Davïd recently provided an explanation of the infinitive absolute in Genesis 2:16, noting the recurrence of the construction in 2:17:

"you shall surely die" = inf. abs. (môt, "die") and finite form (tāmût, "you shall die").

This phrase is repeated in the following chapter by the serpent. There it is preceded by the negative particle lo'.

Gen 3:4 WLC:

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הַנָּחָ֖שׁ אֶל־הָֽאִשָּׁ֑ה לֹֽא־מֹ֖ות תְּמֻתֽוּן׃

The ESV translates:

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.

Whereas the NASB:

The serpent said to the woman, "You surely will not die!"

In English, the different order of the words surely and not creates a logical difference between these. The NASB indicates that the absence of death is certain, whereas the ESV merely indicates that the certainty of death is absent.1

Waltke (§35.2.2e) notes:

the infinitive absolute is not normally negated; a negative particle, where needed is normally placed before the finite verb.


  • When the infinitive absolute is negated in this way, is it possible to comment on which sort of negation is intended?2

  • Does the placement of the negative particle as it is (before the infinitive, attached via maqqef) matter?

1. I just did the same sort of manipulating word order that the translations do, which doesn't go a long way to explaining my point. . . . I think there is probably some terminology known to people who think about logical relationships that could be applicable. If you know it, please edit it in!
2. I think this boils down to whether the emphasis ("surely") applies to the negation ("not") or to the finite verb ("you will die").


2 Answers 2


This answer complements (and, to an extent, challenges) the existing answer (although the commentary offered on the passages is certainly insightful).

The distribution of the two patterns shows a marked preference for the negation being "attached" to the finite form:1

30× (in 28 vss) - Exod. 5:23; 8:24; 34:7; Lev. 7:24; 19:20; Num. 14:18; 23:25; Deut. 21:14; Jos. 11:11; 17:13; Jdg. 1:28; 15:13; 1 Ki. 3:27; Isa. 30:19; 57:20; Jer. 6:15; 8:12; 11:12; 13:12; 23:32; 30:11; 46:28; 49:23; Ezek. 16:4; 20:32; Dan. 10:3; Amos 3:5; Nah. 1:3.

There are also two occasions when the negative particle is ʾal, not lōʾ:

- 1 Ki. 3:26; Mic. 1:10.

So that's a total of 32. Beside this, we have the seven (not six: the Isaiah occurrence was missed out) examples of the negative particle (always lōʾ) preceding the Inf.Abs.:

- Gen. 3:4; Num. 22:37; Ps. 49:8; Isa. 58:7; Jer. 3:1; 38:15; Amos 9:8.

However, my sense is that it's not quite appropriate to think of the negative "applying" to one or other of the forms: whether the negative precedes the construction (the minority of cases), or is interposed within it (the norm), the whole thing is negated. Consider Joüon-Muraoka's gloss of Judges 15:13:2

וְהָמֵת לֹא נְמִיתֶךָ but we shall not kill you (lit. the action of killing we shall not do it to you)

Further, it is important to note (IMO) that the seven apparent "exceptions" fall into two classes:

  1. three in which the simple negation is used: Gen 3:4; Ps 49:8; Amos 9:8; and
  2. four in which the rhetorical hălōʾ is used: Num 22:37; Isa 58:7; Jer 3:1; 38:15.

In this second case, I'm fairly confident in saying that in every one of the 273 occurrences of hălōʾ, it is clause initial. In these cases, then, the combination with the inf.abs. is conforming to the demands of the "rhetorical particle", and so don't constitute "proper" exceptions to the normal pattern of the finite form being negated in the inf.abs. + finite form construction. There is another "constraint" involved.

That leaves us with just three exceptional cases (Gen 3:4; Ps 49:8; Amos 9:8) where the negative particle precedes the inf.abs. where it also precedes the finite form.3

This is, of course, a very slender basis on which to generalize, especially as it is not clear that there is some pattern which binds these three occurrences together in distinction from the "normal" cases. Callaham's judgment is that only in Gen 3:4 does "modality" come into play:4


"Casting doubt" are the key words there - and although that nuance might extend to Ps 49:8, it's difficult to see it at work in Amos 9:8.

So, after all that (!), my conclusion is that there isn't any particular nuance discernible in these exceptional placements of the negative particle with the inf.abs., nor is there a "literalistic gloss" which sensibly conveys a gradation of meaning here.

For OP's particular question, it looks to me like the ESV is simply participating in the long tradition of word order going back to the KJV ("...not surely..."), and this is a slightly archaic form of English -- to my ear, at any rate. The NIV (and most other "modern" translations) simply reflect more idiomatic English usage. There is no alteration to the meaning of the Serpent's assertion to Eve.


  1. N.b. In none of the 42 cases where the Inf.Abs. follows the finite form is there a negation of any kind. For comparison, the other order (inf.abs. preceding finite form) occurs about 400 times.
  2. Joüon-Muraoka consider the place of negation with the inf.abs. at §123o.
  3. This was already recognized by Gesenius-Kautzsch-Cowley, §113v; Joüon-Muraoka (working with the same set of "exceptions") dispute the claim made that Gen 3:4 is alluding to the wording of 2:17 -- relevant to OP's question.
  4. S. Callaham, Modality and the Biblical Hebrew Infinitive Absolute (Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010), p. 68.

