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.