The Contradictory Commands, Part 3: A Tale of Two Records

In part 1 of this series discussing 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 part 2, I discussed the more popular idea that Eve chose to obey a higher law when she ate the fruit and that it wasn’t a sin in the full sense.  Today, in the final post to round out this series, I will discuss a less popular, but scholastically important idea articulated through higher criticism of the Bible.

Modern Biblical studies have opened the doors into a deeper understanding of the context and conditions in which the Bible was written.  Some of these insights have bearing upon the question of the contradictory commands given to Adam and Eve.  Admittedly, some propositions of modern scholars are challenging for Latter-day Saints because they challenge assumptions about both the Bible and Joseph Smith’s translation.  David Bokovoy does a good job of addressing those concerns in his work Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis—Deuteronomy, but there is still a lot of room for differing interpretations and beliefs on the issue.

Many Biblical scholars have come to believe that the Torah or Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) do not represent a single, monolithic production by one individual (i.e., Moses). Instead, it is a compilation of different sources woven together.  In the most well-known proposition of this theory, there are four major sources brought together: two more ancient sources (the Elohist or E and the Yahwistic or J) and two later sources (the Priestly or P and the Deuteronomic or D).  Each of these sources holds a different perspectives on theology and history, based on the people involved in compiling the source, the era in which they lived, and the place that they lived (northern and southern kingdoms).  Material in the Torah are often sorted into these four sources based on presentation, word choice, theology, and focus.  This theory does much to explain repetitions, inconsistencies, and contradictions found within the Torah, including the contradictory commands given to Adam and Eve.

The creation accounts that the commands stem from are thought to come from two different sources.  Genesis 1:1-2:3 is thought to be from the Priestly source and presents a more ethereal and less-corporeal God who controls the universe through speech. After creating man and woman on the sixth day of creation, He gives them the command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth as well as to assert dominion over the earth and to use plants and animals as food.  The Garden of Eden story is not found in this creation account, and thus the command to not partake of the fruit is not present in this account.

The other creation account (beginning in Genesis 2:4) is thought to be from the older Yahwistic tradition.  God as presented in this account is more human than how He is presented in Genesis 1, working with His hands to form man, avoiding the heat of the day, etc.  The order of creation is also different.  In the Priestly source (Genesis 1), the creation flows from water to land to plants to sea animals and birds to land animals and finally humans at the end.  In the Yahwistic source (Genesis 2), after God has created the earth, plants, and the Garden of Eden, he creates the man to tend to the garden.  After creating the man, God creates all the animals in an attempt to find the perfect helper and partner for Adam.  After each of these fail in turn to live up to being Adam’s partner, God takes the rib from Adam and forms the woman.  In this account they are commanded to not partake of the fruit of the tree, but there is no command given to multiply and fill the earth.

The resolution to the two contradictory commands given here is simply that they are commands that are presented by two separate records with different points of view and are not interrelated.  As Latter-day Saint and Biblical scholar David Bokovoy wrote:

Dividing the opening two chapters of Genesis into their respective sources solves many problems for a Latter-day Saint audience.  Often readers struggle to make sense of the fact that God gave the first humans a command in Genesis 1 to “be fruitful, and multiply” (v. 28), yet in Genesis 2, he commanded the humans not to eat the fruit that would have granted them this very ability.  Latter-day Saints often reconcile this contradiction by asserting that God needed to create a situation in which agency could exist by giving two conflicting commands.  This reading certainly contains merit as a theological concept.  However, combining this construct with an historical awareness of the two separate traditions that produced these distinct accounts resolves much of the dissonance readers often sense.[1]

Thus, historical insights from modern Biblical scholarship can help resolve the contradictory commands.

This approach is challenging from a Latter-day Saint perspective because we have traditionally assumed that all of Genesis was written by Moses.  This is affirmed by the Joseph Smith Translation, particularly Moses 1, which puts the prehistory section of Genesis in the context of Moses receiving a vision from God and recording it.  In both the JS-T and the Book of Abraham, the two different accounts of creation (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2) are smoothed together by making the first an account of the spiritual creation and the latter the physical creation.  Accepting that the Torah is composed of multiple sources centuries after the time of Moses challenges the traditional assumptions of the Torah being written by Moses.  This in turn challenges the nature of Joseph Smith’s work with Genesis and Abraham.  Latter-day Saint scholars have tried to reconcile the two by shifting how we speak about the book of Moses, but it is a difficult proposition for most of the Saints to swallow, since in some form or another, it indicates that the translations were more rooted in Joseph Smith’s worldview than historic events.

