The Contradictory Commands, Part 1: Isn’t It About … Time?

One Sunday while I was on my mission, I was asked to teach the Gospel Principles class.  The class was very small (just the missionaries and one part member family we’d been teaching), and the subject was the Fall of Adam and Eve.  I remember this lesson, because I was explaining conditions in the Garden of Eden and the results of the Fall.  The manual summarizes the scriptures and doctrines by stating that: “When Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden, they were not yet mortal. In this state, ‘they would have had no children’ (2 Nephi 2:23).  There was no death.”[1]  Yet the very next paragraph taught that: “God commanded them to have children. He said, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth…’ (Moses 2:28). God told them they could freely eat of every tree in the garden except one, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Of that tree God said, ‘In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.’ (Moses 3:17).”[2]  I did my best to explain these ideas, and one of the people in the class pointed out that these two things seem to contradict one another—In the garden, they couldn’t have children. God commanded them to have children but also commanded them to not do the thing that would allow them to have children—partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  I didn’t have a good answer, and told them as such.  We sat there for a minute with puzzled expressions on our faces, shrugged, and then moved on with the rest of the lesson.

Since that time, I have given the dilemma of the two contradictory commands God gave in Eden a lot of thought.  Through my study and thinking, I have come up with three possible answers to the dilemma.  I do not consider any of them completely satisfying, but they are worth consideration. The three are: (1) The issue was one of timing and obedience, (2) God wanted to give them a final chance to exercise their agency to decide if they would enter the harsh conditions of mortality, and (3) The issue is based in the records through which we receive the story.  I’ll consider each of these in an individual post, starting with the timing and obedience one, since that one is one that is discussed less often.

The essence of this view is that God gave them the two commands with the understanding that (at some point in the future) they could move beyond the command to not partake of the fruit to fulfill the command to multiply and fill the earth.  By choosing to partake of the fruit at Satan’s request at a time where God’s command was to not partake, Eve and Adam brought condemnation upon themselves.

In our scriptures, one of Satan’s greatest goals seems to be receiving the respect and worship that is due to God.  In the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, when Moses confronts Satan, the devil’s opening barrage is: “Moses, son of man, worship me” (Moses 1:12), a refrain which is repeated throughout the encounter.  Elsewhere, we read that Lucifer offered to be the Savior in a time prior to mortal life on earth, saying: “Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor” (Moses 4:1, emphasis added). Satan’s goal, according to this same section, was to “destroy the agency of man . . . and also, that [God] should give unto him [God’s] own power” (Moses 4:3).  After being cast out, Satan “became . . . the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto [God’s] voice” (Moses 4:4).  In all these situations, Satan is obsessed with receiving honor, worship, power, and control over humankind.

Applying this insight to the Fall of Adam and Eve, a Religious Studies scholar from BYU named M. Catherine Thomas wrote that: “We have to learn something about the adversary’s objectives. When the Lord gave Adam dominion over the earth, one of Lucifer’s first designs was to wrest this power from Adam and his posterity.”[3]  As recorded in a revelation to Joseph Smith, Adam “became subject to the will of the devil, because he yielded unto temptation” (D&C 29:40).  Building on this idea, Thomas wrote that:

I suggest one possibility concerning the way in which Eve was deceived.  Eve in the garden occupies a position similar to the Savior’s in the wilderness when Satan tried to tempt him to turn the stones into bread.  The Savior recognized Satan and refused to do his bidding with the words: “Man shall . . . live by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).  Jesus refused Satan because to do what Satan bade him do would have put him in subjection to Satan, which consequence would have relieved him of his messiahship.  Eve apparently did not recognize Satan and may not have understood about subjection to him.  Their eating the fruit at his enticement nevertheless placed them in that subjection (see D&C 29:40).  Is it possible that the deception rested in the fact that Eve took it from the wrong hand, having listened to the wrong voice?[4]

Although discussed in a different context, M. Catherine Thomas’s insights apply to a discussion about contradictory commands.  Perhaps the problem with partaking of the forbidden fruit was that by doing so, Eve and Adam chose to follow Satan’s commands rather than God’s commands.

