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?

  • 1
    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 :-) Commented Jan 11, 2014 at 14:02
  • @NiclasNilsson I know that Christians interpret this as "spiritual death" but I'm looking for other way to solve this seemingly contradiction.
    – Mawia
    Commented Jan 11, 2014 at 14:08
  • 1
    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 ;-) Commented Jan 11, 2014 at 14:23
  • I agree with @NiclasNilsson - if you don't want Christian responses, I would remove the NT reference. You don't have to of course, but it is highly recommended.
    – Dan
    Commented Jan 11, 2014 at 18:53
  • 1
    @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
    Commented Jan 11, 2014 at 19:09

6 Answers 6


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.

  • How about the simple answer that it was awareness of death? Commented Jan 11, 2014 at 17:29
  • 3
    @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
    Commented Jan 11, 2014 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". Commented Jan 12, 2014 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
    Commented Jan 12, 2014 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? Commented Jan 13, 2014 at 21:45

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 judgment 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 when 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).

  • Scott - the verses you cited (to disprove my assertions) do not contain the infinitive absolute. That is, what I was showing in my verse citations from the Hebrew Bible were those that contained the infinitive absolute (translated: "surely") in tandem with the verb to die, which therefore indicated immediate/imminent death. The verses you cited do not match that criteria of the infinitive absolute in tandem with מֹות as found in Gen 2:15. I hope that helps. v/r, Joseph
    – Joseph
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 18:44
  • @Joseph: You should check again. Ex 21:12, 17, 31:14; Lev 20:2, 10 all have the infinitive absolute construction "in tandem with the verb to die." Thanks for pointing out the misspelling.
    – ScottS
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 18:49
  • @Joseph: And one of my verses, Ex 31:14, is even one you cited. I just gave an example of a violation where death did not come.
    – ScottS
    Commented May 15, 2014 at 18:58
  • "Surely will die" (agency of the Lord) is immediate—the Lord enforces his command with immediacy; and "Surely shall be put to death" (agency of man) is intermediate. Thus the tendency of man which obeys, delays, or ignores the Lord’s command. (Your explanations focus on examples concerning this latter situation.) In other words, whenever the disobedience was enforced by the Lord, the expectation of death was immediate and certain from the Lord, and so the warning, “Surely will die.” With man, it was different. I modified my posting to clarify this nuance with supporting evidence. Thx
    – Joseph
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 1:17
  • @Joseph: I believe you are still straining to find a distinction where none exists. There is no necessary connection between the phrase (in either form, for either agent) that demands immediacy be in view. That is not to deny immediacy may not be in view in certain instances, it is just that the construction is a declaration of certainty over immediacy. I will comment more under you answer regarding your revisions.
    – ScottS
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 13:29

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 over an extended period of time.

However, in Torah there are instances where this infinitive absolute (מֹות) modifies the same Hebrew verb to die in the context of the penalty for violating the commandment of the Lord. In the following instances where the command of the Lord occurs (as in the case of Gen 2:17), the penalty of death appears to occur on the same day as the sin: Ex 19:12; Gen 20:7; and Lev 24:16. In regards to this last verse (Le 24:16), 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.

Translators have observed this distinction. For example, in the NASB the phrase "shall surely be put to death" is the translation of the infinitive absolute when defiance to the Lord is in view, but where man is expected to execute the judgment (such as Ex 21:12 concerning murder). However, the same translators use "you will surely die" when it is the Lord in view, and who is the agent of his own judgment--thus there is no doubt as to the immediacy of judgment. In other words, the translators do not render the translation "shall surely be put to death" when it is the Lord in view and who is enforcing his own direct judgment; instead, translators render the unequivocal "(that person) shall surely die." The case of Abimelech, who sought to take Abraham's wife Sarah, provides an excellent example.

Genesis 20:3 (NASB)
3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married.”

Genesis 20:6-7 (NASB)
6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her. 7 Now therefore, restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”

Here the infinitive absolute occurs with the same Hebrew verb, which the translators render "shall surely die." Abimelech's death was declared in the past tense (v.3), and was therefore viewed as imminent pending his immediate repentance, because the Lord was the direct ("immediate") agent of judgment. In other words, Abimelech had sensed imminent mortal danger because the Lord was enforcing the command.

