Tree of Knowledge: Just what was it?

Read Genesis chapters 2 and 3.

When God set Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden, He told Adam and Eve they could eat of any tree in the Garden of Eden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil and blessing and calamity. God was explicit – the penalty for eating from the tree of knowledge was that both would die (Genesis 2:17). Adam and Eve knew exactly which tree in Eden God was talking about when He said the tree of knowledge. It was located near the center of Eden and it produced fruit that appeared good to eat and was attractive to the eye. When God confronted Adam and Eve about their disobedience, neither responded with “I didn’t know which tree you meant.”

Even in orthodox Christian communities, there is discussion about the tree of knowledge. Was it an actual tree or a representation (symbol) of mankind’s movement from innocence to awareness of self and sin? If there was an actual tree, what species was it and what kind of fruit did it produce? Some information is available by searching various reference sources, e.g., Hebrew dictionaries, the history and climate of the Middle East, and Latin resources.

Frequently, non Christians and even some Christians assume the tree of knowledge was an apple tree and the fruit that Eve took from the tree was an apple. It is unlikely that the tree of knowledge was an apple tree for two reasons. First, fine varieties of apples were not available in the early Middle East. Second, in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers when the Garden of Eden was most likely located, the climate is arid. The average rainfall in the plains of Iraq between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is low at about 13 inches annually. Apples trees thrive best in temperate and northern climates where they receive ample water to produce their fruit.

The notion that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil may have been an apple tree could have evolved in two ways. First, the Jewish historian Josephus (37 – c.100 AD/CE) wrote about a fruit which he called the Sodom apple. The Sodom apple tree (Asclepius gigantean variety procera) grew near the site of the biblical Sodom. Its fruit resembled a large, smooth apple or orange and was yellow when fully ripe (click link at top of page for a picture). Sodom apples grew in clusters of three or four. To the eye they appeared delicious and they were soft to the touch. When pressed or struck the fruit exploded with a puff leaving only rind and a few fibers. The beauty of the Sodom apple combined with its ephemeral nature could have caused early Jews to associate it with the futility of reaching for fruit from the tree of knowledge. Second, an association between the tree of knowledge of good and evil and an apple tree could have evolved millennia after the Garden of Eden. In Latin, an apple tree is Malus domestica. In the same language (Latin) the word malus means evil, calamity, harm, injury or unlawful. Thus, to Christians the tree of knowledge of evil (malus) became associated with an apple (Malus domestica) tree.

More recent Biblical commentators have proposed that the tree of knowledge of good and evil and blessing and calamity was a pomegranate tree. Pomegranate means “apple with grains” (Walker, 1979). Pomegranates are mentioned in the Bible beginning with the time of Moses (Exodus 28: 31-35). The fruit of the pomegranate is a reddish berry about the size of an orange. The pulp is a beautiful succulent crimson. The pomegranate is tart to the taste. The argument for a pomegranate tree as the tree of knowledge of good and evil is spoiled when the Hebrew language is considered. In every place that pomegranate trees or fruits are mention in the Old Testament, rimmôwn is the Hebrew word for pomegranate tree and the pomegranate fruit. In contrast, when the tree of knowledge of good and evil is identified, the Hebrew word for tree is êts.  Êts is used in Genesis 2:17 to describe a specific type of tree, e.g.,  the tree of knowledge. The same word, êts, is used for tree in approximately 25 places in Genesis and throughout the Old Testament. In each case it refers to a specific type of tree. In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, there is no unique word when designating the êts (tree) of knowledge of good and evil. The Hebrew is unambiguousthe tree (êts) of knowledge of good and evil was a unique species of tree.


Are you as amazed as I am that the God, creator of the universe and maker of man, would explain to Adam (His creation) why he could not eat from a certain tree? Shouldn’t it be enough that God says “no, you cannot do that” and Adam automatically obeys this omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent God? Yet, Adam’s behavior was not surprising to God. God knew that even the first man needed a rationale for God-given commands. God also knew that even with an explanation that included consequences, Adam would disobey His injunction.

What about you and me? Don’t we also want explanations and rationales for what God commands us? Are we more obedient when we know the reason God commands us to do or not to do something? No coincidentally, God speaks to us (through the Bible) telling us what to do for a healthy physical, psychological and spiritual life, however,  we sometimes disobey His word even when we know the consequences.

Adam and Eve chose not to obey the prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Can you think of a time that you disobeyed God? Were you beguiled and deceived into disobeying as Eve was? Alternatively, did you disobey God because of your self will or because everyone else was doing it? Did you try to blame or shift the reason for your disobedience on others, even on God?

Reflection: What was the outcome of some of your disobedience to God’s word? In retrospect, would you do the same things again?

I love Bible plants along with their symbolism. If you want to learn more about them, read my two books: 1) Rooted in God and 2) God as a Gardener. You can purchase them from my website: Carolyn Roth Ministry at

Copyright December 6, 2010, Carolyn A. Roth; all rights reserved.

One response to “Tree of Knowledge: Just what was it?

  1. Well done. I like the information you give. I always laugh when I hear the tree called an apple tree. The passage in Genesis never says what it is. I tend to lean toward the tree being symbolic. While I believe God created the universe, there is evidence the account as we have it now in the Bible was used in response to the other creation stories of the surrounding peoples. Many of the Cannanite creation stories do not give a very favorable view of the human race or their gods relationship to us. In our Bible creation is good and we are created in God’s image for fellowship with God and to reflect God’s Character in this world. Keep up the good work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s