The Genesis Fall Stories #ldsconf

In his conference talk, Elder Holland set out to preach Jesus as one who can save us from the Fall. I was very grateful to hear such a sermon on Easter Sunday. To make his point about Jesus, Elder Holland insisted on the need to believe in a literal Adam and Eve who fell in the Garden of Eden so that Jesus could become, as Paul would have him, a second Adam who brings life after the first brought death. I’m not going to argue about whether we need to take the story of Adam and Eve literally or not (even though I don’t think we do); rather, I aim to show how Genesis offers a second perspective on the Fall, one in addition to the familiar story of Adam and Eve.

There are two perspectives on the Fall in Genesis because there are two distinct accounts of Creation: one running from 1:1–2:3, and a second running from 2:4b through the end of chapter 3. [1] The first account relates a very orderly process of creation, broken up into seven days, which are themselves split into two parallel units of three, with the seventh day a kind of capstone. The first and fourth days both involve light; the second and fifth days both invoke the division between sea and sky; and the third and sixth days both have to do with the land. In this pattern, humans appear on the sixth day, male and female both created at the same time in the image of God. Then, on the seventh day, God rests.

To recognize the existence of a second creation story, one need only look at its first sentence—”In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens” (Gen. 2:4b, NRSV)—and ask “which day?” This question paves the way for the realization that this narrative doesn’t fit with what went before. Here, God creates a human (Hebrew ha’adam, literally “the human” and hence neither a proper name nor a reference to a gendered being in the usual sense) before the plants or the animals. Later, when God realizes that the animals will not be fit helpers for the human, he removes a rib from the human, which results in the creation of woman (Hebrew ‘ishah) and man (Hebrew ‘ish). These humans, then, have the familiar (though perhaps not so familiar after all) encounter with the snake and the forbidden fruit that results in life becoming much harder than it used to be: both the man and the woman will experience “pangs” (Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew word used in both cases) that hadn’t been part of their existence before. This story then leads into the narrative of Cain and Abel in chapter 4, which evidences a decline into brutality from the bucolic idyll of Eden.

The first story resumes with the genealogy in chapter 5, whose first two verses recap the creation of the humans in 1:26:

This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘Humankind’ when they were created.

Here, for the first time, “Adam” is a proper name, although the previous sense of a gender undifferentiated human remains in the word ‘adam, rendered “Humankind” in the NRSV. The masculine emphasis takes over, though, as the chapter traces the male line from Adam to Noah.

The account of Noah presents a complicated blend of the two narrative threads discussed thus far. [2] In the thread that included the Eden story, a decline from the initial state of creation has obviously already occurred, so there’s no real surprise when the LORD sees “that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth.” The other thread, however, has moved from the seven days of creation down the generations to Noah without any indication that things have gone awry [3], and yet gone awry they have:

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. (Gen. 6:11-13, NRSV)

Unless this account assumes the Eden story (which is a possibility, since that is the older of the narrative threads), the decline of humanity into world-consuming violence didn’t need a snake or an apple. It was just, perhaps, entropy.

Entropy is in fact a possible explanation for the corruption of Noah’s world in the Edenic narrative thread, too. From a certain perspective, the two creation stories end with humans in a similarly god-like state. Whereas the story in chapter 1 made humans, created in the image of God, male and female, the culmination of the creative process, the story in chapters 2 and 3 presents a more developmental account of human creation. Instead of being created in God’s image, the human (ha’adam) is created from the dust (adamah). This human, being alone, is in a state of lack, which God seeks to remedy, first by providing the animals and then by dividing the human into male and female. These beings, though, are still distinctly inferior to God, until they eat the fruit, which leads God to say, “See, the [hu]man [translating ha’adam] has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” In some sense, then, the Eden story is less about a Fall than an elevation to some measure of divine status. It ends much where the other account did, but the process whereby it arrived at that end was quite different. [4]

Be that as it may, both accounts clearly relate the descent of these godlike humans into corruption and violence by the time of Noah. We still desperately need salvation, which makes Elder Holland’s Easter message very welcome indeed.


[1] In case you’re confused about this “4b” stuff, click through to the scripture, and you’ll notice that there’s a section heading in the middle of verse 4. 4b just means the second half of the verse.

