Was the Tree of Life Always Off-limits?

A Critique of Vos's Answer

Stewart E. Lauer

Geerhardus Vos seems inclined to answer the above question in the positive. That answer was defended by Robert Starke several years ago in the pages of Kerux.1 This short study seeks to argue from the text of Genesis 2-3 for a negative answer, but will avoid taking up the related question of how the Tree of Life was intended to function from the outset.2

Vos's Words on the Subject

From the significance of the tree [of Life] in general its specific use may be distinguished. It appears from Gen. 3.22, that man before his fall had not eaten of it, while yet nothing is recorded concerning any prohibition which seems to point to the understanding that the use of the tree was reserved for the future, quite in agreement with the eschatological significance attributed to it later. The tree was associated with the higher, the unchangeable, the eternal life to be secured by obedience throughout his probation. Anticipating the result by a present enjoyment of the fruit would have been out of keeping with attainment of the highest life. After the fall God attributes to man the inclination of snatching the fruit against the divine purpose. But this very desire implies the understanding that it somehow was the specific life-sacrament for the time after the probation (Biblical Theology, p. 28, emphasis added).

While conceding that "nothing is recorded concerning any prohibition" against eating from the Tree of Life prior to the fall, Vos is yet convinced that eating from that tree would have been inappropriate ("out of keeping"). Thus, Vos leans strongly toward seeing the Tree as somehow having been "reserved for the future," despite the lack of any recorded prohibition. To be "reserved for the future," presumably by God—who else? —is a more positive way of expressing 'placed off-limits for the present'. Thus, Vos has given what might be characterized as a reluctant 'Yes' answer to the question of this essay: "Was the Tree of Life always off-limits?". Amazingly, in addressing this question, Vos makes no explicit mention of Genesis 2:16.

Genesis 2:16-17, the Central Biblical Passage

The very simple answer as to why I believe that Adam was permitted, if not encouraged, to eat from the Tree of Life is because God said so. "God commanded the man, saying, 'From any [lit. 'all' or 'every'] tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat'" (Gen. 2:16-17). This statement is very, very clear. Depending upon how the verb is rendered, God is authorizing, or even commanding, Adam to eat from "every" tree of the Garden, and then setting forth a specific exception.3 God has at least allowed, if not commanded, Adam to eat from all of the trees—except one. That necessarily gives him the right to eat from every tree except the one in the exception clause.

Most importantly in confirming this, the specific mention of an exception in v. 17 ensures that the "every" of v. 16 is intended to be truly comprehensive. God intends only one exception. At least two other factors in the broader context reconfirm the accuracy of this understanding.

Contextual Factors

1. In the literary flow of the narrative, the reader's attention has recently been drawn to the two trees in the middle—planted with man apparently looking on.

Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.4

Thus, both trees have been highlighted and are, with Adam, at the center of focus in the Garden narrative. From a literary or rhetorical point of view, this strongly reinforces the presumption that the absence of the mention of the first special tree in v. 16 is no mere coincidence. Therefore, the Tree of Life is rightly understood as included in the "every" or "all" of the command or authorization to eat in v. 16.

We might say that the author has painted a verbal picture of the garden in the preceding verses. At the center of that picture, as if drawn in a unique color, are two trees that are special. These two, and they alone, have names—names which point to specific and important functions. When the author reaches vv. 16-17 he completes his sketch of the Garden by drawing circles around "every" tree in the garden as "OK" to eat, and he then puts an enormous X over one of the only two with names. To postulate a similar X over the second tree stands against the literary picture so carefully sketched by the author.

2. The rest of the text in this portion of Genesis (2:4-4:26) presupposes a duty on man's part to perform a very close, even a literalistic, 'reading' of this divine command in 2:16-17. In Genesis 3, when the woman is tempted, the reader is invited to take note of both the cunning twisting of God's words by the serpent and the lack of precision in the woman's citation of God's words that she had (sort of) learned from her husband.5 Thus, the author's own later treatment of 2:16-17 argues against anyone reading anything not mentioned by God into the divine command.

Summary of 2:16-17

In short, there is good reason both in the nearer and broader context of the words "from every tree you may freely eat," and every semantic reason in the words themselves, to believe that the "every" (except one) is expressly intended to include the Tree of Life.

