Similarly, Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon.com, puts forward her interpretation:
It makes no sense that Adam and Eve were punished for acquiring knowledge and if god was trying to keep humanity trapped in ignorance then maybe he's not really the good guy after all. As I've written before, today's fundamentalists thrive on ignorance - it's apparent in every stand they take whether it be sex education or stem cells, science or history. Ignorance is the leading cause of many of the world's biggest problems and much of human suffering, but christians and other religious people would prefer to take us back to the good old days of the dark ages.
I admit that I find the secular perspective on this passage both puzzling and superficial. I understand that these authors have disdain for the source material, but fear that it has made them blind to better interpretations. Genesis can't be handled so flippantly. It really is an amazing piece of literature: the more one considers it seriously, delving into its historico-poetic literary structure, the interaction with Ancient Near Eastern religions, the unique overlap with modern science (e.g. Big Bang theory), and the way it connects with other portions of Scripture and theology, the more one appreciates its genius. In light of this, perhaps there is a more charitable way to approach this text.
At the end of "The Golden Compass," the witch Serafina foretells of a coming war, one that will affect everyone. The stakes, she says, are nothing less than our free will. Coincidentally, not long ago Lucy came home from Sunday school, bursting to tell me the story of Adam and Eve. "The snake made the woman eat an apple," she said cheerfully, "and that's why it hurts when we have babies."
"Yeah, maybe," I replied, with all the restraint in my arsenal. "But maybe the story is about something else." Maybe, I told her, it's about the point in our evolution when we got our souls. When we started using reason as well as instinct. Because you know what makes us human? Our ability to make our own choices. I told her that I don't believe in a God who kicked us out of paradise to punish us. I believe in one who put us in a world of wonders, to challenge us to figure it out.
Was God unwilling to challenge humanity to think and to make our own choices, as Ms. Williams suggests? That's an odd reading simply because the forbidden Tree was placed within the garden, affording Adam and Eve the opportunity to make their own choice about whether to obey their Creator or not. We even get a glimpse of Eve's deliberations in Genesis 3:6. The whole story of the Fall of Man depends upon this opportunity; the first couple did, after all, make their own choice, and had to face the consequences. But if they had refrained from eating the forbidden fruit, it would have been their choice as well.
And with regard to Mr. Larnder's assertions that God "was trying to keep humanity trapped in ignorance" and that He "punished [them] for acquiring knowledge", the thoughts of Irenaeus (2nd century theologian, disciple of Polycarp, disciple of John the Apostle) and those of contemporary theologian Don Carson will be helpful.
To begin, God's omnipotence does, in fact, have reasonable logical and metaphysical limits. God cannot make a square circle, or a married bachelor. And He cannot create an uncreated thing. Similarly, argues Irenaeus in Book IV of his Against Heresies, God cannot create a rational creature with a mature character from the moment of its creation (ab initio). Maturity requires the actual subjective experience of living and reasoning through moral choices, experiences which such a creature -- man in this case -- cannot have had in the newness of his existence. As such, when God created the first human beings, they necessarily were immature. (See Carl Mosser's related paper on this subject.)
In light of Irenaeus' adept reasoning, God's prohibition was for the good of humanity, a temporary measure providing an opportunity for moral formation with greater enlightenment on the horizon. The tree might well have been made available to them after such formation had been realized, once they were ready to handle it. Jack Nicholson's stunning line from A Few Good Men, "You can't handle the truth!" is sometimes correct.
One aspect of the disjunction between maturity of character and knowledge of good and evil is the fact that we are sometimes haunted by knowing the mere possibilities of evil. We know of the wrongs we could do, we know of the fear of what might happen, and we suffer in significant ways from it. In particular, loss of community and unnecessary anxiety come to mind. A woman in our "civilized society", walking to her car at night and being followed by a man, knows full well that the man might attack her and attempt to rape and kill her. She justifiably worries about this. The man, in many cases, just happens to be going the same way. But he, too, knows the evil men have done in situations like these (one need only tune into the 11 o'clock news), knows by reason that he could do the same (even if repulsed by it), and knows that the woman will be glad to reach her car (and home) safely simply because of his presence coupled with the possibilities of evil. How sad that we are plagued with this burden! This knowledge of evil haunts them and robs them of the peace and security that could be theirs.
If moral maturity had been reached when our first parents took and ate of the Tree, the knowledge of what could be done for evil would not haunt us because we would know for sure that it wouldn't be done. Instead, we would experience the depth of peace and community that the Hebrew shalom is meant to signify. As a result of the Fall, we became aware of those possibilities and took it upon ourselves to explore them, whatever the consequences. It is to those consequences, in relation to knowledge, that we now turn.
Carson's understanding (mp3) of the "knowledge of good and evil" relies on exegesis of the phrase as it is found in other passages in the Old Testament. His argument is that it has the connotation of man as arbiter over good and evil; that is, self-appointment to be the sole and final judges over what is right and wrong -- something which is God's prerogative. When Adam and Eve took of the fruit in opposition to God's prohibition, they made themselves like God in this sense. "Playing God" (e.g., the scientifically-conducted Tuskegee experiments) is something we still rail against today, with good reason.
Importantly, Carson also points out that humanity came to acquire knowledge of good and evil in a disordered way. Specifically, we came to know evil from the inside: subjectively, experientially. God's knowledge of sin is not like that. He knows its seriousness, its self-destructiveness, its folly, and its tragedy. But we, unlike God, are the perpetrators of sin and suffer its effects. It is one thing to know that X is wrong. It is another to know it intimately by committing that wrong and suffering from its effects first-hand. Had humanity obeyed God, we could have had the former knowledge without the latter. We might have known that men and women could be unfaithful; instead, men and women know what it is to be unfaithful to one another, know what it is to be lied to and cheated on, know what it is like to split up families and divide the hearts of their children. Similarly, we might only have known that tissue growth could go terribly wrong; instead, we endure cancer and know the pain and even death it causes.
It seems to me that our secular friends have dismissed the Genesis story of the Fall without plumbing its depths. They write as if knowledge -- no matter how it is secured, or what character one brings to the table in achieving it -- is all that matters. But a little reflection indicates that the details can make all the difference.