Why Did God Give Contradictory Commandments?

February 20, 2008 | 22 comments
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The temple treats the Garden story as a universal story. Whatever the reason for that, you can make a good case that in some sense each of us has been in the Garden and fallen. In fact, as we’ve discussed here before, making the Garden story a universal story can make sense of the contradictory commandments God gave Adam and Eve.

In Institute we wondered why God would give contradictory commandments: Adam and Eve were told to multiply and replenish the earth, and they were told not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. These commandments, the scriptures plainly state, contradict each other. See 2 Nephi 2:22-23.

We discussed some good possibilities:
1) As the temple ceremony implies, perhaps God had prepared an alternative way to comply with both of the commandment. In that case, the real transgression of our first parents was that they hearkened to Satan and took matters into their own hands.

2) Since God can’t be the author of evil, Adam and Eve had to have violated a law so that God could permit the fall of the world as a just punishment. God therefore created conflicting commandments to ensure that they would violate a law he could punish them for. This makes God seems uncomfortably legalistic to the modern sensibility. But God being legalistic would explain a lot. And I think we hate legalism just because it leads to results that aren’t fair. God is wise and strong enough to be both legalistic and fair, which strikes me as a fuller kind of fairness.

3) Finally, the possibility I like, which is the symbolic one. Adam and Eve faced a genuine and inescapable dilemma, one that God himself couldn’t avoid and one, as the temple ceremony implies, that we each faced coming into life (and that we repeatedly face during this life). The dilemma that faced Adam and Eve was this. They could choose to progress (represented by the capacity for having children), or they could do nothing. Doing nothing is a sin. It is the essence of damnation. But, for all of us but Christ, choosing to progress (to make new covenants, to take new responsibilities, to learn new things) involves a surety of new sin. When we choose to progress, we therefore know that we are choosing a path that leads to sin. Choosing a path that leads to sin is itself a sin. Hence, the reality of Adam and Eve’s dilemma: neither choice was perfectly right. Each choice was an embrace of sin.
(Here we can also see why only Christ could redeem from the Fall: only he could choose progress and experience without thereby choosing sin)

For my friend Mike DeG’s sake, I should mention that all these possibilities are what we see through a glass darkly. They likely will vanish away in the light of the perfect day.

The original discussion from the archives is here.

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22 Responses to Why Did God Give Contradictory Commandments?

  1. John on February 20, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    I always thought that they were supposed to eat the apple. Just not yet. I kinda supposed that was part of the plan. Kind of like we are commanded to be fruitful and multiply, but only within the bounds of a lawful wedding. Our teenagers can be fruitful and multiply if they want to be disobedient, but their parents want them to wait until the right time, place, person and under the right covenants. Just my two cents….

  2. Alan Jackson on February 20, 2008 at 5:06 pm

    Joseph Fielding Smith answered this question in one of the Gospel Questions books. I wish I had known about it earlier in my life because it had always been a source of confusion for me. They weren’t contradictory commandments and the explanation has been more or less given to us (by a prophet no less).

    He said that it wasn’t really sin to eat from the tree of knowledge and that the forbidding of them from eating it was different from any other commandment. God told them what would happen if they did eat and let them have the choice. They choose to separate themselves from God and become mortal to progress.

  3. Mark Hansen on February 20, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    I’m with the “Not Yet” idea. It’s really the only way in my mind that God could give seemingly contradictory commandments. God tells Adam and Eve that he’s going to spend some time teaching them. He says, “Don’t eat from that tree, it’ll kill you.” What he means is, “Eventually, you’re going to have to get mortal, but before that happens, it’ll be better for you to learn more.”

    Satan comes along and says, “Why wait. There’s no other way to learn good from evil” Eve agrees. “Let’s get this mortality started!”

    And away we go.

    MRKH

  4. Kari on February 20, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    The logical extension of JFS’s reasoning is that if violating “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, THOU SHALT NOT eat of it” (Gen 2:17) is not a sin, then violating “THOU SHALT NOT kill” (Ex 20:13) and “THOU SHALT NOT commit adultery” (Ex 20:14) cannot be a sin either. If Adam and Eve didn’t sin by partaking of the fruit then why is it a sin for me to sleep with my secretary? I know what the consequences of committing adultery would be, so if I consciously choose those consequences it somehow isn’t a sin?

