The Text: 2 Nephi 2:14–16
14And now, my sons,[i] I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning, for there is a God, and he hath created all things—both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them is,[ii] both things to act and things to be acted upon. 15And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he had created our first parents, and the beasts of the field, and the fowls of the air—and in fine, all things which are created—it must needs be that there was an opposition, even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life, the one being sweet and the other[iii] bitter. 16Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he were[iv] enticed by the one or the other.
Royal Skousen’s work offers insights regarding several portions of this week’s reading. See Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, Part 1 (2004), 496-503. A brief summary of his conclusions:
[i] Lehi highlights Jacob’s understanding of God (v. 1-4), and therefore Jacob needs no additional persuasion from Lehi that there is a God. It is more likely that Lehi is speaking to all his sons. Lehi never addresses Jacob as “my son” but as “Jacob my firstborn in the wilderness.” (v. 1, 2, 11). “And now my sons” is repeated (v. 28, 30). The 1830 typesetter changed to “sons” perhaps by accident, but this probably represents the original (not extant).
[ii] The word “is” was replaced with “are” in 1920. Maintain “is” to agree with the KJV language in Exodus 20:11 and Acts 4:24.
[iii] Elsewhere, bitter refers to negatives and sweet with positives (2 Ne. 15:20; Alma 36:21). Here, a “strict parallelism” is unnecessary and other usages of “one” and “other” indicate “simply a contrast or an unordered opposition.”
[iv] The word “were” was replaced with “was” in the 1837 . Keep the subjunctive were.
I find Skousen’s conclusions persuasive and have adopted them here for the purposes of our discussion.
Profit and learning (1 Nephi 19:23).
God created all things in heaven and earth (Mosiah 4:2, Mosiah 4:9; Mosiah 5:15; Alma 18:28-29; Alma 22:10; 3 Nephi 9:15; Mormon 9:11).
Bring About Great Eternal Purposes (Alma 42:26).
Forbidden fruit (2 Ne. 2:15, 18-19; Mosiah 3:26; Alma 12:22; Helaman 6:26; D&C 29:40).
Tree of Life (1 Ne. 15:36; Alma 5:34, 62; Alma 12:21, 23, 26; Alma 32:40; Alma 42:2-6).
Sweet Bitter (1 Ne. 8:11; 2 Ne. 15:20; Alma 32:42; 36:21; 38:8; 40:26)
Act and Acted Upon (2 Ne. 2:13-14, 26).
Act for Himself/Free to Act for Yourself (2: Ne. 2:16; 2 Ne. 10:23; and Helaman 14:30).
Free to choose (2 Ne. 2:27).
State to Act (Alma 12:31).
Entice (2 Ne. 2:16; 9:39; Helaman 6:26; 7:16; Mosiah 3:19; Moroni 7:13).
These are not exhaustive lists.
Structure of the Text
Verses 14-16 are characterized by frustrating starts, stops, digressions, and incomplete or at best ambiguous sentences. Lehi enumerates God’s creations but then categorizes them as things to act and things to be acted upon. As he begins to explain the purposes in the end of man, he goes back to enumerates more things that are created.
Do we get a better sense of Lehi’s message if we reordered the passage as follows:
And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning, for there is a God, and he hath created all things—both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them is, our first parents, and the beasts of the field, and the fowls of the air, both things to act and things to be acted upon.
After he had created all things which are created—it must needs be that there was an opposition, to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man. [Wherefore, the Lord God gave] the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life, the one being sweet and the other bitter. Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he were enticed by the one or the other.
This reordering of the text may be not perfect and certainly we can come up with other ways to rearrange the elements of Lehi’s sentences. However, I think this might provide a catalyst for discussing Lehi’s meaning, even if that means, hopefully, disagreeing with this arrangement.
Lehi describes the fruit as “forbidden” drawing upon Genesis 2:17 (“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it”). Notably, the phrase forbidden fruit does not appear in the Bible. The phrase in English (sometimes appearing as fruit forbidden) does seem to be a common expression from the 17th century as found in Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World (1614). In addition, it is possible that the English phrase is ultimately derived from the Latin fructus vetiti or vetiti fructus. Interestingly, a survey of the use of vetiti in Latin writings shows it was also used with phrases vetiti ligni (forbidden tree) and vetiti pomi (forbidden bite). All these phrases can be dated to at least the early 16th century (I don’t see them necessarily derived from the Vulgate). Unfortunately, forbidden tree and forbidden bite never took off in the English language, but forbidden fruit seemed to have made it into circulation. There is more to say about this forbidden language, but I just point it out here since this is the first time the phrase appears in the Book of Mormon.
Things to Act and Things to be Acted Upon, Act for Himself/Themselves/Yourselves
Okay, so let’s dive into this concept a little deeper.
Lehi enumerates God’s creations but then abruptly notes that some things are created to act and some are created to be acted upon. In verse 16, we see that God sets up conditions so that man can act for himself, so at least we know man falls into things created to act. However, Lehi also admits in verse 26 that man can also be acted upon by punishment of the law at the last day. It isn’t clear whether this is the only way that man can be acted upon (its certainly conceivable that man could be acted upon in other ways), and it isn’t clear whether other creations are created to act. Based on 2 Ne 2, man is the only creation mentioned that was created to act. This is further strengthened by Lehi introducing this notion by stating: ”to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man.” Does this imply that everything else that God created was created to be acted upon? Is God the one acting upon his creations? Does it make sense to say that the tree of life and the forbidden fruit are also things created to be acted upon?
Lehi also uses the phrase “free to act” and “free to choose” in much the same way (verses 26-27). This suggests that act for oneself seems to mean the ability to choose good or evil or life or death.
