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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.

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