    I think that John and Mark have summed up my opinion on the matter very nicely (which is Adam’s first listed possibility). As the temple more than implies, Lucifer was imitating what he had seen before (although it’s not clear exactly what who he had seen before) by presenting the fruit to them, but had they waited and learned from/communed with God, Adam and Eve would have been given the opportunity to partake, at the appropriate time. Like it or not, commandments can change over time, and there’s no indication that the “thou shalt not eat of it” was intended as an eternal commandment. I have always always sort of thought that God was waiting for Adam and Eve to realized the contradiction and approach him about it, sort of in the way God waited for SWK to approach him about priesthood restrictions. At some point they certainly would have said “Hey wait, something is funny here, let’s ask for more information!”

  5. Kari on February 20, 2008 at 8:34 pm

    I should clarify. What I said about the temple only applies to Lucifer, and not to Adam’s and Eve’s waiting. I wasn’t exactly clear on that.

  6. Ray on February 20, 2008 at 9:33 pm

    Very good summary, Adam. My own phrasing of your options =

    Option #1: When you look at the temple depiction of the Garden of Eden, and particularly the discussion with all of the parties involved after Adam and Eve partook, I think it’s pretty clear that it wasn’t the *partaking* in and of itself that was the sin but rather the (perhaps premature) *partaking at the direction of Lucifer*. If the account is literal, I can accept this fully.

    Option #2: God knew that Lucifer would tempt them to disobey Him, knowing that doing so would get them expelled from His presence – where they would be subject to Lucifer’s influence more fully and have the chance to develop toward godhood. Therefore, He set up a way for them to follow Lucifer, allowing Him to be “just” in initiating the mortal portion of the Atonement. If the account it literal or figurative, I like this as the motivation behind the account.

    Option #3: In order to multiply and replenish the earth, Adam and Eve had to follow the example of Lucifer and leave God’s presence. That action was counter-intuitive, since they previously had rejected Lucifer as their “Savior”. Therefore, they had to face the same decision in practice (follow Lucifer in leaving God’s presence in order eventually to become like the Father) that they had made previously in theory (accept Jehovah as their Savior and Redeemer). They couldn’t fulfill the latter without doing the former. If the account is figurative, I like this option; since I believe it is figurative, this is the one I accept most fully.

    2 Nephi 2:26 gets overlooked too much, imo, when we quote from that chapter about the Fall. I think that verse makes it pretty clear that partaking of the fruit is not what gave Adam and Eve a knowledge of good and evil; rather, it was accepting the promise of redemption they received prior to beginning mortality that made them that “free”. That choice of words is fascinating to me, and it points to my belief that the commandments were, in fact, contradictory – indicative of the choice that each of us faced in the pre-existence. One (don’t eat the fruit) led to individual ease and lack of conflict, dwelling immortally in the presence of the Father and the Son; the other (multiply and replenish) led to pain and suffering and heartache outside of His presence – and joy and growth and godhood eventually back in His presence. They had to trust that becoming like the Father was worth temporary spiritual death – that the freedom to choose was worth being separated temporarily from God’s physical presence. That’s the main reason I see the account as figurative and representative of the pre-existence – that each and every one of us made that choice in order to make it here and fight our own battles with the results of our separation from God.

  7. Stephen M (Ethesis) on February 20, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    I think the story is figurative and intended to apply to the universal state of man, part of the heroquest we all engage on.

    Hmm, that seems to point me towards 3, I’ll think on it.

    Thanks for bringing this discussion back.

  8. The Yellow Dart on February 20, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    Perhaps the first commandment is part of one source document and the second from a second source document which were (later) redacted together.

  9. queuno on February 20, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    I like Ray’s #2. I don’t think it’s appropriate to cite the relevant sections, but I’ve always thought of Satan as a pawn in a repetitive “Groundhog Day” scenario where he’s manipulated by the Father into triggering a situation where we are all dependent on a savior.

  10. queuno on February 20, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    (Ray’s #2 being a restatement of Adam’s #2.)

  11. Ray on February 20, 2008 at 10:46 pm

    queuno’s second comment being a clarification of queuno’s first comment, echoing Ray’s second option, being a restatement of Adam’s second option. (Just clarifying further.)

  12. Larry Ogan on February 20, 2008 at 11:42 pm

    #3 says God said, “Don’t eat from that tree, it’ll kill you.” I think the quote is closer to “if you eat from the tree you will surely die.” In my mind there is a big difference between being killed by eating for instance poison fruit and dying from something not known that my have been caused by eating the fruit. This may sound like a same matter of definition but there is a subtlety of actions in this entire episode that needs careful examination. I struggle with it everytime I go to the Temple.

    One theory is that God needed to start our leaning to use our agency by setting up a problem that would cause us to make a choice.

