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Someone has brought it to my attention that the ESV deviates from all other English translations in Genesis 2:16 by changing "freely" to "surely." The ESV is heavily endorsed by Calvinist pastors, so this creates some suspicion that this is an attempt at introducing Calvinist bias, particularly since even the RSV (of which the ESV is a revision) says "freely."

NIV: And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden;

NLT: But the Lord God warned him, “You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden—

ASV: And Jehovah God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

NASB: The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely;

HCSB: And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree of the garden,

KJV: And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

NKJV: And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat;

RSV: And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;

NRSV: And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;

ESV: And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden,

Why does the ESV go against the grain and use "surely": is this some kind of Calvinist attempt to imply that the eating of the forbidden fruit was inevitable or what?

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My guess is that this is just an example of obsolete English usage that hasn't been transliterated into the modern equivalent. If you go to the "sure" Wiktionary entry, the fourth definition (listed as obsolete) reads, "Free from danger; safe; secure". So perhaps the editors of the ESV are not without some justification for this translation decision, but it does seem odd given how recently it was published. –  David H Aug 30 at 6:14
I have yet to hear any Calvinists make such an argument based on this translation or even the verse in general. I don't know why the word choice was made by the ESV translators, but the word they picked does not seem to carry the particular implication you are reading into it. A more modern expression might be 'of course' as in, "Of course you can go to the party, just come home by 10." The choice of 'surely' doesn't seem to have any different implications than 'freely', and the doctrinal case for whether the fall was predestined is surely not built on this verse. –  Caleb Aug 30 at 11:16

3 Answers 3

I do not pretend to know the minds of the ESV revisers. But there is some justification for their rendering of Genesis 2:16, although exploring the (possible) reasoning cannot be done briefly. Here we go...

Genesis 2:16-17

We need the text, and in this case it is imperative to work from the Hebrew, with the immediate context also in view (I'll stick with ESV for the English, for the sake of convenience):

16 וַיְצַו יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים עַל־הָאָדָם לֵאמֹר
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying,

מִכֹּל עֵץ־הַגָּן אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל
mikkōl ʿēṣ-haggān ʾākōl tōʾkēl
“You may surely eat of every tree of the garden,

17 וּמֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ
but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,

כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ מוֹת תָּמוּת
kî bĕyôm ʾăkolĕkā mimmennû môt tāmût
for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

The words in bold in v. 16 are the point of the question. It is a distinctive construction in Hebrew, combining the "infinitive absolute" form of the verb (ʾākōl, "eat") with a "finite" form (tōʾkēl, Qal imperfect, 2nd person masculine singular, "you shall eat").

This same construction (Inf. abs. + finite form) occurs also in the next verse, and is also in bold: "you shall surely die" = inf. abs. (môt, "die") and finite form (tāmût, "you shall die").

So, to reflect this in an entirely un-idiomatic rendering of the sort you might get in an interlinear gloss, the verses could be "translated" this way:

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying
“From every tree of the garden eat you shall eat
but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,
because in the day of your eating from it die you shall die.”

And what does that mean?!

Classical Hebrew's "Infinitive Absolute"

Hebrew has two "infinitives", the "infinitive construct" which is closer to what English speakers would think of as an infinitive -- the "unmarked base form of the verb", often used with "to", but not necessarily -- and the "infinitive absolute" a "verbal noun of action or state",1 or, in more of a thumbnail definition, a form giving the bare verbal idea.

A distinctive feature of classical Hebrew is the use of the infinitive absolute (I'll abbreviate as inf.abs. in what follows) with a finite form of the verb, that is, a form that is inflected for person, gender, number, etc. Genesis 2:16-17 gives us two examples of this construction, as we noted above.

One explanation

How is this distinctive construction to be understood? Older grammars, and many teaching grammars, explained it as an "emphatic" construction: the inf.abs. emphasizing the verbal notion in context. Some go further, claiming that the order of the components (i.e., "1inf.abs. + 2finite" contrasts with "1finite + 2inf.abs.") brings a different nuance: emphatic when the inf.abs. precedes the finite form but durative when the inf.abs. follows.

I don't believe this latter claim is widely followed now. But the notion that the inf.abs. somehow reinforces the verbal idea remains widespread, and so it is explained by Gesenius-Kautzsch-Cowley.2

This accounts for the majority of English translations of Genesis 2:16 - how do you "reinforce" or emphasize the verbal idea of "eating"? By bountiful, plentiful, free eating, is one way, and thus it was taken as far back as the KJV.

Another explanation

However, more recent explanations of the inf.abs. find a different nuance to this construction (or perhaps, a more full explanation), arguing that the inf.abs. does not (only? always?) emphasize the "verbal idea" ("eating", in the case of Gen 2:16):

It is only from the context that the nuance added by the infinitive can be deduced in each case. Usually the emphasis does not bear on the verbal action itself, but on a modality, which is thus strengthened.3

The difference taking on board this notion makes can be clearly seen in this comparison by Scott Callaham:4

verbal v. modal

If, as Joüon & Muraoka and Callaham claim, the emphasis brought in this case falls on the modality in context (here, permission) rather than the verbal idea (here, "eating"), then a translation much like the ESV's can capture it:

You shall surely [I'm permitting/commanding you to] eat from every tree, EXCEPT...


