No, It Wasn’t an Apple

No, It Wasn’t an Apple
John Gillespie studies religion and has a Ph.D. in Humanities, a M.A. in Liberal Arts, and a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction. He teaches at San Jacinto College.

Forbidden Fruit a flavor has
That lawful Orchards mocks—
How luscious lies within the Pod
The Pea that Duty locks!
– Emily Dickinson 

What is the “forbidden fruit” spoken of in the Book of Genesis? 

Speculating about the ambiguously described fruit has proven to be almost as irresistible as actually eating it. The Hebrew word, peri, is of no help, for it simply means “fruit.” 

Biblical literalists, having surveyed the produce available in Mesopotamia in the 6th century BCE, have proposed that it was an apple, a grape, or even a pear. Talmudic scholars have tied themselves in knots looking for an answer, suggesting figs, wheat, or even citrons. 

Medieval European artists often blamed the apple, but this is based on a pun invented by St. Jerome who thought to conflate malum, the Latin word for “apple,” with the phonetically similar malus, or “evil.” The poet John Milton solidified the apple’s sordid reputation by naming it twice in his epic Paradise Lost.  

But let us wipe the blackboard clean of such misconceptions. 

The “forbidden fruit” is not an apple, a pear, a grape, or any other specific species garden variety produce. It is, rather, the process by which any of these are cultivated. In short, the forbidden fruit is farming. 

Systematized agriculture is relatively new to the human experience. Nearly 95 percent of human history falls into what historians call the Paleolithic Era, or the vast stretch of time between 2.5 million and roughly 10,000 BCE. 

Our earliest ancestors probably lived in small communities of no more than 50 to 75 people. They met their needs by hunting and gathering and later by herding. Because these people—sometimes derided as “cavemen”—had yet to invent agriculture, we often assume that their lives were difficult, barbaric, or decidedly “uncivilized.” 

As the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously puts it, human life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Thus, Hobbes established the nearly universally unchallenged premise that prehistoric life was bad, and that civilized life is, well, better. Hobbes was quite the pessimist. 

Our culture has absorbed much of Hobbes’s misconceptions about Paleolithic peoples. 

We tend to think of farming as an indisputably positive technological breakthrough, yielding more food from less work and raising the overall quality of life. A contrary position comes from the late anthropologist Marshall Sahlins. His research has yielded evidence that when compared to their neolithic counterparts, Paleolithic people lived longer, suffered from fewer physical ailments, enjoyed more free time and quite possibly, and experienced more intimate relationships.

In fact, Sahlins goes as far as to declare Paleolithic societies as “the original affluent society.” And this is where the Book of Genesis most aligns. 

In Genesis we read of the mythic “Garden of Eden,” presumably located somewhere near the “fertile crescent” of ancient Mesopotamia. After the God of Genesis creates the heavens, creates the earth, and creates the animals, he creates humans. But here, the narrator interjects, perhaps a bit awkwardly, “there was no man to cultivate the ground.” And so, we are told, quite directly, that in humankind’s original paradise, there are no farmers. 

Well, there is one farmer. The author tells us that YHWH, God of the Hebrews, himself is history’s first agriculturalist:

[God said] Let the land produce vegetation—plants yielding seeds according to their kinds, and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. (1:12) 

In the opening chapters of Genesis, YHWH appears not just as the Almighty Creator but as a Creator with a green thumb. 

We see that it is God who “planted an orchard” in Eden and placed there the two infamous trees—the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And it is God who causes the springs to “well up” and “water the whole surface of the ground,” making YHWH the first irrigation engineer. 

In fact, if we closely analyze the imagery, we see that his creative power seems to be expressed primarily through the acts of planting and watering. God holds all of the activities that later become the hallmarks of systematized agriculture. Even in his spare time, we find God “walking in the garden in the cool of the day,” apparently enjoying the fruit (sorry for the pun) of his labor. 

The Bible records that when Adam and Eve eat from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil,” their eyes are opened and they “became like God.” What does this mean?  