[2] Several features of the text divide the two accounts: they use different names for God (Elohim and Yahweh), have Noah take different numbers of animals into the ark (depending on whether or not he needs to offer sacrifice afterward), give different accounts of how long the flood lasted, and explain the aftermath differently. Here’s a rough breakdown:

P (the Gen. 1 creation source): 6:9-22; 7:8-9, 11, 13-16a, 21, 24; 8:1-2a, 3b-5, 7, 13a, 14-19; 9:1-17

J (the Gen. 2-3 creation source): 6:1-8; 7:1-5, 7, 10, 12, 16b-20, 22-23; 8:2b-3a, 6, 8-12, 13b, 20-22

For an explanation of this P and J business, see the Wikipedia entry on the Documentary Hypothesis or David Bokovoy’s Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy.

[3] Any indication, that is, except 5:29, which scholars assign to a different source, because it names Yahweh and refers to the cursing of the ground in 3:17.

[4] This point becomes clearer when the Genesis creation stories are read alongside the Babylonian creation story in Enuma Elish, to which they both respond, albeit quite differently. Here’s a prose translation that smooths over the gaps in the text, and here’s a more scholarly edition.


  1. This is knowledge. Thank you. I love it.

  2. Yeah, this is great stuff. I was largely ignorant of the details here. Thank you!

  3. Cool beyond words. This made my morning.

  4. maustin66 says:

    Outstanding, Jason.

  5. My sympathies lie with the fact that for most of their history human beings have been capable of posing and pondering questions far beyond their understanding. Two simple examples would be: Why is the sky blue? Why does the sun shine? Both of which were satisfactorily answered only fairly recently.

    So when it comes to questions such as creation, the emergence of life and consciousness, free will, the necessity of sex and gender roles, etc. it is entirely understandable from our vantage point that those who preceded us by thousands of years would utilize accessible, easy to comprehend, and entirely plausible myths. But we know so much more now, and leaving behind literal interpretations is perhaps how we leave our own metaphorical Garden of Eden.

    I was both dismayed and puzzled at Elder Holland’s insistence on a literal Garden because for the purpose of his talk it divided his listeners into two camps: those that kind of understand the Atonement and those that kind of understand it a bit less which is not a terribly useful distinction.

    I suspect that division will become more fractured over time, and that because of repeated insistence on literalness (also heard in Elder Packer’s talk) there will be many who no longer find the Mormon world view useful nor will they find a comforting community among the Saints.

    All of this seems unfortunate and unnecessary. The partial answers we have point towards an understanding far more beautiful and profound than we could possibly imagine. Our myths have served us well, but it is time to move on.

  6. Corrina says:

    I enjoyed this post–learned many new concepts.

  7. I would be disappointed to see us “move on,” leaving our myths behind. New understanding based on scientific ways of knowing can easily incorporate serves to enhance an enliven our mythology–one need not replace the other.

  8. Jason K. says:

    I hope the post makes clear that I still find these myths very powerful. On their face they contradict each other in all sorts of ways (even as they align in others), so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to treat them as factual, but even within those contradictions emerge questions that are still well worth thinking on. For instance, the God in P seems more like an architect, building a beautiful order from a distance, whereas the God in J seems more like a craftsman, getting his hands dirty as he shapes a human from the clay before breathing into it. So, what is our real relationship with God like? There’s much to love about both of these images, even if they seem partly at odds with one another. I don’t think there’s really any way of escaping myth, either: we can’t help but tell ourselves stories about ourselves, and I think that this is one of the beautiful things about being human.

  9. Amen, Allen

  10. I, too, find myth incredibly powerful and useful when used in its context with an implicit understanding of its limitations. But elevating myth to fact is an entirely different endeavor and one that I find both dangerous and divisive.

  11. Jason K. says:

    I agree completely. Myths are useful and, as I said, inescapable, but they also inevitably fail to correspond to reality in some ways. We need to be honest about that, even if sorting out the distinction between myth and fact can get pretty tricky.

  12. it's a series of tubes says:

    But elevating myth to fact is an entirely different endeavor and one that I find both dangerous and divisive.

    As opposed to, say, the “myth” that a crucified person came back to life three days later? Strain out the gnat; swallow the camel. It’s always amusing to see certain Christian doctrines rejected as “unscientific” or “mythic”, while others are accepted despite wholly lacking any scientific or empirical foundation.

    If there is one thing empirical evidence has demonstrated, billions of times, it is this: people don’t come back from the dead.

  13. Not so–the creation story requires a much greater suspension of disbelief than the resurrection.

    For Genesis to be true, one must believe that the vast amount of evidence for an old universe is wrong. For the resurrection to be true, one must believe that one man came back from the dead.

