A few months ago, I wrote a post positing two theories of Eve: “Eve, the Noble Transgressor,” and “Eve, the Sinner.” Many Mormons celebrate the Noble Eve: an aspirational figure of righteousness who knew she was doing the right thing by partaking of the fruit. However, earlier LDS readings viewed Eve in the traditional way, as a sinner who deliberately disobeyed God. I prefer Sinner Eve because it personally helps me “consider myself as if I were Adam or Eve,” and opens up the story as an allegory of life. There is however a way to merge the Noble Eve and the Sinner Eve into one: the Promethean Eve. Viewing Eve as Promethean opens up new dimensions to the traditional story, inviting us to honor Eve’s courageous act, even as we recognize it as defying God’s will.
In Greek Mythology, Prometheus defies the gods by bringing fire to humanity. Prometheus’ fire is more than just a flame stolen from Mount Olympus. Fire is knowledge, and knowledge is power, both for good and ill. With Prometheus’ fire, mankind will light the flames of industry and progress, but it will also light the flames of destruction and death. In retaliation for Prometheus’ disobedience, Zeus sends Pandora, to whom he bestows both an insatiable curiosity, and a beautiful box which she must not open under any circumstance. Zeus knows that Pandora will be unable to resist opening the box, which he has filled with all the evils of the world. When she opens the box, Pandora fears she will be punished by Zeus, but Zeus does not need to punish her, for the opening of the box was its own punishment.
Parallels between Eve and Pandora are obvious. But in the LDS tradition, we can find more similarities with Eve and the noble Prometheus. Consider Satan’s sermon when he offers Eve the fruit of the tree. First, he appeals to her carnal nature: the fruit is delicious to the taste. But Eve is not as simple minded as Pandora. She will not eat out of carnal curiosity. So Satan appeals instead to her mind, offering her knowledge. Satan offered Eve a compelling metaphysical world of thoughts and paradoxes, a world where gods sometimes tell lies (you shall not surely die), where humans can aspire to become like them, a world of good and evil, virtue and vice. Satan’s sermon must have seemed like an exciting new vista of mystery, hope, and doubt. Eve decides that she MUST have this knowledge for herself and her posterity. She must offer her children godhood, progress, eternal life, with or without God’s permission. Like Prometheus, she looks with pity on her posterity without the knowledge of fire and the progress it would bring. She decides knowledge is the way forward, not mindless obedience to commandments which impede progress. So Eve, like Prometheus, is noble, intelligent, courageous. But she also sets herself and her own wisdom above the Gods, and like Prometheus, she sins in her pride.
To complete this interpretation, we must understand the forbidden fruit as symbolic. It was not some kind of literal fruit which caused a magical transformation to mortality, like Pandora’s box. Rather, the fruit was knowledge itself. Satan was not asking Eve to open her mouth and eat, he was telling her to open her ears and learn, to embrace his “doctrines of men mingled with scripture.” What God forbid was not food, but thought!
Eve’s Lost Feral Children
Consider what happens when a child is given no access to Eve’s gift of knowledge. When an infant is separated from all human contact, as in the case of feral children, their behavior is completely inhuman. It’s almost as if they are an entirely different species, behaving like animals: focused on food and physical survival, displaying the same kind of wild innocence and intellectual limitation that great apes display when they are introduced into the human world. Even when great care is taken to rehabilitate them, they sometimes never learn to speak a language or behave in any kind of normal way in society.
Normal children seem to come to a knowledge of good and evil around the age 6 to 10. I don’t know how that can be proved scientifically, but I believe it is fairly self-evident. At some point they do something they know is wrong and for which they feel guilty. In that moment they symbolically partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, taking them out of the garden of innocence, into the dreary world of maturity. Not so with a feral child. Some feral children never seem to reach an age of accountability, instead retaining their animalistic innocence into adulthood, almost as if they were mentally retarded. Even if Tarzan’s ape mother whacked him over the head when he stole her berries, and he learned not to do it again, that is different than a normal human child who has learned that stealing is wrong on some kind of moral level. Enlightenment thinkers noted that feral children had a kind of primitive innocence about them, and this inspired them formulate the archetype of the “noble savage.” Feral children never leave the Garden of Eden. They remind us that we all live on the precipice of the primeval. A deep and real connection with our primate ancestors lurks just beneath the surface. Any one of us would seem utterly non-human if we were raised by non-humans, walking on all fours and making monkey noises, giving no thought to anything but food, survival, and play.
