At Genesis 2,17 the Lord forbids Adam from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, on pain of death. In the next chapter, however, Eve is tempted by the serpent, succumbs, eats of the tree, and persuades Adam to eat of it too. As punishment for their disobedience, Adam and Eve are banished from the garden of Eden and put under sentence of death. Thus mortality is one of the wages of Original Sin.
The story has a puzzling feature that Peter Lupu made me see. Let us agree that a moral agent is a being that (i) possesses free will, and (ii) possesses knowledge of the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. Clearly, both conditions are necessary for moral agency. And let us agree that no agent can be justly punished unless he is a moral agent and does something wrong. But before eating from the tree, Adam and Eve are not moral agents. For it is only by eating from the tree that they acquire the knowledge of good and evil, one of the necessary conditions of moral agency. And yet God punishes them. How then can his punishment be just? My problem concerns not the truth of the story, but its coherence and meaning. The problem can be set forth as an aporetic pentad:
1. If God punishes, God punishes justly.
2. If God punishes an agent justly, then that agent is a moral agent that deliberately does something wrong.
3. A moral agent possesses the knowledge of good and evil.
4. God punishes Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit.
5. Adam and Eve did not possess the knowledge of good and evil prior to eating the forbidden fruit.
The pentad is logically inconsistent: the first four limbs entail the negation of the fifth. To rescue the coherence of the story one of the limbs must be rejected. But which one?
(1), (3), and (4) are undeniable. This leaves (2) and (5). One might think to deny (2). My dog is not a moral agent, but I can justly punish it for some behavior. But punishment in this sense is mere behavior-modification and not relevant to the case at hand. So it appears that the only way out is by denying (5). Adam and Eve did possess the knowledge of good and evil prior to eating the forbidden fruit. If so, the so-called 'tree of the knowledge of good and evil' is not a tree the eating of the fruit of which is necessary for becoming a moral agent.
Support for this way out can be found at Genesis 1, 26: "Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness . . . ." This image, I argue, is a spiritual image. You would have to be quite the lunkheaded atheist/materialist to think that the image is a physical one. Now if God created man in his spiritual image, then presumably that means that God created man to be a moral agent, a free being who is alive to the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong. So before receiving the command not to eat of the tree of good and evil, Adam and Eve were already moral agents. On this interpretation, whereby (5) is rejected, the coherence of the story is upheld.
"But then why is the tree in question called 'the tree of the knowledge of good and evil'?" I have no idea.
Another intriguing suggestion that Peter Lupu made to me in conversation was that the Genesis story recounts not the Fall of man, but his rise or ascent from a pre-human condition of animal innocence to the status of a moral being possessing the knowledge of good and evil. This makes sense if if it is by eating the forbidden fruit that man first become man in the full theomorphic sense. And so, to put it quite pointedly, it is only by disobeying the divine command that Adam becomes a son of God! Before that he wallows in a state of animal-like, pre-human inocence. Now surely a God worth his salt would not want mere pets; what he would want are sons and daughters capable of participating in the divine life. He wants his 'children' to be moral agents. Indeed, one might go so far as to suppose -- and this I think is the direction in which Peter is headed -- that God wants them to be autonomous moral agents, agents who are not merely (libertarianly) free, and awake to the distinction between good and evil, but who in addition are morally self-legislative, i.e., who give the law to themselves, as opposed to existing heteronomously in a condition where the law is imposed on them by God.
The trajectory of this interpretation is towards secular humanism. God fades out and Man comes into his own. I don't buy it, but that's another post.