  13. Alan Jackson on February 21, 2008 at 1:08 am

    Kari: The violating of that commandment wasn’t the same (logical or otherwise) as violating other commandments. If you want to go that route, Nephi violated thou shalt not kill and had a conflicting commandment when he was told to. Who knows, maybe the words read slightly incorrectly and it was meant more of a don’t eat the fruit or …

    We can spin around in circles all day long, but I consider the prophets word on this as authoritative (for me personally) and would rather spend my time trying to figure out what he meant and how it applies.

    When answering questions like this I’m surprised at those that don’t go after the wisdom of those put on the Earth to guide us. Who better to explain spiritual nuances than the Prophet and President of the church.

  14. Kari on February 21, 2008 at 11:45 am

    Alan: Appealing to authority is a fallacious argument, unless you are going to allow me to quote Brigham Young and argue that Adam knew exactly what he was doing since he is God the Father anyway, and therefore couldn’t have sinned since it became his will to take the fruit as soon as he decided to do so. You can quote JFS to support your position, but please realize that not everything a prophet says is definitive, and doesn’t necessarily “answer the question.”

    By bringing the Nephi/Laban affair into the discussion, are you arguing that at some point in the garden that God told Adam, “well yes, I know that I told you not to partake, but in this instance you can do so without consequence”? Nephi didn’t sin because God told him to do what he did; that in his specific situation that commandment didn’t apply. Nowhere in the scriptures or the temple (or any statement of a prophet) of which I am aware are we told that God told Adam to partake, and that in this specific situation that commandment didn’t apply. Lucifer tempted Eve, she partook, and then Adam partook. They violated a commandment, which by all definitions IS sin. And the commandments were contradictory, in that it was impossible for Adam and Eve to keep both; one had to be violated in order to keep the other.

    Was it necessary for Adam and Eve to sin? Possibly. I am certainly comfortable with a position that would posit this argument (which is Adam’s #2). In fact, Lehi seems to imply just this fact in 2 Nephi 2. I personally am most comfortable with my position (which is why it’s my position), but recognize that any of the 3 possibilities outlined by Adam is a possibility. I also appreciate Ray’s reading of 2 Nephi 2:26, and will be taking a closer reading of that chapter again.

    Isn’t speculative theology fun?

  15. annahannah on February 21, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    If we try to put this in a modern-day scenario, we often face choices that don’t seem to have an answer. Or at least an answer that is clear without doing something that doesn’t seem “right”. Maybe if they had waited, the answer would have been clear and the way opened up whereby they could obey both commandments or God changes his mind, as stated above, that NOW you could eat.

    How many times have WE faced problems without solutions only to have the solution become available after some time passes.

  16. Josh Smith on February 21, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    Is this contradiction uniquely Mormon?

    The contradiction highlighted by this post is not in Genesis. I don’t think Genesis says that mankind could not reproduce in the Garden. I don’t know how other religions interpret the command to reproduce and the command to not partake, but I imagine most would allow for babies in the Garden. I don’t know.

    The Fall is a story.

    The story is meant as an answer to the problem of evil: Just-loving God creates man but cannot be responsible for sin and death; man’s agency must be the cause of sin and death; man must eat a piece of fruit to introduce sin and death. It is a story. It probably did more for its original audience than it does today. Fruit doesn’t seem to answer the problem of evil anymore.

    For me the story’s power is as a metaphor for my own fall from innocence–an invevitable, necessary progression from childhood to adulthood. A transformation from dependence to independence, from ignorance to knowledge. That process involves sin and death. It is a “coming of age” story, and there are contradictions.

  17. Jonovitch on February 21, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    I’ve thought of it being a commandment given to Adam and Eve but spoken just loud enough so Lucifer could hear it, knowing that he’d do anything to “thwart” God’s plan, along the lines of queno’s (9) comment. I don’t know that I’d teach that in an official setting, though, because it’s speculation. I also like Josh’s (16) metaphorical take — and I *would* teach that in a class.

    As for whether the actual situations was contradictory, I think we simply have too little information. If they are, brilliant! If they’re not, fine. No big deal.

    Jon

  18. dagobert on February 21, 2008 at 7:14 pm

    I like to think Adam and Eve got impatient in waiting for further light and knowledge or were persuaded to go for the instant gratification of knowledge of good and evil.

  19. Gerald on February 23, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    Gordon B. Hinckley: \”Sin never was happiness, transgression never was happiness. Disobedience never was happiness.\” Discourses of GBH Vol 1:80 also 263.

    I John 3:4 \”…Sin is the transgressioin of the law.\” This trumps JFS idea. Doct. of Sal. 1:114.

