Garments of Skin?

In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve have been cast out of the garden, Yahweh “made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” (3:21). What does this event signify? In LDS thought, the garments symbolize a gift given by God to accompany humans in their mortal journey. After the curses have been offered as the consequence for eating the fruit, the Lord prepares Adam and Eve for mortality by making them clothing to replace the fig leaves, and by cutting them off from immortality.

This positive view of the garments of skin is not always shared in this history of interpretation of this passage, in spite of what some LDS commentators suggest. In these traditions, the idea that the garments of skin were given in consequence of the fall is an interpretive key. When the fall is understood as a bad thing, the garments are not understood as a good thing. Gregory of Nyssa uses the image of the “garments of skin” to represent all the aspects that characterize man’s fallen life: “It is those things which [man] took in addition from the irrational skin: sexual union, conception, birth, pollution, nursing, food, excretion, gradual growth, adult life, old age, sickness, death.” De An. et Res. 46.148c-198a. In this view, fleshly existence itself is encapsulated in these garments of skin.

For others, the garments are mean to cover the shame of the naked body. Adam and Eve were once innocent in the garden, but now in their sin they must wear clothing to cover themselves. For yet others, they are the actual skin itself, figured as a garment which clothes the soul. This interpretation emphasizes that these are garments “of skin,” meaning human flesh itself. In this view, Adam and Eve existed as souls prior to the Fall, since God breathed into Adam and made him a “living soul.”

In yet another tradition, somewhat unique to Tertullian, the garment of skin is given as a merciful replacement to the uncomfortable, scratchy fig leaf. In this view, the garment is a gift of mercy, though one that still marks the change from the state of paradise. It suggests that Adam and Eve will be saved, even though they have sinned.

This is just a quick snapshot, but it should suggest that 1) the garments of skin were not interpreted as ritual objects by early Christians, and 2) they were seen as a punishment in line with the rest of the curses and casting out, even if a sign of a merciful punishment, and 3) the fact that they were of the material “skin” takes a special interpretive place, since they were not just garments.

The LDS interpretative tradition instead focuses on the giving of these garments as not just a sign of divine mercy, but a special gift meant to accompany Adam and Eve in mortality. But it is the larger context of the view of the Fall as ultimately good which suggests that the garments are not a punishment, since the Fall was seen as a necessary change in state. Finally, interpreting these garments of skin as ritual objects suggests that this “gift” is not a single historical event, but one that is on-going as a persistent sign that God accompanies humanity in mortality.

25 Replies to “Garments of Skin?”

  1. I’ve always thought of it as the difference between us covering our own sins, and letting Christ cover them. The symbolism of skins is important, because it reminds us that forgiveness for our sins comes through the pain and death of another.

  2. It seems to me that the more positive treatment of the garments occur not it the Christian tradition but the Jewish tradition. Certainly by the Kabbalistic period (admittedly well after the era of late antiquity) The garments are seen as a replacement of heavenly clothing of light had before the tree of knowledge fall. This is the Zohar (~12th century) So even though they are lower and a sort of punishment they are still called precious garments. There’s also a tradition that these skins while initially a descent will be seen as an advantage.

    All quite interesting from an LDS perspective.

    The Genesis Rabbah suggests they aren’t garments of skin but garments of light (off of a worldplay). That’s from roughly the late antiquity era to the early midieval era.

    Although still not ritualistic. The ritualistic or quasi-ritualistic use of garments is more the Mirkavah texts.

    You also have explicit linking of the garments with the priesthood garments. Of course some Christians note this as well such as Origen.

    Interestingly there are other garments in both the Christian and Jewish traditions but typically they are seen as a return to the garments of Eden rather than the skins of fallen Adam. Often this is symbolically done around the time of baptism with baptism seen as the reversal of Adam’s fall.

    David Larsen has a nice post that touches on some of these things. And of course Stephen Rick has his paper on the garments.