Are we to understand, in these verses, this enticement to be emanating from the tree of life and the forbidden fruit? What to we make of the fact that it is the tree and fruit that does the enticing in verses 14-16 and not the devil, or God, or the law? Later Nephite interpreters state that it was the devil that did the enticing, and not opposites of the fruit and the tree (Helaman 6:26). Is there anything necessary about this particular “opposition” or is Lehi saying any opposition will do, so long as there is an opposition?
By the way, what happened to Lehi’s opposites? Why is the forbidden fruit an appropriate opposite for tree of life? Why doesn’t Lehi say tree of death and tree of life, or forbidden fruit and permitted fruit? Why are we comparing fruits with trees? Why does Lehi seem to be averse to using the description that is found in the Genesis account: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Is this significant? Is this because that name already contains two opposites that might ruins the symmetry Lehi is trying to work out? Would this be awkward for Lehi to claim that one needs more than the tree of knowledge of good and evil in order to have good and evil? Later, Lehi will tell his sons to choose life and not death (verses 28-29). While associating life with tree of life seems clear enough, does Lehi presume the reader will associate death with the forbidden fruit?
And what role does the tree of life play in this discourse? Isn’t the real opposite here between the forbidden fruit on the one hand, and all other fruits on the other hand? After all, the Genesis account never provides instructions to eat the fruit of the tree of life. Even without a tree of life, Adam and Eve could still be enticed by the forbidden fruit, could they not? Are we to understand that the tree of life is also enticing man in the Garden? And if so, in what way? Also, should we bring in anything from Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s vision to bear on the text? Or, should we consider those to be a separate tree of life narrative that is performing a different kind of work than what we find here?
What is the role of the law in all this? Isn’t Lehi just using “forbidden fruit” as a synonym for the temporal law (that he seems to suggest sufficiently instructed man to know good from evil)? Should we really take Lehi’s statement at face value that the tree and the fruit is doing the enticing? Isn’t it really “the law” that allows man to act for himself? Therefore, is it really the case that God needs both the tree of life and the forbidden fruit to create a situation where man can act for himself? Clearly he doesn’t need it today, right? Why does Lehi spend so much time talking about how important the law is (the temporal law and the spiritual law), and then speak as if its really fruits and trees that are creating a reality where man can act for himself? Is there a strategy (literary or theological) behind this move?
And what happens when Adam and Eve are driven from the Garden and neither the tree of life or the forbidden fruit is in existence? Does man lose the ability to act for himself? Is there no enticement? Lehi seems to suggest there are enticements in verses 27-29. This would suggest that post-lapsarian enticements are no longer the forbidden fruit vs. the tree of life, but the devil/will of flesh vs. the mediator/will of Holy Spirit. But on the other hand, wasn’t this always the case? Are these elements interchangeable?
How does the related material found Alma and Helaman, etc., shed light on Lehi’s meaning?
Free Will, Agency, and Act for Yourselves
It is notable that the term agency appears nowhere in the Book of Mormon (although it does appear in the Book of Moses). Is that significant? Should we equate “act for himself” with agency? With free will? Are there any problems with doing this? Some commentators point out the language “act and acted upon” have been used in debates on free will (Augustine, Calvin). Does that context shed any light on Lehi’s meaning?
One thing that strikes me is that God does something after the creation of all things. Lehi says that after God creates all things which are created, then God gives unto man that he should act for himself. Therefore, that man should act for himself doesn’t seem built into the nature of man, but is set up for man by arranging man’s external environment, by providing opposing enticements as it were. If this is the case, I have a couple of comments.
First, Irenaeus interpreted “image of God” (imago dei) to be the source of man’s free will. Now, I’m not suggesting Lehi’s “act for himself” should be equated with the theological concept of “free will.” At least I’m not making an argument here. But supposing these ideas are rough equivalents, we can contrast Lehi’s views with that of Irenaeus. It would seem that, for Irenaeus, he very fact of being created in the likeness and image of God imbues humans with free will. Yet, for Lehi, the mere act of being created in the image of God does not mean man can act for himself. God must do something post-creation. He must set up opposing enticements to create a condition of humans acting for themselves.
Second, isn’t this really reaction? Wouldn’t we think of “acting for oneself” to be acting in the absence of any enticements? Again, all this points to the question of what Lehi means by “act for himself.”
Bitter and Sweet
While I seem to have accepted Skousen’s arguments that there isn’t a good reason to accept Lehi to mean the forbidden fruit is sweet and the tree of life is bitter, is there any argument that Lehi does intend this and that this would be significant? We do have some precedent for sweet being associated with the forbidden: “Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.” (Proverbs 9:17). But aside from deciding which description goes with which item, what are we to make of the fact that Lehi describes the fruit and tree with sweet and bitter and not something else like good and evil, or life and death? Or is this implied?
“it must needs be that there was an opposition”
In what ways is the “opposition” in verse 15 different from the “opposition” in verse 11? At least, might we be open to the fact that these might be different?
I like the taxonomy of opposition that Joe suggests: (1) ontological opposition (2) ethical oppositions and (3) existential oppositions. I think this is a useful way to conceptualize Lehi’s statement. Is there anyway we can use this taxonomy to make sense of verse 15? Does it fit into any of these categories?
Remember, Lehi’s conclusion in verses 11-13 is that if there were no opposites then there would be no God or creation. Here, Lehi is talking about an opposition that is created after the creation. In other words, God created several things before creating the forbidden fruit and tree of life. Lehi seems to be suggesting that the whole point of “an opposition” in this case is so that man could act for himself, not so that man would exist at all. Perhaps all of this is to say that Lehi can’t be referring to an ontological opposition. But is Lehi referring to what Joe calls ethical opposition or perhaps existential opposition, or both?