Let’s talk about origins. We seem to think origins are important; “where we came from” forms a part of our our identity, helps us understand ourselves. This is pretty deeply embedded and reinforced in our culture in a number of ways. Superhero movies tend to begin with an origin story. Even Batman movies, as often as we’ve seen it and as much as we know it, typically begin by retelling the trauma of young Bruce seeing his parents shot. Jennifer Lopez sang, “Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got; I’m still Jenny from the block; Used to have a little, now I have a lot; No matter where I go, I know where I came from.” Or look at arguments about the importance of Rey’s parentage in the recent Star Wars film (SPOILERS!)
But perhaps you’ve seen recent ads for Ancestry or 23AndMe DNA testing, framed as something like “Well, we always thought we were German, but our DNA turned up lots of Scottish, so we traded in our Leiderhosen for kilts.” (The DNA stuff is somewhat problematic, both in the actual testing, supposed significance, advertising, and framing I think.) Or stories about white supremacists learning they have Jewish or African DNA instead of being “pure.”
Just as for us, origins mattered to the Israelites, and Genesis represents different attempts to account for Israelite origins and identity. In the early chapters, for example, one author has argued that the Adam/Eve story is representative of Israel’s history; “The story of Adam is the story of Israel writ small.” That is, Adam/Israel was put in a priveleged place (Eden/Israel), but through their own choices (fruit/Deuteronomy) were divinely driven from that place to somewhere lesser (“the world”/Babylon). This is the argument of Seth Postell’s Adam as Israel: Genesis 1-3 as the Introduction to the Torah and Tanakh. Along those lines, we should also call attention to the brevity of these chapters. Christians today put enormous importance on these chapters for doctrinal and cultural reasons, but creation stories occupy three chapters, while the story of Abraham and his descendents gets dozens. Heck, Joseph in Egypt runs from Genesis 37-49. That plus the lack of revisiting Adam/Eve in the Hebrew Bible is quite suggestive. As LDS scholar Sidney Sperry wrote in his 1940 Spirit of the Old Testament,
the writer of Genesis (in its present form) is more interested in showing to Israel who its great ancestors were than to tell about the origin of life and its institutions. This is readily seen in the fact that the origins of life and its institutions are briefly and concisely handled in the first eleven chapters, while thirty-nine chapters are required to tell about Abraham, the father of the faithful, and his immediate family.
Takeaway: the inspired ancient authors of these chapters may see their purpose and import very differently than we do today.
Moving on. In my experience, lessons on “the Fall” often bring comparisons between “what LDS believe” and “what Christians/Catholics/Protestants/Evangelicals believe.” I think these kinds of comparisons are usually less helpful, for two reasons. 1) They’re rarely well-founded and 2) they’re usually to establish some kind of simplistic “LDS Church’s Doctrine Good; Other Churches’ Doctrine Bad.”
Just as LDS tend to bristle when other Christians misunderstand and misstate what LDS believe, so LDS also tend to misunderstand and misstate what other Christians believe on this topic. We should also distinguish on both sides between official teachings on the Fall i.e. the Catholic Catechism and Papal bulls or declarations vs. what that Catholic guy said that you met on your mission. It’s best to focus the discussion on what the scriptures actually say (being careful not to read tradition overtop of the text), what they mean, and how they have variously been interpreted by LDS authorities.
So, I want to focus on clarifying Adam and Eve a little. These comments on Adam are drawn from the Mormon Theology Seminar on Genesis 2-3, which I participated in. The conference papers are published here, but you can check out the verse-by-verse commentary from the collaborative blog (starting at the bottom and working up, with comments on each post) and the audio of the conference.
What does ‘adam mean in Hebrew? In summary,
- ‘adam can refer to the general class of humankind or humanity, i.e. “humanity is X”
- ‘adam can refer to any member of that class, whether male or female, e.g. a human or humans, people. Lev. 13:2 “When a person (‘adam) has on the skin…”
- ‘adam can be the proper name of the first man, but as it turns out, this is the rarest of the three usages. ‘adam probably shouldn’t be translated as Adam until after Genesis 2-3. It becomes a name, but doesn’t begin that way.
These distinctions are blurred and misconveyed by the KJV. For example, when it says later on in 5:2 that “he called their name Adam,” God is not naming them both Adam. (I once had a teacher explain that the scriptures talked about Adam Adam and Eve Adam, on that basis, like a last name.) Rather, we should understand “and he designated them humanity.”
This means that Genesis is more about prototypical humanity writ large, Human and Life (Eve=Heb. chawwa=“life” more or less) instead of the documentary retelling of a particular couple. See the paraphrastic “campfire retelling” translation I did for the Theology Seminar and my published paper.
As for Eve, I get to keep my Inigo Montoya theme this week. Let’s talk about “help meet” first…
I’ve talked about “help meet” before, but as I keep seeing the older and incorrect usage, this needs to be repeated until it really gets around. I’m not so rigidly prescriptivist that I can’t stand to see incorrect usages, but this is a spectacular misunderstanding with real-world implications for the role of women, which has been part and parcel of bad theology in the past.
