Editor’s Note: This article is an extended version of a presentation given at the 2013 Interpreter Symposium on Science and Mormonism: Cosmos, Earth, and Man held at the Utah Valley Convention Center, Provo, Utah.
Part One: Taking the Stories of Genesis Seriously
The book of Genesis has always been a favorite of mine. Since I was a small child, I have read it over and over, relishing its spiritual truths, its literary beauty, and its frank and vivid descriptions of the lives of the patriarchs – intimately entwined as in no other book of scripture with the lives of their immediate and extended families.
While fellow Latter-day Saints will have little problem comprehending my still-growing attachment to the early narratives of Genesis, some of my non-LDS scientific colleagues find it mystifying that I have devoted so much time and attention to a study of what may understandably seem to be no more than a fanciful collection of worn-out fables – one more shard among the dusty discards of the almost bygone religious passage of Western culture. In that regard, it must also be admitted that the central historical claims of Mormonism-and Christianity itself, for that matter – hardly appear any less fantastic to the modern mind than the stories of Adam and Eve. Even in the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens approved as Hannay charged the Mormons with “the absurdity of seeing visions in the age of railways” – simultaneously commending our “immense practical industry” while decrying our “pitiable superstitious delusion.” His conclusion at that time is one that would be met with understanding nods by many perplexed observers of Mormonism in our day: “What the Mormons do, seems to be excellent; what they say is mostly nonsense.”
Given their status as targets of humor and caricature, the well-worn stories of Adam, Eve, and Noah are sometimes difficult to take seriously, even for some Latter-day Saints. However, a thoughtful examination of the scriptural record of these characters will reveal not simply tales of “piety or … inspiring adventures” but rather carefully crafted narratives from a highly sophisticated culture that preserve “deep memories” of revealed understanding. We do an injustice both to these marvelous records and to ourselves when we fail to pursue an appreciation of scripture beyond the initial level of cartoon cut-outs inculcated upon the minds of young children. Hugh Nibley characterized the problem this way:
The stories of the Garden of Eden and the Flood have always furnished unbelievers with their best ammunition against believers, because they are the easiest to visualize, popularize, and satirize of any Bible accounts. Everyone has seen a garden and been caught in a pouring rain. It requires no effort of imagination for a six-year-old to convert concise and straightforward Sunday-school recitals into the vivid images that will stay with him for the rest of his life. These stories retain the form of the nursery tales they assume in the imaginations of small children, to be defended by grown-ups who refuse to distinguish between childlike faith and thinking as a child when it is time to “put away childish things.” It is equally easy and deceptive to fall into adolescent disillusionment and with one’s emancipated teachers to smile tolerantly at the simple gullibility of bygone days, while passing stern moral judgment on the savage old God who damns Adam for eating the fruit He put in his way and, overreacting with impetuous violence, wipes out Noah’s neighbors simply for making fun of his boat-building on a fine summer’s day.
Adding to the circus-like atmosphere surrounding modern discussions of Noah’s flood are the sometimes-acrimonious contentions among fundamentalist proponents concerning the different theories about where the Ark came to rest. Nicolas Wyatt reports:
I once watched a television programme of excruciating banality, in which a camera team accompanied an American “archaeologist” (for so he called himself) on his quest for the remains of Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat. The highlight for me occurred when a rival crew was encountered at several thousand feet … above sea level heading in the opposite direction, on the same quest!
Galzu tells Enki (depicted with his snake icon) to warn Ziasudra [sic] (touching the “wall” – probably a computer bank, depicted with Xs across the screens and slots for programs) of the Flood. Galzu guides Enki’s arm to convey tablet (possibly a computer or holo disk. The disk leaves Enki’s hand en route to Ziasudra’s computer).
At left is Russell Crowe as Noah in a film adaptation scheduled for a theatre near you in March 2014. Paramount officially has called it a “close adaptation of the Biblical story.” Bible readers will, of course, agree with director Darren Aronofsky’s description of Noah as “a dark, complicated character’ who experiences real survivor’s guilt’ after surviving the Flood.” Accordingly, he portrays the prophet with perfect scriptural fidelity as a “Mad Max-style warrior surviving in a pseudo post-apocalyptic world.” Students of the Bible will also surely recognize the portrait at right above of one of the “Watchers,” depicted in exact correspondence to the graphic novel that inspired the movie as “eleven-foot-tall fallen angels with six arms and no wings.”