A connected idea that helps make sense of this approach is that the two commands were conditional on time and situation.  A comparison is that we are still told that “God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force.”[5]  Yet, according to The Family: A Proclamation to the World, “God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.”[6]  For individuals who are not married, these two commands would be contradictory in a similar way to how the two commands given to Adam and Eve were contradictory—you are supposed to have children, but you can only do so by using the powers of procreation that are restricted to marriage.  When the timing is right, however, these individuals can be married and fulfill both commandments.  There would, by extension, be some way in which Adam and Eve could move beyond the state where they could not have children while still respecting the command to not partake of the fruit.

One possibility is that God would have eventually given the command to partake of the fruit or acted in some other way to allow Adam and Eve to experience mortal life and have children.  Elder James E. Talmage suggested that: “If it can be supposed that our first parents had not fallen surely some other means would have been employed to initiate the conditions of mortality on earth.”[7]  In this hypothetical scenario, the two commands were both intended to be fulfilled in the way and time God wanted.  For the time being, they were supposed to stay in the garden and not partake of the fruit, but when the time was ripe, God would have provided the way for them to move forward.

All of this, however, is extremely speculative.  There is no indication in the scriptures that God was planning on doing something to allow Adam and Eve to enter mortality later on.  Actually, Lehi indicates that “if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end” (2 Nephi 2:22). There are also no conditions listed in which Adam and Eve would have been allowed to partake of the forbidden fruit.  This makes the comparison to procreation being restricted to marriage somewhat of a stretch, because there is an obvious, known solution to resolve the contradiction—single individuals can get married and then have children (though this is easier said than done sometimes on both fronts).  With the records that we have, there is no comparable resolution to the contradiction of commands to not partake of the fruit and to also have children.  Hence, this solution is still not completely satisfying from an intellectual perspective.

While not completely sufficient, this idea does have some positive aspects to it.  It allows for Satan’s deception of an ignorant Adam and Eve and explains why God seems frustrated when He talks with them after they eat the fruit, even though it still fit into His plan.  It provides an important lesson to us (and to Eve and Adam) about Satan’s goals and what happens when we listen to his voice rather than God’s voice. There may be truth to it, but there are areas of this theory that we just don’t know enough to speak with any certainty.

Next time, we’ll discuss the approach that has been most favorably discussed in the Church.



[1] Gospel Principles (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2009), 28.

[2] Gospel Principles, 28.

[3] M. Catherine Thomas, Selected Writings of M. Catherine Thomas (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2000), 229.

[4] M Catherine Thomas, Spiritual Lightening (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), 53.

[5] The Family: A Proclamation to the World.

[6] The Family: A Proclamation to the World.

[7] James E. Talmage, Sunday Night Talks by Radio, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1931), 69.

17 comments for “The Contradictory Commands, Part 1: Isn’t It About … Time?

  1. Or, maybe the instructions not to eat of the fruit was not a commandment, but just the consequences of that choice. Eat the fruit=become mortal and have children and die. Do not eat the fruit=fail to keep the commandment to have children and remain immortal.

    Maybe it was just God giving them the choice of whether to keep the commandment that would also make big changes in their lives, such as work for your food and eventually die. I believe in free agency, but I don’t believe that God would give two contradictory commandments. So, if “have children” is a commandment, then Adam and Eve would have to be given a choice and that choice would have consequences.

    I think we humans look at it and in our own fear of death, we interpret death as a punishment rather than just a consequence of being mortal. When each of us made the choice to come to earth, we knew we were making essentially the same choice Adam and Eve made, to become mortal and eventually die. Was our choice to come to earth a bad thing? If not, why do we consider Adam doing exactly the same thing as disobeying God? Sure, it is translated that God “commanded” them. But I consider that a mistranslation. Just as Eve is told she will have “pain” in childbirth. But it is the same word for Adam working in the field by the sweat of his brow that is translated as “labor”. Human *Men* wanted Eve punished for making humans mortal, so they translated it as her being punished for breaking a commandment. They think, gee if Eve had not done that then we all would be living happily in the garden of Eden as immortals. And they think that all without realizing they would not have been born into a Garden of Eden because they wouldn’t have been born at all.

    Just how I see it.