In Genesis 2:18/Moses 3:18, Eve is described as “a help meet for” the man. First, the noun here is “help,” not “help meet,” “helpmeet,” or worse “helpmate.” Help can be of various kinds, and it’s often been implicitly understood that Adam is primary and Eve is his helper. Subordinate somehow. Genesis isn’t necessarily making this case. (To be sure, it’s also not suggesting some kind of modern ideal of gender equality either.)
‘ezer, pronounced ay-zair (like Canadian “eh” and “air” with a -z- in between, accent on the first syllable) does mean something like “help” or “aid”, and appears in several Biblical names, such as Ezra “God is a help” or Azriel/Eliezer “God is (my) help.” However, it’s not the standard kind of help. Though other humans get to “help” using the verbal form, ‘ezer as a noun is applied only to two characters in the Bible, namely, Eve and God himself. (Thanks to Boyd for making me check up on that.)
If you’re in a group of two, and the other member is God, that’s a fairly elite group. In other words, Eve is akin to some kind of divine aid to Adam, and the nature of that help is not subordinate, like that of a secretary, a gopher, an assistant, or when parents say of their three-year old “he’s such a good helper.” It’s God-like aid. God is a help and clearly not subordinate, and that’s apparently the kind of “help” Eve is.
“Meet” is actually an translation for second part of this, kenegdo, (kuh-neg-dough.)English “meet” is an adjective, and though not common anymore, it appears several times in the archaic English of our scriptures. Let’s get some general ideas of what the English term might mean from the contexts it’s used in. (This is, btw, the way dictionaries ancient and modern, English and Hebrew are put together.)
1 Nephi 7:1 …after my father, Lehi, had made an end of prophesying concerning his seed, it came to pass that the Lord spake unto him again, saying that it was not meet for him, Lehi, that he should take his family into the wilderness alone; but that his sons should take daughters to wife, that they might raise up seed unto the Lord in the land of promise.
Alma 5:54 …will ye persist in the persecution of your brethren, who humble themselves and do walk after the holy order of God, wherewith they have been brought into this church, having been sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and they do bring forth works which are meet for repentance— (This phrase also appears in Alma 9:30, 12:15, etc.)
Mark 7:27 But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs.
1 Corinthians 15:9 Paul says “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
Those are both NT passages, a different time and language than Genesis. What about Old Testament passages?
Exodus 8:25-26 And Pharaoh called for Moses and for Aaron, and said, Go ye, sacrifice to your God in the land. And Moses said, It is not meet so to do; for we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians to the Lord our God: lo, shall we sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians before their eyes, and will they not stone us?
From all of these, it would appear English meet means something like “worthy (not in the moral sense), fitting for, appropriate for, equivalent to.” Would this make sense in Genesis 2:18?
” And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help [one that is worthy/fitting/appropriate/equivalent] for him.”
That general realm of semantics seems to fit Genesis 2:18. Fortunately in this case, we can look at the Hebrew term instead of the English which also turns out to mean (probably) something like that. (If you want to see how to work with the Hebrew or Greek instead of English, see my Religious Educator article.)
Consequently, Eve is not created as a subordinate to Adam, but as David Freedman translates it, “a power equal unto man” (see here.)
Further reading on this topic:
- Jolene Edmunds Rockwood, “Eve’s Role in the Creation and the Fall to Mortality” in Women and the Power Within (Salt Lake City:Deseret Book, 1991), p. 49-62. Link
- A longer version was published as “The Redemption of Eve” in Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective, ed. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavinia Fielding Anderson (Urbana of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago, 1987): 3-29. Link
The second aspect regarding Eve is the passage post-fall which places these words in God’s mouth- “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception. In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children, and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” The manual quotes President Kimball to the extent that we should read “rule” there as “preside.” While there are certainly discussions to be had about the semantics and practical applications of that term, let’s specify that President Kimball believed that marriage should be “a full partnership. We do not want our LDS women to be silent partners or limited partners in that eternal assignment! Please be a contributing and full partner.” (Link)
The Ensign in 2007 ran an article that addressed this passage and the “help meet” passage. Unfortunately, it made some claims about the Hebrew text that were not supportable. The passage here does indeed mean “rule over,” not “rule with” as the Ensign claimed. (I wrote a detailed and critical but charitable take here.) However, there’s another way to deal with this passage. President Kimball apparently viewed this passage as prescriptive, as the way God intends and wants things to be, the ideal. This approach assumes scripture functions, essentially, as a rule book of consistent and unchanging principles. I see this passage as descriptive. In other words, I view Genesis as describing the natural circumstances of a non-Edenic state, our earthly imperfect impulses and conditions, not a heavenly ideal we should try to emulate here. I can see why someone concerned with equality who also viewed the passage as prescriptive would want to soften it.