    Not even close to the same.

  14. it's a series of tubes says:

    For Genesis to be true, one must believe that the vast amount of evidence for an old universe is wrong.

    This old saw is, as they say, “not even wrong”. An old universe and Genesis are fully compatible, especially in light of the complementary account in the POGP.

    For the resurrection to be true, one must believe that one man came back from the dead.

    Despite billions and billions of experiments to the contrary. OK.

  15. It only takes one, Tubes.

    Excellent exposition, Jason. I hope to see more of this enter into the common LDS conversation through posts like this and other things.

  16. Glenn Thigpen says:

    The Book of Moses, chapter 3, gives more details on this second creation narrative. It notes that the first creation was spiritual,and the second was the physical creation.

    LDS theology requires a literal Adam and a literal fall. Else wise, we have no theology. As a previous poster has said, belief in a literal resurrection flies in the face of science.

    The Lord has repeatedly warned us not to get led astray by the wisdom of the world:

    Therefore, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, yea, a marvelous work and a wonder, for the wisdom of their wise and learned shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent shall be hid. (2 Nephi 27:26)

    and remember the warning of Jeremiah:

    9 The wise men are ashamed, they are dismayed and taken: lo, they have rejected the word of the Lord; and what wisdom is in them? (Jeremiah 8:9)

    There will come a time when any apparent conflicts between science and the restored Gospel will disappear, but we will have to wait for the Second Coming, at least, for that to happen. Up to that time, I am content to live by faith, for I do believe that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:25)


  17. Steve G. says:

    To throw out the creation myths means to throw out much of what Joseph Smith taught about Adam. Specifically the story of Adam’s meeting at Adam-ondi-Ahman in the past and a future meeting in a future Adam-ondi-Ahman (doesn’t necessarily have to be the same place) as part of the 2nd coming. See D&C 107 and 116, 117. Joseph certainly considered Adam to be a real person in these contexts.

    For this reason I choose to believe Adam was a real person and prophet, but acknowledge that the Garden story may be more symbolic than not.

  18. Glenn: “LDS theology requires a literal Adam and a literal fall. Else wise, we have no theology. ”

    It’s true that we have no theology, but that’s not because of a literal Adam or not.

    Steve G. is correct — we have specific teachings about a specific person named Adam. Not central or insurmountable, but yes.

  19. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    When I started reading this post, I thought it was, perhaps, going to delve into the use of the term ‘second Adam’. Though I am a lifelong member, returned RM, and institute graduate, I have not heard this specific term used before, though I understand the concept well. A quick google search suggests that it has been used by gospel academics both LDS and non-LDS alike. A search of general conference talks for other mention of this term, however came up with no results. Was this the first time this term was used in GC?

    A google search did come up with an interesting 2004 essay called Creation Theology by non-LDS scholar Margaret Barker. She contrasts Adam–Human (or Adam-Male-and-Female) as the original High Priest in Jewish temple theology, and Christ, the Great High Priest, as the Second Adam, expanding on this with the teaching that we, as the body of Christ, all have this high priestly role.

    Her expounding that we need to look at the words the original writers of the creation stories used and the context of the world they were living in as they wrote them is helpful, just as the teachings in the above post help with this end.

    Click to access CreationTheology.pdf

  20. ” I have not heard this specific term used before,” probably because it only occurs once, in 1Co 15:45. Unless you read your NT carefully, blink and you miss it.

  21. Jason K. says:

    The idea also comes through in Romans 5, though not the phrase itself.

  22. I found Elder Holland’s framing of it curious primarily because, I thought, we were each to insert ourselves, as if we were Adam and Eve, respectively, into the creation story and story of the Fall and path back toward redemption by the Second Adam. Isn’t that the primary purpose of the story, and not necessarily a historical account of a real man and woman named Adam and Eve, even if we do believe, as I do, that they existed? In other words, my own belief on that account isn’t relevant to the purpose for which we actually put the story in our most important rituals in the temple, and that use is entirely compatible with fully believing that the story is a myth (in all the noble senses of that word), that is that no historical person named Adam and Eve ever actually lived in the precise way it is told as a simplified primary story (because the scriptural stories, on their face, as opposed to the primary versions of those stories, do not require an interpretation that they are describing a literal historical individual — that is an interpretation we have imprinted on the text, rather than one that is required by the text).

  23. (And I second Steve G.’s comment.)

