From a Grand Rapids area reader I received the following question:
“Pertaining to Genesis 3:22, how must it be understood? Various remarks and comments were made at a recent Men’s Society meeting as to its meaning; yet I find myself not satisfied with the answers.
“A related question is this: does that same verse (Genesis 3:22) become the reason, or ground, for verse 23?”
First of all, let us get the verses in question before us. Genesis 3:22 reads: “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” Genesis 3:23, which is involved in the related question, reads: “Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.”
My questioner does not state his specific problem; nor does he state what the remarks and comments were with which he was not satisfied. Hence, without addressing ourselves to any specific problems which may have arisen in the discussion mentioned by my questioner, let us try to understand the meaning of the verses.
In the first place, we may remind ourselves of the setting. The time is not only after Adam and Eve have eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and not only after their sin has been exposed by the Lord God, but also—and I deem this significant—after the announcement of the promise of Genesis 3:15. This is significant because it means that we must view this part of the chapter against the background of God’s gracious dealings with Adam and Eve.
In the second place, we are confronted in verse 22 by the question, what does it mean that the Lord God says, “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil”? Perhaps we may answer this question best by a process of elimination.
1) These words cannot mean that man had actually become like God. This is obviously contrary to fact.
2) They cannot refer to the fact that even as before the fall man knew the good experientially, that is, to love it, so after the fall man knew the evil experientially, that is, to love it. For while this fact is in itself true, and closely connected with the significance of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the text says that man now knows good and evil, while after the fall man knew only the evil experientially. Besides, this could not be a ground for what is stated in the rest of the text and in verse 23.
3) The suggestion has been made that there is irony or sarcasm in the words, “Man is become like one of us.” This I consider highly unlikely. For, first of all, it is at least questionable whether irony, and certainly sarcasm, are in harmony with the holiness and truth of God’s being. And, secondly, this surely would not fit here. We would not expect God to use such a mode of expression in this context with a view to the life-and-death seriousness of the sin and fall and misery of man. Neither would we expect the use of either irony or sarcasm in the light of the fact that the Lord God has revealed His grace and His promise to Adam and Eve.
4) It seems to me, therefore, that this divine speech points to the fact that man had sinfully assumed such a likeness with God as to determine for himself what is good and what is evil. First of all, I find this to be a statement of exactly what had taken place in the fall. This is precisely what man had done: while it is God’s prerogative alone to determine for the creature what is good and what is evil, man had presumed, in defiance of God, to determine this for himself. While God had said that it was sin to eat of the forbidden tree, Adam and Eve decided for themselves that it was good and desirable to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This is exactly the pride and the arrogance of sin. Man exalts himself to be God. Secondly, this understanding of the first part of verse 22 also makes it possible to understand, and to see the connection with, the last part of verse 22, where God says, “and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.”
In the third place, there is the question as to the meaning of the last part of verse 22. Briefly stated, this is an emphatic way of saying that man must by all means not be allowed to partake of the fruit of the tree of life, the other special tree in the garden. Sometimes this part of verse 22 has been explained as meaning that up to this time man had not yet partaken of the tree of life at all. This, however, is not likely in view of the nature of the tree of life. First of all, without going into a detailed explanation of the tree of life, we may point out that the tree of life had a kind of sacramental significance, symbolizing the higher life of man in communion with God. Secondly, God had given Adam and Eve the right to eat of all the trees in the garden, with the exception of the one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Thirdly, it is not probable (in comparison with the nature of other trees, and of the tree of life in the heavenly paradise) that by eating of the tree of life only once man’s life would have been perpetuated. We must rather understand that man would have to eat of the tree of life continually in order to reap its benefit.
The implication of verse 22 cannot be that Adam and Eve at this time could have lived in the true sense of the word after the fall. Rather the words signify that by continued contact with and eating of the tree of life, the earthly existence of Adam and Eve would have been perpetuated even in their fallen state.
In the fourth place in the light of the foregoing, my questioner is correct in his suggestion that verse 22 becomes the reason for the statement in verse 23 according to which Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden. I would add, however, that not only is there an act of judgment in man’s expulsion from paradise. But in the light of the promise, we must view this as an act of salvation. Eating of the tree would have resulted in a perpetuation of the state of death. Hence, God expels Adam and Eve from the garden and from access to the tree of life. In Christ, however, Who is the resurrection and the life, temporal death is become the servant of the elect, to open for them a passage into eternal life and glory, and to the heavenly tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.
I do not know, now, whether I have satisfied my questioner any more than did his fellow prophets in the Men’s Society meeting. But I have tried. And to my questioner I say: if you still have problems, call again.