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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.” (Genesis 2:17, NKJV)

but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:17, NIV)

If God said that Adam will die on the same day (KJV), God was lying because Adam died after 930 years. Still, even if God said that Adam will die immediately(NIV), God was still lying unless we assert that God meant to say 1000 years, instead of 1 day.

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. (2 Peter 3:8, NIV)

NIV seems more plausible here but KJV can also have a good explanation, I think.

Can we translate this as "if you eat, you will certainly die"? Thereby avoiding the above possible contradictions?

What is the correct translation for this?

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Are you deliberately asking the question in a way that rules out answers about that "die" not mean to die physically in this context? You might do that and that gives an interesting perspective to this verse, but I just want to make sure that this is what you meant to ask :-) –  Niclas Nilsson Jan 11 at 14:02
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That was what I guessed. Just wanted it to be clear. Interesting question, but it is a bit contradictory by quoting the Christian New Testament when you don't want a Christian answer ;-) –  Niclas Nilsson Jan 11 at 14:23
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I wouldn't start categorizing death here as "spiritual" and "physical". After all, God didn't say "you shall surely die spiritually". Death is death. When an apple is taken from an apple tree it still looks okay for some time and can even become more ripe, however, it is now doomed to soon become rotten and dry. When did this crucial change take place? Exactly at that moment when it was torn off the tree, not at the moment when it is fully decomposed. According to Genesis the first murderer was Cain, however, Jesus said that Devil was the murderer "from the beginning" (John 8:44). –  brilliant Jan 11 at 16:53
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@Daи I didn't say I don't want Christian responses. Also, quoting the NT doesn't necessarily mean it is a Christian response. Even the word "spiritual death" doesn't exist in NT, it's only a Christian doctrine. My quoting of NT is merely an attempt to solve this contradiction with the help of NIV version, instead of the KJV one. –  Mawia Jan 11 at 19:09
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@brillaint: No, it's not as simple as "death is death." Not even Judaism believes that. The NT does teach us that men can be physically alive yet spiritually dead. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Jan 12 at 3:47
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4 Answers

We cannot read NT passages into the Old Testament to explain difficulties - each passage must be understood in its own context. Otherwise I would read the second half of 2 Pet 3:8 into Genesis and say that Methuselah was almost a day old when he died. Instead, I'll give an OT example with similar wording to try to understand the meaning behind the Hebrew language better.

The following verses are excerpts from the story in 1Kings 2:36-46, where Solomon tells Shemei to stay in Jerusalem and later executes him for disobeying. In this story, Shemei travels from Jerusalem to Gath and back, a journey of at least two days - he probably spent a few days in Gath as well.

1 Ki 2:37 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 Ki 2:42-43 Then the king sent and called for Shimei, and said to him, “Did I not make you swear by the Lord, and warn you, saying, ‘Know for certain that on the day you go out and travel anywhere, you shall surely die’? And you said to me, ‘The word I have heard is good.’ Why then have you not kept the oath of the Lord and the commandment that I gave you?”

So Solomon, at least a few days after Shemei's disobedience, still does not consider his threat that "on the day" Shemei disobeyed, he would surely die.

Though Shemei was not physically executed on the day he disobeyed, nor did he die spiritually on that day, on that day his physical death became certain. In English terms, we might literally say, "on the day he left Jerusalem, he was as good as dead."

It is possible that Genesis is making a similar point - not that Adam died physically on that day, nor that he died spiritually that day (indeed, how could God threaten beings who do not "know good and evil" with spiritual death and expect them to understand?), but that his physical death became certain the moment he disobeyed.

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How about the simple answer that it was awareness of death? –  gideon marx Jan 11 at 17:29
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@gideonmarx The natural meaning of "you will surely die" is not "you will become aware of death," so unless there is a known rule or at least precedent in Biblical Hebrew for such an interpretation, I see no reason to interpret the phrase idiomatically. –  Niobius Jan 11 at 19:31
    
I don't know Hebrew, but is it possible that this instance can be understood as "on the day you go out" Shimei would "know that he was to die". This reading isn't possible with the Gen 2 text "in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die". –  Jack Douglas Jan 12 at 14:14
    
@JackDouglas That interpretation is possible for 1Ki 2:37, but not for 1Ki 2:42-43 (at least as I understand it). –  Niobius Jan 12 at 21:36
    
The Hebrew in 37 and 42 seem to be identical for the phrase: "ידע תדע כי מות תמות". I have no idea what the best translation is in each case though, but I do find it interesting that the NET Bible leaves the interpretation I'm suggesting open: net.bible.org/#!bible/1+Kings+2:29. Perhaps I need to ask another question about this? –  Jack Douglas Jan 13 at 21:45
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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

  1. 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).
  2. 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).

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In Biblical Hebrew the infinitive absolute functions as an "absolute complement" or adverb to indicate intensity. So in Gen 2:17 the infinitive מֹות modifies the imperfect verb תָּמוּת, and of course the context indicates the future. That is, literally that day Adam "...was surely to die..."

Another example of this verb/adverb arrangement are the Israelites, who sinned against the Lord and subsequently died in the wilderness...

Numbers 26:65 (NASB)
65 For the Lord had said of them, “They shall surely die in the wilderness.” And not a man was left of them, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun.

The same absolute infinitive with the same verb occurs here. That is, over a period of 40 years, all of the adult Israelites who had escaped Egypt died in the wilderness with the exception of Caleb and Joshua. The Lord declared "the death penalty" on these people because of the several tests in the wilderness to which they "grumbled" against the Lord and Moses.

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. (Several good examples are Ex 19:12; Ex 31:14-15; and Lev 24:16.) In regards to this last verse (Le 24:16), in the one instance in Torah where public execution actually occurred in the violation of the explicit commandment of the Mosaic Law, the punishment appears to have been meted out within a matter of hours (Lev 24:9-16). Thus, the "surely will die" conveyed immediacy when explicit commands of the Lord were concerned.

Adam of course physically lived more than 900 years after sinning in the Garden. Did Adam however die spiritually on that day when he disobeyed the Lord (i.e., was his spiritual death the termination of his access to the Tree of Life in Gen 3:22-23)? If he did not die spiritually, then the use of the infinitive absolute (מֹות) in Gen 2:17 would be the only instance where "death" would not appear to occur on the same day as the penalty for violating an explicit commandment from the Lord. In other words, where violations of explicit commandments from the Lord are concerned, the sentence and execution of death in the Hebrew Bible were expected to be immediate whether "spiritual" or otherwise.

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The problem is our understanding of "death".

If God said they would die then it must have happened.

The problem is actually with our understanding of what the word 'die' means. To understand what God calls death we need to search the scriptures and see how it is used:


1Tim 5:6 But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.

From this we learn a person can still be alive in an earthly sense but dead in Gods eyes.


Eph 2:1 And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins;

Paul tells these Christians that before they were saved they were dead to God even thought they were alive in an earthly sense.

What happened in the Garden of Eden

Rom 5:12 Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:

Here is the explanation for what happened in the Garden of Eden. When they disobeyed, they died, and every human is borne in the same state of death. Ceasing to exist is not death.


"Death" is a declaration of the sinner’s eternal home.

Rev 20:14 And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.


God gives men a time limit to make an eternal decision.

Deut 30:19 I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live:

Jesus made payment for every sin by becoming 2Cor 5:21 ...sin for us, ...that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

Rev 1:18 I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.

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