  24. it's a series of tubes says:

    (because the scriptural stories, on their face, as opposed to the primary versions of those stories, do not require an interpretation that they are describing a literal historical individual — that is an interpretation we have imprinted on the text, rather than one that is required by the text).

    John, I’d be interested in your commentary on Moses 6:45 (and more generally, from there until the end of the chapter) in light of the above.

  25. Excellent post on a topic that I’ve always wondered about. Your thoughts on the creation are wonderful and will take me some time to digest. However, I would like to comment on the topic of the Fall. In the interest of electrons please note that when I lazily refer only to Adam, I actually mean Adam and Eve because I see their duel roles as necessary.

    I actually found Elder Holland’s comments, specifically his statement that “he didn’t know exactly what happened before the Fall” (or something to that effect) to be way more open to a less-than 100% literal, primary, interpretation of the Fall. Rather than require us to believe that Adam was The First (note the caps) man, I see his comments as a nod to a more anthropolically (and Biblically, if Nibley is to be believed) accurate view that there were men before Adam and, following the argument to its logical (?) conclusion, these men before “the man titled Adam” lived in a lesser state, knowing no sin. Not experiencing spiritual consequences to their choices but only experiencing physical consequences.

    So why do I feel that a literal Adam (perhaps his real name was Eric or something like that) is necessary? Eric-Adam not only introduced death into the world but he also introduced accountability. Before this Eric-Adam man, men lived and suffered physical consequences of their choices (e.g. if they touched fire they got burned). They also were mortal. However, they were not accountable for good and evil. They lived in an age of innocence (just like we view children before the age of 8).

    As for Eric-Adam. He was the first man to say “I am ready. Send me. I will sacrifice myself by participating in the ordinance of “The Fall”. God placed him in a placed set apart from the rest of the world where death did not exist (how this worked? I don’t know but I think it was critical that Adam-Eric was allowed to choose to give up his life of his own free will.) Adam-Eric continued “I will give up my immortality and I will accept the conferral of Accountability.” I believe there needed to be a first man who was willing to do these things of his own free will. After Adam-Eric, all men were accountable and thus could suffer spiritual death and thus could become eligible for the Atonement. I don’t know how that accountability was conferred suddenly upon all mankind, but neither do I know how the Atonement could suddenly apply to all mankind. There must be something truly, truly powerful about the principle of sacrifice that I can’t understand. (But believe me, I will start paying attention to its power and the scriptural incidences of sacrifice. I mean, really, think of the sacrifices a parent makes for their children! What incredible blessings might be bestowed because of those selfless sacrifices.)

    Short story, Adam-Eric sacrificed his immortality and innocence and put on the mantle of accountability, knowing good from evil. Thus truly becoming like God. Thus truly becoming God’s first man/child/follower on earth. The first man like God. Christ then came along and did his thing overcoming both the physical and spiritual death that Adam-Eric experienced in his Fall Rising. Without an Adam to be the first man to freely accept accountability there would be no need for a Christ to Atone for our choices because mankind was innocent.


    1. What an unfortunate phrase “The Fall” is. In two words is conveyed such a tragedy, cloaked in negativity, rather than the reality that now Man/Men could be as the God’s. I wonder who first called it “The Fall” and what sort of biases and agenda they had.

    2. I can almost see “The Fall” as an ordinance that Adam-Eric and Eve-Latishia entered in to. A symbolic, yet literal act (biting the apple) along with covenants of Obedience. Perhaps this was as sacred a moment in the history of our world as the Atonement.

    3. I will never look at baptism the same. To me, it no longer represents just our physical death and resurrection but it also represents our individual Fall as we don the shroud of accountability – thus becoming eligible for spiritual consequences as well as physical.

  26. Inspired ≠ “historically accurate” nor even “historical genre.” It’s entirely possible for the book of Moses to be inspired and ancient but not historical in genre. We shouldn’t default to “history” when we read scripture.

  27. DRB, you nailed it. I was wondering if I should write how I felt about “The Fall” (can we rename it?), but you did a much greater job then I would or could have done.

    Thank you.

  28. One thing though is different in my view, from yours, is that “The Fall” only affected Adam-Eric and Eve-Latishia and their posterity, not any others. I don’t think you can force Free Agency on embodied spirits that never had experience with such in (pre-)mortal life. In other words, the others continued “in a lesser state, knowing no sin”, just like the rest of the animal kingdom.

  29. drbrewhaha says:

    Your comments, SuHawk, make me realize another reason baptism is essential – baptism represents when we become individually accountable. Perhaps? Maybe?

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