Genre… and the Temple

The red brick store in Nauvoo, where the first endowments were done on May 4, 1842.

If you follow me, you know I talk a lot about the importance of recognizing genre in scripture: podcast here, Sperry symposium here, posts here, here, etc.

Evolution is also a topic I address with some frequency, such as here (a BYU guest lecture) and here (in context of “what prophets know”).

I also talk a lot about Genesis, how and why it’s historically been misread (e.g. my presentation here and accompanying post here), as well as the parallels in Moses and Abraham (see here for my FAIR talk transcript, and here for a fireside video.)

And I’m writing a book on Genesis 1 where I tie a lot of this stuff together… but I’ve left a lot of hardest writing for last, including my chapter on the temple. So, let’s talk. 

A friend’s mother said “Well, I just can’t understand how someone who has been to the temple can believe in evolution.” She’s not alone in thinking that way.

Way back in 1931, even before film became the dominant presentation form of the ordinances— that story is told in President Hinckley’s biography—  Joseph Fielding Smith wrote to the Quorum of the Twelve that

The instructions given [in the temple] are very clear and positive and it surely is a deception if there were other races preceding Adam [i.e. so-called “pre-adamites” or evolution]. If this story is not true, then there can be little real purpose in these ordinances in the Temple. They are futile, meaningless, and not worthy of the place we give them.

President Smith does two things in this statement, which are in keeping with his assumptions. He equates “true” with “historical,” and then presumes that the temple’s genre is primarily journalistic/historical/scientific facts. Therefore the “data” from it can be “stacked up” and compared with “outside” information of a historical or scientific nature.

I suspect that some more recent temple videos have encouraged this kind of assumption, that what one is seeing there is more-or-less a documentary or re-creation of “what really happened in the garden of Eden.” That is, we are effectively just “watching a movie.” In reality, we are participating in a ritual drama which happens to be presented via film… but I’m getting ahead of myself and I don’t want to speak too directly.

There’s a book called Reading Genesis After Darwin with a fantastic essay by Walter Moberly called “How Should we Read the Early Chapters of Genesis?” Moberly makes the argument that particular details of the Cain and Abel narrative are strongly at odds with the narrative logic and context, which suggests that the text itself has a history, and cannot be read in a straightforward “modern journalistic history” fashion. To name a few:

  1. Whom does Cain marry?
  2. The specialization of labor into shepherd (Abel) and farmer (Cain) does not fit well with the notion of only a handful of people, but seems to presume a population significantly larger than four.
  3. Cain should have ample and frequent opportunity alone with Abel, yet must get him out into the “open countryside” in order to kill him.
  4. When Cain is cast out, he worries about “everyone who finds” him, who might take vengeance, and God marks him to protect him from these people. (NB: the “mark of cain” thus has positive intent in Genesis.) Who are all these people he fears? Shouldn’t Cain literally have thousands of square miles of solitude and safety?
  5. While Cain is condemned to be a “fugitive and wanderer,”  he immediately settles down to build a “city” (v. 17), which “presupposes the kind of population density and organization that are also presupposed at the outset by the roles of shepherd and farmer, and it is at odds with the story’s own location at the very beginnings of human life on earth.”
  6. Several of Cain’s near descendants are described as founding fathers of genealogical lines of cultural knowledge and technology, a description that seems unaware of the death of all humans in the flood (see here and here) just a few chapters later.

In short, the details provided are necessary to the story, but also render it virtually impossible in its supposed setting. Moberly provides a very useful British analogy.

[T]he early chapters of Genesis are rather like many churches and most cathedrals in the United Kingdom. Although each building is a unity as it now stands, careful inspection (and a helpful guidebook) reveals… differing kinds of stone and differing architectural styles from differing periods of history…. Almost always, the correct way of understanding a marked difference of architectural style is not to hypothesize one architect who changed his mind and his materials, but rather to recognize that the building is a composite and has a history.

I have similarly noticed about a half dozen significant elements in the temple ordinances (across versions) which I will not name or elucidate, but function in similar fashion. These details of the narrative are strongly at odds with the narrative’s setting (as many suppose) of the special creation of two humans a few thousand years ago. These strongly suggest the temple is not a documentary or simple recreation of a historical event. Rather, although the temple ordinances contain ancient elements, as a whole it is a ritual drama adapted, collected, and updated for our day.

Like Genesis, then, I think the temple ordinances were never intended to provide us with a peek into the “answer section” at the back of God’s science book. It has other purposes which, again, are beyond the scope and propriety of this post.

Neither do these elements render the temple entirely modern; it’s not. (Along with President Nelson, I think the most revealing book about the temple is the Old Testament.) But to read the temple as providing scientific evidence against evolution or the age of the earth is to misread and misunderstand it.

Please note, in keeping with a more complex understanding of interpretation and genre, I have avoided using the terms “literal” or “figurative.” They’re not particularly helpful here.

As a sidenote, there’s an essay addressing the title of the book, Reading Genesis After Darwin. As it turns out, interpretations of Genesis changed very little due to Darwin, because those interpretations weren’t really science-based to begin with.

See also

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10 thoughts on “Genre… and the Temple

  1. I think part of the problem is that people assume that the creation, as presented in the temple, is an independent revelation of the creation, rather than an adaptation of Genesis. Somehow the added/altered elements give it an additional authority of what ‘really’ happened. I wonder if people would invest as much in the temple creation account if it was simply a recitation of Genesis 1?


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