Genesis 3 may be one of the most important passages in all of Scripture. Its importance for understanding our nature, our need and our condition cannot be underestimated.
The chapter begins with the appearance of the serpent, whom Revelation 12:9 Revelation 12:9And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceives the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
American King James Version×identifies as Satan. Satan’s interaction with Eve provides a very instructive lesson in how he entices us to sin. First, notice his question: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1 Genesis 3:1Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, Yes, has God said, You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
American King James Version×, NIV) This is emphatically not what God had said. God had said, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17 Genesis 2:16-17  And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat:  But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die.
American King James Version×, NIV). God had placed only one restriction upon Adam and Eve. Nothing else was withheld from them. Satan’s question was designed to magnify the restriction beyond its true proportion, to distort Eve’s perception of right limits, and thereby to instill a sense of being personally wronged.
She replied that only one tree was forbidden. But with doubt planted, her perception altered, her emotions stirred and an erroneous premise in mind, Satan then offered a very different explanation of the situation: “The serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’” (Genesis 3:4-5 Genesis 3:4-5  And the serpent said to the woman, You shall not surely die:
 For God does know that in the day you eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
American King James Version×). Satan’s words were a mixture of lie and deception. The assertion that Eve would not die was an outright lie. His statement that Eve would know good and evil was a deception, for the true nature of “knowing” good and evil was not disclosed to Eve. Satan’s appealing assertion would have its effect upon Eve’s unenlightened mind.
As affirmed in Genesis 3:22 Genesis 3:22And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:
American King James Version×, Adam and Eve did indeed come to be like God in the sense of “knowing” good and evil. But just what does this mean? To answer, we might ask, in what way does God “know” good and evil? One very important way is that He determines it—that is, He decides what constitutes good and evil. And that is what Adam and Eve now did—they determined for themselves good and evil. In Genesis 3:6 Genesis 3:6And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also to her husband with her; and he did eat.
American King James Version×, Eve “saw that the [forbidden] tree was good for food.” That wasn’t true according to God’s standard. But according to her own new standard, it was. In reality, she made that determination in her mind—albeit with Satan’s influence. And mankind has followed suit ever since. For “there is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12 Proverbs 14:12There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.
American King James Version×; Proverbs 16:25 Proverbs 16:25There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.
American King James Version×). This is the bitter result of relying on ourselves to determine good and evil—right and wrong—rather than trusting in what God reveals on the matter.
It should also be pointed out here that while Eve fell prey to Satan’s deception, there was greater culpability on the part of Adam, who may have been right there “with” Eve during the talk with Satan (compare Genesis 3:6 Genesis 3:6And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also to her husband with her; and he did eat.
American King James Version×). As the apostle Paul later explained, “Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression” (1 Timothy 2:14 1 Timothy 2:14And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
American King James Version×). Adam freely chose to join his wife in transgression—perhaps to avoid the pain of separation from her that would have ensued. In any case, Paul tells us that it was “through one man [that] sin entered the world, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12 Romans 5:12Why, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed on all men, for that all have sinned:
American King James Version×)—that man being Adam.
The episode with the two trees helps to explain human civilization ever since. For all of us, these two trees remain a figurative representation of the choice we have—either to embrace what God has to say about right and wrong and be blessed with life or to decide for ourselves and be cursed with suffering and death (compare Deuteronomy 30:19 Deuteronomy 30:19I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live:
American King James Version×). Man, in general, has ever since Adam and Eve been cut off from the tree of life. Indeed, man has been cut off from right knowledge of God—so that to come to Him for life and spiritual direction requires that He call us out of this evil world (compare John 6:44 John 6:44No man can come to me, except the Father which has sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.
American King James Version×). For this reason, even many who believe they are seeking God’s definition of right and wrong are going along with what others have told them rather than what God’s Word actually says. Indeed, in a sense the Scriptures themselves, the “words of eternal life” (John 6:63 John 6:63It is the spirit that vivifies; the flesh profits nothing: the words that I speak to you, they are spirit, and they are life.
American King James Version×, John 6:68 John 6:68Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? you have the words of eternal life.
American King James Version×), may be equated with the tree of life. But cut off from God, mankind is not truly able to understand the words unless God empowers them to do so.
Sadly, man continues to choose from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This has had some measure of positive results—as man has embraced some truly good things as good (since experimentation and reason can lead to right conclusions and since man has retained elements of truth earlier revealed by God). This explains why we find kindness and other right virtues among false religion—or even among people with no religion. But because mankind rejects other good and vital things as wrong or unnecessary and, at the same time, embraces so many bad and harmful things as good and acceptable, the overall effect of mankind’s ongoing choice is all the pain and heartache we see in the world. Thankfully, Jesus Christ is returning soon to this earth to make the knowledge of God available to all nations (compare Isaiah 11:9 Isaiah 11:9They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
American King James Version×).
Supplementary Reading: “Archaeology and Genesis: What Does the Record Show?,” The Good News, Sept.–Oct. 1996.