BYU religion professor Alonzo Gaskill‘s book, The Savior and the Serpent (Deseret Book: 2005), has as its central aim to “liken the story unto ourselves.” This is a welcome addition to Mormon thought on the Fall; readers will have to decide whether it is one they find compelling.
Professor Gaskill answered some of my questions.
RJH: It seems that the main purpose of your book is to encourage a “liken-unto-thyself” reading of the Adam and Eve story. Is this a fair characterisation?
AG: I believe we often draw false assumptions from the story of Adam and Eve by assuming that that which is given in the temple and scripture regarding them is intended to be an account of the historical events. When you read the story as a history of Adam and Eve false doctrines develop. But, if you recognize that we are to consider ourselves as if we were Adam and Eve (and that this is intended to be our story of our fall, not a story of theirs) then the potential false doctrines are avoided.
RJH: What is literal and what is symbolic, and how do we know? You suggest on p.22, for example, that the dust/rib image should be read symbolically, but I sense that you believe that Adam and Eve actually ate a fruit. What criteria should we be using in making these determinations?
AG: I think three things must be considered in determining what is symbolic/metaphorical and what is literal:
1. Basic logic.
2. The teachings of the living prophets regarding the doctrine of the Fall.
3. A healthy does of the Lord’s Spirit.
Yes, the Brethren have implied that the dust and rib images are symbols for greater truths. I do not necessarily intend to be understood in the book at to be saying that I believe Adam and Eve ate something. My understanding is that there had to be some formal act to provoke the Fall. But, whether that consisted of eating something, saying something, doing something or pushing some very large red button labeled “Do Not Push,” I have no idea — and I think it misses the point of the discussion.
RJH: Where do you stand on the documentary hypothesis? It seems to me that the question of “contradictory” commandments (“multiply and replenish” in Gen 1 and “don’t eat the fruit” in Gen 2) would be solved if we see them as two different stories (i.e. P and J).
AG: I’m aware of the documentary hypothesis. In my mind it would be a possible explanation of the seeming contradictory commandments were it not for two elements:
1. The Brethren never consider it as an explanation (in their writings on the Fall), but they do address what they see as a seeming contradiction. So, for example, President Joseph Fielding Smith (as I quoted in the book) rewords the commandments to explain away the contradiction. So, the reader (or the practicing Latter-day Saint) has to grapple with the issue of the Prophetic office (i.e., if the documentary hypothesis was the reason for the seeming contradiction, would the Prophets and Apostles — as the ultimate divinely inspired exegetes — be inspired to know this).
2. Setting the DH aside, there is so much that supports this being about you and I instead of Adam and Eve (including statements from the Brethren) that it makes more sense (to me) that the DH is not the reason for the seeming contradiction. Rather, things are stated as they are because it is telling our story. And when seen as our story, all of these concerns fade away.
RJH: Now, let me see if I have this right. DH or no DH, you feel that the story — as a whole — should be read as one. Which is, of course, how Jews and Christians have mostly read it and how the posited redactor wanted it to be read.
AG: Yes, I would basically agree with that. I think the DH could explain away the seeming contradiction. But I feel that the overarching premise that this is our story (rather than Adam and Eve’s story) makes the DH explanation not only unnecessary, but also less likely. Comments by prophetic oracles lead me to believe that the DH is not the reason for these seeming contradictions.
RJH: What are the main lessons Mormons can learn from the Adam and Eve story?
AG: My heavens! That’s a huge question to which I believe you expect a short, succinct answer. After all, that’s what the book is about — answering the question of “What are we to learn from the Fall?” If pressed on this, I suppose I would have to say that the things I want readers to come away from the book with would be (1) an understanding of what “really” happened in Eden, historically speaking, (2) an awareness that many of the popular theories regarding the Fall and the Eden experience stem from our inclination to confuse symbolism with history, (3) and a greater tendency to see this as our story, rather than Adam and Eve’s story –“ thereby making our temple experience more meaningful. I feel confident in staying that anyone who reads the book will likely never look at the Fall or the Temple Endowment the same again! And because of that I think the book has something of value to offer.