I want to think about how “male and female,” a duality essential to the goodness of creation , play an essential role also in the first disobedience in the Garden of Eden. But to do that I need to address a prior question: Why does God command the man not to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil? A more pointed way to ask the question is: Was the woman wrong to see that this tree was “to be desired to make one wise” (Gen. 3:6)?
Biblical language elsewhere suggests that the answer to this second question is No. When young Solomon prays for wisdom at the beginning of his kingship—a prayer that pleases God—he asks for a heart that discerns good and evil, using the same language that gives a name to this tree (1 Kings 3:9). It is worth pointing out also that Scripture calls wisdom “a tree of life” (Prov. 3:19) just like the other tree that is in the midst of the Garden (Gen. 2:9). So both trees, I take it, represent wisdom. And the Bible never suggests it is wrong to desire wisdom. On the contrary, the scriptural command is briskly unambiguous: “Get wisdom!” (Prov. 4:7). Nothing in Scripture suggests that God would want his creatures to be foolish rather than wise.
But wisdom doesn’t just grow on trees, we say. It is the fruit of a long process of maturation and experience. These metaphors, still built into our language, help us see the point of the ancient story. If wisdom is to be ours, it must grow in us slowly like a tree—a tree of life—and at the end of the long growing we have its ripe fruit, sweet to the taste, which is the knowledge of good and evil—the kind of knowledge by which a king may rule well, and any of us may govern our lives well. This fruit of wisdom is at the beginning beyond us and outside us, but it is not to remain there forever.
But wisdom does take time. It cannot simply be created at the beginning—not in creatures like us who must learn and grow. So the commandment not to eat the fruit is for our good, though it was never meant to be permanent. Like young Solomon, the first man has much to learn about the realm in which he is to have dominion. Hence the next thing that happens after he receives the commandment is the exercise of naming the animals. And then comes the helper fit for him, whom he names “woman” (ishshah). Only after that is he wise enough to name himself: not merely Adam, the generic human being, but ish , the man who is husband. And that is very good .
But the hardest wisdom is yet to learn. A helper is someone who is strong to save—like God, who is often called a helper in Scripture (cf. Ps. 22:19, 37:40, 54:4). The wisdom the man needs now involves his relation to this powerful other. He does not have dominion or rule over her (such a word waits until after their disobedience, Gen. 3:16). Nor is the procreative blessing of male and female, which these two share with the other animals, in view at this point toward the end of chapter 2. What is in view is the distinctive goodness and perfection of the human male and female .
Adam has already begun to understand the animals, as his naming of them shows. But the woman, the other without whom he is not good (Gen. 2:18), is a different story. By the biblical logic of otherness, he is one who is to be good for the other. It is a task that requires wisdom. And it is a wisdom that can never be his alone, precisely because he is no good alone. To learn the wisdom he needs with his wife, they must both do what the other animals can’t. As the animals with logos , they must speak and hear the word of God.
So they must begin with the very word by which God instructed Adam that the tree of knowledge of good and evil remains for the time being outside him. He must trust the goodness of this commandment which tells him the fruit is not yet his. Not to believe this is death, for the foolishness of disobedience blocks the way to the tree of life. The day he fails to teach this word and obey it is the day he begins to die.
Therefore in his relation to his helper, the powerful other who can hear and speak with him, the man’s first task is to speak and teach the word of God, which is for their good. The root of the tree of life in them, which is to grow into the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, is obedience to this word. As the great proverb puts it, the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10)—where of course “fear” does not mean blind terror but the reverence and worship, honor and obedience that are due a great king, who rules with both power and wisdom.
In this sense, then, the creation is not yet perfected, not yet complete: The man and the woman are created very good together, but not yet mature and wise. That takes time. Ahead of them is a work of learning in which the biblical logic of otherness is to be put to work. For on the one hand, without her he is not good—incapable of the wisdom that comes from speaking and hearing with an other who is a helper fit for him. And on the other hand, he is to be good for her, the one who speaks to the other the good word that God first spoke to him.
This is the goodness that the serpent puts to the test, the work of maturation and completion that he interrupts. The ultimate perfection of creation is to be a long story.