The Forbidden Tree and the Year of the Lord

by Lee Sun Ai
Asian Women’s Resource Center for Culture and Theology (AWRC)


The Forbidden Tree

Scripture: Genesis 2:15- 17

"The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the Garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat; for in the day that you eat of it, you shall die."’

I was in the Malaysian state of Sarawak in March 1991 as part of a program sponsored by the Christian Conference of Asia-Urban Rural Mission (CCA-URM). My purpose was to learn about the consequences of logging in the rain forests of the region and to inform the people in Korea about the experiences of the tribal people there in order to gather (I support to save the forests and the indigenous people whose life is totally dependent on the forests as well as to address the ecological issues in Sarawak.

We were going to the upper part of the river Renjan in a canoe to reach a spot where barricades have been erected by the Kenyah people for some time. I was fascinated by the never-ending deep and thick green of the forest belts freely spread on both shores of the river. From or time to time, we noticed the barracks of logging companies on the shores from which they dispatch workers and machines to areas further inland. The mysterious silence which kept the life circle of the rain forests for hundreds of thousands years, undisturbed by any human invasion motivated by greed, broke into my mind as a revelation: The Forbidden Tree!

The Forbidden Tree in the Garden of Eden was being reenacted before me. I decided to use the theme for our Bible study in Sarawak. God the Creator took hadam to the Garden of Eden for hadam to till and keep. (Phyllis Tnble’s reinterpretation of the Creation story in Chapter 2 of Genesis and of the fail of humanity in Chapter 3 says that Adam with the definite article the is not a proper noun. It is a human being with no gender specification. Adam became his name after Eve was created and named.) God commanded it, saying, "You may freely eat of every tree of the Garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat; for in the day that you eat of it, you shall die."

The Garden of Eden is a semi-mythical place symbolizing luxuriant fertility, especially in respect to its lordly trees. God gave them freedom to eat all the fruits of every tree, except of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The consequences of disobedience would result in death. In verse nine in the same chapter, another distinguishing tree - the tree of life - is also described as being planted in the midst of the Garden.

Scholars argue about the involvement of more than one writer in this version of the Creation story. Regardless of the number of authors, a clear message of this story is the conflicting reality of freedom and restriction that we human beings face and have to confront in our lives. According to the story of the temptation, the ultimate boundary where human beings are forbidden to cross is the act of trying to be like God (Gen. 3:5).

The ideology of the absolute sovereignty of God alone in the Creation, especially in creating Eve, motivates the ideology of equality of all human beings: no one taking the place of God can dominate other human beings.

In modern times, we can refer to men and women, managers and workers, rulers and people, between races, powerful nations and small nations, etc. In all of these examples, we see the pattern of domination and subjugation. It is there because the forbidden trees were trespassed, and sinfulness was created.

In the rain forests of Sarawak. the native peoples of the land are making their living unaffected by the market economy system. They draw everything they need from the forest. Literally, the rain forest has been the source of their life. Among the people, there are no signs of any desire to acquire excessive material objects nor to dominate others politically and militarily. It reflects the primitive community’s value system of peace with Nature and peace with each other in community where there are no inflated mechanics of domination and exploitation at work. They are happy in drawing what is necessary in life from Nature. They have the wisdom to be in harmony with the rhythms of Nature, and the land for them is something to be revered and not to be viewed as a commodity. They would never think of buying or selling the land. It is so sacred; it is where their ancestors’ souls reside. The Iban tribe also treats the rice they cultivate in the same manner. It is so precious that they would not use it as a commercial item. I think it is because of their reverence for life. The source where life originates and is sustained has an absolute value which cannot be measured in worldly ways.

In today’s world, however, the lumber business acquires so much money that whoever can get the concessions to cut down the forests mercilessly destroys the source of the forest people’s life. In this endeavor not only the domestic business powers but also the technology, capital and desire to consume the wood in various sophisticated ways in the powerful nations are involved. In this hierarchical mode of exploitation, the powerless natives become the immediate victims, and the ecological damage caused by the merciless logging of the rain forests affects all living beings in the world. "Then his evil desire conceives and gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death" (James 1:15). And few men’s evil desire reaches out to so countless many as the power of death.

Parallel phenomena are seen in other industries. The export-oriented industrial model recommended by the First World and implemented by most Third World countries in Asia and the Pacific region have produced four tigers (Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and south Korea) as success stories. However, all of the remaining countries struggle hard in a world of harsh competition to obtain markets. Even the successful ones also face problems, especially when the buying nations are experiencing a depression (for example, the United States) or are erecting barriers to imports while their exports do not face many restrictions. For instance, south Korea’s trade deficit with Japan in 1991 was US$8 billion (Chosun Daily, Dec. 12, 1991).