    The LDS issue is interesting since we associate garments with Adam and Eve’s skins yet in other places associate them with what the traditions typically see as a return to the garments of Eden. (Consider for example LDS anointing ritual with say the anointing and putting on of garments by Michael to Enoch in 2 Enoch 9:17-19) I think most apologists have tended to talk about the garments in the garden of Eden as the Mormon connection and I think it undeniable that there is a ritualistic component there. This split issue between what Mormons explicitly state as the symbol is interesting and problematic though.

  3. Typically they either raise it as a problem since no killing of animals took place until after the flood in most Rabbinical conceptions or else they associate it with the skin of the snake. The Christian ritual I mentioned actually have them stomping on rough garments (burlap going by memory although that can’t be right) and associating that with Eve stamping on the head of the snake.

  4. I think it’s pretty clear that ritually significant clothing played a major role in early Christian initiation rites, even though it was not associated with the garments of skins given to Adam and Eve.

  5. A lot of the interpretation of the garments of skin as negative as you present it is, it seems, a direct result of seeing the Fall as an unmitigated negative, and/or of buying into the spirit=good/body=bad duality that you see in a lot of early (or at least relatively early) Xian writings.

  6. Of those writers who considered the garment of flesh to be the body containing the soul, did any coordinate that with the creation of Adam’s body from the dust and Eve’s from Adam’s rib?

  7. since the garment of skin is associated with the law of sacrifice, i have imagined (and probably learned from ricks and others) that the skin was from a sacrificial lamb. thus adam and eve are taught the law of sacrifice, and will constantly wear the skin of an innocent who gave its life to cover them. they will remember the sacrifice, and it prefigures the atonement of the Lamb of God (and there’s a connection with the hebrew word for atonement, covering).

  8. John, I don’t know about that. I know Origen has the dust-body being a kind of heavenly body and the garment of skin being the mortal body. I can’t recall if the Jewish traditions follow that. In that interpretation the resurrection is a restoration of the dust-body.

  9. For others, the garments are mean to cover the shame of the naked body.”

    Which is funny to me in light of who told Adam and Eve that they were naked [Moses 4:17] — i.e. Lucifer.

    He told them that they were naked — taught them to be ashamed of their nakedness — and originated the concept of body modesty — or hiding their nakedness.

    The clothing that the Lord provides is used for more righteous purposes [though coverning nakedness does come as a consequence].

    Clothing can protect from the elements, hence we find the Lord making coats of skins for Adam and Eve so that when they enter the fallen world they can survive. It can convey spiritual symbolism, hence the priesthood garment. And there are other righteous purposes as well that do not necessarily equate to “hiding one’s nakedness”, which was Satan’s deceptive intention for clothing.

    Remember that the angel Moroni wore a robe that did not hide his nakedness from Joseph [JS-History 1:31] — what then would have been the purpose of the robe?

  10. All,
    Thanks for the discussion. I just have a few minutes so I am going to just briefly discuss a few things.

    Thanks for the Zohar mention. From what I can tell, many LDS commentators on this rely on this material, and pass it off as “ancient.” I’m glad that you acknowledge its late date.
    I don’t know much about this interpretive tradition, and don’t see it as particularly valuable for understanding the historical period that I am interested in, but I am curious about the man of light stuff. Just off the top of my head (I’m forgetting the details) the creation of a man of light in Genesis is based on a word play in the LXX, and this is seen as an key interpretive point. I’m curious about whether this gets imported into Hebrew, or if there is some other tradition.
    I’m also curious about your view that the garments of skin are both a punishment and also seen positively in the Zohar. I’d like to hear more about that.
    Quckly scanning the Rick’s piece shows in my opinion the kind of distorition of the early Chrsitian materials that many LDS writers perpetuate by trying to find a positive view of the garments of skin. It is pretty egregious in that essay.
    I’m not sure what you mean in your last paragraph about the garments of Eden as distinct from the garments of skin.

