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In Genesis 2, God warns Adam not to eat of a certain tree and threatens punishment or consequences if he disobeys:

17but 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

However there is no hint of death in the creation accounts: it seems to enter the picture only after the act of disobedience. In which case how could Adam have understood the threat, having never seen an example of death?

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    To be sure, a perplexing question, Jack. While I do not dare to provide an answer, I will say this: When we tell our children "No. You mustn't do ____," they seldom understand fully the consequences of going against our command. Their ignorance in no way lessens the certainty of punishment for their disobedience--assuming the parents follow through on their punishment (unless of course it's a hot-stove issue, so the child's getting burned is sufficient punishment!). All the child needs in order to be able to obey or disobey is the necessary intelligence, which I assume Adam had in full. Don Dec 22 '15 at 16:50
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    @rhetorician actually I think you are more right in the hot stove example than you maybe gave yourself credit. Not knowing what burning oneself is or feels doesn't stop the parent from instructing the child from touching it. However when they disobey, the result is the same and the child learns. If Adam did not have knowledge of good and evil prior to eating of the tree, he did not understand the consequence until after eating it. The result and the consequence come together. However, you are correct, that is not a criticism of the instruction.
    – Joshua
    Dec 22 '15 at 16:57
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    Adam would know, because he, without doubt, saw animals die. God did not create animals to live indefinitely. Thus, Adam would witness how death can be like. Plus, the account recorded at Genesis does not paint the picture relating to conversations between Adam and God in full. What if there was an extended discussion relating to the instructions God gave him, only not to be recorded in the Bible?
    – KhoPhi
    Dec 22 '15 at 20:16
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    @Rexford that's a debate of its own, and an interesting one at that! I'd ask it as a question but I'm afraid it's more theology than hermeneutic we can get directly from any scripture. Maybe I'll ask it on Christianity SE
    – Joshua
    Dec 22 '15 at 22:16
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One view (and the view I hold to) of the Genesis account in Gen 1:1-2:3 indicates that God created a fully functioning creation at the end of seven days, with the earth, plants, animals, heavenly bodies, and mankind all formed to function as an interrelated whole like God intended.

Genesis 2:4-25 is an expanded history of what is stated to have transpired in 1:1-2:3. Adam, the initial man of mankind, was formed differently than other creatures, being both made from what was already created, the dust of the ground (2:7a), and God's breathing into him (2:7b), giving him a distinct form of life.

This distinct form apparently included language. In both the initial summary account of creation in chapter 1 and the expanded details in chapter 2, God speaks to man directly (NKJV quoted):

  • 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; 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.” (Genesis 2:16-17)
  • 28 Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. 30 Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food”; and it was so. (Genesis 1:28-30)

I've placed the 2:16-17 passage first, because I believe it was spoken before Eve's creation, taking chapter 2 chronologically. However, in both cases, we see that God simply speaks to Adam (and then both), indicating part of the "fully functioning" of Adam was speech capability, with the ability to know what is being said.

Adam, as well, had the ability to use his speech capabilities to expand his own vocabulary, for God allowed him to name the animals (Gen 2:19-20).

So the narrative implies fully functioning speech capabilities, along with understanding of what is being said. Not just understanding of the word "death," but every other word used by God as well in His communication to Adam.

The blessing of language is that one can learn about a subject without ever having experienced that subject. I do not need to have walked on or even seen a planet in our solar system to understand the concepts related to it that others have experienced and communicated to me through language. Nor do I need to take narcotics to know about them and their consequences that I have learned through language.

So Adam can well have known what "death" meant without having experienced it, given that God knew Adam knew what He was saying to him, and God made Adam to be able to communicate. Language was apparently part of the special creation of mankind as being made "like" God (Gen 1:26). This is assumed within the narrative itself.

The concept of what "death" was had been given to Adam along with whatever other concepts of language were needed for God to communicate with His creature made in His likeness.

