A note about the Tree of Life

In one of the Mormon Garden of Eden narratives, the commandment specifying the prohibition of eating from the Tree of Knowledge is as follows (Moses 3:16-17):

16 And I, the Lord God, commanded the man, saying: Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat,

17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Since the Tree of Life is not specifically included in the prohibition, commentators have speculated as to whether Adam and Eve may have eaten from it to prolong their lives so long as they remained in the Garden. For example, Trent Stephens, an LDS scholar of evolution, argues that Adam and Eve were inherently mortal at the time they were created but remained immortal so long as they were in the Garden because they had continual access to the Tree of Life. If they had hair and skin like ours, he reasons, then their bodies must have contained dead cells, and to a biologist, there is little difference between cell death and organismal death.

Death, then, means being expelled from the Garden and having no access to the Tree of Life.

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Stephens, Trent D. 2003. Evolution and Latter-day Saint theology: The tree of life and DNA.  In 2003 FAIR Conference. http://www.fairlds.org/FAIR_Conferences/2003_Evolution_and_Latter-day_Saint_Theology.html.

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From “A Mormon Reading of Satan and the Tree of Life” by Ronan James Head and Jeffrey Bradshaw, to be presented at the upcoming EMSA conference.

Comments

  1. Whatever the metaphysics of this story (and speaking for me, not Jeff), I love the potential symbolism here: if Christ is the Tree of Life, then it is His fruit that sustains Adam, his mortality — with its attendant weaknesses — nothwithstanding.

    The Tree of Life in the Garden is a fascinating and multi-faceted thing.

  2. I should add that there’s a good counter-case that the Tree of Life was also off limits.

  3. CJ Douglass says:

    Ronan, I’ve been fairly baffled by the Eden narrative my whole life. Thanks for giving a little clarity here.

  4. Solid, Ronan. Thanks.

  5. BTD Greg says:

    “For example, Trent Stephens, an LDS scholar of evolution, argues that Adam and Eve were inherently mortal at the time they were created but remained immortal so long as they were in the Garden because they had continual access to the Tree of Life. If they had hair and skin like ours, he reasons, then their bodies must have contained dead cells, and to a biologist, there is little difference between cell death and organismal death.”

    Maybe I’m not understanding Stephens’ argument fully, but don’t Jesus and God the Father, as we understand them, have hair and skin?

    It is an intriguing argument.

  6. Steve Evans says:

    Flesh and bones, Greg – not hair and skin.

  7. Y’know, that argument makes a lot of sense to me. To Ronan: you say there’s a good countercase for the tree of life being off-limits, but I’m not seeing it: in Moses 3:16 the Lord told Adam “Of *every* tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat” (emphasis mine, hopefully HTML works)

  8. Another take:

    Unlike us, Christ’s physical father was God and immortal. Christ was therefore also immortal and, because He was perfect, specifically chose to lay down His life for us.

    If Adam’s father was also God and immortal, than Adam had the same potential to be immortal. When he specifically chose to sin by eating the forbidden fruit, he lost the “immortality” he previously had.

    I would therefore argue that Adam’s initial immortality was not specifically because of the tree of life, but because that God was his father, giving him much the same potential as Christ, until he chose to sin.

  9. Steve,
    It sounds like you’re saying that Jesus and God the Father are…well…bald.

    I find no fault in this plan.

  10. Bro. Jones says:

    Not if their hair is made of manna.

  11. Thanks for giving a little clarity here.

    I hate it when other people seem to get it and I am totally baffled by a post…

    Ronan, which parts are you proposing as literal and which parts as figurative here? Are you endorsing the seemingly literalistic approach of Trent Stephens?

  12. Emily U says:

    Um, I have to say this makes no sense to me.

    But then, I think Adam had a navel. If there was an Adam.

  13. Randall says:

    Ronan, Your thoughts further confirm my belief that Adam and Eve are powerful existential archetypes that help us to make our way through life.

    It breaks down when we consider them from a literal perspective.

  14. No comment.

  15. I think it is possible to read the story allegorically, and still imagine the Tree of Life as a type of the Savior and the Atonement. I actually don’t think that Ronan needed to allude to the work of Stephens at all, but I understand why he did so.

  16. and there is always the possibility that the tree of life and the tree of knowlege are allegories as well and are not physical trees

    at the end of the day – a complete pearly gates question – I don’t care how they open, just that they do

  17. “and having no access to the Tree of Life.”

