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.