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    +1. Lots of suppositions, but good suppositions. In fact, your idea of language being a gift from God to Adam is one supposition I share with you. The apostle John's title for Jesus in John chapter 1 is "The Word." There is something about the word, Word (or word, for that matter) which is deep and compelling. Before God's first creative act (or word!), did language exist within the Godhead? Surely there was communication and fellowship and love. Is there a heavenly language? Were angels given the gift of language, too? Kenneth Burke: "Man is the symbol-using Dec 22 '15 at 17:57
  • (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal, inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative), separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order), and rotten with perfection." I don't agree with Burke about man being the inventor of the negative; I think that's God's invention, but the rest of Burke's definition of man is pretty much spot on. Take out the word "animal" and substitute it with the word "creature," and the definition has much to commend it. Don Dec 22 '15 at 18:02
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    @rhetorician: I attempted to keep my suppositions in line with what the text of Genesis 1-2 implies we should be supposing. One cannot approach any interpretation of Scripture without suppositions, but especially Genesis 1-2, since there is no prior written context to inform the suppositions there (i.e. it is the beginning of Scripture), and if one takes it at face value, there is no prior historical context to the narrative it gives (i.e. it is the beginning of creation).
    – ScottS
    Dec 22 '15 at 18:16
  • @ScottS Comment on the hermeneutic: It is for the same reason some rabbis say that water was pre-existent, and the third heaven was pre-existent. It is the lack of prior comment concerning them. In Hebrews, the lack of prior comment concerning Melchizadek's beginning and end, is used to speak of Christ. This suggests that the rule should be used to point forward to Christ, not applied to the present circumstance. Water is a symbol of the Word, and the Word was pre-existent.
    – Bob Jones
    Dec 26 '17 at 19:09
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It is a part of human nature that to eat, we must eat of a sacrificed living thing. Although still vegetarian, Adam would know that when he ate plant material, he was sacrificing its life for his own. Which is a fundamental part of creation and which teaches us enormously important concepts.

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how could Adam have understood the threat, having never seen an example of death?

Although it would have been possible for Adam to have understood 'death' without having seen it, at least to a degree, there is a narrative flow in Genesis and beyond, which indicates that he did not understand it fully — and did not need to.

  1. There is no need for Adam to eat the fruit either for food or for wisdom, because ⒜ there was a super-abundance of other fruit:

    • 9And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. ESV

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

    and ⒝ he was supplied with all the wisdom he needed from the mouth of God himself.

  2. Therefore the fruit was eaten not because of understanding (or lack of understanding) of 'death' or for any other reason, but purely because of a lack of trust in God's words. In that sense it did not matter what the threat was or whether it was understood, as long as it was clear that there was a prohibition. Eve makes perfectly clear that she has understood both permission and prohibition:

    3:1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.

    He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” ESV

    and the serpent does not question their understanding of death, but strikes at the heart of their understanding of God's faithfulness:

    4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. ESV

  3. Adam seems to misunderstand God in other ways, along with the broad effects of eating from the tree, which seem to have come as a complete surprise to him:

    10And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” ESV

    worth noting is that Adam does not say "I was afraid, because I know what death means".

  4. God does not rebuke Adam for failing to heed the threat of 'death', he rebukes him for failing to trust his words:

    17And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; ESV

  5. The issue of God's trustworthiness (not the nature of the threat itself), having been revealed as the central cause of the fall, is naturally central to future redemption(s), for example:

    • 4For in seven days I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” 5And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him. ESV

    • 6And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. ESV

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  • How does this answer the actual question you posed of "how" Adam could understand the threat? You assert "Although it would have been possible for Adam to have understood 'death' without having seen it," you do not give any reason for "how" this was possible. The question was not whether understanding "death" was relevant to the prohibition or not (you are arguing not; so God could have said "else you will snerddebaggle," and left that word undefined for all time?), but was rather "how" Adam could understand what God said when not having experienced it. I do not see that answered here.
    – ScottS
    Dec 22 '15 at 21:33
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    +1. While I applaud the way you stick to the text, I have to agree with what @ScottS said regarding your comment that Adam had the ability to understand what death was, "at least to a degree." I'd ask you to support that statement, but frankly I don't think you could, especially if you "stick to the text," which doesn't really give us a clue (one that I can see, that is). The main issue, as I see it, is obedience/disobedience, period. The brilliant apostle Paul contrasted one man's disobedience and the death that followed in its wake, with one man's obedience and the life that issued from it. Dec 23 '15 at 0:15
  • As I said in my original comment beneath your Q, a child need not know from experience how painful a burn can be in order to obey her parent by not touching the lit stove. She'll find out soon enough after she disobeys. Kinda the same thing with Adam, the "first man"--the one who blew it! Adam may not have fully (or even partially) understood what the word "death" meant, but he DID know what "DON'T eat from THAT tree" meant. As elegant and profound and parsimonious the first few chapters of Genesis are, they telescope reality, particularly re. the time elements involved. How long did Adam & Dec 23 '15 at 0:25
  • God have fellowship with one another until Eve came along? A day? A million years? How long did A & E as a married couple have fellowship with God before the deception and disobedience? A day? A week? A billion years? There were, I assume, many conversations between the first humans and their Creator, and while we haven't a clue as to the substance of those conversations, A & E certainly learned a great deal from them! BTW, the very word "death" is fraught with complications, since the words "in the day that you eat of it you will surely DIE" had both literal and metaphoric import. Don Dec 23 '15 at 0:33
  • @ScottS a question that asks "how" is predicated on the assumption that the "how" matters: to show that it does not is an answer to the question. I've left it to other answers (eg yours!) to argue the 'how' because the question does not interest me personally at that level. Dec 23 '15 at 7:13
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I agree with ScottS that Adam and Eve were given a fully functional language capacity. To give a concrete suggestion of what that gift was, I'll give a summary of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM). The NSM is a secular theory and most of its proponents are not Christian, but I think it is a strong linguistic theory and think it might be the best proposal we have for what exactly that language capacity was which God gave to Adam and Eve.

