I agree in large part with both Niobius's answer and Joseph's answer, but have a particular disagreement with Joseph's that I feel must be noted, and a particular missed opportunity from Niobius's answer to help explain Gen 2:17.
My Two Agreements
- Both answers acknowledge that in not all instances does that phrase refer to actually dying on the same day the infraction is made, Niobius referencing 1 Kg 2:37-46; Joseph Num 26:65. However, Joseph asserts in the case of explicit commands of the Lord, such death was the same day, and Gen 2:17 would be "the only instance" exception if the reference is not looked at as a spiritual death (this will be the focus of my disagreement below).
- Both answers appear to take the reference as primarily to physical death. However, Joseph hedges in the last paragraph, based off his conclusions regarding #1 in reference to commands of the Lord.
My Disagreement - Death had to be Immediate for command of violation
Joseph makes an erroneous assertion, namely (emphasis on point of error added):
However, in Torah there are numerous instances where this infinitive
absolute (מֹות) modifies the same Hebrew verb to die in the context of
the penalty for violating an explicit commandment of
the Lord. In every single one of those instances where the penalty of
death for sin occurs (as in the case of Gen 2:17), the death appears
to occur on the same day as the sin.
Following is a list of verses giving such a command paired with verses proving the penal death did not occur the same day (and may not have occurred at all for the violation):
- Ex 21:12 (direct murder); Joab is one exception (1 Kg 2:28-34), for Abner's and Amasa's murders (1 Kg 2:5; 2 Sam 3:27, 20:10).
- Ex 21:17, Lev 20:9 (cursing father/mother); the "princes of Israel" are said to have so behaved toward father and mother in Ezek 22:7.
- Ex 31:14 (not keeping Sabbath); violated in Nehemiah's day without death inflicted (Neh 13:15-22).
- Lev 20:2 (giving children to Molech); God states people of both Judah and Israel, from all classes of people, violated this (Jer 32:32-35)
- Lev 20:10 (committing adultery); neither David nor Bathsheba were put to death for this (2 Sam 11:3-5), and in fact lived to gender David's successor Solomon (1 Kg 1:28-31).
I believe those are all adequate examples to disprove the assertion of Joseph on that matter. This would then not make Gen 2:17 an exception, and in fact such a stay (or dismissal) of judgement may rather be more the norm.
Of Righteousness and Mercy
Gen 2:17 should be looked at as a declaration by God of what the penal consequence would be for Adam to violate the command--physical death. "In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (NKJV) does refer, I believe, to strictly physical death. It was an assured fact that one that day occurs, death will assuredly come because of the violation (not necessary at the time of the violation). Brilliant's comment about the apple being plucked from the tree is a very good illustration I think. As is Niobius's final conclusion, "his physical death became certain the moment he disobeyed," and Joseph's opening statement, "literally that day Adam '...was surely to die...'."
Getting theological from a Christian perspective
So why does God not immediately enact the penal consequence in all cases? Because of mercy based upon Christ (Rom 3:25-26), which allowed Him a time of mercy (Act 14:16, 17:30).
Illustrated in Solomon
There are many illustrations of mercy when punishment was warranted. However, Niobius's illustration proving delay of death for Shimei can be extended to further illustrate this. Shimei was due death because of his offense against David (the father; 2 Sam 16:5-13), who had showed him mercy upon Shimei's show of contrition (2 Sam 19:18-23), but had not wholly forgiven him, and commanded Solomon (his son) to judge Shimei rightly for his guilt (1 Kg 2:8-9). Solomon himself showed mercy to Shimei, such that he might not die if he obeyed Solomon's command (1 Kg 2:36-37), and Shimei thought it a good judgment (v.38), but then disobeyed (v.39-40), and was soon executed for it (v.41-46).