In Tents # 9

Contradictory Commandment, Taking Leaves, and Ritual Language

Harlow Soderborg Clark

They are not, on the face of it, contradictory commandments, Go forth, multiply and replenish the earth, and Do not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet I think I was an adult before I understood that. Perhaps I had adult children. I grew up hearing my father ask that question, in Family Home Evening and other contexts, perhaps in the classroom.

I’m not quite sure what the answer was. I’m sure it had something to do with being enticed by one choice or the other, but I couldn’t imagine the answer being half as good as the question.

When I taught the lesson on the Fall to those wonderful people in the care center where I clark for the branch president I was delighted to see the lesson manual raise the same question, talk about being enticed by one choice or the other, and note that prophets never teach about the Fall without also teaching about the Atonement.

Making my usual scant preparation for that Gospel Doctrine lesson I noticed sudden strokes of ideas flowing into me-pure, undeserved grace–to the effect that this pattern of contradictory commandments repeats itself throughout the scriptures. Abraham–rescued from the sacrificial altars of the “the god of Elkenah, and the god of Libnah, and the god of Mahmackrah, and the god of Korash, and the god of Pharaoh, king of Egypt” (Abraham 1:17) (Listen the rhythm of that!)-commanded to sacrifice “thy son, Isaac, thine only son” (Gen. 6:22; Nephi who held life sacred being commanded to slay Laban (I Nephi 4:10); Peter, whose “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean,” was met with “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common”(Acts 10:14-15); Joseph Smith whose translation of Jacob’s denunciation of polygamy was soon followed by those terrible words, “Thy wife, Emma, thine only wife.”

I had also been thinking about the Eden story as a ceremony. Three phrases seem to me highly ritualized.

First, considering Lehi’s commentary on Adam and Eve,

And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end.

And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.
(2 Nephi 2:22-23)

it’s difficult to see the words in Gen. 2:17

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.

as a commandment with the same gravity as, say, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

But if it’s not a commandment–that is, something the Lord expect the hearers to heed–and it’s not a threat–if you eat that fruit I will kill you–what is it?

A warning, perhaps, but not one the Lord expects Adam and Eve to take seriously, because if they did they would have no children, no joy, no misery. No good. No Fall that men and women and often little children might be.

But as a ritual warning it makes a lot of sense. God can hardly make them mortal, send them into a condition where they will die, without telling them what’s going to happen. It also makes sense as a statement of fact: In order to know Good and Evil you have to die.

Second, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” (Gen. 3:16). If we accept Lehi’s statement that God wanted Adam and Eve to leave the garden and have children then the statement is not a sentence to sorrow, but a ritual warning: Creation and sorrow are deeply linked; our children bring us sorrow, along with the joy they bring us.

Third, Gen. 3:21-22 as emended by Joseph Smith,

and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever [in his sins]:
Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

gives us a reason why Adam and Eve have to leave the Garden. God does not them to be in a place where they could be immortal without the possibility of repenting, that is, trapped forever in their sins. They have to work their way back to the tree through the mists of darkness Lehi saw.


Those sudden strokes of intelligence that set me thinking about the repeated pattern of contradictory commandments raised again the question of why God would give contradictory commandments. One answer would be that the fact of having commandments is more important than any particular commandment. I mentioned this to my brother Dennis and he said, “You do know you’re playing in Kierkegaard’s sandbox, don’t you?”

I had been thinking more of Zora Neale Hurston’s comment in the introduction to Moses: Man of the Mountain that in Africa Moses is worshiped as a God because who else would have the power to go up into the Mountain and command commandments from God. But if I’d had my wits about me I would have said, “No, Kierkegaard was playing in Joseph Smith’s sandbox.”

Except I’m not sure Joseph Smith knew he was playing in a sandbox. As Terryl Givens said in his 2010 AML keynote address: “Joseph knew the answers, but I’m not sure he knew the questions.” Joseph was not a philosopher, but a prophet, and the difference between Soren Kierkegaard and Joseph Smith illustrates Kierkegaard’s phrase “the difference between a genius and an apostle.”

I mention the pattern of contradictory commandments because one way to read the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees is as a record of people wrestling with the contradictions of the new covenant compared to the covenant they had lived under.

I mention the ritual language because thinking recently about Jesus’s trial before Pilate, that also seems to me highly ritualized, signaled by Pilate’s ceremonial bowl to ceremonially wash his hands of the people he condemned to death. “See ye to his death,” seems to me directed at the centurions, not the crowd. (See Matthew 27:24)

I’ll look more closely at Jesus’s friendship with the Pharisees next month, and maybe after that, then I’ll look at the trial before Pilate and how later Christians transformed it from a portrait of Pilate as a ruthless politician to an ineffectual and maybe even lovable bumbler who allowed himself to condemn an innocent man to death because he just didn’t want to stand up to a bunch of rowdy ultra-religious folk.

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