How do Bible literalists interpret the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis? Was it an actual tree with literal fruit which, having been eaten, imparted knowledge? It's hard to imagine how that could be the case without being strange indeed. It makes much more sense to me that the Tree is symbolic of something harmful.
However, I believe that the normal presentation of the account of the Fall treats the Tree as a literal tree. In the traditional understanding, the Tree seems merely a physical object designed to test Adam and Eve's obedience. The Tree, as a divine test element, appears totally arbitrary. God could have chosen a forbidden rock, and the story is unchanged.
A symbolic Tree suggests that the danger it represented was not God's wrath but rather something inherent in what the Tree symbolized. In other words, God's warning pointed to a danger outside Himself. What does the Knowledge of Good and Evil represent, and how was that detrimental to humanity?
It seems to me that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents a universal compulsion to judge and categorize other people. The knowledge gained from the forbidden Tree was that which allows and even encourages each of us to divide our fellow men into two categories: the good and the evil, the worthy and the unworthy, the righteous and the unrighteous, the saved and the lost, the smart and the stupid. There are countless labels we habitually use to perpetuate this dichotomy.
The Knowledge of Good and Evil was the beginning of disunity within humanity. We became separated from one another by the necessity to label one another through flawed judgments. We became separated from God because we assumed a divine role which He alone was capable of handling. Humanity usurped a divine prerogative, and we have suffered for it ever since.
To forsake the poisonous Tree of Knowledge does not mean that we must view all human behavior as neutral. Human behavior very much matters in terms of its consequences. Some behaviors are hurtful and should be discouraged. Others are beneficial and need encouragement. That process begins individually in a personal demonstration of proper conduct. That doesn't mean that we are responsible for and authorized to label and manage others. Since we all behave badly at times and well at others, what is the basis for labeling some folks as evil? What is the proper way to encourage good behavior in others? Those are the issues.
Historically we have inflicted pain in an attempt to force people into proper behaviors. This method is flawed in several respects. First, we don't agree on the standard of proper behavior. Organized religion tries to provide one, but its confusing complexities and obvious contradictions only add to the problem. Then, many people obviously do not alter their behavior because of threats. They do what their conscience allows, regardless. Finally and most importantly, the history of punishment as a means of behavior management is a litany of horrific abuses.
Rejecting the Tree of Knowledge allows us to seek another method for promoting beneficial behaviors. Jesus did not leave us ignorant of an alternative. He clearly and emphatically taught and demonstrated how love, forgiveness, and humility in our individual lives can be amazingly transformative individually and collectively.
We each exhibit both harmful and helpful behaviors. In that inconsistency we demonstrate an on-going struggle to develop spiritually and emotionally. The proper response to all these individual struggles is forbearance of the type taught by Jesus and Paul.
Abstaining from the symbolic fruit with its resultant self righteousness and assumed moral superiority is the only legitimate path to the promised peace, unity, freedom, and joy in Christ. Jesus was the herald of a new day in which mankind was introduced to abundant living through faith in a gracious God instead of in the Knowledge of Good and Evil.