The Contradictory Commands, Part 2: The Higher Law

Part 1 of this series discussed the contradictory commands given to Adam and Eve to not partake of the forbidden fruit but to also have children, I discussed the possibility that they would have been resolved in time, but they jumped the gun and listened to Satan rather than God, which is why they were in trouble.  In this post, I discuss a more popular resolution in the Church to the contradiction centering on the concepts of the Fortunate Fall and that it wasn’t a full-blown sin to partake of the forbidden fruit.  The basis of this idea is that the command to not partake of the forbidden fruit was a lesser commandment compared to the command to multiply and fill the earth.  In some versions of this theory, the command to not partake of the fruit was more a warning than a command.  In other versions, the choice to partake of the fruit was still a choice to violate a commandment, but one that was done to obey a more important commandment.  Most Church leaders who have articulated these positions maintain that partaking of the fruit was not a sin per se, but a transgression or lesser infraction in some way.

As stated, one approach to the two contradictory commandments is to hold that they were indeed contradictory commandments from God, but Eve and Adam chose to follow the command that was more important.  Elder John Widtsoe expressed this position when he wrote: “In life all must choose at times.  Sometimes, two possibilities are good; neither is evil. Usually, however, one is of greater import than the other.  When in doubt, each must choose that which concerns the good of others—the greater law—rather than which is chiefly benefits ourselves—the lesser law.  The greater must be chosen … that was the choice made in Eden.”[1]  Eve’s actions were, according to President Dallin H. Oaks, “a planned offense, a formality to serve an eternal purpose. … Her act, whatever its nature, was formally a transgression but eternally a glorious necessity to open the doorway toward eternal life.”[2]  Thus, the choice to partake of the fruit may have been a transgression, but one that served a greater purpose.

One interpretation to make this work is that the nature of God’s command to partake of the fruit may have also been more a warning than an actual commandment.  In the Genesis account, the command is given as follows: “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17, KJV).  In the Joseph Smith Translation, this command was altered as follows: “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Moses 3:16-17, emphasis added).  The change represents a significant softening of the command—Adam is given a choice, but told it is forbidden because of the consequences of partaking of the fruit.  To paraphrase from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, the command may have been more a guideline than an actual rule.

Latter-day prophets have noted this distinction, using it to soften God’s command into a warning.  The Prophet Joseph Smith said that: “Adam did not commit sin in eating the fruits, for God had decreed that he should eat and fall—but in compliance with the decree he should die.”[3]  It wasn’t considered a sin because it was God’s will for them to partake of the fruit, but the consequence thereof would be death.  Speaking more clearly, President Joseph Fielding Smith said: “Now this is the way I interpret [Moses 3:16–17]: The Lord said to Adam, here is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you want to stay here, then you cannot eat of that fruit. If you want to stay here, then I forbid you to eat it. But you may act for yourself, and you may eat of it if you want to. And if you eat it, you will die.”[4]  As such, the command to not partake of the fruit could be seen more as a warning of the consequences of mortality with a choice given to Adam and Eve.  President Dallin H. Oaks, ever the legal expert, explained this in greater detail as a technicality between sin and transgression.  He taught that:

Some acts, like murder, are crimes because they are inherently wrong. Other acts, like operating without a license, are crimes only because they are legally prohibited. Under these distinctions, the act that produced the Fall was not a sin—inherently wrong—but a transgression—wrong because it was formally prohibited. These words are not always used to denote something different, but this distinction seems meaningful in the circumstances of the Fall.[5]

As a violation of a lesser command, the Fall was still a violation of law, but not a sin in the full sense.

The idea that partaking of the fruit was a good thing hinges on the premise of a fortunate Fall.  Joseph Smith taught: “What was the design of the Almighty in making man[?] It was to exalt him to be as God, the scripture says ye are Gods and it cannot be broken.”[6]  Mortality is a necessary part of human progress towards partaking of the divine nature in the form that the Prophet taught.  President John Taylor stated that it is necessary to “obtain a physical body and gain earthly experience to progress toward perfection and ultimately realize [our] divine destiny as heirs of eternal life.”[7]  Having a body involves traits, conditions, and limitations that test and enlarge our souls in their progression towards self-mastery.  President Brigham Young taught that: “Darkness and sin were permitted to come on this earth. Man partook of the forbidden fruit in accordance with a plan devised from eternity, that mankind might be brought in contact with the principles and powers of darkness, that they might know the bitter and the sweet, the good and the evil, and be able to discern between light and darkness, to enable them to receive light continually.”[8]   By coming into contact with the powers of darkness as a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve, we are able to decide to reject darkness and choose a better way.