The profound accounts of primeval history deserve better treatment. To understand them for what they are, we need to bring our best to the task: the powerful tools of modern science and scholarship, the additional light shed by modern revelation, and, of no less importance, the consecrated dedication of inquiring minds and honest hearts diligently seeking divine inspiration. The simple fantasies of a “fanciful and flowery and heated imagination” will not suffice.
I would like to share some personal lessons learned in my study of the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis and in the LDS book of Moses. I will summarize these perspectives under five headings, illustrated by examples from scripture.
Throughout this presentation I will draw heavily on the writings of that insightful pioneer, Hugh Nibley, who has served as a baptized Virgil for me in my journeys “into the blind world” of mortality described in the primeval history of the Bible.
Lesson One: God’s Plan Is More Vast, Comprehensive, and Wonderful Than We Might Imagine
The first lesson I have learned is that God’s plan is more vast, comprehensive, and wonderful than we might imagine.
Even some of the most doubting of scientists have stated their willingness to keep their mind open to the possibility of a God – so long as it is a God “worthy of [the] grandeur” of the Universe. For example, the well-known skeptic Richard Dawkins stated: “If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.” Similarly, Elder Neal A. Maxwell approvingly quoted the unbelieving scientist Carl Sagan, noting that he:
… perceptively observed that “in some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said – grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed’? Instead, they say, No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.'”
Joseph Smith’s God was not a little god. His God was a God that required our minds to “stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity” – that is more of a stretch than any of us now can tolerate. Although the Ninth Article of Faith says explicitly that God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God,” the general rule is that such revelation will come only “when we’re able to understand it.” The Prophet mourned that “things that are of the greatest importance are passed over by the weak-minded men without even a thought” – a phenomenon that made him want to “hug [truth] to [his] bosom” all the more. “I believe all that God ever revealed,” said he, “and I never hear of a man being damned for believing too much; but they are damned for unbelief.” He complained that he had tried “for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God” but that they would frequently “fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions.” He compared the “difficulty in getting anything into the heads of this generation” to splitting the hardest of logs with the flimsiest of tools.
The Prophet ran into that kind of trouble when he received section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Many were shaken and some apostatized because they could not broaden their narrow sectarian notions of heaven and hell to encompass the glorious doctrine of the three degrees of glory. More recently we have seen this same phenomenon in the unwillingness of some Saints to give up the outmoded idea that the Book of Mormon peoples were confined to the boundaries of North America.
With these precedents in mind, we come to our central topic. When considered in light of the findings of science, Genesis and the book of Moses invite us not only to stretch our minds to consider how God’s work extends beyond our own earth to include the salvation of “worlds without number,” as others have already discussed today, but also stretch our minds to consider the vastness, comprehensiveness, and wonder of God’s plan for all creatures who have lived and will live on this earth.
This beautiful copper engraving by Nol Pisano was made from meticulous observation of one of the many prehistoric paintings in the caves of Pech-Merle, in the heart of the massif central of southern France. Although the cave walls and ceilings contain many images of greater sophistication, this simple tracing of a single hand appeals to me. Its original is solidly dated to 25,000 years ago, yet in standing to examine it in close quarters the gap of time between oneself and the skilled artist is suddenly erased, and we are brought to admire the beauty and subtlety of his technique. To create this work, the artist would have had to crawl into the cavern by candlelight. After contemplating his design and choosing the ideal place for its execution, he placed his hand on the wall to serve as a stencil. To create the colored outline, he projected pigment onto the rock by blowing, perhaps with the help of a sprayer held tight in his lips. This well-honed technique allowed a negative of the hand, surrounded by symbols whose meaning is now is lost to us, to be preserved tens of thousands of years later as an ancient snapshot, the sole remaining memory of the life of this individual.
In another chamber, we find what is undoubtedly a portrait of a family group. Fourteen hands of adults and children are found together here, in a deep, submerged section of the cavern now accessible only during periods of drought. Elsewhere, visitors are moved to discover a dozen footprints of an adolescent boy drawn into this place whether by unknown rites, hostile forces of nature, or the mere boldness of curiosity, preserved intact for twelve thousand years in the clay of the cavern floor.
