Didn’t God say that Adam would die the day he ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Yet, Adam didn’t die that day, nor anytime soon after that. Genesis 5 tells us he lived to be 930 years old and had many sons and daughters.
So, what happened? Did God make a false prophesy? Did He make a mistake or change His mind?
Or, perhaps, the entire account is fallible and should not be taken as actual history.
The above objections are based on several passages in Genesis. In chapter 2, we read,
Gen. 2:15 Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. 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.”
The confusion comes from two aspects of this warning to Adam. He is told by God that, “in the day” he eats of the tree of knowledge, he will “surely die.” But, as most know, Adam did not die that day. In fact, he lived 930 years, which is longer than the vast majority of his descendants. A range of explanations and interpretations have arisen to explain this.
Literal Day Vs. Figurative Day
Some have offered this passage is merely using day in the sense of a long period of time, misapplying the well known passage, “…with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.“—2Pet. 3:8 (also see Psalm 90:4). This would solve the problem, as Adam did not quite live for 1000 years. If day here, means 1000 years, then he definitely died within that day. And, it is true that the phrase “in the day” can convey the idea of “at the time,” or “when,” in certain contexts, such as in Gen. 2:4. The problem is, there is no contextual justification for understanding this phrase in this way. And, as I’ll show, there is no need for it to resolve this issue.
Spiritual Death Vs. Physical Death
Others have offered that the day was indeed a literal 24 hour day, and that Adam did die that very day…..just not physically. He, instead, died spiritually in the sense that he was separated from his normal communion with God. Paul said,
Rom. 7:9 I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died.
Clearly, he was not speaking here of physical death but, rather, a separation from God that resulted from sin. And, clearly, this is what happened to Adam when he sinned. His eyes were opened and God banished him from the Tree of Life and Adam lost the close relationship he once had with God. Adam and Eve would never return to the Garden and remained in a state of separation the rest of their lives. But is this what God’s warning was about?
The problem, of course, is the curse that God laid down in response to Adam’s sin.
Gen. 3:19 In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.”
Adam was now destined for death and decay. The food which tempted him, would now be a struggle to grow, and other hardships entered into the world, but eventually he was to die and be reunited with the elements he was made from. This was true for Adam as well as his descendants. Paul said,
Rom. 5:12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned—…..14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.
Now I certainly believe spiritual death happened in the Garden. There’s no question Adam was separated from his God. The normal communion he and his descendants were to enjoy was gone.
But I don’t believe this was the focus of God’s warning, in fact, I don’t think it was part of the warning at all. God was warning Adam of physical death, just as it was laid out in the curse, and just as it has happened to Adam and all his descendants throughout history.
So the original questions still remains. Why didn’t physical death happen immediately?
Dying you shall die…
There is a very common Hebrew idiomatic expression found all over the Old Testament, in which a verbal noun is combined with a verb to create an emphatic expression. In English, if translated in a wooden literal sense, it could be rendered, knowing know, or eating eat, or dying die. Specifically, this is a combination of the Hebrew infinitive absolute (a verbal noun), with the imperfect (a verb). In English, this doesn’t make much sense, but to the ancient Hebrew ear, it conveyed the idea of certainty—you will certainly know, you will certainly eat, you will certainly die.
We see this in Gen. 2:16 when God tells Adam he is free to eat of every tree in the Garden. Literally, it reads, “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “from every tree of the garden, eating you shall eat.“” In other words, it was certain Adam would have access to all the trees of the garden (except one). He would not be denied. He was free to eat freely.
The very next verse contains our sentence in question. Literally, “And from the tree of knowledge of good and evil you must not eat, because in the day you eat from it, dying, you shall die.” Young’s Literal Translation has a similar rendering.
Genesis 2:17 and of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou dost not eat of it, for in the day of thine eating of it — dying thou dost die.’ (emphasis mine)
In this passage, we see the Hebrew beyom (in the day) along with with the idiomatic expression, mot tamut (dying you shall die). To compensate for this idiom, most English translations add words like certainly or surely to the passage—”in the day you eat…you will surely die.”
