There is an entire school of philosophy on knowledge called epistemology. While most of us go through our lives without thinking about the nature of knowledge (at least I do), there are geniuses around the world who spend their days trying to answer the question of what knowledge is, where it comes from, and if we can truly know knowledge at all!
The Hebrew Bible has an interesting take on this, and it all begins with death, sex, and ends with loyalty.
The first time we hear about knowledge in the bible is the Tree of Knowledge, more specifically, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We’re told in this story that if Adam (representing humanity) eats from this tree he will die (Genesis 2:17). So the narrator in this story is setting up an interesting problem for Adam: if you want to be fully human, that is, to be filled with knowledge, you will die. Adam is also very childlike in this story — and as anyone with children will tell you, saying to children that they can have anything they want except one thing will always drive them toward that one thing!
And that’s exactly what happens to Adam.
In the next scene, Eve is talking to the serpent, who says “God knows that in the day you eat [the fruit], your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). If a person becomes a god, they cease to be their mortal selves. In this way, a person dies when they have the kind of knowledge that a god would have.
But something odd happens. When Adam and Eve eat the fruit, they don’t become gods at all. It turns out that in Eden there is a tree of immortality, and if Adam and Eve had time, they could have eaten from it, but God stops them and drives out Adam and Eve from the garden just in case (Genesis 3:22).
From this we learn the Biblical author’s idea about godhood: what makes a god is the knowledge of good and evil combined with eternal life.
Adam and Eve pass on the knowledge, a god-like knowledge, to all of humankind. Their sin is ultimately our victory: being truly human instead of the child-like garden creatures Adam and Eve started their lives as. Human beings have knowledge of everything that makes life worthwhile, including sacred suffering, such as laboring for our basic needs, sexual tension, emotional dynamics and giving life to future generations (3:16-20). In this moment, God is telling the first human family that for all the suffering they will encounter, these sufferings will lead to great moments of rapture, and, in the end, while they are mortal, they will live on through the generations that will come.
Side note: isn’t it amazing that we take this story and only make it all about fruit and sin? It’s insane.
Anyway, I digress.
There was a tree of knowledge. God’s creation ate from it and gained knowledge, becoming fully human. And what did they do next? They had sex.
“And the man knew Eve his wife” (Genesis 4:1). The same word for knowledge, daat, flows through the entire text. Adam, humanity, knows Eve, whose name means life.
So this story connects the essence of being human, a creature that knows the whole of good and evil, with death and sexuality.
And it ends, sadly.
The next time that knowledge is brought up, the child that Eve conceives (Cain) has murdered his younger brother Abel. When God asks what has happened, Cain replies, “I know not” (4:9).
And the last time we hear of knowledge in this story is when Cain knows his wife, and together they have the child Enoch (4:17).
In summary: Humanity is human because of the experience of death, sex, creating life, more death and more life. Knowledge is more than intelligence, it’s about experiences. It took ‘earth people’ committing sins to become human. They needed the experience of being expelled, of experiencing sex, life, death and more life, in order to become what we are today.
We are a part of this story, as the children of Adam and Eve: of Earthling and Life-Giver. Why? Because the writers of the Genesis story want us to know that we are connected to the earth, to each other, and to life itself.
There are reclusive people in the world. There are people who are racked by emotional turmoil, fear, anger, resentment and the many other feelings which trap us in a prison of our own design. There are people who have turned their back on life, feeling like they have been punished too much to keep dealing with other people. Some people choose not to have friends and family. The world they live in is entirely of their own design. And even if they believe that world to be perfect just as it is, they secretly want something better, something real. In order to avoid suffering, they choose another kind of suffering.
So we learn that knowledge is about the fullness of life that comes from experience. But what of it? We can have all the experiences we want, but that doesn’t mean we truly know anything. Dumb people go through life all the time.
And that’s when the Bible introduces the second half of knowledge: loyalty.
Everything in the Bible is about relationships.
The Book of Hosea tells the story of a prophet who is married to a prostitute named Gomer.
Side note: Gomer?! Really?
Gomer sleeps with another man, but even so, Hosea loves her and forgives her. It is a story that is understood as a metaphor: Israel is the adulterous spouse and God is the forgiving, loving spouse. Adultery can ruin a relationship. The writer of the text new this and understood that this metaphor would resonate with its readers. The powerful connection between humanity and God is felt so strongly that the torturous feeling of two hearts being ripped apart in adultery was the closest way the writer could express what this covenant, this relationship, was between God and the Israelites.
From first-hand experience we know truth. The knowledge of that truth becomes so powerful that we cannot help but cleave to it. The poets of the Psalms understood this when they said:
Guide me in your truth and teach me; for you are the God of my salvation (25:5)
Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me (43:3)
Lord, teach me your way, that I may walk in your truth (86:11)
From experience we know the truth. And to fully have truth, we need loyalty.
If you are spiritual, but not religious, it can be hard to know what “capital T” Truth is. Fundamentalists often ask the irreligious the question, “if you don’t believe in the Bible, how do you know what the truth is? How do you know what morality is?” Often the answer is something vague like natural law, or the golden rule, or a counter argument like “if you need a book to tell you it’s wrong to kill, then something is wrong with you.”
But the honest truth is that without some kind of compass guiding you in the right direction. Without some kind of framework for understanding life, you are…well…lost.
Knowledge is possible. It doesn’t come from blindly accepting what some New Age guru says. It doesn’t come from the Law of Attraction or whatever pop-culture theology is hot today. It comes from experiences. And having fidelity to those experiences.
You are smart, and so were the people of the Biblical texts. They were human beings who lived in a depth of reality that for many of us seems impossible. These ancient peoples were connected to the cycle of nature, the rhythm of life and death and constant emotional connection to the universe in indescribable ways. And those very real moments of their lives, and a fidelity to those experiences, gave them the knowledge that they passed down to us generations later.
Not bad, huh?
Written by Rabbi Patrick