Other Passages

In the face of this data, an enormous burden of proof falls on the shoulders of anyone who wishes to say that Adam was somehow to be kept from additional trees prior to 3:22ff., where the text tells us that God took action to place this previously authorized (or commanded) tree off-limits.

God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever"—therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden . . . So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim, and the flaming sword which turned every direction, to guard the way to the tree of life. (NASB)

Despite a difficult Hebrew text at the juncture of v. 22 and v. 23 (literally, "and", rather than, "therefore"), the logical connection between the "lest…" of v. 22 and "and the Lord sent", of v. 23 is indeed, "therefore". God both expelled man from the garden and stationed the guard at the gate in order to bar access to this tree. There is good reason to believe that this tree was previously fully accessible and that man was either expressly permitted or even ordered to eat from it.6 Whatever the implications of this passage are for eschatology in no way suggests that before "the man ha[d] become like one of Us," he was in any sense prohibited from the Tree of Life. In this passage, God is instituting measures to prevent man from eating. The verse says nothing about such measures having been in place prior to this verse. In fact, because God found it necessary to take such measures, one may infer that prior to 3:22 eating from the Tree of Life was certainly possible.

Conclusion from the Biblical Data of Genesis 2-3

Once again, the answer as to why I believe that Adam was permitted to eat from the Tree of Life is because God said so and the context reinforces a conclusion that the author of Genesis believed that Adam would have taken that authorization at face value.

Vos's Argument

On the other hand, arguably the best (both in skill and in fidelity) biblical theologian since the apostle Paul, Geerhardus Vos, seemed hesitant to take 2:16 at face value. Despite the legitimacy of much of the above Vos quotation, his argument has two weaknesses.

First, Vos seriously understated the problem. The clause, "while yet nothing is recorded concerning any prohibition" fails to address 2:16, mentioned above. Not only is there no prohibition, the text of chapter 2 (as we have seen) contains a very promising candidate for the category of "an authorization." Thus, the barrier against inferring that God had previously somehow placed the second tree off-limits ("reserved for the future") is not merely the lack of an explicit prohibition, it is above all the presence of what has all the appearance of an explicit authorization that is in the text—words which Adam should have grasped as either conferring a right, or even a duty, to eat of the Tree of Life.

Second, Vos extrapolates from (1) the fact that Adam did not eat of the Tree of Life prior to his expulsion ("man before his fall had not eaten of it") to make (2) the claim that it was somehow off-limits ("The tree was reserved for the future"). The first represents sound exposition. The second does not necessarily follow from the first.

Starke's 1996 article repeats the same errors. He does note 2:16, but again argues from the fact of Adam's not having eaten to a claim that Adam had no right to eat. His sole logic is an appeal to what he claims is the theology of the Tree in later biblical revelation. Furthermore, Starke never explains why Henri Blocher's exegesis of 2:16 is wrong.

Second, it must be decided whether or not Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of Life prior to their expulsion. Taking the latter first, it has been occasionally argued that because it was given to Adam and Eve to eat "from all the trees of the garden" (Gen. 2:16), it would be "logically contrary" to think that the Tree of Life was not one of those "allowed and given to the man," and therefore that they naturally ate of its fruit [citing Blocher]. Yet, following the Fall, God's establishment of an angelic guardian to prevent man's approach to the Tree of Life clearly contradicts this idea (Gen. 3:24). To argue that man had to repeatedly eat of the fruit in order to possess eternal life, and therefore, that the Lord's actions following the Fall were designed to prevent Adam and Eve from continuing to partake of the fruit is unconvincing. The use of the perfect tense for "unique or instantaneous action" in the reason stated for their expulsion points to a single act of eating. In addition, the explicit use of "also" (gam, Heb.) in the divine counsel (Gen. 3:22) points to Adam and Eve's not having as yet tasted the fruit of the Tree of Life, as they had the Tree of Knowledge. In the same way, Christ's eschatological promise of the fruit of the Tree is made "to him who overcomes" (Rev. 2:7), and Adam's failure in the probationary testing of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil [citing Vos, p. 28] can in no way be construed as a victory. The right to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life is secured only through obedience—obedience which the first Adam failed to render, but which the Last Adam is pictured as having delivered in full (Rom. 5:19).7

The later use of the Tree of Life in Scripture may well shed light on earlier passages, but when the New Testament is not purporting to exegete the Old, few would argue that theological inferences on their own can become a substitute for exegesis of the Old Testament text. Vos left 2:16 untouched. Starke has simply pushed aside Blocher's exegesis on the basis of what he believes ought to be inferred about the Tree of Life in Revelation. Starke's methodology, even more clearly than that of Vos, violates important interpretative principles.

