the first time, we do not know about him much. We know just enough to take the very first steps of faith. God is still largely distant to us and his ways are still a mystery. However, we know the world and it’s ways all too well. And in this state of infancy, the word of God speaks the eternal truth. “Fear of the Lord is beginning of wisdom.”

Reverence and awe inspires worship but fear inspires restraint. And at this time of infancy, this restraint is useful. It keeps us away from the dangers of the world. This might be a time which we do not like nor understand, it is a time where God holds us in his hands and molds us. He uses fear to restraint us so that we do not stray too far away from him. He is a loving father who doesn’t want his young child harmed. Every time, you choose to fear God, in other words, you choose to obey God, even though his ways seem foolish and boring, after some time, you’ll begin to understand why it must be so. It is so because there is a very good reason behind all his laws. This reason is not plain to see, but it becomes clear when you practice his law.

As the verse says, “all who carry out his precepts acquire good moral insight”. This moral insight can’t be learned in a lecture hall. It must be gained by living according to the law of God. Once gained, this insight, this truth will fill you with awe for your creator. Slowly, you will begin to worship him day and night. What first was fear and uncertainty, will begin to turn into a force of certainty. For now you understand just a little bit more of how awesome this God is. A little bit here and a little bit there. You will begin to be wise. You will begin to understand the mind and heart of God.

In the beginning, you might be afraid of this great and mighty God. Afraid of his power. Distant from him because you do not understand him. But, this very fear he will use to bring you closer. And one day, you will fear him no longer. Because his perfect love will cast out all your fears.