The NSM is a linguistic theory and model which says that all languages are based on about 65 semantic 'primes': core concepts which are themselves indivisible, and in a sense, undefinable (any attempt to define them will be circular or less clear than the word itself.) These primes are also believed to be universal, though they can be realised differently in different languages: often as words, but sometimes as phrases or affixes. It is a controversial theory and most linguists do not accept it, but after over forty years the list of primes has been refined and now has strong cross-linguistic and experimental support, meaning that the primes have been shown to exist in dozens of unrelated languages, and attempts to 'divide' the primes (to define them with other primes) have failed.

One of the NSM primes is DIE. If the NSM theory is correct then every human language has a verb with the meaning of 'to die', and I'd include the language of Adam and Eve in that list.

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  • A working vocabulary of 500 words will give the student of Biblical Hebrew access to almost the entire corpus.
    – Frank Luke
    Aug 15 '17 at 17:35
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The Bible account of what happened in Eden has remarkably few details, and (no doubt) for good reason. Just enough is stated for us to know what we need to know. There is no mention of death until God mentions it, after having mentioned 'the tree of life'. That's in chapter 2 verses 9 and 16-17.

Bear in mind that God conversed directly with Adam in the garden, and Adam already knew that he was to eat vegetation in order to keep living, so the idea of 'a tree of life' would strike him as being in direct opposition to the fruit that would bring death. There is no mention of Adam having witnessed the death of any animals, only that he had spent enough time observing them to give them names. But we don't have reason to think of animal death until God provides Adam and Eve with animal skins for clothing, prior to casting them out of Eden. The death of plants is taken as understood.

However, the conversations God had with Adam were sufficient to hold Adam accountable for choosing to disobey. If Adam had had no idea what death was, he could have protested, but the account is clear in showing that he knew enough to be conscience-stricken and to seek to avoid contact with God after his disobedience.

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God said: “Let us make man in our image.” (Ge 1:26)

In what way was Adam made in the likeness of God?Made in the likeness of his Creator, Adam had the divine attributes of love, wisdom, justice, and power; hence he possessed a sense of morality involving a conscience, something altogether new in the sphere of earthly life.He had subjection the sea and land creatures and the fowl of the air.

“God saw everything he had made and, look! it was very good.” (Ge 1:31) Indeed, from the very beginning Adam was perfect in every respect. He was equipped with the power of speech and with a highly developed vocabulary. He was able to give meaningful names to the living creatures all around him. He was capable of carrying on a two-way conversation with his God and with his wife.

Since Adam was the first man created, he never saw the death of a human, however he knew about death from the animals and the plants that died around him

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  • Like to point out to Parker that God said to him "You shall surely die"Genesis 2:17English Standard Version (ESV) 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat[a] of it you shall surely die.”Genesis 2:17English Standard Version (ESV) Why on earth would God say this to him if Adam did not know what death is? Please use the scripture to support your comments, I am not infallible. Aug 22 '17 at 16:32
  • Why the down vote,Adam was able to communicate with his creator and his wife. He was asked by God to give appropriate name to all that God created, this means that Adam had a very extensive vocabulary. Genesis 2:19-20<< Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field.>> Aug 25 '17 at 20:07
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No, Adam did not understand what dying meant.

Adam, without the knowledge of good and evil, also lacked prudence. He had no way to distinguish good and evil so that he might choose only good. If it was good to eat, he didn't know; nor did he know if it was good not to eat.

Although I believe this to be a warning rather than a command, if eating a fruit could ever be considered evil (despite the fact that no plants are ever forbidden in the Scriptures), he also did not know what evil meant. How could he?

Likewise, suppose death is evil rather than good? Even if Adam knew that living creatures died and became inanimate, he did not know if this was a good or bad thing. So while Adam may have understood the function of the words, he could not comprehend what it meant.

God said He was going to make man, who was prepared in His image, into His likeness. That is why Adam had to eat the fruit:

"And YHVH God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever" Genesis 3:22

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