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  • Writer's pictureJohn Coleman

Don’t Miss the Forest for the Trees (rough notes journey through Scripture)

Updated: Jan 19

Genesis 2:9 (RSVCE): And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil...Genesis 2:16–17 (RSVCE): You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die...Genesis 3:1–7 (RSVCE): Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. 5  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons....

Missing the forest for the trees and sweating the small stuff is epidemic. I've stopped watching the news on television for this very reason. I now get my news from several online newspapers and a morning mash up of headlines from NPR. I got sick of all the talking heads focusing on each piece of minutiae and missing the larger issues (not to mention reporters becoming analysts on the news they purport to report). In an effort to fill a 24 hour news cycle the industry makes a habit of turning every mole-hill into a mountain. When every other minute CNN is blaring something about "breaking news" it becomes a little like Chicken Little screaming about the sky, which doesn't do anyone's cortisol good. I know it hooks viewers but everything can't be breaking or an emergency or nothing is.

The world of faith and religion is no better than the rest of society when it comes to hyperbole and distraction. I always marvel how folks who considered themselves true scholars of religion and theologians could have actually debated how many angels fit on the head of a pin. (Yes I know some dispute whether medieval scholars really debated this and that the story is one used by opponents to discredit Scholastic Philosophy, but like a Saturday Night Live skit that goes overboard, the outlandish story likely hits on some uncomfortable truth.). We argue about the real dating of the birth of Jesus, somehow thinking that it makes any sort of difference whatsoever. I mean do you really care whether it was in the winter or spring? Does that possibility somehow blow holes in our faith, grace and salvation?!

I feel we can miss the forest for the trees, literally and figuratively, when we pile on to all the haters who point to Eve and the "fall of man." We get so caught up in what she did or didn't do and when she did or didn't do it, her mens rea and everything else, that we can't see this story as anything other than an examination of fault and competence. Ugh - it makes me think of the evening news.

But what if there was a way to view the snack from the Tree of Knowledge as secondary to what this tells us about God and our relationship to the Divine?!

There are two trees named in the Garden of Eden: The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knolwedge. The Tree of Life whether it be a tree, plant or other form of vegetation is a common motif in ancient writings. It played a role in various rituals and myths in Mospotamia and other surrounding areas. The Tree of Knolwedge on the other hand has no correlation or parallel with popular stories or myths in antiquity. It stands unique to the Garden of Eden for the most part.

And yet this is the pivotal tree getting the attention and the Divine prohibition. Why? Does this have meaning for us other than how easy street was ruined for humanity?

There was an ancient infatuation with death and the afterlife. The neighboring Egyptian culture was filled with it and even created a few pyramids to memorialize it. And yet Holy Scripture takes this obsession and turns it upside down. The Bible mentions the Tree of Life, but the references are small and take a back seat to the Tree of Knowledge.

This story highlights that for Yahweh, life is more than death. The issues that impact the living will get the attention of the God who wants us in relationship with Him. It is not about where you go when you die, but how you live. It sets up a " tension between the plans of God and the free-will of man." The conflict between the Word of God and actions of man. The tree of knowledge proclaims that "human action is the key to a meaningful life."

The relationship we have with God is one of love and grace. And yet so often we don't believe it. We feel unworthy, or we, like Eve, allow tempters to tell us that we are. Maybe Eve thought becoming like God with the special Knolwedge that eating imparts would make her loveable or acceptable. It's so hard to accept and rest in this concept. It is much easier to think about the end than the here and now. This desire can open the door to unhealthy habits and actions that take us away from the good. It opens the door to separation from what we know will give us life...even God.

Read more on this concept and on Genesis:

Sarna, Nahum M. Understanding Genesis. New York: Schocken Books, 1995.

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