[This is a slightly revised version of something I posted several days ago at Arts & Faith. Given how often I’ve written here about Shestov, it’s clearly relevant here too. The context was a comment I received, to the effect that man was mortal from the moment of his creation by God, that he sustained his life by eating from the tree of life in Eden, and that death was the inevitable result once God withheld the tree of life from man by expelling him from Eden. In other words, pace Shestov, there was nothing inherent in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that would result in man’s death.]
I will argue here as I think Shestov might have argued (but on this particular point there will inevitably be supposition on my part, because I’m not aware that Shestov ever wrote out, like I will try to do, a detailed argument for the basis of his interpretation of the Fall – he seemed to think, perhaps naively, that his interpretation was self-evidently correct).
Per your understanding, then, death was not intrinsic to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Rather, death only came about because God eventually withheld the tree of life – of which man had been partaking while he was in the Garden of Eden – by expelling man from the garden. Death, then, would seem not to have an “independent” existence but is, in effect, simply the withholding of life. As a kind of corollary, you are basically saying that partaking of the tree of life confers life only temporarily, not permanently, not irrevocably.
There are two major problems I see with your understanding of the provenance of death:
1) Why then does God say to man [all biblical passages are from TNIV], “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will certainly die” and not “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for if you do, I will withhold from you the tree of life” [Gn 2:17]? By your understanding, I’m supposed to believe that mortality came not as a direct and immediate result of partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, i.e. as an intrinsic effect of the tree, but indirectly and eventually, at the end of a chain of causation. Why should one not prefer Shestov’s simpler, more direct understanding to yours (per Ockham’s razor)?
2) Why then does God say (to whom exactly is unclear – other members of the Trinity?), “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” [Gn 3:22]? By your understanding, this statement by God appears nonsensical. Why would God say this, if it’s just a matter of expelling man from Eden, in order to prevent further partaking of the tree of life. So what if man takes one last bite, so to speak, from the tree of life before God expels him, what’s the harm in it? It would be the last time he would do so and, in any event, would not affect the final outcome. No, the account as we have it in Genesis indicates otherwise. It indicates that partaking of the tree of life confers life irrevocably.
Evidently, man had not partaken of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden at any time. There is additional evidence for this assertion, inasmuch as the Genesis account states (emphasis added), “In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” and then later Eve relates to the serpent that God’s instruction was (emphasis added), “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.” Now, it seems there is a paradox here that defies logical resolution: how can both trees be in the (precise) middle of the garden? We don’t know the answer to this, but we could assume that in some inscrutable way both trees were somehow in the middle of the garden. Therefore, by Eve’s statement, the tree of life might also have been warned against. Still, God in His warning to Adam did not use the phrase “middle of the garden” – He specified the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There can be no logically consistent answer that squares every statement (taking the account at face value, i.e. ignoring the possibility of some ancient compiler combining multiple and conflicting sources for the Genesis story) but, on balance, the evidence indicates that the tree of life was never partaken of by man, whether or not one assumes that God actually warned man against it. Why man didn’t partake of the tree of life, while he had the chance, as opposed to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, is another mystery. Perhaps in some inscrutable way the tree of life was invisible to him before he had “tasted” knowledge (perhaps this is implied in the biblical quote given in problem #2 above). If it be thought that man had to have partaken of the tree of life in the garden, in order to live, this is a misapprehension. We are told that “the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” [Gn 2:7]. The tree of life confers not simply life, but eternal life.
Finally, one should note the fact that when God explains to Adam and Eve their punishments for ignoring His warning, now that they have already eaten from the fatal tree, death is not one of them. And it is not, because death was intrinsic to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The same moment man partook of it, he became mortal, not later, when God got around to dealing out punishments. While God does refer to man’s mortality in His recitation of punishments, in the context of “by the sweat of your brow,” it is as a thing already accomplished.
That, as I take it, might be Shestov’s reasoning, to the extent that one can call an argument that necessarily has to deal with a paradoxical statement or two in the text reasoning. Of course, one could object that to use reason to, in effect, attack reason (i.e. by equating knowledge with death) seems a little self-negating, to say the least. But such was Shestov: his attacks on reason were well-reasoned. One could also say that he opened himself to the liar’s paradox. In fact, I have a post at my blog, here, wherein I cite a French filmmaker and philosopher who avers this very thing, all the while maintaining that Shestov offers a kind of key to understanding Andrei Tarkovsky’s films.
Lastly, yes, I’m aware that Shestov’s interpretation of the Fall may be unique in that perhaps only he has made it. A mountain of “received” wisdom stands against him. But I don’t believe Shestov’s interpretation is incompatible with the Genesis account, and I even think that, alone though he may be, his interpretation probably makes the most sense.
Q: Before man ignored God’s warning, was he mortal or immortal?
A: He was neither mortal nor immortal. He had partaken of neither tree. His state, with regard to your question, was indeterminate. [The mu state – in effect, unask the question.]
Q: Could man have remained in this indeterminate state?
A: Of course! Otherwise God would not have warned him against the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Man need not have died. But man was not immortal.
Q: Isn’t this logically absurd?
A: Yes, but it is so nevertheless. God surpasses or exceeds logic.