The Idea in Brief

A survey of the uses of the infinitive absolute in tandem with the negative adverb לֹא in the Hebrew Bible provides new perspective. In this regard, there are six passages where the adverb לֹא negates the infinitive absolute and/or negates the main verb depending on context. These examples therefore help to understand the correct meaning of the use of the infinitive absolute in Gen 3:4.


The Hebrew Bible provides several examples of the infinitive absolute and/or verb of the main clause negated by the Hebrew adverb לֹא. The following examples illustrate this construction.

Numbers 22:37 (NASB)
37 Then Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not urgently send to you to call you? Why did you not come to me? Am I really unable to honor you?”

The infinitive absolute (“urgently”) and main verb in this clause are שָׁלַח (qal active). Balak was angry that Balaam had not come. So the negation concerns both the urgency (infinitive absolute) and the fact that Balaam never responded (main verb). So Balak was irritated at both his frustration (urgency) and the fact that Balaam was unresponsive. So here the negation of the adverb לֹא covers both verb forms.

Psalm 49:7 (NASB) (BHS 49:8)
7 No man can by any means redeem his brother
Or give to God a ransom for him—

The infinitive absolute phrase (“by any means”) and main verb in this clause are פָּדָה (qal active). Like the first example (above) the negation here applies to both the infinitive absolute and to the main verb, which is to redeem. So not only is the redemption of the soul who trusts in riches and wealth not possible, but there are no financial means available (“by any means”) by which the wealthy can escape Sheol. (Jesus picks up on this theme in Matthew 19:24 in the Christian New Testament.) So the negation of the adverb לֹא also applies to both the infinitive absolute and the main verb in this example.

Jeremiah 3:1 (NASB)
1God says, “If a husband divorces his wife
And she goes from him
And belongs to another man,
Will he still return to her?
Will not that land be completely polluted?
But you are a harlot with many lovers;
Yet you turn to Me,” declares the Lord.

The infinitive absolute (“completely”) and main verb in this clause are חָנֵף (qal active). Like the two examples (above), the negation appears to apply both to the infinitive absolute and to the main verb, which is to pollute. In other words, Jeremiah was NOT questioning whether or not there was pollution in the land, but that the pollution was so extensive that the entire land was polluted. So like the previous examples, the infinitive absolute and the main verb are tied together in that the negation applies to them both (not one versus the other).

Jeremiah 38:15 (NASB)
15 Then Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, “If I tell you, will you not certainly put me to death? Besides, if I give you advice, you will not listen to me.”

The infinitive absolute (“certainly”) and main verb in this clause are מוּת, which appear in the Hiphil (active-causative stem). That is, Jeremiah had feared that Zedekiah would command someone to kill Jeremiah. Thus the negative was not only about being put to death (which is what Jeremiah believed), but that Zedekiah would have someone do it. Since both are in view, Zekekiah mentions in the following verse (Jer 38:16) that Jeremiah would neither die nor be delivered by Zedekiah into the hands of those who would kill Jeremiah. So this verse is another example of the negation of the adverb לֹא applying to both the infinitive absolute and the main verb.

Amos 9:8 (NASB)
8 Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are on the sinful kingdom,
And I will destroy it from the face of the earth;
Nevertheless, I will not totally destroy the house of Jacob,”
Declares the Lord.

The infinitive absolute (“totally”) and main verb in this clause are שָׁמַד, which appear in the Hiphil (active-causative stem). Unlike the examples noted above, the לֹא in this verse appears to negate the infinitive absolute but not the main verb, which means that the destruction of the House of Jacob is certain, but will not be total. This verse appears to be the only explicit example in the Hebrew Bible where the negative adverb does not capture both the infinitive absolute and the main verb of the clause. This inference is from context, because the Bible makes clear that the House of Jacob was never “totally” destroyed.


The context of Gen 3:4 therefore appears to be consistent with most of the examples noted above. That is, the adverb לֹא appears to negate both the infinitive absolute (“surely”) and main verb in the clause, which stem from the triliteral root מוּת (qal active). The following verse would thus be one appropriate translation in modern English, since there is no separation in negating the meaning of either infinitive absolute or the main verb.

Genesis 3:4 (NASB)
4 The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die!”

The first assumption here was that the serpent was lying. The truth, in fact, was that separation from the Tree of Life would occur (i.e., the cessation of access to the fount of indefinite immortality in the Garden of Eden) in addition to eventual physical death. By suggesting that her “eyes would open” the serpent was proposing an exalted plane compared to her current existence, and therefore he was negating the whole idea of death in its entirety. That is, unlike the example of Amos 9:8 (noted above), there was no bifurcation of the infinitive absolute from the main verb. So the negation by the serpent was in reference to death in its entirety, because the context indicates that his proposition was to elevate the existence and experience of the woman, which was not true.

  • Thank you! I just added the BHS citation where it's different from the English, but get rid of it if you don't want it. I'm left confused about the excerpt from Waltke's grammar that I quoted above. Am I misunderstanding it to apply here? In every example you gave, the lo' comes directly before the infinitive absolute.
    – Susan
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 11:19
  • @Susan - Waltke and O'Connor provide no examples, which make for the difficulty in understanding. Thank you for the suggested edits.
    – Joseph
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 11:59

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