One of our major tasks growing up is learning that words have different meanings, that any given word has different meanings, and that knowing which meaning applies when can be confusing. For example, consider a Sunday School class discussing the prelapsarian climate of Jackson County, Missouri, wondering what kind of trees grew there, and what kind of fruit Eve handed Adam, and whether the story is more like the record of a ceremony than an account of two peoples’ lives, and someone says, “Brethren and sistern, I think we’re straining at gnats here.”
That usually serves to shut down or redirect the conversation, after all, who wants to be a gnattering Gnat Bob of gnat activity?
But think about that phrase, “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” Matt. 23:24 I did. As I wrote in a poem today,
For years I puzzled for a plain image
To match the plain sense
All I could see was a dog chained outside Avram’s tent
On the plains of Mamre
Tormented by gnats
Furious and biting to stop them
Not noticing the hapless camel happening into those teeth
Then one day I came across Royal Skousen’s “Through a Glass Darkly: Trying to Understand the Scriptures” BYU Studies 26:4 where he says the preposition is a misprint, that it should have been “strain out a gnat.” The image changes to filtering water, filtering out the camel swimming in the cistern.
But what are those camels and gnats doing swimming in the hot tub with the Gospel Doctrine brethren and sistern, anyway?
We’re fascinated by the Fall not just because it’s the story of our birth but because we interpret that birth so differently from others who see it as a historical event. We don’t see it as a tragedy or sin, and we’re likely to celebrate Eve as being smarter than Adam, who couldn’t quit figure out what to do.
And yet we feel a little ambivalent about our interpretation because Genesis 2:16-17 uses the language of commandment
16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
but we don’t really think of eating the fruit as breaking a commandment.
I hear some of that ambivalence in one of Jonathan Langford’s memorable phrases from a discussion of disobedience to authority in Lord of the Rings, “I can’t help but draw a parallel to the Garden of Eden story as we Mormon’s believe it, which–clever theological end-runs notwithstanding–suggests some really odd things about potential conflicts between doing what’s right on the one hand, and obedience (at least as we see it) on the other.” (AML List, 8/19/2005, Re:[AML] Civil Disobedience (Was Harry Potter triggers downfall of Westrn Civilization))
In thinking through that phrase “clever theological end-runs” and what end we may be running around it occurred to me working on an AML paper a few years ago that that phrase “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” sounds more like a ritual warning about the nature of the fruit on the tree than a polite way of saying, “If you touch that tree I will kill you.”
It’s a ritual warning because Adam and Eve have to eat the fruit, but God has to tell them what the effect will be.
Seeing it as a ritual warning started as my way of resolving the question my father used to raise, Why would God give contradictory commandments–do not eat of the fruit, multiply and replenish–but as I thought about it I saw the pattern of contradictory commandments repeating itself from Abraham’s commandment to sacrifice Isaac to Nephi’s commandment to slay Laban to Peter’s commandment to slay and eat the formerly unclean beasts, to Joseph Smith’s commandment at point of angel-drawn sword to take another wife.
This seems to happen at the beginning of a dispensation, and it played out in some really interesting way in Jesus’s life, ways which suggest that his relationshop with the Pharisees was rather different than the way we commonly interpret it.
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, so I’m looking forward to fleshing out the ideas in the next several posts.