In Genesis 2:17, God’s warning “you will certainly die” (מֹות תָּמֽוּת) refers to the penalty or consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin, should they disobey God’s command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They had been given free access to the Tree of Life in order to “live forever” (Gen 3:22 cf. 2:16), but this ongoing privilege would be forfeited if they ate fruit from the other tree, which was “good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6). They did succumb to this temptation, after believing the serpent’s lie that they would not surely die. This resulted in the introduction of human death into the world—death as normally and universally understood; sometimes called “physical death.”
“. . . for in the day that you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen 2:17)
The most common objection to the above is that if ordinary human death is in view, Adam and Eve apparently did not die “in the day” that they ate (Gen 2:17). But this is to misunderstand the Hebrew idiom “in the day” and the special function of “certainly die,” which, along with attention to context, must inform our reading of the English (lest we misread the warning with modern assumptions). As Walter Kaiser explains:
It is just as naive to insist that the phrase “in the day” means that on that very day death would occur. A little knowledge of the Hebrew idiom will relieve the tension here as well. For example, in 1 Kings 2:37 King Solomon warned a seditious Shimei, “The day you leave [Jerusalem] and cross the Kidron Valley [which is immediately outside the city walls on the east side of the city], you can be sure you will die.” Neither the 1 Kings nor the Genesis text implies immediacy of action on that very same day; instead they point to the certainty of the predicted consequence that would be set in motion by the act initiated on that day. Alternate wordings include at the time when, at that time, now when and the day [when] (see Gen. 5:1; Ex. 6:28; 10:28; 32:34).
In other words, “you will certainly die” became true instantly, as a kind of death sentence or curse. In the Hebrew, this phrase is a language construct known as an infinitive absolute. It has no exact equivalent in English, and should be read not as a statement about when death will occur, but rather to emphasize the certainty of death being incurred.
Not only is the language different to our own way of speaking, but the general concept is different to our own way of thinking, due to very different cultural contexts. When someone incurs the death penalty today, it happens well after the crime was committed, and is handed down in a courtroom after a formal process to convict. None of that was available or needed in Genesis, because God himself had declared what would happen. So it makes sense in this context to focus on God’s warning becoming true and certain the very moment the “crime” would occur. Simply put, the transgression would make certain the death. Beforehand, they were not going to die. But once they sinned, they were going to die. Even if this is a little unfamiliar to us, we can still see how it is simple and straightforward.
So the timing of the death event was never specified in God’s warning, which was about the logical immediacy of the outcome of death, not its temporal immediacy. Both logical and temporal immediacy may be discerned in the idiom “in the day,” but any temporal immediacy here pertains to death becoming certain, not to death itself. As Kaiser pointed out in the quote above, there is simply no “immediacy of action.”
To confirm that modern Hebrew scholars have correctly understood the ancient nuances behind “In the day you eat, you will certainly die,” we can consult the ancient Aramaic rendering of Genesis 2:17 in the Targum Jonathan. It reads, “in the day that thou eatest thou wilt be guilty of death.” This is clear and not prone to any misreading. But although our conventional translation is less clear and doesn’t preclude misreadings, it still adequately approximates the Hebrew. Misreadings can occur for different reasons, especially the intrusion of modern assumptions and expectations. For example, from a concordist desire to avoid any suggestion that human death never existed beforehand (based on one’s view of human origins). Or, as we often see at Rethinking Hell, based on the goal of defending eternal torment instead of death. Another reason is just the translation tradition for this well-known verse, which prefers formal-equivalence here since this is a solemn utterance of God with such far-reaching implications for humankind. Regardless, the way it is rendered in the Targum suffices to show that at the time of Jesus, people understood God’s warning to be about ordinary death.
Continue reading “Warned of Sin’s Wages: A Concise Explanation of Death in Genesis 2:17 and Romans 6:23”