I read Old Testament lesson 4 quite closely this week, but as fate would have it I won’t be teaching it today. Still, there is a lot wrong with the lesson, which covers the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Well, not exactly. The lesson covers Moses 4, which is a much different narrative than Genesis 3, which is the first problem, but I won’t dwell on that. Once upon a time, Moses and Abraham were taught at the end of the Doctrine and Covenants course, but now they have hopped over to the Old Testament and displaced the opening chapters of Genesis. Another step backwards for the LDS curriculum and for LDS scriptural understanding. So, trying hard not to sound whiny, here are some problems with this lesson, particularly for those who have to teach it.
1. Adam is actually a very minor figure in the Old Testament.
After the death of Adam at the ripe old age of 930 years (another problem I will not dwell on) in Genesis 5:5, Adam pretty much disappears from the Old Testament. It is only in Christian doctrine that Adam assumes a large role, first in Paul’s theology (“As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive”) and most famously in Augustine’s account of original sin. Over the centuries, Adam’s original sin, somehow sexually transmitted to all his descendants, was the problem to which the growing edifice of doctrine and sacraments of the Catholic Church were the answer. So a lot of Christian theological ink was spilled on those first few chapters of Genesis, some interpreting the story literally, some allegorically or symbolically, or in recent years as a myth (in the positive sense of that term).
The Mormon story of Adam and Eve takes that Christian view of Adam as a key theological figure, expands it, and projects it back into the Old Testament narrative itself. That is the case in several D&C passages but most clearly in Joseph’s Smith’s rewriting of the Bible, the first few chapters of which, while never canonized in Joseph’s time, came down to us as the Book of Moses. It was not canonized until 1880, under John Taylor. The Joseph Smith Translation, as the full manuscript is known, was held in low regard by the LDS Church until roughly the 1970s, when the RLDS Church (now the Community of Christ) finally allowed LDS scholars access to the manuscript, and eventually it was included in the 1979 edition of the LDS Bible, as footnotes for short changes and in an appendix for long additions to various bible chapters.
So there is an evolution of Adam, in the Mormon view, from sinner to mere transgressor to a great and noble co-creator of the world to, under Brigham Young, Adam-God. Conceptually, Hero Adam is quite foreign to the actual Old Testament documents as we have them. It’s a uniquely Mormon thing, not a Bible thing or a Jewish thing or a Christian thing.
2. Transgression, schmansgreggion — Adam sinned and Eve sinned.
Along with rejecting Augustine’s doctrine of original sin and its transmission to all humans, the Mormon view seems to feel a need to absolve Adam of any sin at all. In the lesson, there are three paragraphs of an Elder Oaks talk from 1993 emphasizing that distinction, along with a short and irrelevant discussion of the difference between malum in se laws and malum prohibitum laws, as if somehow that strengthens the idea that Adam and Eve merely transgressed. If you appear in court with a ticket for doing 65 in a 55 or for having parked in a no parking zone, the judge doesn’t say “oh, that’s just a malum prohibitum offense, I’ll dismiss it.” Sorry, that’s an irrelevant distinction in court (as opposed to law school). And if there is a lesson to be drawn from it, that lesson is that a malum prohibitum offense is still an offense and that therefore a transgressory sin is still a sin.
In Genesis 2:17, God directly commands them to not eat the fruit of the tree. And we know that they understood, because in Genesis 3:3, Eve says, “God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it ….” Can’t get much clearer than that, and in the text it came straight from God’s mouth to Adam and Eve’s ears, and they understood it. Yet the Mormon view depicts this event of doing exactly the opposite of what God himself oh-so-clearly spelled out as .. not a sin? Try and come up with a more clear-cut example of direct disobedience to God, yet the implication here in the Mormon view (you can’t really get around it) is that sometimes disobedience is a good thing. Sometimes a commandment is a commandment, other times it’s no big deal. Then toward the end of the lesson, a bullet point teaches: “Why is it important to obey the Lord’s commandments even when we do not understand all the reasons for them?” So after a lesson extolling the virtues of Adam and Eve’s eyes-wide-open disobedience, they draw the lesson that blind obedience is the rule? Do they not even realize how inconsistent they are in this lesson and, more broadly, in LDS thinking on this topic?
3. God doesn’t give inconsistent commandments.
Part of the defense of Hero Adam is the idea that God gave Adam and Eve inconsistent commandments, first to multiply and replenish the earth (in Genesis 1) and also to not partake of the forbidden fruit (Genesis 2). Except that these were two entirely separate narratives, only stitched together when the Jewish Bible as canon was compiled after the Exile. To put it rather obliquely, the Adam and Eve of the narrative in Genesis 2 and 3 were unaware of the cosmic creation narrative in Genesis 1. In Genesis 3, asked to explain her actions, Eve replies, “The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.” She did not say, “Hey, you told us to multiply and replenish the earth, and that was never going to happen unless I ate of the fruit of the tree. So it is wrong for you to punish me!” I think it is just dumb theology to try and defend Hero Adam and Hero Eve from the idea that they sinned by instead saying God screwed up by giving inconsistent commandments. It’s wrong within the text of Genesis 2, it’s wrong by source criticism, and it’s wrong theologically.
4. A willing suspension of disbelief only goes so far.
From the manual: “The Fall of Adam and Eve brought physical and spiritual death into the world.” This reflects the “no death before the fall” idea that was championed by Joseph Fielding Smith. FAIRMormon, a friendly source, gives a nice summary of the various LDS comments on this problem, suggesting that more recent statements by LDS leaders have walked this back a bit. So why don’t they change the stupid manual? Is anyone driving the bus? What are thirty Mormon adults sitting in an LDS Sunday School supposed to think in 2018 if a teacher reads that sentence from the manual?
I’ll tell you what ought to happen. Twenty-nine hands ought to go up. Fossils. Dinosaurs. Hundreds, thousands of remains of anatomically modern humans dating back tens of thousand of years. And yes, they are all dead. DNA ties us back millions, hundreds of millions of years to a variety of close ancestors and distant relatives in the evolutionary tree of life. All dead. Look, the manual is so bad that instead of carrying on with the willing suspension of disbelief, instead of just letting this and that questionable claim or assertion slip by without comment, at some point some people stop just playing along and realize that the manual has lost its credibility. That those who drafted, then edited, then approved the manual and its continuing publication and use simply don’t know what they are talking about. A statement in the manual that there was no death in the world before a historical Adam and Eve who lived 6000 years ago is likely to do that.
5. Don’t rule over women; preside over them.
Here’s my attempt to find something nice to say about the lesson. Not in the body of the lesson but in the back, under Additional Teaching Material, the manual quotes President Kimball saying he doesn’t like it when it says at Genesis 3:16 “he [thy husband] shall rule over thee.” He likes the word “preside” better and states: “A righteous husband presides over his wife and family.” I’ll take that as a veiled rejection of domestic violence and child abuse, and any use of Genesis 3:16 to justify that sort of thing. I endorse President Kimball’s counsel even if the textual reading of Genesis 3:16 does not support that reading.
To improve the conversation in the comments as far as manuals and their content goes, I’m going to suggest you go read a transcript posted here at Wheat and Tares of part of an interview with Daniel Peterson. He talks about his experience drafting lessons while serving on the LDS curriculum staff, his frustration with the editing process, and how he teaches. He teaches by ignoring the manual and simply referencing the scriptural texts to be covered and providing his own insights and commentary. That makes me think better of Daniel Peterson, but it doesn’t really solve the problems with the manual and the LDS curriculum, does it?