If we confine our interpretation to the text and resist the imposition of centuries of theological baggage, we see that “to be like God” simply means to be a creator. It is to claim dominion over the earth and to attempt doing all of the things that YHWH does. 

Humankind’s “original sin,” then, is the attempted usurpation of God’s generative powers through the deliberate cultivation of the earth. In short, Adam and Eve, who we must see as symbolic of humankind, gain the “knowledge” of creation that God personally reserves.

And by symbolically bringing to humankind the supposed benefits of agriculture, Adam and Eve claim more for themselves than God provides. 

This interpretation invites obvious comparisons with the Greek Prometheus, the Titan trickster who steals fire from the Gods and was punished for his trouble. But whereas Prometheus’s liver is devoured, Adam’s and Eve’s punishment more directly fit their crime: 

Cursed is the ground because of you; through toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it will yield for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread, until you return to the ground—because out of it were you taken. (3:17)

The consequence for their offense is not only banishment from the garden, which is bad enough, but also a lifetime sentence of back-breaking farm work. Also, by pointing out that Adam will farm the ground from which he is taken (as is every other animal), YHWH reminds Adam that he, like the plants over which he has declared himself master, is a part of creation and not its creator. Adam’s arrogant attempt to master the dirt will result only in a disgraceful return to it.   

And indeed, when researchers examine the ground to which Adam returns, they find that the skeletons of his descendants reveal a marked deterioration in health—bone degeneration, tooth decay, and herniated discs—almost surely the result of overwork. They were shorter, weighed less, and died younger. Nutritional deficiencies resulting from reliance on fewer food sources weakened their resistance to disease. 

This seems to be the global trend. 

Wherever agriculture took root, the quality of human life, at least for the masses, diminished. It is therefore, not much of a leap to say that the author of Genesis had this grim situation in mind when he says, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (2:17). 

By looking at Adam and Eve’s children, we see that the Bible does not give a favorable assessment of either urban centers or the agriculture from which they rose. YHWH accepts Abel’s offering but rejects Cain’s. 

What is the difference? 

Abel is a pastoralist, and Cain is a farmer. 

While many have tried to explain YHWH’s decision by asserting that Cain does not offer his sacrifice “in faith” or that he is rejected for withholding the best of his bounty, the greater context suggests that it is Cain’s attempt to offer to God what already belonged to God—the bounty of the earth. 

The animals that Abel offers, on the other hand, had been previously placed under Adam’s dominion. 

When Cain kills Abel in anger, he commits the crime in his fields, thus strengthening the association of agriculturalists with violence, oppression, and murder. Like Adam, Cain’s punishment is in part a curse on the ground: “When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you.” 

The argument presented here is unlikely to be shared from any pulpit that I know of. I suspect that most ministers will continue to push the idea that the “forbidden fruit” is generalized disobedience, or even worse, that it is sex. 

But I think that we in the 21st century should listen once again to the wisdom of Genesis. We live in an urbanized world in which systemic agriculture takes place almost entirely behind the scenes. Those who work the ground are often invisible and marginalized. Across the globe, they work for some of the lowest wages and suffer the highest mortality rates

And yet, scroll through the aisles of almost any modern grocery store and you’ll see the Garden of Eden recreated—the world’s choicest fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts arranged for our pleasure. Sometimes a cool and pleasant mist even sprays them gently, like rain, from pipes installed overhead.

John Gillespie studies religion and has a Ph.D. in Humanities, a M.A. in Liberal Arts, and a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction. He teaches at San Jacinto College.

Art by Michelle Huang. Michelle read this piece and designed an original painting for Conceptions Review. Michelle is an artist from Sugar Land, Texas, now based out of New York, New York. She specializes in oil painting, known for her expressionist style in both figurative and abstract work. Her website is

Launched in March 2021, Conceptions Review is interested in the ideas people have about society and the consequences of these ideas. We seek accessible and standalone articles about conception-bending ideas and popular misconceptions. We are open to fields ranging from musicology to history to mathematics to insectology and everything in between.