There have been a number of suggestions given to help make sense of that challenge while still accepting the conclusions drawn from higher criticism.  For example, David Bokovoy wrote that we should embrace the idea that the Book of Moses (and Book of Abraham by extension) are psedopigrapha (works attributed to a different author than the one who wrote it) and justifies that as a continuation of an ancient Hebrew tradition that has shaped the Bible as we know it.  Texts like Hebrews, Titus, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, are often viewed by scholars as pseudopigrapha, but Christians have drawn inspiration from them for millennia regardless of who the actual author is.  Thus, “The issue of the Book of Moses’ status as inspired scripture can be seen as independent from the question of its historicity as the literal words of Moses once attached to the Bible.”  He sees the work Joseph Smith did in translating Genesis as doing the work of brining “the Book of Genesis into harmony with Joseph Smith’s revelatory experiences.”[2]

Along those lines, Philip Barlow observed that Joseph Smith may have seen his ministry as an effort to heal a shattered reality and that the New Translation would fit into this as a way to resolve concerns about the Bible, noting that: “Across the decades, his scholarly followers have here and there demonstrated the plausible historicity of selected texts.  But as a whole the emendations and additions of his biblical translation exude a targumic quality—not necessarily the Bible as it once was, but the Bible as it was supposed to be.”[3]  It has also been noted that the text of Genesis itself is, as discussed above, thought to be a redaction of several different sources by later authors and the Joseph Smith Translation only continues the process of change, accretions, and reinterpretations over the centuries that have become part of the text.   By editing and expanding the text of Genesis, Joseph Smith “baptized” the text into Mormonism and aligned it with his broader religious vision, changing the Bible to how it was supposed to be.

This type of change could be viewed as part of how Joseph Smith translated texts–using the term in a way more in lines with the concept of translated beings–humans changed to something higher and different than your average mortal–than the traditional way of understanding the term as converting texts from one language to another.  As Kathleen Flake wrote, even though Joseph Smith’s work on the Bible “is not like translating insofar as Smith made large additions to his sources and claimed for them the historicity of the original,” he was able to transform the texts in a way so as to “divine the truth about God’s past acts within the narrative limits of ancient, prophetic history” and that he was “reconfiguring the past to suggest what could be, to even create the possible and the real.”[4]  These ideas about translation and tradition can help to reduce concerns about the nature of the Book of Moses, even though they aren’t perfect.


The commands given at the creation to the first man and woman are a paradox. In essence, they are the command to bear and raise children and the command to not partake of the fruit that would allow them to bear and raise children. Three possible resolutions were presented in this series.  First, God would have provided a way for humankind to move into mortality at the proper time and place, but Eve chose to listen to Satan’s command instead of God’s command, resulting in subjugation to the devil.  Second, the command to not partake of the fruit was a lesser command, the violation of which was necessary to propel humankind forward toward a divine destiny.  Third, Biblical scholarship indicates that the two commands come from two different traditions and are not part of the same story.  Each approach has its merit and flaws, but each also provide some reasonable ways to resolve the conflict of the two contradictory commands.



[1] David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis—Deuteronomy (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014), 53-54.

[2] Bokovoy, 158-159.

[3] Philip Barlow, “To Mend a Shattered Reality,” Journal of Mormon History, 38 No. 3 (2012), 41.

[4] Kathleen Flake, “Translating Time: The Nature and Function of Joseph Smith’s Narrative Cannon,” The Journal of Religion 87, No. 4 (October 2007), 497-527.

11 comments for “The Contradictory Commands, Part 3: A Tale of Two Records

  1. Thank you for this series–I’ve enjoyed reading all three parts. You’ve given me much to think about.

    One thing that comes to mind is that the two creation accounts may have been pieced together because of how they compliment one another. And so, even though they may originate from different times and traditions whoever put them together may have supposed that one served as a good prologue to the other–thereby rounding out the narrative. It would be like studying the history of Europe and then, afterwards, zeroing in on the history of (say) France. The study of the former provides context for the study of the latter. (And, certainly, the way the Book of Moses treats the two accounts serves to add even greater context and meaning to both–IMO.) And so, my sense is that whoever put those two texts together knew what they were doing–in spite of whatever contradictions would arise from sewing them together.

    Re: Multiply and Replenish: The “fourth” creation and garden account complicates things a bit with regard to how contradictory commands might be explained by bringing multiple sources together. It is an even “smoother” telling of both accounts than the Book of Moses–which has the effect of (with out going into detail) placing Adam in a real dilemma. And so we’re still left to wrestle with the seeming imposition of conflicting commandments–that is if we presume that the narrative presented in the fourth account brings consistency and clarification to the combined narratives.

  2. There’s a great series of essays on Genesis 2 which I recently read entitled “Fleeing the Garden” (edited by Adam Miller) which is a compilation of essays from than then Mormon Theology Seminar now renamed to Latter-Day Saints Theology Seminar (or something like that). I ordered the book some time ago but looks like there is a link to the articles here.

  3. Really like your thoughts. I like reconciliations 1 & 3, and think they go together nicely. And regarding #3 I agree with Jack that even if the two accounts are from different sources originally, that there was wisdom in putting them together as they are. I personally think they are meant to be sequential – i.e. God created men and women on the 6th day with land animals, and then only later came the introduction of the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve when there was not yet a man found to till and take care of the earth (soil), i.e. among the current humans on earth agriculture had not been introduced yet.

