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I'm trying to understand why translations from KJV on have translated this part of Genesis 3:6, that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was "a tree to be desired to make one wise." This seems to load into a ton of theology about how it was an inappropriate desire and how it was selfish, etc. The Hebrew doesn't seem to be so much about this and the interpretive history doesn't match either.

The phrase translated "to make one wise" is: להשכיל which is a hifil infinitive verb. The BDB seems to have the hifil form as "meanings hard to classify: scholars differ greatly;"

The Septuagint has: ωραίόν εστι του κατανοήσαι The Brenton Septuagint Translation makes this out to be "beautiful to contemplate"

The Vulgate has: aspectuque delectabile This seems to essentially repeat "pleasing to the eye."

There seems to be much about agency turning on this phrase. It seems to be largely about how the tree is attractive. It may be something like the Sirens in the Odyssey that were attractive to death. These two major ancient witnesses didn't seem to track the word as having anything to do with making one wise, but to cause the eye to gaze or to draw the attention.

So the question is: Why do modern translations largely just put "desirable to make one wise."

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    The serpent just promised her it granted wisdom, and she believed him, thus it was desirable to make one wise, and also looked tasty, and was beautiful.
    – Robert
    Aug 4 at 22:17
  • @Robert Are you saying that Eve believed the fruit might grant her wisdom solely because of what the serpent said, or what? Aug 10 at 19:33

4 Answers 4

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Often it is local context that informs a definition as well as other usages. This particular word is only used one other time and, there as well, it is translated in terms of wisdom:

To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD. The transgression of the wicked saith within my heart, that there is no fear of God before his eyes.  For he flattereth himself in his own eyes, until his iniquity be found to be hateful.  The words of his mouth are iniquity and deceit: he hath left off to be wise, and to do good. He deviseth mischief upon his bed; he setteth himself in a way that is not good; he abhorreth not evil. - Psalm 36:1-4

So the translation of the word in Genesis 3 matches the translation of its sole other use.

It also makes sense within the immediate context of Genesis 3. The woman perceived three things concerning the tree. First, she perceived that it was good for food and we are told that this tree is one of the trees that was good for food that God caused to grow out of the ground:

And out of the ground made the LORD God 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 knowledge of good and evil. - Genesis 2:9

The same verse shows us that the tree was created as pleasant to the sight so 2 of the 3 qualities the woman perceived are made contextually sensible. The third thing that the woman perceived, that the tree was "desirable to make one wise" comes most readily from the temptation presented by the serpent:

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. - Genesis 3:5

God never tells Adam that the tree is to be desired to gain wisdom. This displays an addition to the woman's perception that was taken, not from the tree's created nature (good for food and pleasant to look upon), but from the deception of the serpent. Thus the translation of this word compared with two primary resources in Scripture (its usage elsewhere and immediate context) appears both consistent and reasonable.

It is also noteworthy that in the overarching context of both the testaments this translation stands strong, for it is not wisdom itself that is evil but the self-exaltation which declares oneself as the source of wisdom:

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight! - Isaiah 5:20-21

Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools - Romans 1:21-22

And, indeed, this was the very heart of the temptation and the ruin of man for the serpent said, "in the day you eat thereof ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil" but God said, "in the day you eat thereof ye shall surely die".

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Focusing only on the words "desirable to make one wise" from verse 6 may not be wise. Consider the following way of diagramming the key verse:

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.

Of course, the most comprehensive context for interpreting Scripture is the entire canon (aka, the analogy of Scripture). We witness time and again throughout Scripture that the "big three" play a significant role in the downfall of many true believers in God. From Abraham to King Solomon and beyond, great men of God have fallen prey to the flesh and to pride.

Whether the following interpretation of the triad of descriptors of the forbidden fruit is warranted or not, I'll leave that to you to decide, but the three-fold descriptors are echoed throughout Scripture. They are perhaps most clearly taught in the apostle John's first letter, in which we read,

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world--

  • the lust of the flesh,
  • the lust of the eyes,
  • and the pride of life--

comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever (2:15-17 NIV).

Notice the similarity between Genesis 3:6 and 1 John 2:15-16. Ironically, Eve's desire to become wise led her to become the opposite: a fool. She and her husband failed to see that the beginning of true wisdom is "the fear of the LORD." They were deceived into thinking that God was depriving them of something significant and desirable. Far from depriving them of anything, God had given them all they needed and gave them only one stipulation: Do not eat from only one tree in Eden. All the other trees were readily available to them to enjoy. Adam and Eve allowed an illicit desire to control them. Their "fall from grace" has reverberated throughout the world ever since that fateful day.

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OP's question is: Why do modern translations largely just put "desirable to make one wise." And how it was an inappropriate desire and how it was selfish.

We know God's wisdom is hidden in Christ and it is definitely a good thing.

Can a tree make one wise?

Going back in time and looking at Eve's life this desire to be wise did not come from within but came from without. After all she had been created in the image of God, and the Lord was with her and Adam in the garden. At that time she needed nothing more. They were also rulers in the garden of Eden over every beast including the serpent.

God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and said to them, fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that crawls upon the earth.” Genesis 1:28

Along comes a creature that they were to rule over but Eve gives her ear to his words that seemed good to her. After all he was telling her things that God had said about the trees with a slight twist. It appears to her that this serpent knows things about her that she does not know about herself. He tells her their eyes are closed. She's missing out and also she could become like God even though God had already made her in his image.

That was the hook, making Eve feel like she could be more and if she only ate from this tree her eyes would be open and she would become like God. The snake is making her feel it's good to desire this tree because it will make her wise.

It was the serpent who brought up wisdom and where it could be found. It was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, a tree to be desired to make one wise.

He knew it would bring them death but she thought it would bring her wisdom. He truly was a murder of man from the beginning. (John 8:44)

The serpent wanted them dead and he figured out a way to bring it about. It was God who was speaking the truth and told them not to eat from that tree.

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I don't have a problem with "make one wise" given the context. Sherrie's question is even more interesting for me: "Can a tree make one wise?" Obviously not, so the question becomes not one of translation but of interpretation. Not only can a person not gain knowledge from a tree, she also cannot bring a sentence of death on the whole human race by literally eating a fruit. The story has the man and woman covering their sex organs with aprons, not covering their mouths with primitive COVID masks. It seems to me that this story is not about the gaining of wisdom so much as it about experiencing carnal knowledge before being ready for it.

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