If mortality and bringing children into the world are so necessary, however, the question is raised: Why would God prohibit partaking of the fruit in the first place?  One answer might be that agency—the ability to choose—is central in the Plan of Salvation as we understand it.  Moral agency gives us the opportunity to develop the ability to stand on our own two feet and to develop the attributes of Godliness.m As President David O. McKay taught: “Free agency is the impelling source of the soul’s progress. It is the purpose of the Lord that man become like him. In order for man to achieve this it was necessary for the Creator first to make him free.”[9]  Otherwise, we would be “mere puppets in the hands of a dictator, and the purpose of man’s coming to earth would have been frustrated.”[10] Thus, choice is a necessary part of humankind’s progression.

Yet, mortality is also fraught suffering as we come into contact with the powers of darkness.  The spiritual traces of every thought, word, and action we have ever committed are a part of us (see Alma 12:14).  Sinfulness is a condition “contrary to the nature of God” (Alma 41:11).  Considering that exaltation and eternal life are the end products of partaking of the divine nature and becoming like God, iniquity holds us back because it is “contrary to that righteousness” which is the at the core of who God is (Helaman 13:38).  For God to forcefully thrust humankind into a situation where they would be iniquitous would consist of Him going against His very nature as we understand it.  As Elder Boyd K. Packer taught that: “There was too much at issue to introduce man into mortality by force. That would contravene the very law essential to the plan.”[11]

To avoid forcing mankind into mortality, the Lord let Adam and Eve choose whether they would fall and become mortal. Elder Orson Pratt taught that: “The Lord being perfect in goodness, could not, consistently with this great attribute of His nature, inflict pain or misery upon innocent beings, like our first parents.” Therefore, God placed the tree in the garden as enticing option and provided man with a “warning of the consequences which would follow.”[12]  They were given a choice between staying as they were or moving forward through pain and suffering towards eternal life.

Latter-day Saints sometimes go even further and offer praise to Eve for choosing to partake of the fruit and Adam for going along with her.  One nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint (an E.N.B. of Ogden, Utah) wrote that: “We are taught that Eve was the first to sin. Well, she was simply more progressive than Adam.  She did not want to live in the beautiful garden for ever, and be nobody—not able even to make her own aprons.”[13]  Hugh Nibley likewise noted that in the story, Eve “takes the initiative, pursuing the search for ever greater light and knowledge while Adam cautiously holds back.  Who was the wiser for that?”[14]  Finally, Dallin H. Oaks stated that: “Informed by revelation, we celebrate Eve’s act and honor her wisdom and courage in the great episode called the Fall.”[15]  In each of these statements, Eve is lionized for choosing to partake of the fruit because it led humankind into the next phase of existence.

This approach to explaining the contradictory commandments is the dominant strain of thought in the Church today. To summarize: the two commandments were given as a choice for Adam and Eve—a choice between staying in paradise and entering a mortality that involves pain and suffering, but growth and joy as well.  God wished for mankind to choose the latter, but would or could not directly thrust them into conditions where they would sin and suffer, so used the commandments to communicate the choice.  Understanding this, Eve chose to partake of the fruit to move forward towards the divine destiny of humankind and Adam chose to follow her in doing so.  Because it is a positive thing, violating the command to not partake of the fruit was not a sin in the full sense, but has been called a transgression instead.  For their transgression, Eve and Adam should be revered and honored by their descendants.

This belief is not without its difficulties, however. A lot of the praise to Adam and Eve is based on the idea that they chose to partake of the fruit with a full knowledge of the consequences.  Yet, the scriptures indicate that Satan deceived Eve, that Adam and Eve were ashamed of their choice, and that God was angry with them for partaking of the fruit.  When God visited them after their transgression, Adam and Eve sought to “hide themselves from the presence of the Lord” (Moses 4:14). When it came to light that they had partaken of the fruit, both tried to pass the blame. Adam blamed Eve, stating: “The woman thou gavest me, and commandest that she should remain with me, she gave me of the fruit of the tree and I did eat” (Moses 4:18).  Eve, in turn, blamed the serpent: “The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat” (Moses 4:19).[16]  The Lord, in response, dishes out punishment to the serpent, Eve, and Adam.  The serpent was cursed to crawn in the dust, the woman to have pain in childbirth and subjection to the man, and the man to toil in sweat and sorrow for food.  Although we often gloss the statement, “cursed shall be the ground for thy sake” to mean that ground being cursed was beneficial, the Hebrew text in the Bible is more accurately rendered: “Cursed is the ground because of you.”[17]  These seem to be indications of God being angry and punishing all individuals involved in the Fall.  In the texts closest to the story of the Fall, none of the people or beings involved seem happy with the consequences at the time.