  2. In my own mind, I see it as a metaphor for the problem that the plan of salvation had to solve. The Garden of Eden is a metaphor for the premortal life – we lived in the presence of God, innocent, knowing neither sin nor death. God wanted us to progress and become like him so we could enjoy eternal life with Him but in order to do that, we needed to experience good and evil for ourselves and exercise agency. The issue was, if we were allowed to do that, God knew we would make mistakes, become unclean from sin, and experience death and be lost forever. The way he resolved it was to ask his Only Begotten Son to become our Savior so we could become clean again and be brought forth through the power of the resurrection. So the paradox of the two commandments (being able to multiply required partaking of the tree of knowledge of good and evil) was resolved by God preparing a way to accomplish both and still enjoy eternal life. This is how I think of it, anyway.

  3. Part of the confusion is the need to join all the various accounts together as if there was one cohesive narrative. I think there is a decent argument to be made with how Moses 2 and 3 treats to the two different accounts that can lend credence to the argument to keep these accounts separate. For example the commandment to be fruitful and multiply is not in the account in 1 Nephi. While it is in the initial “spiritual” account in Moses 2 (and Genesis 1), and it is not in the “temporal” account in Moses 3 (nor Genesis 2) until _after_ they are exiled from the garden.

  4. I agree with D — that the garden story has to do with premortal life — only I’d say it’s more analogical than metaphorical. Inasmuch as Adam is “many” he stands as an archetype for all of humanity. Indeed, the name Adam can stand for an individual person who bears that name or man–as in mankind (much like the name Israel–which identifies either the man or his progeny). And so what we see in the garden saga is the man Adam acting as an archetype for his progeny–all of us.

    Toward the beginning of the story a deep sleep comes upon Adam during which a rib is taken from his side and is formed into a woman. There’s been a lot of speculation about the symbolism employed here–but I think there’s a fairly straightforward interpretation of this moment if we approach it with the archetypal or “macro” Adam in mind. Hugh Nibley called Adam’s sleep a “passage” of sorts. I take that to mean a passage between two existences–as when we awake through birth and sleep in death. And so, what we have is a scenario where — previous to this particular passage — we were undifferentiated in terms of gender–much likes babes who in the earliest days of their (mortal) existence have no sense of male and female. But what happens during our “sleep” is that the females are drawn out or separated from the males and placed under their own archetypal head–Eve–and when we “awake” we find ourselves in a world where there are now two distinct genders among the children of God.

    The reason I take the time to mention this little episode is because I think it has everything to do with the subject of the post. Quite often (IMO) we pass over this incident as if it were nothing of great import–just some nonsensical way of introducing the sexes. But if we consider it in light of the great plan of Life–then it becomes an event that is unparalleled in eternity. I’m of the opinion that when we shouted for joy at the grand council it wasn’t only because we’d get to take a step toward divine embodiment–but also because we’d have the opportunity to participate in bringing forth life–which is the ultimate expression of divinity.

    That said, what we have now is a situation that rather speaks for itself. IMO, when the Lord tells Adam and Eve to multiply he’s stating the obvious reason for the dichotomy between the sexes. And I give it to you as my humble opinion that the reason for Eve’s willingness to hear what the adversary had to say was because she was keenly aware of her potential to bring forth life–and was therefore open to suggestion on the subject. And for that reason the adversary was able to beguile her–by piggybacking his diabolical motives on virtue. Eve wanted the right things–indeed those things that are most sacred and holy above all–but was tricked into going about it the wrong way. As Nibley said–she peaked behind the veil. And I take that to mean that she did it at either the wrong time or in the wrong way–or both–and thereby acquired knowledge that she was not able to live up to (without being condemned by it, that is).

    And so the long and short of it is (IMO) being commanded to multiply and replenish the earth was an obvious declarative having to do with our new circumstances–and the commandment to not partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge was the Lord’s way of reminding us to keep all we do within the bounds he has set. As for the logistics involved in keeping the first commandment without experiencing the fall–I’m still working on that conundrum.

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, everyone.

    Gerald, thank you for sharing. I wasn’t aware of that letter before, but enjoyed reading it.

    Anna, I think you’ll like the second post in this series, since it discusses some similar ideas to the ones you’ve shared.

