“We don’t know how long Adam and Eve were in the Garden”: Genre and the Temple, Part 3

See here and here for parts 1 and 2

Some Latter-day Saints, including some General Authorities like Joseph Fielding Smith, have tried to resolve apparent discrepancies between scripture and science on the age of the earth by asserting that “we don’t know how long Adam and Eve were in the garden.” The implication is that the while the earth went on existing, potentially for millions or billions of years, Adam and Eve remained effectively in stasis in the garden planted eastward in Eden.

I see three arguments against this view.

First, it makes the traditional strong assumption that the genre of Genesis 2-3 is journalistic history (with a few “symbolic” bits), typically reinforced by its repetition in Moses, Abraham, and the temple. You can see this argument in Richard Draper’s paper, “The Creation of Humankind, An Allegory?: A Note on Abraham 5:7, 14-16.” I haven’t written a response to that per se, but I think he fails to address some fundamental assumptions there. (For those unfamiliar, see my take on the repetition of Genesis in LDS sources here, herehere, and here, and on genre here, here, here). But let’s set that aside.

Second, the various dating methods which demonstrate the earth’s great antiquity rely on decay, on elementary breakdown, on death. But if the earth was created static, with no death, decay, or breakdown anywhere in any way until the Fall, then these dating methods should indicate an earth only 6000 years old (per scriptural “literalism” applied to Genesis and D&C 77).

Public domain

Some LDS sidestep this further, asserting that dating methods and fossils indicating an old earth are indeed correct, but the oldness is due to the earth being created from remnants of prior planets; in this view, the earth is young, but made from old pieces, which make it look old. This is a misreading of a comment by Joseph Smith, which I don’t address here, but see this old post elsewhere. Moreover, it’s been shot down by a number of LDS using logic. Henry Eyring Sr. told one BYUI science professor

it would take a very fancy shovel to put the earth together in such an organized fashion so that the fossils and ages of rocks are arranged in such an orderly manner with the oldest on the bottom and the youngest on top.

Henry Eyring, Sr.

Third, the strongest argument for me comes from scripture and the temple itself. The traditional assertion is that Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden in order to experience, recognize, and make choices between opposites.

However, the temple and scripture also present the Garden— if you’re paying attention— with opposites already present, recognized, and forcing choices.

For example, there is day and night, which entails light and darkness, two pairs of opposites with all the gradations in between: starlight, moonlight, dawn, the golden hour.

Then there are trees which they eat from. Why do you eat? Why do you need to eat? Hunger and survival. Why do you not eat? Satiety. Is that not an opposite, one based on human need and desire? What would happen if they didn’t eat at all? Would they have gotten hungrier? Would they have died? If not… then why food?

When tempted by the serpent, Eve “saw that the tree was good for food” (Genesis 3:6). This entails judgment or discernment, being able to recognize that some trees are good for food and nourishment, but other trees aren’t. Again, here’s a binary already present in the garden, and Eve has the ability to distinguish the good from the bad, the “feeds me” from the “doesn’t feed me.”

Eve also perceives that the tree was a “delight to the eyes.” This is a judgment of aesthetics, which again implies the presence of binary ends on a scale of beauty, an aesthetic hierarchy, and Eve’s ability to distinguish and judge between those gradations.

Taking all this together, the traditional LDS framing, in which Adam and Eve loiter in a static Garden for potentially millions of years, without any death or decay, and unable to recognize, choose between, or experience opposites because they have not yet eaten the fruit… simply makes no sense. Those things are already present and happening in the Garden, no fruit necessary. Tradition presents an inadequate description of what scripture says and what the temple presents, leaving science out of the argument entirely.

This is one of those aspects where the details of the story are strongly at odds with supposed genre and setting of the story, a clue which suggests we’re misunderstanding it (per my Temple fireside.) Indeed, all of this strongly suggests that approaching Genesis, Moses, Abraham, or the temple primarily as journalistic history, as a kind-of-documentary-but-of-course-some-parts-are-symbolic is misguided, and causing unnecessary problems.

James E. Talmage wrote

I cannot agree with [the] conception that there was no death of plants and animals anywhere upon this earth prior to the transgression of Adam, unless we assume that the history of Adam and Eve in Eden dates back many hundreds of thousands of years. The trouble with some theologians – even including many of our own good people – is that they undertake to fix the date of Adam’s transgression as being approximately 4000 years before the birth of Christ and therefore about 5932 years ago. If Adam was placed upon the earth only that comparatively short time ago, the rocks clearly demonstrate the life and death had been existent and operative in this earth for ages prior to that time.

So where does this leave us?

First, it’s clear we can’t reconcile scripture with science and the age of the earth by asserting a long stay in the Garden. It fails on multiple levels.

Second, barring new revelation— which tends to come after we’ve done our homework— I think our way forward, the homework we need to do, entails recognizing and moving past our 1950s fundamentalism.  Again, on numerous occasions James E. Talmage recognized the problem of setting fossilized interpretations of scripture against nature (my italics).

I think we should be very careful in taking what we consider the one and only interpretation or application of a passage of scripture, and sweeping away as utterly wrong all accumulated knowledge that may seem to point to another interpretation…. We have to recognize fact whether it be called scripture or science; and it is unwise to attempt to pass upon demonstrated fact and call it false because it has been brought forth through the labors of trained men in the field of science.
[different source]
We cannot sweep aside all the accumulated knowledge in geology, archeology or any other branch of science simply because our interpretation of some isolated passage of scripture may seem to be opposed thereto.