Tad R. Callister noted this in his book, The Infinite Atonement. He wrote:

If Adam and Eve had partaken with ‘full’ knowledge of obeying a higher law as some would suggest, one wonders why the scriptures would have used words and phrases such as ‘beguiled,’ deceived,’ yielded,’ and even ‘spiritually dead’ (D&C 29:41), to describe their Edenic conduct and subsequent state of affairs. One also wonders how they could have ‘full’ knowledge when they lived in a state of innocence, it would not have been possible for them to completely comprehend which choice was good and which was evil. One further wonders why Adam, upon responding to the Lord’s question, ‘Hast thou eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat … ?’ (Moses 4:17), would shift the ‘blame’ or responsibility to Eve, and likewise, she would further shift the ‘blame’ to the Serpent (Moses 4:18-19). If they had proceeded with a full or even partial knowledge of the consequences, this would have been an appropriate moment to respond: ‘We knowingly broke the lesser law in order to keep a higher one. We understand there will be some harsh consequences for the moment, but in the eternal scale of things, it will be a blessing, not a curse to us and our posterity.’ This would have been a time not of blame, but of explanation as to why the choice had been made.[18]

Thus, Brother Callister points out the biggest holes in the theory discussed above—if it was necessary for them to choose to partake of the fruit to enter mortality, they seem to have done so without a full understanding.

Callister goes on to say that we do not know or understand all the conditions under which the Fall occurred, but that it truly was necessary and fortunate.  He also points out that it was after Adam and Eve had been informed of the Atonement of Christ that they rejoiced.  Thus, there are notable concepts be found in the ideas discussed so far, even if they don’t provide perfect answers to the question of why there are contradictory commands. There are, of course, different answers that similarly shed light on important principles and potentially resolve the paradox.



I am, admittedly, in debt to Terryl Givens for much of how I approach this thread of thought about the Fall.  See Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 176-198.

[1] John A Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1947), 2:78.

[2] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Great Plan of Happiness,” CR. October 1993,

[3] Joseph Smith remarks to the Nauvoo Lyceum, 9 February 1841, McIntire Minute Book.

[4] “Fall—Atonement—ResurrectionSacrament,” in Charge to Religious Educators, 2nd ed. [1982], 124.

[5] Oaks, “Great Plan.”

[6] Joseph Smith, The Words of Joseph Smith, eds. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook [Orem, UT: Grandin Book Company, 1991], 247.

[7] The Family, A Proclamation to the World.

[8] Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 39.

[9] David O. McKay, in Conference Report, April 1950, 32.

[10] David O. McKay, in Conference Report, April 1950, 34-35.

[11] Boyd K. Packer, “Atonement, Agency, Accountability,” CR April 1988.

[12] Orson Pratt, The Seer 1.6 (June 1853): 84.

[13] E.N.B., “Women’s Rights,” Woman’s Exponent 3.16 (15 January 1875):122,

[14] Hugh Nibley, “Patriarchy and Matriarchy,” in Old Testament and Related Studies, ed. John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City: Deseret and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1986), 92.

[15] Oaks, “Great Plan.”

[16] In early Christianity, Paul suggested that Eve was indeed deceived: “The woman being deceived was in the transgression” (1 Timothy 2:14).

[17] See the New Revised Standard Version, Genesis 3:17. This is discussed in David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis—Deuteronomy (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014), 152-155.

[18] Tad R. Callister, The Infinite Atonement (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 37-38.

12 comments for “The Contradictory Commands, Part 2: The Higher Law

  1. Perhaps the greater point is totally missed in this whole analysis? Eve partook of the forbidden fruit upon the counsel of Satan. Adam partook upon the counsel of Eve. The sin is to rely on anyone other than the Counselor, the Holy Ghost, in doing anything.

    This is the common, and arguably “original” sin of each of us. To rely upon our own understanding in making choices, when the counsel of the Holy Ghost is always available, to those who truly believe in God. Before the Fall, Adam walked and talked with God. We too are called to do that, daily, and even moment to moment, as we can live our lives, through, with, and in, Jesus Christ.