Hugh Nibley, with his great love of God’s creation, had great sympathy for these ancient individuals and thought long and hard about how their stories fit in with those of Adam and Eve. For a thoughtful perspective on this issue, we can do no better than to quote from him directly:
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, in his Essay on the Christian System, said that the two fatal flaws of Christianity were (1) denying spirit and mind to any other creatures but ourselves and (2) allowing life on no other world but our own ….
This … should be no concern [for us] ….
Do not begrudge existence to creatures that looked like men long, long ago, nor deny them a place in God’s affection or even a right to exaltation – for our scriptures allow them such. Nor am I overly concerned as to just when they might have lived, for their world is not our world. They have all gone away long before our people ever appeared. God assigned them their proper times and functions, as He has given me mine – a full-time job that admonishes me to remember His words to the overly eager Moses: “For mine own purpose have I made these things.
Here is wisdom and it remaineth in me.”
It is Adam as my own parent who concerns me. When he walks onto the stage, then and only then the play begins. He opens a book and starts calling out names. They are the sons of Adam, who also qualify as the sons of God, Adam himself being a son of God. This is the book of remembrance from which many have been blotted out ….
Adam becomes Adam, a hominid becomes a man, when he starts keeping a record. What kind of record? A record of his ancestors – the family line that sets him off from all other creatures … That gap between the record keeper and all the other creatures we know anything about is so unimaginably enormous and yet so neat and abrupt that we can only be dealing with another sort of being, a quantum leap from one world to another.
Just as the Book of Mormon, as a history of those who were Nephites by lineage or “adoption,” does not record the story of the Lamanites and their associates, so the book of Moses story tells us very little about the history of the Cainites or of the children of Adam that were born before Cain and Abel who “followed Satan by choice and were disqualified as sons of God.” The account instead focuses on the inauguration of temple ordinances among the righteous, which began, as Nibley indicates, “when God set them apart, gave them a blessing, gave them a new name, [and] registered them in the new Book of the Generations of Adam.”
Moreover, results of genetic studies seem to indicate that both the most recent common male and female ancestors of mankind each lived long before Adam and Eve entered mortality – or, for that matter, at a more distant period than Noah, whose sons traditionally have been understood to be the sole male survivors of the Flood. Some biblical scholars have likewise proposed that there were “other people out there’ when God created Adam and Eve, but they … weren’t [considered to be] fully human in the sense that Adam and Eve were.” Drawing on the richer sources of scripture produced through modern revelation, Nibley raises a series of questions with an eye to finding scriptural support for surviving non-Noachian lineages that might help explain such findings:
What about those people who lived before Cain and Abel? What about those who disappeared from sight? What about those who were not even warned of the Flood? … What about the comings and goings of Enoch’s day between the worlds? What about his own status as “a wild man … a strange thing in the land.” Who were his people, living in a distant land of righteousness, who never appear on the scene? … What about the creatures we do not see around us? What about the Cainites? What about the nations among whom Noah will have surviving progeny?
Speaking of Noah, … “the Lord said: Blessed is he through whose seed Messiah shall come.” Methuselah boasted about his line as something special. Why special if it included the whole human race? These blessings have no meaning if all the people of the earth and all the nations are the seed of Noah and Enoch. What other line could the Messiah come through? Well, there were humans who were not invited by Enoch’s preaching.
Nibley no doubt was wondering whether some of these shadowy peoples described in scripture might be neither descendants of Noah nor of Adam but rather contemporaries whose descendants presumably mixed with the Adamic lineage. Of relevance is the reminder by Ryan Parr that promised blessings from patriarchs such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are of necessity driven by covenant and lineal descent, not by genetics, since specific “nuclear DNA finding its way from any one of these progenitors to any descendent of today is extremely unlikely from a biological perspective.” Happily, the promises made to the faithful covenant posterity are not about inheriting fragments of Abrahamic DNA, but rather about receiving a fulness of Abrahamic blessings, assured through faithfulness. Otherwise, the possibility of adoption into the Abrahamic lineage would be meaningless.
I am humbled as I read the first chapters of Genesis and the book of Moses and contemplate the vastness, comprehensiveness, and wonder of God’s plan for all His creatures. It is too grand for the human mind to grasp, but not too great for God. Elder Neal A. Maxwell frequently referred to what we might call “God’s greatest understatement.” He spoke of the fact that “in two adjoining verses, the Lord said tersely, I am able to do mine own work.'” Then he commented: “Brothers and sisters, that is about as nice a way as God could say to us that He can handle it!”