Concerning the exegesis of Scripture, the Westminster Confession rightly teaches two important hermeneutical principles. First, doctrine (points of teaching) from Scripture may come in one of two ways—teaching

is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. (WCF 1:6)


The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known [not passed over] by other places that speak more clearly. (WCF 1:9)

(1) Genesis 2:16 expressly sets down that every tree in the garden was authorized (or perhaps even commanded) except one, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Further, (2) the contrary is not a necessary deduction from 3:22 (Vos, himself only goes so far as to say, "it appears"). Furthermore, on the second principle, "when there is a question … about the sense…," we must look to the more clear passage for light and interpret the less in the light of the more clear. The only passage which directly speaks to the question of allowing or prohibiting trees is 2:16. That is its focus; that is its subject matter. Does Genesis 3:22 (or Revelation), which may appear to suggest that the second special tree was also off-limits before the fall, actually teach such a doctrine? The Westminster Confession of Faith urges us to look to the more clear passage for the answer. Starke's treatment implies that 2:16 is less clear, but he never returns "to make it known" by the supposedly more clear passages.


"God commanded the man, saying, 'From any [lit. 'all' or 'every'] tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.'" This statement is very, very clear. Depending upon how the verb is rendered, God is authorizing, or even commanding, Adam to eat from "every" tree of the Garden, and then setting forth one, but only one, specific exception. One must conclude from 2:16-17 and the broader context, until expelled from the Garden following his sin, Adam was expressly permitted to eat from all other trees in the Garden, including the Tree of Life. The fact that he did not does not change this.

Kobe, Japan


1 "The Tree of Life: Protological to Eschatological," 11/2 (September 1996): 15-31, esp. 23-24.

2 While that question (admittedly important) inevitably arises if one accepts the thesis argued below, the case argued—here is that the exegesis has been flawed and the text forced. The faithful biblical theologian must never force the clear exegetical data into what he believes is the biblical theological 'superstructure' (semper reformata). Thus, I argue that the exegetical data have been, heretofore, manipulated. If the exegesis below is thought compelling, future articles will have to work through the implications for the 'superstructure'.

3 The verbal expression here (literally something along the lines of, 'eating you will eat'—infinitive absolute + imperfect) has traditionally been rendered as above (NASB; similarly, NIV, NRSV, etc.). However, this is also a verbal form used to make an emphatic demand or rule. Thus a rendering such as "you shall surely eat from every" should also be considered seriously. Supporting such an imperatival rendering would be the label given by the author to introduce the divine words: "God commanded." (For a clear cut example of this usage, see the same verbal form juxtaposed with the prohibition form, "If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty; but you shall surely return to Him a guilt offering"—1 Samuel 6:3, NASB).

Bruce Waltke and M. O'Connor categorize 2:16's verb form as a paronomastic use of the infinitive absolute (p. 582). As to its meaning, they contend, "In our opinion the paronomastic infinitive is always an intensifying infinitive" (An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax [Winona Lake, Indiana: 1990], 585).

4 The NIV for 2:8-9, though slightly paraphrastic, rightly reflects the Hebrew idiom which has both trees in the middle. G. Wenham brings this out more literally: "the tree of life was in the middle of the garden and also the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Genesis 1-15, WBC, p. 44).

5 "Indeed, has God said, 'You shall not eat from any tree of the garden...?' God has said, 'You shall not eat from it or touch it, lest you die'" (3:1-2).

6 It is not necessary to take "from every tree you shall surely eat" (if the infinitive absolute be so rendered) as a command that, for example each day Adam must eat from each tree. Rather, the imperative would function to prescribe for his diet all trees but one.

7 Starke, 23-24; citing Henri Blocher, In the Beginning (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1984) 123.