The confusion of tongues in the city of Babel is no match for the confusion of ideas and doctrines among Bible believers as to the meaning of Eden and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from its paradisiacal splendors. In unfolding that story we make no pretense to being smarter than others. Indeed, answers to spiritual queries have little to do with the powers of intellect alone, while they have much to do with eyes and ears endowed with a capacity to see and hear. Such is the privilege of those of the household of faith, those of believing blood, those who have schooled themselves in the revelations of the Restoration—the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the book of Moses, and the temple ceremony. Such are the sources to which we turn to obtain an understanding of Eden and the experiences of those who once resided there.
The Creation of Adam and Eve
The scriptural account of the birth of Adam is a sacred metaphor, as is the account of the birth of his eternal companion, Eve. Indeed, it is Adam and the Lord who are quoted in the discourse by Enoch in which we are told that all mankind are born of the dust of the earth (see Moses 6:49-59). Thus the promise to Adam that in death his body would return to the dust from whence it was taken (Moses 4:25) is extended to all his posterity. "All are of the dust, and all turn to dust again" (Eccl. 3:20; see also Mosiah 2:25).
The imagery used to veil the account of Eve's birth is most beautiful, particularly so in a day when there is so much confusion about the role of women. Symbolically, she was not taken from the bones of Adam's head nor from the bones of his heel, for it is not the place of woman to be either above the man or beneath him. Her place is at his side, and so she is taken, in the figurative sense, from his rib—the bone that girds the side and rests closest to the heart. Thus we find Adam declaring: "This I know now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man" (Moses 3:23). Eve, unlike the rest of God's creations, was of Adam's bone and of his flesh, meaning that she was equal to him in powers, faculties, and rights.
The Garden of Eden
What then became of Eden? This we know: it constituted sacred space when mother earth resided in her paradisiacal state, for it was here that Adam and Eve walked and talked with God, and it was from the confines of Eden that they were cast following their transgression. Further, we know that it existed after the Fall for a period of time and that God continued to instruct Adam and Eve from its sacred groves. (Moses 5:4; 6:4.) In likening Tyrus to Eden, Ezekiel made use of the term "mountain of God" (Ezek. 28:13-14), a phrase used throughout the scriptures to depict a place where one went to commune with God, to worship, to make sacrifices, and to enter into sacred covenants. Mountains were most suited for such purposes and thus became symbols for the temple, the place where heaven and earth meet. Perhaps Ezekiel was implying that Eden was a mountain or at least had a high place suited for worship.
As to what became of Eden, the scriptures are silent. Perhaps, after Adam and his righteous posterity had built the city of Adam-ondi-Ahman—which undoubtedly would have had a temple—Eden was no longer needed as a place of God's presence. A place of sacrifice and of covenant, Eden thus could either be taken into heaven or be allowed to be assimilated into the earth.
The Trees of Eden
What of the trees of Eden? Was there actually a tree whose fruit would make one wise, and another whose fruit would assure everlasting life? The scriptural account, for instance, tells us that the Lord planted "the tree of knowledge of good and evil" in the midst of the garden (Moses 3:9). He then gave Adam and Eve the command: "Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat, 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" (Moses 3:16-17). "Again," wrote Elder Bruce R. McConkie, "the account is speaking figuratively. What is meant by partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is that our first parents complied with whatever laws were involved so that their bodies would change from their state of paradisiacal immortality to a state of natural mortality." Elder McConkie also wrote elsewhere: "We do not know how the fall was accomplished any more than we know how the Lord caused the earth to come into being and to spin through the heavens in its paradisiacal state."
If we were to reason that it was the fruit itself that brought about this change in the bodies of Adam and Eve, we would then have to suppose that our first parents fed some of the fruit to all the other living things upon the whole earth. Had they not done so, "all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end" (2 Ne. 2:22; see also Moses 3:9). Every plant and animal, including all sea life and the fowls of the air, would have been required to eat some of this fruit (and must also have been precluded from partaking of it either by design or accident before this point of time).
Satan As a Serpent
What of the serpent that beguiled Eve into partaking of the forbidden fruit? Did animals in Eden have the capacity to converse in the language of men, as some ancient traditions suggest? Was it then a natural thing for Eve to have a conversation with a serpent? And what of the curse which consigned the serpent to crawl upon its belly and eat of the dust of the earth? Does this suggest that snakes once stood upright, having legs and arms, as they are so commonly depicted in ancient Egyptian drawings? The key question is, Did Satan actually possess the body of a serpent and speak to Eve through that medium, or did Moses choose to describe Eve's confrontation with the father of lies as a discussion with a snake because a snake is such a vivid metaphor to dramatize the subtle, crafty, and dangerous nature of the devil?
Whether a serpent was actually the agent of deception in the Eden story or merely a metaphorical representation of the devil, it matters little. Neither point of view changes or tampers with the integrity of the story. If, however, we assume the partaking of the fruit to have been a figurative representation of what actually brought about the transformation of the earth from a paradisiacal to a natural or mortal sphere, then it might follow that the speaking serpent would also have been figurative.
What, then, do we conclude of the Eden story? Was it figurative or literal? We answer by way of comparison. It, like the temple ceremony, combines a rich blend of both. Our temples are real, the priesthood is real, the covenants we enter into are real, and the blessings we are promised by obedience are real; yet the teaching device may be metaphorical. We are as actors on a stage. We role-play and imagine. We do not actually advance from one world to another in the temple, but rather are taught with figurative representations of what can and will be.
Lead image from Shutterstock
For more insights on the symbolism surrounding Adam and Eve, check out The Man Adam by Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet, available at deseretbook.com.