God told Adam that the day he ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil he would surely die (Genesis 2:17). Yet, Adam lived a total of 930 years. Apparently, Adam lived the vast majority of these years after God expelled him from the garden of Eden. So, how are we to understand the phrase, “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die?”
The apparent difficulty in this passage, as evinced in the question, has generated much discussion among biblical exegetes. Most commonly, biblical scholars have proffered these answers to relieve the tension of this text: (1) a spiritual death is under consideration, in which Adam and Eve’s formerly intimate fellowship with God was shattered; (2) on the day in which the first couple ate the forbidden fruit, they lost access to the life-sustaining tree of life, and therefore began to die physically; or (3) a combination of the two. Obviously the spiritual, and eventual physical, deaths of Adam and Eve were consequences of their sin (cf. Romans 5,6). And, such an interpretation does relieve the difficulty of this text. There is, however, another possible explanation that is worthy of consideration. The following textual and grammatical considerations suggest that a natural, physical death might have been involved in this divine judgment.
First, there does not appear to be a compelling contextual reason to supply a figurative interpretation to the word “die.” This primeval prohibition and its punishment for non-compliance is couched in the broader context of a precise narrative in which God related specific details regarding both the garden of Eden and the creation of the first human couple. This section clearly is making a truth claim about historical events, which included God’s restricting Adam and Eve from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. As such, the language suggests a natural understanding of the verb “die” in Genesis 2:17. There is an important, and generally acknowledged, principle guiding literary interpretation: a word should be understood in its non-figurative sense unless there is an overriding contextual reason to do otherwise. It is questionable if Genesis 2 provides such a reason. Therefore, the verb “die” in Genesis 2:17 could involve the violent, physical death of the transgressors.
Second, the usage of the phrase “you shall surely die” (môt tamût) indicates that a violent, physical death is under consideration. This grammatical construction juxtaposes an infinitive absolute (môt), and the imperfect verb (tamût), which provides the emphatic nuance, you will “surely, or indeed” die (Lambdin, 1971, p. 158). While it is true that the word “die” can refer to natural causes or to violent death (Smick, 1980, 1:496), the manner in which the verb is used in this phrase indicates the latter. In fact, this grammatical construction appears several times in the Hebrew Bible, and commonly denotes a physical, violent death.
- God cautioned Abimelech that if he refused to return Sarah to Abraham, he and all his would “...surely die” (Genesis 20:7). This obviously meant that he and his household would suffer an immediate death had he not complied with Yahweh’s demands.
- When Jonathan, who was ignorant of his father’s rash imprecation upon any man who ate before he had destroyed the Philistines, ate some honey, Saul said to him, “God do so and more also; for you shall surely die, Jonathan” (1 Samuel 14:44). The people’s response to Saul indicates the meaning of the phrase “you shall surely die.” The people considered Saul’s statement as a threat to Jonathan’s physical life, since they would not allow “one hair of his head” to fall to the ground (1 Samuel 14:45a). The conclusion of the verse indicates quite plainly the physical nature of Saul’s intention: “So the people rescued Jonathan, and he did not die” (1 Samuel 14:45b).
- Solomon, to insure that Shemei would remain in close proximity to Jerusalem, warned him: “For it shall be, on the day you go out and cross the Brook Kidron, know for certain you shall surely die; your blood shall be on your own head” (1 Kings 2:37). After three years, however, Shimei left to retrieve two of his runaway slaves. When Shimei returned, Solomon reminded him of his previous warning: “Know for certain that on the day you go out and travel anywhere, you shall surely die” (1 Kings 2:42). Solomon was faithful to this stringent punishment, and sent Benaiah, the son of Jehoida, who struck Shimei down, “...and he died” (1 Kings 2:46). This episode clearly defines the phrase “you shall surely die” as a physical, violent death. Further, the phrase “on the day” in this text parallels precisely the language of Genesis 2:17, indicating the immediate time frame of the death. (Other scriptures in which this configuration appears are: 2 Kings 1:4,6,16; Jeremiah 26:8, Ezekiel 3:18; 33:8; 33:14). The preponderance of Scriptural usage of this grammatical construction is in favor of a natural interpretation of the phrase “you shall surely die.”
Thus, the nature of Adam and Eve’s punishment is exactly as stated: on the day they ate of the forbidden fruit, they would die. If this is the case, however, how do we explain the prolonged life-span of Adam subsequent to his expulsion from Eden? On several occasions, God reversed His previously stated will regarding specific circumstances. Compelled by His mercy, God occasionally suspended His judgment, suffering long with His rebellious creation.
Such possibly was the case with Adam and Eve. If this interpretation of Genesis 2:17 is correct, God did not require them to pay the full penalty for their transgression, but set in motion a redemptive plan in which He accepted a substitutionary sacrifice for sin. This is reflected in the animal sacrifices of the Mosaic economy, and ultimately in the physical death of Christ. In Adam and Eve’s case, it might be that the animals from which God made the skins to clothe their naked bodies represented the first sin offering. At any rate, the punishment articulated for Adam and Eve’s sin has implications in a broader theological spectrum. Jesus died a physical, violent death on the cross because such was involved in the warning: “You shall surely die.” From this perspective, we might state the case more precisely: The punishment for Adam’s sin (and that of all humankind) was paid by Jesus; the price Jesus paid involved a physical, violent death; thus, the punishment for Adam’s sin (and all humankind) involved a physical, violent death.
No doubt, Genesis 2:17 will continue to produce much discussion. Further, the ambiguity of the passage precludes a dogmatic stance. However, this suggested interpretation respects the thrust of the language, and is consistent with the broader redemptive concerns of the Bible. It further relieves the difficulty of Adam’s prolonged life after his ejection from Eden, and provides theological clarification for the physical, violent death of Jesus on the cross. Sin, from the very beginning, elicited death, both physical and spiritual (Romans 6:23). Strict justice demanded that, upon Adam and Eve’s disobedience, God destroy their physical bodies and bar their sinful souls from His holiness forever. Yet, “because of the great love with which He loved us” (Ephesians 2:4), God set in motion His redemptive plan that eventually demanded His Son’s death. In Jesus, therefore, the Creator died for His rebellious creation. The implications for our own lives in this astonishing event are both obvious and meaningful. Each breath we take, and an eternal life with God assured to faithful Christians, are eloquent witnesses of God’s amazing grace.
Lambdin, Thomas (1971), Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons).
Smick, Elmer (1980), “mut,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago, IL: Moody Press), 1:496-497.
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