    J. Stapley,
    I’m not aware of any text that makes that argument, but I will keep my eyes out. Adam sacrificing is not really discussed in the patristic texts, as far as I remember. As Clark says, since the text is ofter understood to refer to human skin, it doesn’t always come up.

    i’m not suggesting that there was no such thing as ritual clothing ever, just that it is not associated with the garments of skin from Gen. I think that Stephen Davis has a good article on Coptic clothing, that says, IIRC, that in the 4th c. people wore clothing with christological meaning, but that is the only example I can think of off the top of my head for a regularly worn item of ritual clothing, rather than the occasional clothing worn at baptism, for instance.

    John M,
    Sorry if I didn’t make this clear. Generally, the view that the soul is created in Eden and the body created after the fall begins with 2:7 that says that Adam became a living soul, and then sees the creation of flesh itself as the garment of skin.

    okay, that is all i have time for now!

  11. “As Clark says, since the text is ofter understood to refer to human skin, it doesn’t always come up.”

    “Generally, the view that the soul is created in Eden and the body created after the fall begins with 2:7 that says that Adam became a living soul, and then sees the creation of flesh itself as the garment of skin.”

    Genesis 2:7 —

    And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground

    Genesis 2:21-23 —

    And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;
    And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.
    And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.

    What an odd view for some to have.

  12. Justin,
    The Greek term for “flesh” is used in Gen 2:21-23, but the term “skin” is used in 3:21. I suppose that I was imprecise in my depiction of this interpretive tradition. I suspect that the difference in terms is seen as significant. I don’t have them in front of me right now to see how closely they are reading the text, but my guess is that the error is mine, not theirs. They are usually pretty perceptive.

  13. TT,

    Thanks for the clarification on the interpretative differences between “flesh” and “skin” in the Hebrew.

    I read Blue Letter Bible’s lexicon for the two words:



  14. TT, I would be interested in seeing how the fig leaf clothing is also understood through this lens. It seems to me that LDS rituals have an ambivalent approach to the fig leaf part of the Fall narrative.

  15. A friend suggested to me that I think about the garment in the context of the Lord as the Sacrificial Lamb. In other words, the blood of the lamb was shed so that Adam and Eve could be clothed, so are we clothed in the sacrifice of the Lamb. Thus, we are temporally and spiritually protected by THE LAMB, figuratively and literally wrapping ourselves in his sacrifice.

    I’d have to consider some of the above comments as well, but I’ve always loved that explanation.

  16. The idea of a distinction between a body formed from dust and one covered in skin makes me think of the LDS concept of resurrected beings with bodies of flesh and bone, but no blood.

  17. @John Mansfield (18): Which leads me to a thought that’s off-topic for this thread, but i’m raising it in the hope that someone with stronger scholarly grounding in these sorts of issues will take it up in a future post on this (or a similar) blog:

    Where does the Mormon idea of resurrected bodies with no blood idea come from? There clearly have been several Mormon leaders the past several decades who believe it firmly, and in fact who have preached it publicly, but i’m curious where it originated, since it seems extrascriptural to me (though it certainly can at least sort of be supported from scriptural texts).

  18. Where does the Mormon idea of resurrected bodies with no blood idea come from?

    I assume NT passages like Matt 16:17 which suggest God and angels don’t have blood. (This is a literalist reading of course – the passage is clearly using flesh and blood to imply mortality) The strongest passage of this type is of course 1 Cor 15:50. “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”

    I suspect the way this was taken was wrapped up with certain vitalist conceptions of life in the 19th century although I wouldn’t be surprised to find materialist conceptions of the soul also being caught up in this such as the Stoic notion of fire. A big question would be the nature of materialist conceptions of spirits as a way of dealing with Joseph’s comment about spirits being refined matter. That may well tie into all this but it really is an understudied area of Mormon history. Fortunately investigations into these broad neoplatonic influences on Mormonism is happening as regular readers of JI know.