    Dallin Oaks in 1992 \”I plead with my brothers and sisters, my young friends and my older friends, Avoid transgression! The idea that one can deliberately sin and easily repent or that one is better off sinning and repenting are devilish lies of the adversary.\” With Full Purpose of Heart, SLC 2002, DBC, p. 128;

    The bottom line: Do we follow God or Satan? TIME is the answer as Bro. Oaks further states: \”We hold ourselves in readiness to set on the Lord\’s timing. He will tell us when the time is right to take the next step.People who do not accept continuing revelation sometimes get into trouble by doing things too soon or too late or too long.\” Ibid. p. 208.

  20. mitch on February 25, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    I appreciate how Gerald (19) brings together some relevant sources together. And I buy your bottom line about timing (like I buy quite a few of the speculative bottom lines in this thread). But I think that these quotations do very little to address JFS\’s distinction of \”sin\” v. \”transgression.\” JFS was making a very clear and intentional semantic distinction between two words ordinarily synonymous (demonstrated by GBH and the first quote from DHO). The other uses, especially through NT translation (where one-to-one lexical associations are untenable), are simply not following that same semantic premise, thus making some apples and some oranges. 1 John 3:4 cannot simply trump JFS based on the coincidental and idiosyncratic choice of particular words. It is inconclusive.

    But elsewhere Elder Oaks has explicitly engaged (and endorsed) JFS\’s semantic distinction. First he quotes JFS from DOS (I\’ll include it so we have the text in front of us):

    “I never speak of the part Eve took in this fall as a sin, nor do I accuse Adam of a sin. … This was a transgression of the law, but not a sin … for it was something that Adam and Eve had to do!” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56, 1:114–15).

    and then Elder Oaks comments:

    \”This suggested contrast between a sin and a transgression reminds us of the careful wording in the second article of faith: “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression”. It also echoes a familiar distinction in the law. 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.\”

    Oaks, Dallin H. \”The Great Plan of Happiness.\” Ensign, Nov. 1993, 72.

    That seems to put JFS\’s distinction back on the table.

  21. DW on February 28, 2008 at 4:25 am

    I appreciate the post and comments here — things I have thought about before without realizing that many like-minded others have done the same.

    I think a further question can and should be addressed in relation to these different possibilities regarding the Fall. In popular LDS circles, including by many general authorities, Eve is set up as a fount of wisdom, apparently from her innate feminine desires for motherhood. Basically, she “gets it,” and Adam doesn’t, and that’s why Eve partakes of the fruit and needs to explain to Adam the need to do so. (Often this story is taken to be analogous of a special innate wisdom of all women, rather than simply this one woman.)

    However, I think some of these distinctions regarding the Fall can make us see Eve’s actions in a more nuanced light. I am completely fine with the fact that there is something about Eve and her feminine maternal instincts that made her more vulnerable to Satan’s temptation, and ALSO that she in fact sinned by partaking of the fruit. Thus, we can speak admirably of Eve’s wisdom, so to speak, but also see her as violating God’s commandment. I personally think that in the Church we do the former but not the latter because Eve is seen as a model woman and we want to make women feel good (and also to fight against all of the ridiculous misogyny that has resulted from blaming Eve, and thereby punishing all women, for the Fall).

    This nuanced distinction I think speaks to an interesting relationship between noble desires and obedience to God. Individuals, who are eternal intelligences, might have noble desires towards ends that are in opposition to God’s commandments. However, God expects us to obey him and curb our desires — at least for now. We might simply be ahead of our time, so to speak.

    Mitch,

    I don’t know what to make of Elder Oaks’ comments regarding the distinction between “sin” and “transgression.” It makes good sense on one hand, but on the other hand I have trouble seeing disobedience to God as a mere technical violation, rather than a moral one. The way I see it, sin can only be understood in relation to God. If Elder Oaks is correct, however, then it must follow, I think, that there is a sort of relationship one can have with God in which they can be confident of acting properly in spite of violating a technical command from God. This possibility is intriguing but also has enormous implications for a community of believers! It makes me think of polygamists in the years after the Manifesto — yes, the Prophet has condemned it, but we know what God what really wants; this is simply a technicality to get the government off our backs.

    At the very least, in terms of the pragmatic consequences of ideas, I wonder if the best interpretation is to see Adam and Eve as having truly sinned. And so do we all sin whenever we act contrary to the commands of God.

  22. Karen on February 28, 2008 at 5:38 pm

    What did Adam and Eve understand? Without knowledge of good and evil, decision making is childlike. A child may not understand the consequences or have the reasoning skills of an adult and may therefore be less culpable. We cannot know how close to that of an eight year old Adam and Eve’s mental powers were. When is a disobedient child a sinner?