Knowledge of Good and Evil Comes from Culture
Where does knowledge of good and evil come from? From human DNA? Obviously not, or the feral child would also recognize it when they reached a certain age. Does it come from the eternal spirit? Perhaps not, for the feral child would also be able to perceive it, irrespective of their circumstances. Rather, knowledge of good and evil comes from culture. What does a feral child lack that allows him to keep his innocence into adulthood? He lacks knowledge: both knowledge of good and evil, and knowledge in general: of language, of thought, of wonder. That knowledge is what makes us human. Not knowledge as a set of facts, like those an autistic savant can cite, or a monkey who knows where to get the best grubs, but self-knowledge: the ability to question assumptions, to think in language, create hypothesis and to doubt. This knowledge must be taught.
We celebrate Eve as the first who brought this transformative knowledge to humankind, teaching it to Adam and her children, and thus transforming the human world into a place of infinite promise and infinite danger. Without her, we would all be like animals and behave like feral children. But why would God forbid Eve to partake of this knowledge? And why would He send Satan to teach it to her?
Knowledge versus Obedience
Eve’s conflict between knowledge on the one hand, and obedience on the other, is a universal battle that has been raging throughout history. Wherever there have been authorities, they have tried to limit the knowledge of their subjects. Often, they do it for our protection. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. We see this battle played out in our own church as it struggles to deal with messy historical facts it had been hiding. As President Packer says: “Some things that are true are not very useful.”
The genius of Mormonism is that our God plays both sides. He plays the authoritarian protector of Adam and Eve’s safety in the Garden of Eden by forbidding any mortally dangerous fruit. But at the same time He sabotages His injunction by arranging for Satan to tempt Adam and Eve with knowledge. God’s paradoxical behavior is not limited to that single event, but is a pattern of His ways throughout history. He sends simple messengers who give Adam commandments and rituals which Adam follows mindlessly (“I know not save the Lord commanded me”). But these messengers are not particularly intelligent, just lowly fishermen like Peter and gold digging farm boys like Joseph Smith, “the weak things of the world” as God calls them. God knows that they won’t really stand up to the intellectual rigors of Satan and his priests in their fancy robes. God knows that we may not be so impressed with fishermen toting signs and tokens when we can have Ivy-league educated experts expounding doctrines of men mingled with scripture.
God sets up a purposefully weak and unimpressive ecclesiastical structure which is easy to mock and abandon for its simplistic and non-intellectual culture. It’s focus is on humble obedience, not knowledge. Many people will stumble and fall on this “stone which the builders rejected.” But God does not abandon these people whom He has set up to fail, just as He did not abandon Adam and Eve for partaking of the fruit. He has a higher plan that transcends the simplistic authoritarian structures He puts in place, whether they be bizarre admonitions not to eat tempting fruit, or bizarre admonitions not to drink tea and coffee. I believe God is not as black and white as He seems in His correlated presentation, and that He works on other dimensions for these people, the 99% of people for whom Mormonism seems to have no pull.
Mormons and Messengers from the Father
Mormons have humbled themselves to the lowly, sign-toting “messengers from the father.” Yet Satan and his doctrines of men mingled with scripture have not left us. In the temple movie, Satan continues to follow Adam and Eve around throughout their life. They continue to learn many intelligent things from him: good along with evil. The paradox of Mormonism is that God has sent both Satan and the messengers as gifts to Adam and Eve. In the temple, religion is the creation of Satan, not God. The term “doctrines of men mingled with scripture” is the very definition of organized religion. Early versions of the endowment even featured a preacher who led Adam and Eve in singing “How Great Thou Art” at Satan’s invitation.
But God has given His messengers ultimate authority. Even Satan must depart in their presence. The knowledge of these messengers is limited. Their speech is simple and ritual bound. They show a “strait and narrow way” which few will ever find. But those who enter into this way will be brought back to the presence of the Father, leaning things that no educated preacher could ever teach them. Yet Satan and his learning made this great journey possible! That is the paradox.
- Was Eve a Prometheus or a Pandora?
- Is God both anti-intellectual, and pro-intellectual, in that he gives us a simplistic church focused on obedience, but also a thirst for knowledge which transcends that obedience?
- Can we compare Mother Eve to ex-Mormons whose thirst for knowledge has led them to doubt the simplistic and authoritarian structures of the LDS church? Is there a divine plan for these people who have inadvertently rejected God’s obedience touting messengers in favor of worldly experts touting knowledge and learning?
- What does the fruit of the tree symbolize for you? Can we interpret its fruit as knowledge? Does that knowledge come from our culture, our eternal spirit, or DNA?
- Do you agree that feral children illustrate the nearness of our primitive, pre-Adamic nature?