    According to the Zohar (which is sort of like scripture), “The tree of life–we have learned that it extends over a journey of five hundred years, and all the waters of Creation branch off below. The tree of life is precisely in the middle of the garden, conveying all waters of Creation . . . ” It may have just been too far away to grab a fruit before getting nailed for eating the forbidden fruit.

    And yeah, I think to a biologist organismal death is just a lot of cell death at once. NDBF has terrible implications for digestion and the non-decay of food remnants after processing and deposition.

  18. The LDS Guide to the Scriptures says the Fall brought mortality and death “to the earth.” Not just to Adam and Eve, and not just to the Garden of Eden, “to the earth.”

  19. I have some sympathy for the “No Death Before the Fall” crowd, but it goes down every time the “Guide to the Scriptures” is invoked as canonical. We don’t even accept the Bible as being absolutely correct (see Article of Faith #8)! What makes you think that the very much un-canonized Guide to the Scriptures is correct in every point? At the very least I have NEVER heard it quoted in General Conference.

    I can’t say that I am entirely happy with all of the theory of evolution, but I cannot deny all of the geological and physiological evidence of it. I have faith that in due time we will all learn the full truth of the matter.

    In the meantime, I do believe that Adam and Eve were real people who entered into real covenants with the Lord. FWIW I had a great time last Saturday sitting in the temple pondering the similarities between the Sacrament and the Endowment. Both are sacred plays in which essential ordinances are performed and covenants are made. They are not the same length of course, but both are meant to be repeated. Both (I feel) make use of real events; however, we have only a vague understanding of all the circumstances surrounding Adam and Eve.

    On the gripping hand, I must also say that I very much enjoy the book “Protector” by Larry Niven which postulates a very real Tree-of-Life indeed ;-).

  20. Gary,
    I see you recently posted on this. Great minds, and all that…

  21. I accept evolution as true, and I also believe that Adam and Eve were real people who spoke with God.
    But if all you can see is the literal Adam and Eve, you’re missing out on the deeper symbolic meanings. In fact, I’d say it’s much more important to understand what the story of Adam and Eve means to us than it is to believe they existed.

  22. Flesh and bone…what is flesh? I kinda thought it was skin…

    A bald eve would sure be interesting considering all the artistic interpretations.

    thought provoking…

    So when we are resurrected and there is no death..how will our hair be? Every hair on our heads will be restored…is there some sort of state of hair that does not die? could this go for skin as well? Does a different process of circulation and digestion exist? Are cells different?

  23. Apologies for the slight thread-jack,

    “Both are sacred plays in which essential ordinances are performed and covenants are made. They are not the same length of course, but both are meant to be repeated.”

    Tom D,

    My understanding was that the Endowment is a one time event, not meant to be repeated. The only reason why we experience it multiple times is because we are able to perform it by proxy.

    Once all of the proxy work is accomplished, do you see it still being performed repeatedly?

  24. clarkgoble says:

    I think the Tree of Life is only made off limits after they fall, “lest they partake and live forever in their sins.” That was the whole point of the flaming sword.

  25. I’m with Clark on this- and I’m really looking forward to your paper, Ronan.

  26. Tom D (#19): Yep, it was quoted only a few times in April conference, so why should anyone think it’s a realistic gauge of LDS teachings?

  27. Clark: if you own a flaming sword, I say you use it whether you have a reason or not.

  28. TrevorM says:

    Gary:

    The LDS guide the scriptures is not scripture.

  29. Our contention is that the story intends to suggest that Lucifer wanted them to eat from the Tree of Life after having fallen, thus anulling their probation. It’s a damning form of salvation, which has always been the devil’s plan.

    This is not a particularly original reading, but we hope to present it in the clarity and logic it deserves.

    I think there is a powerful spiritual and moral message here, one sadly forgotten when we get into distracting NDBF arguments.

  30. Guide to the Scriptures is not canonical, merely authoritative. How is it in this case distracting?

  31. Matt W. says:

    Doesn’t the Book of Mormon state that the tree of Life represents the Love of God/Jesus Christ? Isn’t that what Nephi sees in his expansion on Lehi’s dream? Doesn’t the temple, with it’s pre-mortal physicality suggest a certain level of symbolism (sorry for obfuscating here, but I know temple talk is frowned upon on the net) to the creation story.

  32. I won’t get into detail here, but my understanding of the Tree of Life is that they were allowed to partake of it. Whether or not there was a penalty I can’t say, but there is specific reference to the tree of life in the temple ceremony that leads me to believe they were allowed to partake of it.

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