  4. Thanks everyone. Along the lines of Jack, I’ve thought about it as being two (or three, including the endowment ceremony) stories that are getting at different points through the narratives they present, each of which are important in their own right.

  5. Thanks Chad – and thanks to Carey F. for the link.

    Grateful for Julie Smith’s nod to the interpretation: “…some ancient interpreters have understood Genesis 1:28 not as a commandment to multiply and replenish the earth but rather as a blessing to be able to do so.”
    A view I also arrived at and think has merit.

    I think the “stitching sources together” argument resulting in a “contradiction” to be quite plausible if you hold the view that one exists, though it also risks, as implied above, eliding points of different narratives.

  6. If there is a popular attribution of the Torah to Moses, that is not a problem with the text, since there is nothing in the text to assert that that is the case. It is simply a problem with the popular belief.

    More subtly, the same is true of the Book of Moses (despite the name). The postscripts in Moses 1:42 and 4:32 are an indication that the work may be the work of an intermediate source, not Moses. Moses 1:41 suggests that Moses authored a work, but there is no indication that the Book of Moses is that work. And unlike the Book of Abraham, it is not written from the first-person perspective, which would be highly unusual for an autobiographical work.

    On the contrary, the directions given to the author in 1:42 and 4:32 are, in context, directions to an author who is not Moses. I think that scholars have simply assumed that the postscripts were directions to the translator (i.e., Joseph Smith), but that doesn’t seem to be correct, as the instructions are to withhold the work, when Joseph Smith intended to publish it shortly after translation. Rather, they seem to be directed at the original author of the revealed work, instructed to hold it back from the public (cf. Ether 4:1).

    The fact that the Book of Moses (again, despite the name) may be from a separate (unnamed) author – and tacitly admits that point – should add a certain level of caution to jumping to conclusions about its origin, or about the origin of the other canonical accounts of the Creation, for that matter. And the fact that the Latter-Day Saint canon has multiple accounts of the Creation, with significant differences in perspective, emphases, details, etc., should caution against trying to synchronize all those canonical accounts.

    There are different accounts from different sources with different perspectives (and some of the accounts may themselves be composites), and they don’t all match up neatly, and they’re all canonical, and that isn’t a problem that needs to be solved.

  7. Postscript to my comment above: going back and looking at the original publication of Moses 1, I just noticed that the prohibition against publishing the account in 1:42 was removed for publication in the Times and Seasons (the other one!) So Joseph Smith may have interpreted the instructions to hold the record back as referring to his efforts, and it’s possible that the instructions were directed to him specifically. So the postscripts are not necessarily evidence of another author between Moses and Joseph Smith. But the author does not appear to be Moses in any case.

    And there is some complexity in the structure of Moses. It’s curious that there are two prohibitions against publication, with differences in wording. And the two sections are different; the first (ch. 1) is a traditional third-person narrative, while the second (chs. 2-4) is a lengthy first-person discourse in the Lord’s voice.

    On the whole, Moses as a book feels like a composite work. (It even mentions a previous source – the “book of the generations of Adam”, from Moses 6:8, in common with Genesis 5:1.) So my caution about jumping to conclusions on its authorship and structure remain.

  8. I agree that the notion of contradictory commandments arises from a failure to appreciate that we have two creation accounts in Genesis. I disagree that the idea of contradictory commandments has theological value (a just God does not give contradictory commandments and then impose a punishment for necessarily breaking one or the other, an injustice that some would avoid by claiming that the punishments–increased labor for both Eve and Adam–were “for their sake” in the sense of “for their benefit,” and, therefore, not punishments at all). According to Lehi (2 Ne. 2:14-16), the conditions for agency in the garden were created not by contradictory commandments but by the opposition of the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. As for whether there were contradictory commandments, I think it significant that in the first creation account, the command to multiply and replenish the earth is given only AFTER Eve is created while in the second account, the command not to partake of the fruit is given BEFORE Eve is created.

    Adam and Eve were placed in the garden, having forgotten all and become as little children, in order to mature and be prepared to survive as mortals in the lone and dreary world. I think the time would have come when, after Adam and Eve were fully prepared, the formerly forbidden fruit would have been given to them, not by Satan, but by God himself (as had been done on other worlds?). It’s like the situation for our youth–they, too, are commanded to multiply and replenish the earth, but not yet. (And, no, I do not think the analogy extends so far as to suggest that the fruit forbidden to Adam and Eve was sexual relations.) If a conflict did arise between the commandments, it arose for Adam after Eve had prematurely partaken of the fruit, in which case the justice in Adam’s punishment was that Adam presumed to resolve the conflict by partaking of the fruit instead of seeking further direction from God.

  9. I might add that, for all we know from the Genesis account, the command to multiply and replenish the earth might not have been given until after the garden and fall, of which the first account makes no mention.

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