  19. TT, how to deal with Kabbalism isn’t at all clear. The traditional view of its evolution isn’t that far removed from what Scholem argued decades ago in his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism – especially its relationship with gnosticism. However there has the past twenty or thirty years been a backlash arguing Scholem inverts the relationship. Moshe Idel is an example of this style of scholarship. They argue Kabbalism is an evolution of Merkebah (as Scholem does) but argue that many aspects of Kabbalism usually dated to 12th century Spain go back at least to the Merkabah texts of late antiquity and very early medieval era (say the 6th and 7th centuries) and they argue even earlier. Indeed Idel argues that a lot of Jewish gnosticism is dependent upon these early Kabbalistic/Merkabah traditions rather than vice versa. That is that Gnosticism is better understood as a pagan and neoPlatonic corruption of Jewish mysticism. He has some pretty interesting arguments although I’m very skeptical. I don’t know where things are right now as it’s been a terribly long time since I last really studied the issue. Perhaps someone else can chime in with the contemporary state of the debate.

    I think that even if Idel is off with his major claims that certainly elements do go back much, much farther. I’m not sure that impacts the debate on this point but it may affect others aspects. Of course some elements of Kabbalism were always thought to reflect more ancient strains of Judaism such as its anthropomorphic view of God.

    I tend to think Kabbalism has been abused by Mormon apologists if only because they tend to neglect the more neoPlatonic aspects of Kabbalism and gnosticism in their native contexts. I kind of expect that from Nibley who was writing at the time of Campbell or Eliadi who were doing just that kind of structuralist divorcing. I think it’s a lot less defensible in modern apologetics without careful qualification or further arguments. (For instance I think a case can be made for using the Gospel of Philip – but you just can’t neglect the mystical/neoplatonic context in which it was intended) That said though with Kabbalism it’s a bit different since there is this strong blurring of the psychical and material despite the warnings in the texts. (Say the famous statement of “don’t say you see water” since it’s not really water you are seeing)

    Garments of light in Kabbalism certainly are tied to word play. (Honestly I think nearly everything in Kabbalism is tied to word play)

    As for the details of how the garment of skins is both positive and negative I’m a bit loath to say too much without spending the time to refresh my memory on things. So this will intentionally be a bit superficial since I just don’t have much time. Roughly one has to keep in mind that the body for Kabbalists is a microcosm of the universe. Further because it is made by God they just don’t attach the negative aspect to it that gnostics did. So even in its evil aspect the flesh reminds us of the evil aspect of the universe. It’s thus a kind of token of remembrance to cosmic realities. The skin is tied to the firmament of heaven in this cosmological parallel. Even though I said it was a token of remembrance it really is for the kabbalists something stronger than that. There’s a kind of sympathetic relationship between the two. So the Celestian Adam and Terrestrial Adam are still tied together in fundamental ways.

    For why it isn’t purely negative beyond this one has to remember there’s nothing like the idea of original sin in the older strands of Kabbalism (it typically is seen arising Lurianical Kabbalism). There’s a strain in which man’s goal is to unify the two realms and that the dual garments (skin, light) illustrate this. Thus the fall isn’t purely evil in that man can regain the garments of light and unify them with the flesh. (There’s an element of this in the condescension of Christ text of Mosiah 15 as well which many of us see as paralleling closely many Merkabah notions and texts) So the fall is bad, but not evil the way non-Mormon Christians typically see it. I don’t want to portray it too much like the Mormon view because I think that’s going too far. They don’t see the fall as an unmitigated good. But it is closer to the LDS view than the typical Christian one.

  20. Two quick points:
    1. The D&C teaches the spirit and the body together comprise the soul. So Mormons have a very different view of what a “soul” is from most Christians.
    2. The D&C also teach the Father and the Son have bodies of flesh and bone, but the Holy Ghost is a Spirit. Blood is explicitly omitted from the verse.

    Regarding the more weightier matters of the above posts, I’m still thinking.

  21. @John Swenson Harvey (#23): Actually, blood is implicitly omitted. For it to be explicitly omitted, you’d have to have something like “the Father and the Son have bodies of flesh and bone, but not blood”.

    The explicit/implicit confusion is one of those things that always annoys me when my students do it. It’s an important difference, though, ’cause arguing from something that’s implicit is a lot more difficult than arguing from something that’s explicit.

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