Interestingly enough, Abimelech (yet a different king) uses the same infinitive absolute construct (with the same Hebrew verb) to indicate that if anyone touches Rebekah (wife of Isaac), they will be put to death at the commandment of Abimelech (and not the Lord).

Genesis 26:11 (NASB)
11 So Abimelech charged all the people, saying, “He who touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.”

The Lord is not in view here, but the agent of enforcement now is man, and so the translators render the text "shall surely be put to death." The parallels are striking because both kings in Genesis are named "Abimelech" and both women concerned are the wives of the forefathers (Abraham and Isaac). In the former case, the Lord is in view who enforces the judgment (thus the translation, "shall surely die" = no delay by the Lord); and in the latter case, it is man who is in view. Thus the translation, "shall surely be put to death" (and so delay or postponement was possible by man, but not always as was seen in Lev 24:9-16, already noted above). The following chart illustrates the general guideline used by the NASB in its translation of the Hebrew Bible.

(source: shalldie2828 at sites.google.com)

In the case of the Lord, enforcement was assured with immediate certainty; in the case of man, enforcement was not always assured, nor was always certain.

In summary, Adam of course physically lived more than 900 years after sinning in the Garden. Did his human Spirit die on that day when he disobeyed the Lord (i.e., did his spiritual death include termination of 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 and direct commandment from the Lord and by the Lord. In other words, wherever violations of explicit commandments from the Lord and by the Lord are concerned (that is, the Lord is in view as the agent of enforcement), then the sentence and execution of death in the Torah were expected to be immediate: thus the tendency of translators to render the Hebrew not to read, Shall surely be put to death, but that (the person) shall surely die.

  • You fail to give an example showing distinction of phrasing and immediate direct enforcement by God of a "surely die" statement. Ex 19:12 was translated "shall surely be put to death" (NASB), yet implies would be a "direct enforcement" (so your pattern of translation distinction breaks down). Lev 24:9-16, one rare immediate example was enforced by human agents (and was a "surely be put to death" command). Gen 20:7, death never happened because of repentance (we don't know how/when it would have happened; immanent is implied, agency may have been by man). Your distinctions are then specious.
    – ScottS
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 13:41
  • 1
    So without really any evidence to prove the point, it becomes mere eisegesis to assert "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 and direct commandment from the Lord and by the Lord." You are simply assuming your conclusion and asserting it, especially when the evidence weighs against it (as I noted in my comment above and in my answer).
    – ScottS
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 13:45
  • @ScottS - Scott, the proposition is very simple, and there is no need to complicate the core issue: when the Lord is enforcing the rules, the punishment is quick. When man enforces the same rules, the punishment is not always quick.
    – Joseph
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 16:56
  • I'm not saying the proposition is not simple (what you are arguing is clear), nor am I complicating it. I'm saying its not supported by your argument. The evidence suggests the opposite of your proposition with respect to the infinitive absolute. Rather the Lord is often normally longsuffering to bring punishment that is deserved (though not always), whether by Himself directly (which as yet I have not seen an instance actually noted that He did directly enforce that is in conjunction with this phrase and outside the Gen 2-3 passage under discussion) or by Him through human agency.
    – ScottS
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 18:02

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.

  • (-1) for importing NT concepts into a story involving actual death
    – user10231
    Commented May 27, 2016 at 11:16

but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day (בְּי֛וֹם) 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)

Which is the correct translation?

Bible Gateway lists 50 different translations. Only 14 do not use the word "day:"

TLB 1971, NIV 1973, NIVUK 1979, ICB 1986, MSG 1993, GW 1995, NIRV 1995, NET 1996, NLT 1996, NCV 2005, NABRE 2010, EXB 2011, NOG 2011, TLV 2015

The decision to replace the specific “day” with a general reference to time is relatively recent. The same word is used almost 200 times. Translations like the NIV do not translate it as “day” during any creation record (2:4, 2:17, 3:5, 5:1, and 5:2). Yet the usage is day:

The child grew and was weaned, and on the day (בְּי֖וֹם) Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. (Genesis 21:8 NIV)

A possible reason for the difference is that when “day” is included, a reader would have two expectations. One would be that the man would die before sunset of the day he ate; the other is that the man would die 24-hours after eating. In effect modern translations interpret rather than translate the word to be consistent with the actual events:

After he begot Seth, the days of Adam were eight hundred years...So all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he died. (Genesis 5:4-5 NKJV)

The death proclaimed when the command was given occurred 930 years after eating.