I think our pre-revelation homework includes cleaning our interpretive glasses, learning to read scripture literally and in context, and revisiting it for what it actually says. Then we can engage in more integrative work that takes scripture literally and authoritatively and also accounts for God’s revelations written in nature.

And then per D&C 101:32-34, one day God will reveal —or confirm!— our earth history.

If God were to repeat the story of man’s origin He would probably clear away many of the obscurities surrounding the account contained in Jewish scriptures. Doubtless, however, as people become more and more anxious to know the truth, He will supply means for  their enlightenment, but no one would care to say whether this enlightenment will come as direct revelation from God or through the researches of science.
– Frederick Pack, LDS geology professor and Chair of the Church-wide Gospel Doctrine Committee, in Science and Belief in God, 1924

More reading:

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6 thoughts on ““We don’t know how long Adam and Eve were in the Garden”: Genre and the Temple, Part 3

  1. A  very well-informed, sensible analysis.

    D&C 77:6, which states that the “temporal existence” of the earth is 7,000 years, points to a larger problem related to the contents of the Doctrine and Covenants and to the revelatory process in general.

    In answering a question about the seven seals mentioned in the book of  Revelation, the prophet in Section 77 undoubtedly combined a correct thought—that he was the Lord’s authorized prophet—with an incorrect assumption—that thoughts that linger in the mind of an authorized prophet surely must be there because the Lord put them there. The same could be said of prophets having dreams that they interpret as revelations but that, in reality, may simply be the result of consuming ice cream or blueberry pie too close to bedtime. Even for prophets, its hard to tell when an “impression” is the voice of the Spirit or is merely a feeling of the moment that will later prove incorrect.

    In writing down the contents of Doctrine and Covenants, the revelatory problem is exacerbated by the fact that when Joseph Smith dictated his “revelations” to scribes, he did so with grammar that consistently had to be corrected and with language that needed to be gussied up. Also, additions, deletions and changes were made before even actual revelations made it into print and also from edition to edition. Following are examples of three different types of problematic passages.

    In terms of improving the narrative, the Joseph Smith Papers Project has reported that the first couple of verses of Section 20 were added by John Whitmer after the section was originally written down. For the historical record, he included the date of the church’s organization. Alas, some later prophets thought this date was part of the original revelation and have extrapolated that Christ was telling us that he was born on April 6. They obviously were unaware that Whitmer used similar wording elsewhere for dates other than April 6.

    Section 20 also contains an example of an incorrect thought from the prophet’s mind that he undoubtedly thought was the Lord speaking.  Apparently referring to God the Father, he says men should view him as “the only being whom they should worship” (verse 19). Not only do other scriptures say otherwise, President Hinckley stated that Christ, not the Father, “is the central focus of our worship.” 

    Alas, the desire to defend some scriptural passages so as not to erode the credibility of others sometimes goes to great lengths. See FairMormon’s defense of Section 111, wherein church leaders traveled to Salem, Massachusetts, because “I have much treasure in this city for you.” (They came back empty-handed as the church entered an era of financial crisis.)

    Let’s keep in mind that we can still qualify as the Lord’s church even if much of what appears in the D&C is bunk. After all, there’s a good reason why Joseph called the Book of Mormon, not the D&C, “the most correct of any book.”

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  2. I believe I’m correct in remembering that James. E. Talmage, after visiting Adam-ondi-ahman, noted in his diary that the stones that he was shown as being the very ones that Adam used to build his altar, contained fossils.

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  3. I also seem to remember that Bruce R. McConkie interrupted a meeting of the “Swearing Elders” (an informal group of LDS scholars in the 1950’s and 60’s) who were discussing evolution, to tell them if they concluded that there was death on the earth prior to the Fall of Adam they were abandoning a major portion of the restoration.

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  4. Is there evidence that the ancient Israelites who wrote Genesis 1-3 (or wrote the ancient texts they were compiled from) saw them or used them as temple liturgy? That would lend strong credence to how we should view them – as a ritualistic drama and not a literal retelling of past events. What I find interesting about our own temple liturgy is how we focus on Adam and Eve throughout the drama, but the pieces that appear in Genesis, patrons tend to assume as historical, but as the drama continues past written scripture, we seem to no longer make that assumption (at least people I’ve talked to anyway) and that doesn’t seem to cause any concern. We should be able to see the Genesis pieces as ritual drama as opposed to history without any issues – obviously JFS and others have influenced why are some uncomfortable seeing Genesis as anything but historical. But I tend to think that if the Israelites would have seen Genesis as a temple text, then that would be both faith-promoting (since Joseph Smith used it the same way) and largely inform the way we view the text. Of course, I believe temple liturgy, especially with the first temple period, is not always clear.

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  5. As a footnote to the notion that the oldness of Earth could be explained by it having been made from other planets: irrespective of whether that’s what Joseph Smith meant, the idea was not original to him. Benjamin Silliman raised the possibility of a very similar scenario, before rejecting it, in an 1839 geology publication. (See his point #2.) It must have been even more widespread, because Silliman granted that “This explanation has been given by men of powerful minds, both theologians and geologists….”

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