The question being asked here is not what kind of fruit (as in apples and oranges) was the forbidden fruit, but what did that fruit represent? Many people believe that the forbidden fruit symbolized sexual relations between the first man and woman because after eating it we are told that they became aware of their nakedness and experienced shame (Genesis 3:7) and because the punishment given by God to the woman was regarding childbearing (Genesis 3: 16), which might be understood as the result of sexual knowledge. Additionally, some scholars have claimed, in the ancient Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic we find a historical-literary parallel of coming to human knowledge through sexual experience in the story of the wild man Enkidu who is civilized and made human when he slept with the prostitute Shamhat – after which the wild animals flee from him, and the woman tells him: “You are wise, Enkidu. You have become like a god.”
But when we look at these arguments individually they do not stand up to scrutiny. First, we should realize that despite the surface similarities of the Enkidu story and that of Adam and Eve, the two are very different. Enkidu is not the first person to be civilized – he is rather an anomaly in the world, made by the gods to be an equal of the hero Gilgamesh. There is a closely similar ancient story of the seduction of the wild man Rsyasrnga in the Indian Mahabharata epic. In both cases the stress is on an anomalous situation, not the origin of the state of humanity, and in both cases, nothing was forbidden – we simply have a story of a wild man who is tamed by a woman.
When we look closely at the biblical account itself, we find that the punishment of Eve does not necessarily have anything to do with sexuality – it is more a punishment of the woman’s role in society at that time, just as the man was punished in his role – working the ground. In both cases the punishment is one of pain – whether through labor with the earth (Genesis 3:17-19) or labor with children (Genesis 3:16). In fact, the same Hebrew word for pain or sorrow, itstsabon, is used of both the woman’s punishment and that of the man. Even the apparent oblique reference to sexuality in the mention of childbirth is unsure, as Genesis is not clear whether the promised pain with children is meant to refer to the act of childbirth, to child rearing, or to both.
Finally, the argument that the forbidden fruit represented sexual relations is demolished by the fact that Genesis specifically records that the man and woman were commanded to produce children: “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number …” (Genesis 1:18), so that which was commanded could hardly be that which was forbidden.
What the fruit of the forbidden tree represented is, however, clearly demonstrated in its name and what we are told about it. The forbidden tree was introduced by God to Adam as “.. the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:11), and it is simply this knowledge that the fruit represented.
Genesis makes clear that the knowledge of good and evil was a divine prerogative: “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil ... And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:5, 22). In these statements we see that what was forbidden had nothing to do with sex (the very fact that God stressed the knowledge concerned would make man like himself disproves that), and that it was simply knowledge of evil which God's command was forbidding.
We can find other verses in the Bible where knowledge of good and evil is shown to be a prerogative of God and his servants. In 2 Samuel 14:17 the widow from Tekoa compared David to an angel who was able to discern between good and evil , and in 2 Samuel 14:17 Solomon asked God for the specific ability to distinguish between right and wrong.
The knowledge of good and evil is not in itself wrong, only the way that knowledge is acquired. Rather than being willing to learn from God, Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve chose to learn by their own experience. The forbidden fruit was knowledge gained by experience in contradiction to God’s command.