    Adam and Eve could have gotten together and discussed Satan’s “offer”. They then would have realized that they needed to take this “problem” before God, and discussed it with God in prayer. God then could have changed his command to allow mortal life to proceed without going through the Fall, then.

    But, it was inevitable that some will fall, and that we, in mortality, are the fallen. But it is also apparent, to me, that we, the fallen, are also the Chosen. And that is what Jesus did, and does, and will do, for all. To show us, the fallen, that we are actually The Chosen, like Him, even Jesus Christ.

  2. Another excellent post, Chad.

    I’ve wondered if a distinction can be made (for argument’s sake) between partaking of the fruit and what we learn by partaking of it. Functionally speaking the two might be experienced as one and the same. Even so, in thinking about what it is (in precise terms) that causes Adam and Eve to be removed from the garden: is it because they stuck their hand in the cookie jar when they were told not to; or is it because they learned something about themselves as a result of sticking their hand in the cookie jar.

    We know that their eyes were opened as a result of eating the fruit–and that the Gods recognized that they had become like them (or more like them) because of their newly found power to understand the difference between good and evil. And so, it could be (IMO) that while their decision to partake of the fruit may have been born of a longing (more on Eve’s, I think) for fulfilling the measure of their creation (a virtuous desire, IMO) it resulted in their gaining knowledge that would condemn them–and *that’s* what made it necessary for them to be removed from the Lord’s presence.

    Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but it seems to me that the actual partaking of the fruit was done with the best of intentions–but it is the *result* of eating the fruit that gets them into trouble. And if Adam and Eve lacked the wisdom to foresee the (complete) results of their actions–which were done with the best of intentions–then their partaking of the fruit could not be justifiably categorized as sin.

  3. I have really enjoyed this post and the two comments thus far. Below is my personal belief.

    In my opinion, evil people, with the most horrible of intentions, can sometimes give correct advice. They believe that they are harming people, if people listen to them. Generally true.

    But I believe that Mother Eve also realized this, and chose to eat the fruit. She was perceptive enough to see the core truth behind Satan’s hateful motivation and desire to hurt her and Adam, and responded wisely.

  4. Jesus Tomeny, it’s always likely that my analyses will miss the forest for the trees, so to speak, haha. To some degree, though, what you’re saying goes well with my first post in this series.

    That’s a really interesting thought, Jack. I like it.

    Taiwan, always good to hear from you. It’s a really good thought. I’m curious, though, about what you think of the Callister quote in the post.

  5. In my view, the problem of contradictory commandments and the question of whether Eve was deceived or wise is the result of taking a largely (and possibly entirely) symbolic story too literally and then trying to line up the accumulated layers of interpretive tradition as if they make an coherent whole. The Pauline epistles, for example, are pretty clear in the view that Eve was deceived. That doesn’t make them right in the ultimate sense, but it at least means that Paul had a different view of Eve and the garden than some of our modern leaders.

  6. As Jared infers. Was there an actual eve? Are we just having a theoretical debate? I think so.

  7. Thanks Chad, a couple of thoughts:

    1. The language of the two references differ – Are there actually 2 commands?

    And I, God, blessed them, and said unto them: (a blessing; a bestowal of creative potential or even a statement of permission to procreate)
    Moses 2:28
    And I, the Lord God, commanded the man: (a command or sanction)
    Moses 3:16

    2. Re Parts of the Post & Callister’s statement:

    At the outset I should say I’m uncomfortable with aspects of the harmonising approach used in the Post and Calllister’s argument.
    It seems to me that different scriptural accounts ought to be considered on their own terms, ie how they are shaped for audience and purpose. The statements from GAs also adopt this approach conflating different notions to arrive at their interpretations.

    So some thoughts on what is set out above.

    The Callister reference to the use of terms marking knowledge and accountability seem overgeneralised above, for example, the words, ‘beguiled’ and ‘deceived’ are scripturally assigned to Eve, not to Adam, whether in Genesis or Moses.

    (Paul says Adam was not deceived (1 Tim 2:14) though he is writing about gender distinctions, and not specifically about circumstances in the garden.)

    DC29:40 assigns the word ‘yielded’ to Adam.
    Wherefore, it came to pass that the devil tempted Adam, and he partook of the forbidden fruit and transgressed the commandment, wherein he became subject to the will of the devil, because he yielded unto temptation – D&C 29:40
    The focus here is not the same as that in the Genesis or Moses, it is ultimately about the influence of Satan after the Fall. It will appear as a contradiction, if one tries to reconcile it with other accounts eg the view that he partook to stay with Eve.