I don't think -- although I don't know -- that the ESV's rendering owes much to Calvin.5 It seems more likely to me that either the ESV revisers were "balancing" the two inf.abs. constructions in vv. 16 and 17, or that they had in mind the "modality" emphasis of the inf.abs., prefering that nuance here (as does Callaham, see note 4) over the notion of gluttony.


  1. So Joüon-Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, §123.
  2. See GKC, §113.
  3. Joüon-Muraoka, §123d, bold added. See also Muraoka's earlier treatment in his Emphatic Words and Structures in Biblical Hebrew (Brill, 1985), pp. 83-92.
  4. S. Callaham, Modality and the Biblical Hebrew Infinitive Absolute (Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010), pp. 14-16 and 123-123.
  5. Calvin stresses the liberality of the divine command, but doesn't comment on this Hebrew construction directly.
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Do you call them "ESV revisers" rather than translators because they used the RSV as a base, or because an earlier edition of the ESV rendered this differently? –  Jack Douglas Aug 30 at 13:45
@JackDouglas - because more than 90% of the ESV is simply the RSV (actually 92% according to Wayne Grudem who ought to know). It's not like it's even close to a new translation. I'm pretty sure this reading was present in the first ESV edition, though. –  Davïd Aug 30 at 16:36
Interesting, I didn't know the figure (presumably that's 90% by verses rather than words?). OTOH, "Each word and phrase in the ESV has been carefully weighed against the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek" ;) –  Jack Douglas Aug 30 at 16:40
@JackDouglas - Grudem's numbers are for words, not verses. I'm sure "each word and phrase was carefully weighed", but it's still a revision, not a fresh translation! (Much like the RSV itself, in fact - the clue being in the name, of course. ;) –  Davïd Aug 30 at 16:42
Oh, I agree, I ask mainly because it identifies itself as a translation, not as the N2RSV! But you've inspired me to ask another question :) –  Jack Douglas Aug 30 at 16:55

Even if this "surely" in Genesis 2:16 were meant to imply predestination (which does not seem likely), it does not refer to eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but to eating from all the other allowed trees.

16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden,

So this verse is not about the fall. You would have to look in 2:17 to learn about the fall.

17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

  • ESV - surely;
  • NIV - certainly;
  • KJV - surely;
  • RSV - [no adverb]
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While I partially agree with Davïd's analysis, I think it misses the point and context.

Let's start with some fundamentals.

  1. First, lets consider the Jewish theory that while in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve could not die.

  2. Second, let's also consider that while in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve did not have complete free will in the sense that they did not have the capacity to make choices. They're life was not much different than the joyous life of an 18-month-old child in that they could run a round naked without shame, take what they want, do what they want, and eat what they wanted without fear. Eventually that child's parents will introduce discipline with the word "no."

With that, lets look at the text¹.

ויצו יי אלֹקים על האדם לאמֹר מכל עץ רגן אכל תֹאכל

"And the Lord God commanded the man saying: of every tree of the garden you may (freely) eat." (Hertz)

The phrase אכל תֹאכל is a combination of the ordinary verb form and a more intensive command form. When verbs or adverbs are repeated, that alone would be an intensive. If I said "maher maher" (fast fast), I am telling you to go very fast. But here it is going a bit farther. This form here makes me read the sentence, "all of the fruit here not only can you eat, you must eat them (and nothing else I have not commanded you to eat)."

The next verse uses a similar construct:

וּמעץ הדיעת טוב ורע, לא תֹאכל ממנוּ כי ביום אכלךָ ממנוּ מות תמות

"but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." (Hertz)

The phrase מות תמות is commonly translated as you will "surely die." Again, it is in two forms, a normal verb and a more intensive command form of the verb. If God wanted to say "you will die," it would be sufficient to say the verb once. But adding the intensive command form with the prefix letter taf, suggests an additional meaning. Perhaps it is saying, "you will no longer be immortal"?

J.H. Hertz, who was Chief Rabbi of Great Britain in the 1950s and translator of the widely used Hertz Chumash, published by Soncino, explains that the verse is not saying just that they will die, but they will become mortal (citing Symmachus, Hertz Chumash at 8).

"While this explanation removes the difficulty that Adam and Eve lived a long time after they had eat en of the forbidden fruit, it assumes that man was created to be a deathless being. A simpler explanation is that in view of all the circumstances of the temptation, the All-merciful God mercifully modified the penalty, and they did not die on the day of the sin." Ibid.

The fact is, at chapter 3, we find that Adam and Eve didn't catch the subtle distinction of God's threat. They believed that they would die immediately from eating the fruit. The serpent tells them, falsely, that God's warning even applied to touching the fruit of the tree—therefore, if they touch it and a bolt of lightning doesn't strike immediately, it means God's threat was meaningless. They accept that rationale, like the smokers who inhale deeply and note that smoking "hasn't killed me yet." But at that point in their lives, perhaps, they lacked the sophistication to understand that the consequences that awaited them for sin were not in the immediate present, but in a more distant future. Like a child, they thought they were invulnerable.

I don't think that either "surely" or "freely" makes much of a difference. In the context of it all, we learn that there are consequences to all sins. Moreover, we learn that at some point, knowing too much means the end is closer at hand than you thought it was when you were a child.

¹ I don't think that the vowels add anything to the discussion, so I have written out the text like the Torah itself, sans-vowels and for religious reasons, I do not write out the Name of God but indicate that with two yuds and substitute a koof for the hey in the Hebrew word for God.

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