Export-oriented industries necessitate cheap labor. In order to maintain cheap labor, the price of agricultural products has been kept low. The end result has been the devastation of the farming industry and the importation of foreign agricultural products. In 1963, Korea’s food self-sufficiency was 93.6%; but in 1983, it fell to 50.2%. Finding it difficult to make ends meet, numerous farmers went through a semi-forced exodus to urban areas. Until the beginning of the 1960s, the rural population in Korea was 70%, but presently it is only 20%.

The farming industry, which is going through feminization and impoverishment, also faces another problem. In 1986, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) meeting was held in Uruguay. At this meeting, U.S. representatives proposed opening the markets of all countries. In relation to south Korea, two outstanding items which Korea is being pressured to import as a result of the U.S. position are agricultural products, including rice, and the products of the service industry. Farmers in Korea believe that the enactment of the Uruguay Round will bring catastrophic ruin to their life work, which is already suffering so much.

The more serious issue is the dependency of south Korea on the big powers who control Korea’s export industry in terms of lending capital or technology and who provide the market for Korea’s products. When she is pressurized to import items, like cigarettes, in exchange for access to a foreign export market in which her products must compete with products from throughout the world, including the First World, she becomes totally powerless. The farmers’ reality, in their powerless position, is to continue to be victimized.

The service industry, according to the Korean Christian Farmers Association, occupies 68% of the U.S. national economy, and the number of employed people in this area is 72% of the total workers of the nation. It makes up for the absence of a consumer goods industry, which is being met by the Third World countries with their pool of cheap labor. Prof. Coleen Roach, who is a champion for the New World Information and Communication Order, says:

"U.S. sales of television programming to foreign broadcasters in 1988 were $1.3 billion, an increase of 30% from 1987. This figure is expected to reach $2.3 billion by 1990" (A New World Information and Communication Order, p. 292).

American film companies also are increasing their profits from foreign sales, which were $800 million in 1985, $1.05 billion in 1987 and $1.13 billion in 1988. Although Roach says that two- thirds of these profits came from the European Economic Community, the Third World is also affected as well.

A video produced by the United Church of Christ in the United States in cooperation with the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. discusses television programs in one of the Caribbean islands. The programming is American through and through for 24 hours on all channels. The concerned church leaders of the island viewed this level of foreign programming as cultural imperialism which must be resolved to maintain their national identity as a people.

In all of these examples, the Forbidden Trees are violated again and again. At the World Council of Churches Vancouver Assembly in 1983, a woman from the Marshall Islands spoke about the suffering of her people affected by the nuclear testing done by the powerful nations in their waters. Jelly babies are born, she said, and people die of cancer. Another Pacific islander also told me her story. Her brother, who used to work in the nuclear waste yard, died of cancer, she said, and her sister is also seriously affected; she herself carries the symptoms.

One of the big issues in Korea is pollution. Industrial waste smears in the land, runs in the rivers and goes through human bodies. In comparison to the talk of alarm, not much is being done to clean up the environment. The air which was given to us was fresh and clean, but not any longer.

In a tiny country like Korea, eight nuclear power plants are in operation, and two more are under construction. Korea’s ambition is to have 50 plants by the year 2000. The excuse given is that it needs so much energy to run all of the industry that the nation has launched. However, one has to remember that this ambitious plan was made after the Three Mile Island accident, which led the people of the First World to move against nuclear power plants in their own land.

These phenomena are the products of the lopsided development of the present era, which is Western-oriented and is not geared to the improvement of the real life of the people. Those who, indeed, benefit are the multinational corporations, international money lenders and those who control technology and who collaborate with the powerful. The national authorities involved in this web of cooperation defend their personal interest as the national interest while their own poor, let alone the Third World poor, are increasing in number and degree of devastation.

In the 10th commandment, it clearly says, "You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his manservant or his maidservant or his ox or his ass or anything that is your neighbor’s property." Here a wife is treated the same as property and is viewed by feminists as an expression of androcentrism in the Bible. The Forbidden Tree is manifested in the concrete relationship of God and humans and between human beings. The relationship can be individual or collective.

In prophetic writings, God passes judgment over the injustices performed by the rich and powerful against the weak and powerless. The prophets see that God uses neighboring nations to punish the sins of the political and religious elites of Israel because they were trespassing the boundary that God has established. The powerful were abusing their freedom of access to enlist exploitative measures to satisfy their greed and to oppress and impoverish the already poor. The prophet Amos says:

"Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Judah and for four, I will not revoke the punishment because they have rejected the law of the Lord and have not kept his statutes, but their lies have led them astray.. .So I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem. Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel and for four, I will not revoke the punishment because they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes; they lay themselves down beside every altar upon garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God, they drink the wine of those who have been fined (Amos 2:4-8)."