As Joseph’s answer here and David’s answer to a similar question shows [Genesis 2:16] the infinitive absolute of the Hebrew is a way to explain why the man did not die soon after eating. Apparently some modern translators use this type of analysis to replace “day” with language that follows the actual events to simplify a more complicated aspect of the Hebrew language.

There is another way to understand the original language.

Since a day ends at sunset that would be the soonest time the death sentence would be carried out:

And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:8 NKJV)

Many commentators understand “the cool of the day” as the evening breeze. [Genesis 3:8] If the sentence were carried out immediately, the man had only a few hours left. However, a day in the command could also mean the full day of 24-hours.

The LORD who gives the command is merciful. For example:

And the LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth (Exodus 34:6 NKJV)

A merciful LORD would wait as long as possible before executing judgment. In this case He waited 930 years. This raises the question: what calendar was He using?

Psalm 90 offers an answer:

Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, Or ever You had formed the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God. You turn man to destruction, And say, “Return, O children of men.” For a thousand years in Your sight Are like yesterday when it is past, And like a watch in the night. (Psalm 90:1-4 NKJV)

The Psalm opens recounting creation and the "1,000 years are like yesterday when it is past and like a watch in the night." All of these references fit the circumstances of eating in the Garden of Eden.

The man did not live a full 1,000 years. He lived 930. Two points can be drawn from this life span. First, he fell 70 years short of a full 1,000 year day:

For we have been consumed by Your anger, And by Your wrath we are terrified. You have set our iniquities before You, Our secret sins in the light of Your countenance. For all our days have passed away in Your wrath; We finish our years like a sigh. The days of our lives are seventy years; (Psalm 90:7-10 NKJV)

The "missing 70 years" are also placed in the Psalm. The years the first man "lost" are now what the Psalmist (Moses) sees for all men.

The second point is that the 70 years is 7% of the total 1,000 years. In a 24-hour day 7% is 1 hour and 48 minutes. If the man ate late in the day, this means that the actual life span of 930 years was prorated against the 1,000 year day. In other words, instead of giving the man a full 1,000 years, the LORD cut short his life by 7%, the amount of time left in the day when he ate.

The LORD was both merciful and just before carrying out the death sentence proclaimed in Genesis.


Adam was to literally die the same day he and his wife would eat that fruit. Such was the law of God.

However, on the same day that Adam and Eve ate the fruit, God killed an animal (with whose furs He cloethed the couple) in the sinning's couple stead. In this manner, God showed grace towards the sinning couple and did not have to kill them immediatly as would have been required by His law.

In a similar fashion was the law abolished in the death of His beloved Son so that sinners wouldn't have to experience eternal death.

Adam and Eve would eventually die because God also barred the access to the tree of life. It seems as though eating from this tree would be necessary for some biological functions to build up the body again.

  • (-1) there is no mention of killing an animal and to whom would he be making atonement? And why would God offer an animal to the erring pair rather than the other way around?
    – user10231
    Commented May 27, 2016 at 11:14
  • There is of course an implicit mention of killing an animal - what do you think God took the fur from? God did not offer an animal to the erring pair. Rather, He accepted the same offering He killed in the pair's place. (If they were made righteous through belief is an altogether different matter - although I content they were). Remember, when Jesus was offered as the ultimate sacrifce, that was also only God's act. No person wanted to kill him for a sin offering - His diseples would even disperse. Commented May 28, 2016 at 4:54
  • How could God kill the couple within the very short time remaining on Day Six, when taking the word 'day' to mean a literal, 24-hour Earth day, when God had commanded them before they sinned to fill the Earth? They were to procreate (in order to subdue the Earth, for one.) And having one child would not do that. Years were required to accord with God's mandate, indicating another meaning to 'day' than just our evening and morning day-span, surely?
    – Anne
    Commented Nov 19, 2023 at 9:02

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