One Tree? Or Two Trees? •
How many special trees are there in the garden of Eden? How many special trees does Genesis indicate are present in the orchard?
Popular imagery and art of the garden, whether printed on canvas or in our minds, shows just one special tree, that which bears the fruit of the forbidden apple. When we speak casually of events in the garden, we traditionally think of only that single tree which Eve and then Adam visited and ate from.
Genesis refers to two distinct, special trees. Here’s how the NET and Berean translations handle Gen 2:8-9:
The Lord God planted an orchard in the east, in Eden; and there he placed the man he had formed. 9 The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow from the soil, every tree that was pleasing to look at and good for food. (Now the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil were in the middle of the orchard.) (NET)
And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, where He placed the man He had formed. 9Out of the ground the LORD God gave growth to every tree that is pleasing to the eye and good for food. And in the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Berean)
Yes? There are two trees, yes? One is a single “tree of life” and the other is the single “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Right?
Conventional interpretation supports the view that there are in fact two special, unique trees in the garden. We at Bible Bits support this view, but allow us please to ponder some thoughts regarding these two special trees.
From verse 9, we see actually three categories of trees:
1) a whole lot of nice, useful, but ordinary source-of-food trees
2) THE tree of life
3) THE tree of the knowledge of good and evil
God places the two special trees in the middle or midst of the garden. We can imagine that they are somehow demarked or easily recognized as special, inside the garden or orchard which itself is somehow enclosed and marked as special.
Our intrigue about the possibility of one tree, not two, is piqued by the second half of verse 9. The NET translation encloses this bit in a parenthesis:
(Now the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil were in the middle of the orchard.) (NET)
All English translations we’ve seen declare the presence of two trees. Some explicitly place both in the middle of the garden:
In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (NIV)
In the middle of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (NLT)
And in the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Berean)
In the middle of the garden stood the tree that gives life and the tree that gives knowledge of what is good and what is bad. (GNT)
Two other trees were in the middle of the garden. One of these gave life–the other gave the wisdom to know the difference between right and wrong. (CEV)
The tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil grew in the middle of the garden. (GWT)
But note this: other translations place the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and (awkwardly) tag on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, presumably, but less clearly, also in the middle of the garden. Here:
The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (ESV)
… the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (NASB)
The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (NKJV)
… the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (KJV)
… including the tree of life in the middle of the garden, as well as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (CSB)
… including the tree of life in the middle of the garden, as well as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Holman CSB)
… the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (JPS Tanakh 1917)
… the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (NASB)
… and the tree of life, in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Darby)
… the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (English Revised Version)
… the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Webster)
… the tree of life also in the middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (WEB)
… and the tree of life in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (YLT)
There is something awkward about these latter English lines. It seems to us as if an editor or editors tacked on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil onto a narrative holding only the tree of life. Or instead (and more likely), inserted the tree of life into an original text reading.
Consider this imagined, speculative true original source text with no tree of life:
Next, consider the possibility of an author or editor editing (and corrupting) that good text with the trappings of extra-biblical Mesopotamian tales of creation (and their trees of life), but also with the Biblically proper theology of an eternal-life-giving garden (supplied via a tree):
And so we end up with the awkward tacked-on / inserted clause. Here is the World English Bible take, which we borrowed for our editing example:
9 Out of the ground Yahweh God made every tree to grow that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food, including the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (WEB)
But this is English, and any awkwardness in English does not necessarily reflect awkwardness in the Hebrew. So what about tha Hebrew?
Here, from a Hebrew interlinear, is a straight, word-for-word running of the Hebrew, which goes something like this:
and made grow Yahweh God out of the ground every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food and the tree of life [was] in the midst of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Helps Ministries via biblehub.com)
Another interlinear source gives:
and he-is-causing-to-sprout Yahweh Elohim from the-ground every-of tree being-coveted to-sight and-good for-food and-tree-of the-lives in-midst-of the-garden and-tree-of the-knowledge-of good and-evil (Scripture 4 All)
So, the more awkward English translations follow more closely the awkward Hebrew.