Judah distributed the traditional family farms to the political merit makers and turned the Land into cash crop plantations for export. The farmers lost their land and had to work as hired hands for cheap wages on the grape or olive plantations. They could not make ends meet, and many sold themselves and their sons and daughters as slaves. With the wealth they acquired in this way, the rich led an extravagant and immoral life. They even bought war instruments with the money they made from exporting wine and olive oil. As they acquired wealth, they needed war instruments to protect themselves, for they became the coveted object of their neighbors.

Last night in Sarawak we shared our own stories. The stories were woven around the theme of big powers bullying the small powers and the innocent suffering of the people of the small nations caught in the web of international power politics. The stories of the suffering forest people in Sarawak caused by the greed of lumber companies echo the stories of the suffering Korean people caused by the division of the country because of the military interests of the superpowers. The pains of battered wives, the pains of the people who are discriminated against because of racial or ethnic differences and the pains of all the poor and alienated people are all caused by the violation of the Forbidden Tree.

The fruits of the Forbidden Tree in today’s world are many. They are big powers’ exploitation and domination over the small people, and domestic political and economic powers over their own people. This and other kinds of abuse and misuse of power are rooted in the desire to be like God, the most powerful and authoritative one. In their theology, God is a dominating, self- centered being with unlimited power that is used whatever way God may desire. For them, the restrictions of the Forbidden Tree, which must be kept for the respect of others and life itself, are the ways of foolishness.

The Christian message, however, looks at worldly foolishness in a different manner. St. Paul says, " means of the so-called ‘foolish’ message we preach, God decided to save those who believe. Jews want miracles for proof, and Greeks look for wisdom. As for us, we proclaim the crucified Christ, a message that is offensive to the Jews and nonsense to the Gentiles; but for those whom God has called, both Jews and Gentiles, this message is Christ. who is the power of God and wisdom of God. For what seems to be God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and what seems to be God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Cor. 1:21-25)."

The Grace of God Revealed in the Spirit of the Year of Jubilee

Scripture: Leviticus 25:8-55

Freedom and restrictions are entangled in human experiences throughout history and in all cultures. The manifestations differ, and how we tackle specific challenges also vary.

We have seen the cause of sin as trespassing the boundaries of restrictions God has placed in relation to God and other human beings. The desire to be like God, the desire to exploit and dominate others for individual as well as collective self-interest, are the origin of sin.

Because of sin, the offended and victimized suffer. God does not allow them to remain in a perpetual state of unjust suffering. God’s grace is revealed in the spirit of Jubilee law. The Year of Jubilee is mentioned in different passages in the Old Testament: Leviticus 25:8-55, Isaiah 61:1-3 and Isaiah 58:5-7 all mention the year or day of rejoicing of Yahweh when the oppressed and exploited are freed from their bondage.

Leviticus 25:8-55 is the most detailed description of Jubilee. After seven sabbatical years, the following year, that is, the 50th, is the Year of Jubilee when all debts are forgiven and the lost land and houses are restored to the indebted to begin a new life.

To announce the good news all over Israel, the horn of a lamb was blown. The horn was called a jobel so the Jubilee was also called the Year of Jobel. "The sound of the horn signified the great forgiveness, liberation from oppression and suffering, joy at recovery of the original conditions through a period of rest. Therefore, when the sound of the horn was heard, it was called in various ways, such as the "Year of Jobel," "Year of Grace," etc. (Women Preparing the Year of Joy, Women and Year of Jubilee 1995, Year of Reunification of the Country, edited by the Women’s Commission of the National Council of Churches in Korea, 1991, Seoul, Korea, p. 17).

The main points in the Jubilee law forbid the permanent purchase and sale of land and houses, demand a period of rest for the land and Nature, distribute justly the products from the land, lend money with no interest and liberate the servants and slaves.

The concept of land for the Israelites is as follows: land is the possession of Yahweh, and people are the guests who live on God’s land. This attitude makes it possible to forbid the permanent sale and purchase of the land. From the land, the source of life is drawn for the whole clan, and it must be handed down to the clan for their survival. Every person has the fundamental right to live because all lives are given and sustained by the Creator Godself.

In other words, the Spirit of Jubilee was thanksgiving to the origin of life and a due response to the God of history who leads the whole of humanity in justice, love and a dialectical relation of freedom and restriction to oneself and for others.

It has been said that the law of Jubilee was never enacted in reality, but we see many embodiments of its spirit in different forms throughout history. The ministry of Jesus of Nazareth is the archetype of the Jubilee manifestation. The Gospel of Luke 4:18-19 is the mission statement of Jesus:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."

The Year of the Lord is the Jubilee Year when all of those who had to sell their land and houses be-cause of financial crisis and who were cut off from the means of life have the basic sources of life restored to them. It is, indeed, a new life for the poor and the released captives, for the blind whose sight is recovered and for those who are freed from their oppression.