    Nephi says ‘Adam fell that men might be’ – 2 Nephi 2:25. The agent in this verse is ambiguous, it does not say that he did it knowingly, just that the action brought about this condition. So not a definite case for higher knowing.

    I don’t read Adam passing the blame to Eve.
    When asked if he had eaten of the tree he says: ‘The woman thou gavest me, and commandest that she should remain with me, she gave me of the fruit of the tree and I did eat.’
    This is not apportioning blame or responsibility, but a statement of what happened.
    Arguably he did it to remain with Eve – which suggests either blind obedience to that commandment, or knowledge of what the consequences of separation would be.

    Eve acts innocently, there is no apology, just an admission that she was ‘beguiled’, which could mean a number of things, though we tend to go with deceived because that’s what Paul says but it can also mean ’caused to forget’,
    i.e. she forgot herself in the moment seeing something desirable – like a small child.

    I don’t read, ‘Adam and Eve were ashamed of their choice’ as you state above – the word used in Genesis 3, & Moses 4 is ‘afraid’, and relates to being found naked, no reference to ‘shame’.

    On the face of it it appears they acted without fully understanding, just as when asked by the angel why they performed sacrifice, Adam answers: ‘I know not, save the Lord commanded me’. – Moses 5:6

    PS: Chad, if I might ask, what do you make of these verses, specifically is there a voice change in Vs 24 or is Adam still talking?
    23 And Adam said: This I know now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man.
    24Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh.
    25 And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed – Moses 3:23-25

  8. This is a topic I wrestled with before my mission. Six months before my mission I spent a week in the London temple. I got a lot of answers to the questions I had had with regards to the creation. I’m not sure how much is appropriate to share about the temple in this post. I received an answer to this question with regards to Adam and Eve going against this commandment in the garden. First of all, God and Christ said that they would come back with more light and knowledge to Adam and Eve after he told them not to eat of the fruit. Before God and Christ could come back, Satan tempted them to eat. This is what was wrong – when he was asked what he had done, he said he had only done what had been done in other worlds, not what he had done in other worlds. So, I believe that God and Christ would have come back and told Adam and Eve to partake of the fruit and thereby also become mortal. But they didn’t wait, and they eat the fruit before they were allowed to. It’s the same when it comes to sex. Sex before marriage is wrong, sex after marriage is wonderful. Satan will tempt us to have sex before marriage and therefore sin.

  9. Jared, I agree that the garden story is highly symbolic. But even so, IMO, it’s more analogical than metaphorical in it’s use of symbols. And if I might venture — and risk getting even more goofy — I can’t help but believe that the garden story is more about the family of Adam and Eve than it is about the two as individuals. Of course they (Adam and Eve) stand at the head of the family as a priestly patriarch and matriarch. But they are more than federal heads–so to speak. They embody all of us as archetypes–and as such they typify the desires and actions of their entire family. And so the saga is really about each one of us–but not only because they typify us in the story. But also because we were actually there — as a member of their family — and followed the same course as they did–because, well, that’s what God’s children are likely to do at that stage of the game.

  10. Chad Nielsen:

    I have read Callister’s comment several times. In my opinion, he overanalyzes and tries too hard to harmonize all various strands of thought that swirl around the Biblical account of Eve and Adam partaking of the forbidden fruit. To use a comparison from my genealogy hobby: I have been quite successful in developing my family history, and volunteer at the Family History Library helping patrons with Chinese, German, and Latin-related problems. I have learned to be quite leery of genealogical data that seems to explain too much and fit too perfectly, and have learned that responsible genealogical research has to acknowledge inconsistencies and contradictions. Some sources are good; some are awful.

    Likewise with the Bible: I am not a literalist, and believe that the cultural environment of a scriptural event must be factored in, including the viewpoint of whomever wrote the account. I believe that much, if not most, of pre-Abrahamic accounts in Genesis are symbolic and contain bias.

    I prefer the temple’s version of what happens in the Garden of Eden versus the Genesis account (there are some significant differences), and believe it supports my opinions but do not know how appropriate it is to discuss this, here.

    Thanks for asking me to weigh in.

  11. sjames, that’s a great question. I’ve always assumed the voice changed from Adam to narrator in verse 25, but I could see verse 24 go either way.

    Thank you to everyone for sharing your thoughts.

Comments are closed.