What of this awkward English and Hebrew? Does this help us count trees?
E.A. Speiser (Genesis, Anchor) does not directly respond to our Bible Bits question asking for the number of trees. Speiser remarks only that the Hebrew of 2:9 is awkward in an otherwise polished Hebrew text, and that, he says, may reflect the editing in and out of similar tree narratives borrowed from other Mesopotamian creation story sources. Speiser is sympathetic to the notion that an original Hebrew narrative had no tree of life but included only “in the midst of the garden of the tree of knowledge.” But in the end, Speiser must go with the premise of two trees.
What do other commentators say regarding the number of trees? Here are some samples:
Derek Kidner (Genesis: An Introduction & Commentary, Tyndale) asks if there are one or two, based on the uncertainty of the verse 9 text, and suggests an original garden of trees including “… even the tree of knowledge…” with a tree of life. But after examining 3:22 (we’ll see this below) Kidner settles on “[t]he familiar translation is right: there are two trees.”
H.L. Ellison (New International Commentary, Zondervan) accepts the two tree case without comment, other than to note that God declares no prohibition on eating from the tree of life. Further, he notes that no elaboration on the tree of life is made either elsewhere in Genesis or in Revelation 22.
John H. Sailhamer (NIV Commentary, Zondervan) goes with the two trees view and notes that the forbidden tree is that of good and evil, not that of life. He observes that once cast out of the garden, Adam and Eve no longer have access to the tree (or is it many trees) of life.
That there is lack of elaboration or further narrative involving the tree of life seems to us as evidence that its inclusion as a singular, unique, special tree in 2:9 is a mistake. We suggest that the “tree” of life is instead the many, plural, “trees” of sustaining life mentioned in the first half of verse 9. These many trees need no further comment once they are identified as the everyday, normal (for the garden) sustaining source of eternal life.
Other commentaries make note of extra-biblical creation tales, and observe the existence of trees of life in these but no trees of the knowledge of good and evil. Based on this fact, we and other ponder the scenario of Genesis writers and editors documenting the existence of the Biblically unique tree of good and evil, but then adding and subtracting and otherwise grammatically corrupting the text with the insertion of the well-known (in the culture of the time) tree of life.
At the end of the day however, although commentators ponder the notion of a single tree and corrupt text, we find no popular commentary which takes the view that there is no tree of life.
Let’s move on from verse 9 see if other descriptions of the trees and garden help. A few verses later:
Gen 2:15-17 The Lord God took the man and placed him in the orchard in Eden to care for it and to maintain it. 16 Then the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat fruit from every tree of the orchard, 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.”
Hmmm. Here there is no mention of the tree of life. Instead there is only the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which seems also to be a tree of death!
We can raise here the hand-waving possibility that the tree of life is somehow in reality the multitude of all those other trees of the orchard/garden, and whether in the middle of the garden or not, they provide the Edenic, everlasting-life-giving sustenance God intends for his original man and woman. This speculation depends of course on corruption of our Hebrew text in verse 2:9.
The tree of life is again absent from the next reference to that of the knowledge of good and evil:
Gen 3: 1-3 … [the serpent] said to the woman, “Is it really true that God said, ‘You must not eat from any tree of the orchard’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit from the trees of the orchard; 3 but concerning the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the orchard God said, ‘You must not eat from it, and you must not touch it, or else you will die.’”
Continuing a few verses later, we still have only the knowledge tree:
6 When the woman saw that the tree produced fruit that was good for food, was attractive to the eye, and was desirable for making one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate it. She also gave some of it to her husband who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them opened…
Opened by the fruit of the tree of knowledge.
And then a reminder that God placed many regular ol’ trees in the garden:
8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God moving about in the orchard at the breezy time of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the orchard.