The Acceptable Year of the Lord is when God’s rule is established, and the means of life is open to every person so that there are no poor nor hungry, no physically and spiritually deformed, no captives in prison nor oppressed in the nation and the world. Then real peace in the world can be the reality of humanity.

This sounds too good to become reality; but if more and more people are convinced and try to create the Acceptable Year of the Lord, that is, acceptable visions and policies for

all people and Nature so that all life may be able to survive, they will find that the God of Life is on the side of the Movement of Life to bless and increase this force in society. This is the confession of our faith. The women’s movement and all the other renewal movements focus on the supremacy of life. I believe this is the work of the Holy Spirit.

To achieve this, however, it takes grateful acceptance on the part of the victimized and repentance on the part of the aggressors. Repentance in Greek is "metanoia," which means "to turn back." It is a concrete action of correcting all of the unjust relationships and making them right (Women Preparing the Year of Joy, p. 32). And it must bear fruits. John the Baptist says "to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befits repentance and do not begin to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father," for I tell you: God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire"’ (Luke 3:7-9).

Jurgen Moltmann says in his Theology of Hope that there are sins of offense and sins of despair. If we plunge ourselves into a state of despair, overwhelmed by the reality of sinfulness, we are committing the sin of despair. In fact, all of us have to go through repentance vis a vis the vision of the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament and the Reign of God. In His proclamation, Jesus Christ concretized ministries of restoration to life; how He lived and died has become the first fruit of the Resurrection.

John rebuked all those who came to be baptized. Among them must have been some Pharisees who were the active opponents to Jesus’ ministry afterwards. However, most of the people must have been the "oklos," the exploited and oppressed masses of the day. Then why such a terrible rebuke? Perhaps John was angered by their condition of despair and their use of the rhetoric of faith as their excuse for non-involvement in the coming Reign of God.

How about the Christian church of today’s world? The Church can be an instrument for maintaining the established status quo if we are happy with the status quo or if we sink into despair using the rhetoric of faith in our faithlessness, or the Church can be an instrument to bring the Spirit of Jubilee to our own reality if we sincerely repent of these two dimensions of the one coin which is named "sin."

Repentance means to bear concrete fruits. One of the Church’s functions is education. The Church has the advantage of working with a large constituency. What do we teach, and how do we teach are important questions though. For example, we can talk about the Vietnamese War. It would not have terminated when it did if Americans had kept quiet. By making this statement, we do not exclude the better possibility of no war and of a peaceful solution that the nation could have made with a higher level of consciousness among its people. What needs to be emphasized here, however, is the importance of the churches’ role in shaping the peoples’ opinions and actions.

When the Church talks about action for change, we mean both short-term and long-term actions. Both of them stem from the Spirit of Justice and Jubilee. The Spirit of Justice is the moving force for both short-term as well as long-term actions of renewal. It provides the historical continuity within the various manifestations of the claims of justice for which a particular historical period and a particular culture stands. The Spirit of Jubilee provides visions for the actions of justice. Now is the time when a new vision is anticipated. In the beginning in the midst of darkness and confusion, the God of Creation gave birth to light, life and the sustaining order for the Creation. Thus, the vision of the Creator became the reality. Now is the time for the visions of human creatures to be realized in the Spirit of the Year of Jubilee.


Many fruits of the Forbidden Tree are violated in today’s world, and the powers of death hover in the polluted air of the whole universe. However, we also hear the horn of the Jubilee blowing loud among us as we experience the Christ-event happening even today. Let us turn our restrictions to be active channels of love for our neighbors until they are regenerated and transformed into holistic freedom for the poor, deprived, alienated and discriminated against so that they may enjoy their God-given rights to life. Every individual and every group of human beings, whatever identities they may have - nationhood, race, ethnicity, sex, religion or other classification - must participate in the stewardship of God’s Creation as fully grown-up, authentic partners with God and each other. Then Nature and other creatures shall be liberated as well and placed under the Reign of the Creator God so that they may be able to function as life-givers - not, however, as agencies of death-giving forces seeking revenge against the irresponsible and unjust exploitation of their stewards. In short, the Spirit of the Year of Jubilee means the liberation of all creatures from its victimization in the sinful context of the dominating powers of death.

With the coming of the Year of Jubilee, our eyes shall look upon the fruits of the Forbidden Tree with adoration and thanksgiving for their beautiful presence which enriches our understanding about what it really means to respect and love different kinds of human beings and creatures, including the whole of the natural world. Then the Forbidden Tree will neither be the temptation nor the curse nor the source of death.

[The above article was published in Voices, Vol.15 No.4/Vol.16 No.1, December 1991/March 1992.  pp.23-28]