But does this mean that Adam was to die the day he ate? Actually, no. The combining of the infinite absolute and imperfect indicates certainty, but not necessarily immediacy. Jonathan Sarfati explains,
The solution lies in the Hebrew, which uses forms of the same verb ‘to die’ (mût (מות)), together: môt’tāmût (מות תמות). It literally means ‘dying you shall die’, but the sense is the certainty, hence the translation ‘you shall surely die.’ Kulikovsky explains:
When the infinitive absolute precedes a finite verb of the same stem (as is the case here), it strengthens or intensifies the verbal idea by emphasizing “either the certainty (especially in the case of threats) or the forcibleness and completeness of an occurrence.” In other words, the emphasis is on the certainty of their death rather than its precise timing or chronology.1
God was not telling Adam that, if he rebelled and ate from the tree of knowledge, his death would happen immediately on that day. It, rather, became a certainty on that day. In a modern vernacular we might say, “Don’t eat of that tree. For the day you do, you’re a dead man.” The expression, “you’re a dead man” or “you’re dead!” is modern idiom indicating that someone is destined to die. He’s not yet dead, but his fate is sealed. It’s become a certainty.
Shimei and Solomon
To further illustrate this, let’s take a look at another passage using some of the same phrases found in Genesis 2:17. In 1Kings we see not only mot tamut (dying you shall die), but also beyom (in the day). Solomon had confined Shemei to Jerusalem with a stern warning.
1Kings 2:36 Then the king sent and called for Shimei, and said to him, “Build yourself a house in Jerusalem and dwell there, and do not go out from there anywhere. 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.” (emphasis mine)
The idiom actually occurs twice, here, for two different verbs—to know and to die. Literally, “And it shall be that in the day you go out and cross the Brook Kidron, knowing you shall know that dying you shall die.” To the modern ear, this verse would appear to say that Shimei was going to be killed the very day he crossed the Kidron Brook, but as you read the rest of the story, this is not what happened. Shimei did, indeed, cross that brook and he did die, but it didn’t happened the day he crossed. In fact, it likely happened several days later. Per Eric Lyons (Apologetics Press),
For example, King Solomon once warned a subversive Shimei: “For it shall be, on the day (bªyôm) you go out and cross the Brook Kidron, know for certain you shall surely die; your blood shall be on your own head” (1 Kings 2:37, emp. added). As the next few verses indicate, Shimei could not have been executed on the exact day he crossed the Brook Kidron. Solomon did not call for him until after Shimei had saddled his donkey, went to king Achish at Gath, sought and retrieved his slaves, and returned home (approximately a 50-60 mile round trip). It is logical to conclude that this would have taken more than just one day (especially considering a donkey’s average journey was only about 20 miles a day—Cansdale, 1996, p. 38). It was only after Shimei’s return from Gath that King Solomon reminded him of his promise saying, “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?’ ” (1 Kings 2:42, emp. added). Solomon understood that even though he executed Shimei sometime after the day he crossed Brook Kidron, it still was proper to refer to it as occurring “on the day.”2
Clearly, it was not intended that Shimei would die that day but, rather, his fate of execution was sealed on that day. Solomon would have been fully aware that learning of Shimei’s defiance and carrying out the sentence would have taken some time. But, just as with God’s warning in Genesis, there is nothing in the language he used that indicated immediacy. He only indicated, certainty.
It is my view that God’s warning to Adam in Genesis 2:17 should be read literally in every sense. Day means day (24 hour) and die means die (physical death). Once the dying you shall die idiom is understood, there’s no need for figurative alternatives. Adam’s death (and ours), became certain the very day he ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Why did Adam not Die Immediately?
Alden Bass (Apologetics Press)
Why Didn’t Adam and Eve Die the Instant They Ate the Fruit?
Bodie Hodge (Answer in Genesis)
Genesis 2:17—“you shall surely die”
Dr. Terry Mortenson (Answers in Genesis)
1. Jonathan Sarfati, “The Genesis Account: A theological, historical, and scientific commentary on Genesis 1-11” (Creation Book Publishers; First edition, April 1, 2015) p. 319-320.
2. Apologetics Press “Why Didn’t Adam Die Immediately?” (http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=6&article=797)