And after coming out from hiding, the naked adam is questioned by his master:
11 And the Lord God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave me, she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it.” (NET)
All of this pertaining to the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and no mention of the tree of life.
And then in verse 17, some consequences:
17 But to Adam he said, “Because you obeyed your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ the ground is cursed because of you; in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. (NET)
Finally, Genesis provides the second mention of the tree of life. The first came at 2:9 and this second comes at 3:22:
22 And the Lord God said, “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, he must not be allowed to stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God expelled him from the orchard in Eden to cultivate the ground from which he had been taken. (NET)
So 22 explicitly mentions for the second time a singular tree of life. God refers to it finally in verse 24.
We like to think however, that this “the tree” of life could just as well have been “the garden of trees” of life.
We will conclude with two references to the garden and either trees or a tree of life outside the book of Genesis.
The first comes in Ezekiel’s vision of the new garden and new Jerusalem and, in this case, life-giving waters which in turn feed life-holding and life-giving trees:
from Ezekiel 47:1-12 Then he brought me back to the door of the temple; and there was water, flowing from under the threshold of the temple toward the east…. 7 When I returned, there, along the bank of the river, [were] very many trees on one side and the other. 8 Then he said to me: “This water flows toward the eastern region, goes down into the valley, and enters the sea. [When it] reaches the sea, [its] waters are healed. 9 “And it shall be [that] every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live. There will be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters go there; for they will be healed, and everything will live wherever the river goes. … 12 “Along the bank of the river, on this side and that, will grow all [kinds of] trees used for food; their leaves will not wither, and their fruit will not fail. They will bear fruit every month, because their water flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for medicine.” (NKJV)
The second and Biblically final reference comes John’s vision of that same new garden and Jerusalem, with, it seems, a multitude of trees of life one either side of the water, albeit expressed confusingly with a singular noun of “the tree.” We can imagine, for example, a plot of land with “oak” growing in abundance, but how would we interpret a plot of land with “the oak” growing on either side of the barn?
In any event, here is John in Revelation, describing in chapters 21 and 22 the bookend companion to Genesis 2 and 3:
Rev 22:1-2 And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. 2 In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, [was] the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each [tree] yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree [were] for the healing of the nations. (NKJV)
These verses support the idea that the tree of life (whether one or many), segregated in a protected garden, served the eternal life of man and men walking in that garden with the Lord God.
It seems there are two special trees in the garden.
We at Bible Bits find appeal in the notion of a single tree, where that tree is the tree of the knowledge good and evil (and morality, and being like God), and where eating from that tree exposes the folly and hubris of any attempt of man to be god and replace God. A singular, special tree of life is unnecessary because the garden itself is filled with multiple trees of life, and the garden is a garden of eternal life with God. The tree of life is not necessary because the default of the garden is life while the tree of knowledge of good and evil serves as a defacto tree of death. The tree of life is unnecessary because walking obediently with God in the garden leads to eternal life. While walking with God in the garden, one can eat and eat and eat from the many, many trees of life.
Of course, neither tree has any sort of magic fruit. Walking with God brings on eternal life. Disobedience to God’s commands, or walking away from God, brings on death. Adam and Eve did not die from fruit, they died from disobedience.
The tree of knowledge does in fact bring awareness of self and knowledge of morality to man, but it doesn’t (as the serpent claims) make man God. The tree of knowledge merely takes away man’s innocence, makes him self aware, and makes him capable of believing he can be and is God. Eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is a metaphor for man’s desire to control his life and earth and destiny, which is ultimately man’s attempt to be god and replace God. It is the fundamental hubris and folly of man.
But while we like the idea of a single tree, we at Bible Bits did not write the Bible. God did. We will take his word as we find it.
Thanks go to the folks at Bible Hub, Bible Gateway, Bible Catolica, Helps Ministries, Scripture 4 All, and Katapi Bible Resources.
Please read the actual Bible for yourself. God’s blessings to you!