The third aspect I want to touch on is the question of “beguile.” In order to not write 20 pages, I limit the scope of this very narrowly to what Genesis itself says. A number of LDS bloggers and authors have cited Nehama Aschkenasy in order to argue that “the Hebrew word which has come to be translated as beguiled is a rare verb form of unusual depth and richness. Because it is a form no longer in use, it is almost impossible to translate.” The problem, I think, is that none of the LDS citing Aschkenasy actually know Hebrew themselves, and have thus misunderstood what she is claiming. I have looked up the original Aschkenasy sources and also the Hebrew text. The short version is, the Hebrew here is not mistranslated. It clearly means something like “cheat, deceive, trick, create false hope” as in its other usages like 2Ki 19:10, Jer 49:16, Oba 1:3, 7, etc. (As a side note, should we expect deception or honesty from the devil?) So beguile means beguile. BUT…
What is clear in the text is that chawwa/Life/Eve is mentally engaged in evaluation of her surroundings, and this, I think, is what Aschkenasy is getting at. That is, in the interaction between Life and the serpent in 3:1-7, before Life eats the fruit, the text says that she saw “that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate.” She doesn’t eat mindlessly. She sees, which here means something like “determines, evaluates, decides” (as in Genesis 1, where God “sees” that X is good). She determines that the tree is good for food, aesthetically pleasing, and a source of wisdom. I think it is this mental process of observing and weighing that Aschkenasy is getting at, not some kind of simplistic mistranslation. Also notable in the Genesis text is that Human (‘adam) has nothing to say in this exchange. Genesis portrays Human as present during this exchange (“with her” in 3:6), but he has no conversation, no thought process, no evaluation or discernment. In contrast to Life’s mental evaluation, Human eats mindlessly when the fruit is offered to him.
One other takeaway from this: Do not trust people opining about Hebrew unless they know Hebrew and well. (Even then, sometimes, people make bad arguments.) If you see someone citing Strong’s Concordance for “what the word means in the original Hebrew,” that’s a warning sign that they are amateurs. Just as professionals can get things wrong, amateurs can certainly get things right, but the lack of training means they are typically unaware of common pitfalls and unable to use more technical or professional tools.
Terminology– Sin vs transgression. Note that the Genesis text doesn’t use any of these words, sin, transgression, Fall, etc. I think Elder Oaks and Joseph Fielding Smith, as quoted in the manual, are implicitly responding to certain ideas about the fall being sexual. (See below.) Oaks makes use of lawyerly distinctions of malum prohibitum (something that is wrong because only it has been prohibited) vs malum in se (something that is always wrong) to talk about sin vs. transgression.
Hebrew makes different distinctions. When they aren’t used synonymously, sin or chatta (that’s a gutteral ch like loch, not like check) means “to take one’s best shot and miss” whereas transgression is “willful violation.” But Hebrew has a wide variety of terms for this kind of thing, and often they can be substituted for each other. Consequently, we shouldn’t make a habit of reading in technical meaning wherever we see a particular word used.
As a secondary tidbit on this topic, one sometimes hears the term “immaculate conception.” This does not refer to the virgin birth, but to Mary’s birth. That is, a long-standing mainstream Christian tradition maintained the following. “Although the early church fathers refer to Adam’s fall, they generally retain a strong emphasis upon individual human responsibility. Not until Augustine do we find an extended attempt to define clearly a doctrine of the fall in terms of the connection between the sin and guilt of Adam and the sin and guilt of all humanity. Augustine… thought of original sin as inherited sin, the fallen nature of Adam transmitted biologically through sexual procreation from fathers to their children. Moreover, since all were germinally present in Adam, all actually participated in Adam’s sin….Augustine’s interpretation was largely confirmed at the Council of Orange (529). Despite modification by Anselm and moderation by Thomas Aquinas it remained generally that of the church throughout the Middle Ages.” New Dictionary of Theology, “Fall.”
Thus, since Jesus was born of a virgin, he was free of original sin. But what of his mother? The immaculate conception is “[t]he Roman Catholic teaching that Mary the mother of Jesus was supernaturally prevented from being tainted by original sin so that she could give birth to Jesus as God’s own Son.”
Genre– It’s not necessary to read Genesis 2-3 as some kind of documentary history in order to recognize the presence of sin and death in the world and the need for redemption from them. That is, we sometimes hear that “Without original sin (ie. a literal Fall in Genesis), there’s no need for a savior figure (Jesus).” I don’t find this argument coherent, myself. Regardless of what one thinks about physical origins or how to read Genesis, we still die. We still acknowledge the terrible presence of human evil and incompetence in the world. Regardless of how we got here, we need an antidote, a way out, and that is the Atonement of Jesus Christ. That is true, even if, as devout a Christian as C.S. Lewis thought, these early chapters of Genesis are “myth.”
Related, since it may come up, see my post about evolution and the early chapters of Genesis. I’ll be addressing the topic at UVU on February 22. For other related posts, see here (point 2) on creation, separation, and naming, here for some discussion of 2 Nephi 2 and Lehi interpreting Genesis. Also, Evolution and the Fall has some fantastic essays, and Enns’ Evolution of Adam and Walton’s Lost World of Genesis 2-3 are both worth reading.
As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through the Amazon links I post. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box on the right). You can also follow Benjamin the Scribe on Facebook.