    Similarly, Carey, you may be interested in part 3 when it comes out next week, since that’s where I discuss the idea that Genesis 1 (Moses 2) and Genesis 2 (Moses 3) are different accounts, though I approach it through the lens of higher criticism. It seems like you might reach the same point through a slightly different lens, ?though

  6. Thanks for sharing, Dave. That book has shaped my personal opinion on the subject pretty heavily and is a big part of the third post in this series.

  7. Chad, I’m looking forward to parts 2 & 3 in this series–especially the latter. I’m interested in how you might apply the documentary history of the Bible to the Book of Moses.

  8. Dave B.,

    David Bokovoy is a smart cookie. (Are you and he one and the same?) He knows his stuff vis-a-vis the documentary history of the Bible. Even so, there will always be room for disagreement on doctrinal exegesis regardless of one’s expertise in the study of ancient texts.

  9. I find this kind of scrutiny of the Adam/Eve story to be … what is the word? Tiresome? Fatiguing? Irksome? Here is why:

    1. The Adam/Eve/Garden story is ancient. Go ahead and read a few classical Greek plays, or even medieval French stories and you will often find yourself saying “Huh?” at the end. This because those ancient writers had agendas and values that we don’t really understand today. One example is the highly significant role that “honor” plays in ancient sagas. We have a hard time understanding these stories because we make different assumptions. These ancient stories were used to explain why the world is the way it is. The Garden story explains why God isn’t on earth with us. And why life is a struggle. And why a powerful God could create a world so chaotic and evil.

    2. I believe that author or authors of the Garden story were not troubled one bit by Adam/Eve getting contradictory commands. The Gods were seen as capricious and beyond our understanding. I don’t think that there was any angst about this until more modern ears and minds found dissonance there. Its kind of like the Jacob/Esau story. I don’t think that ancient sages worried at all about the fact that Jacob and his mother used deceit to get the birthright. They were very interested (in my opinion) in showing that the birthright went to the right person and if they used deceit to get it, then so much the better for them. We find ourselves discussing whether God must honor a blessing or ordinance done with deceit today. Or we ask ourselves this: Would it be appropriate for President Nelson’s counselors or family to deceive him to their own selfish ends? It is not an appropriate question to ask because the story isn’t about that.

    3. It is no where recorded that Adam and Eve felt angst about their contradictory commandments. Were they anxious that they hadn’t had children? Were they troubled by this? Today are children troubled that they haven’t had babies yet? Because the command is there and they hear about it. When Satan tempts Eve, she is not told this: “Eat this fruit and you will have babies.” She is tempted by a promise of knowledge. Not by a promise of fertility.

    I find these kind of discussions tiresome because I don’t think it is beneficial to force our modern day concepts of God, of justice, of honesty, onto their ancient story.

    Rather than twist ourselves into pretzels trying to force our sense of goodness onto this ancient story, I would rather explore these kinds of questions:

    What is the impact of this story on us today?
    What ideas and concepts do you believe the author of this story want to address?

  10. That’s probably a wiser course, Stephen, though I still enjoy exploring several different ways to examine things.

  11. I think it’s a common misreading that the problem in the garden was *physical* capability. There are some good counterarguments, but if one wants to go for the orthodox card, Daniel Ludlow was the director of Correlation and published this in the Ensign.

    “One important point to consider in this question is whether or not Adam and Eve could have had children while they were in the Garden of Eden. The scriptures do not say Adam and Eve could not have children; they say Adam and Eve would not have had children if they had remained in a state of innocence, not knowing good from evil….This scripture seems to indicate that Adam and Eve were physically capable of having children in the Garden of Eden (thus they could have had children), but so long as they remained in their state of innocence, they never would have had children.”

  12. That’s a good point Ben, and thank you for sharing that quote. That also cuts through the Gordian knot here.

    While we’re playing the orthodox card, though, we do have the following statement from Russell M. Nelson during the November 1996 general conference that is published in the Book of Mormon institute manual that goes the other direction:

    “The creation of Adam and Eve was a paradisiacal creation, one that required a significant change before they could fulfill the commandment to have children and thus provide earthly bodies for premortal spirit sons and daughters of God.

    “… The Fall of Adam (and Eve) constituted the mortal creation and brought about the required changes in their bodies, including the circulation of blood and other modifications as well. They were now able to have children. They and their posterity also became subject to injury, disease, and death” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1996, 44–45; or Ensign, Nov. 1996, 33).

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