Published: 1 March 2021

Dying You Shall Die

God gave Adam and Eve all the trees of the garden to eat from except for one. He told them they must not eat from one particular tree:

“16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 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.”” (Gen. 2:16–17 ESV)

Of course, they did eat from the forbidden tree, but they did not die the day they ate from it. What’s going on here? Why didn’t they die on the day they ate? Did God say one thing and mean another? If God meant what He said, why did He let them off the hook? Wasn’t God’s penalty for eating from this tree capital punishment? 

There are three common interpretations that attempt to reconcile what God said would happen with what actually transpired. 

  1. Adam and Eve died immediately in the sense that they lost their immortality.
  2. Adam and Eve began the process of aging and dying.
  3. Adam and Eve died spiritually. 

I propose that none of these three explanations are correct and that God did indeed mean that He would enact judgement in the form of death on the very day they ate.

Dying you shall die

The Hebrew phrase translated into English as “surely die” sounds really strange to non-Hebrew ears. The literal translation is, “dying you shall die.” According to Hebrew grammars this phrase is a Hebrew idiom meant to express certainty by repeating the word. 

The same kind of expression is used in verse 16 when God said “you may surely eat of every tree.”  Again, translated literally, the Hebrew says eating you shall eat. Just as it was positively okay for them to eat from all the other trees, God expresses with certitude that to eat from the tree of knowledge was a guaranteed death penalty.

No wonder they were afraid when they heard the sound of God walking in the garden (Gen 3:8-10). They thought God was coming to kill them! The text isn’t pronouncing a “spiritual death” or a loss of immortality (they were already mortal).

“Dying you shall die” (Hebrew: mut tamut, ‎מוֹת תָּמוּת) is used many times in the OT and is always used to express death as the penalty for some violation. For example:

Now therefore, restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die [mut tamut], you and all who are yours.” (Gen. 20:7 NKJV)

For it shall be, on the day you go out and cross the Brook Kidron, know for certain you shall surely die [mut tamut]; your blood shall be on your own head.” (1 Kings 2:37 NKJV)

Now therefore, thus says the LORD: “You shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die.’ [mut tamut] ” So Elijah departed. (2 Kings 1:4 NKJV)

Swift judgement is in view

The NET Bible translator’s notes says this means “in the very day, as soon as.”[1]W. Hall Harris, eds. The NET Bible Notes. 1st, Accordance electronic ed. (Richardson: Biblical Studies Press, 2005), paragraph 345. The idea is not that you’ll begin to die on the day that you eat, but that you will die on the very day you eat.

There may be another hint in this verse that God conveyed swift judgement for disobedience. A form of the Hebrew word min is used twice in verse 17. The word min is often translated from, of, thereof, etc. 

but you must not eat from [min] the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from [min] it, you will certainly die. (Gen. 2:17 CSB)

The word has a number of meanings according to The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), but two of them have interesting implications to this passage. 

HALOT notes that when min is used to denote physical proximity (local context) it means “away from,” “out of,” “where,” etc. However, when min is used in relation to time or elapsed time (temporal context) it means “since,” “immediately after,” “after,” etc.[2]Koehler, Ludwig, Walter Baumgartner, and M. E. J. Richardson, eds. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Accordance electronic ed., version 3.6. Leiden: Brill, 2000.

The first use of min references the tree, but the second occurance is connected to “the day” – temporal. With this in mind, the verse could be translated this way: 

“But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat, immediately after you will certainly die”

This sense is present in popular English Bibles (e.g. on the day you eat…), but we get so hung up on the fact that they didn’t die that day that we start looking for a means of explaining away what the text plainly says. It is interesting that at least three Bible translations leave no wiggle room in this regard:

…If you eat any fruit from that tree, you will die before the day is over!” (Gen. 2:17 CEV)

…You must not eat the fruit of that tree; if you do, you will die the same day. (Gen. 2:17 GNT)

…because you will certainly die during the day that you eat from it. (Gen. 2:17 ISV)

No wonder they were afraid when they heard the sound of God walking in the garden (Gen 3:8-10). They thought God was coming to kill them! The text isn’t pronouncing a “spiritual death” or a loss of immortality (they were already mortal).

What is spiritual death?

The idea of a “spiritual death” is not mentioned nor hinted at in the text of Genesis chapter 3. As far as I know, there is nowhere else in the Bible which states this either. What does “spiritual death” even mean? Does the Bible ever specifically mention it or define it? The Bible has a lot to say about spiritual things:

  • Spiritual gifts (Rom 1:11)
  • Spiritual worship (Rom 12:1)
  • Spiritual blessings (Rom 15:27)
  • Spiritual truths (1 Cor 2:13)
  • Spiritual people (1 Cor 2:15)
  • Spiritual things (1 Cor 9:11)
  • Spiritual food (1 Cor 10:3)
  • Spiritual drink (1 Cor 10:4)
  • Spiritual bodies (1 Cor 15:44)
  • Spiritual songs (Eph 5:19)
  • Spiritual forces of evil (Eph 6:12)
  • Spiritual wisdom (Col 1:9)
  • Spiritual milk (1 Pet 2:2)
  • Spiritual sacrifices (1 Pet 2:5)

However, the Bible is silent in reference to spiritual death. Of course, even though the exact words aren’t in the Bible the concept could still be present, but where is it? Many people define spiritual death as separation from God. It’s stated so often by so many it must be true, right? The important question is, “Where does the Bible say this?” 

One popular passage that is confused with spiritual death is:

“1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—” (Eph. 2:1–2 ESV)

Have you ever heard it said “he is a dead man” when referring to someone who will soon die? What about a condemned prisoner on death row who is referred to as a “dead man walking?” The reference in both cases is to a man who is alive, but is on a trajectory toward death. That is what this passage is communicating. Theilman’s comments about this passage are helpful:

“[H]e describes their death in sin as a living death: they walked around in their sins.”[3]Thielman, Frank. Ephesians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) (Kindle Location 3535). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

Theilman goes on to give some ancient background.

“The adjective νεκρός (nekros, dead) was sometimes used metaphorically in Greek literature and philosophy to refer to those who were “morally or spiritually deficient” (BDAG 667; cf. Bultmann, TDNT 4: 893). Epictetus (Arrian, Epict. diss. 3.23.28) says, for example, that unless the philosopher makes clear to those who would study with him their ignorant and unhappy state, then both the philosopher and the one to whom he appeals is νεκρός (cf. Luke 15: 24, 32). Jesus could use the term to refer to those who did not follow him (Matt. 8: 22; Luke 9: 60),[ 5] and he could call the movement from unbelief to belief in him a change from death to life (John 5: 24).[ 6] The early Christian hymn Paul quotes in Eph. 5: 14 also used the term this way.”[4]Ibid., Kindle Locations 3559-3565. 

Living a morally deficient life indicates where they are headed, so their future state is spoken of as if it is a present reality. What this passage is communicating is that people who live in sin are “dead already” because ultimate death is their penalty if they don’t turn to God. 

It is also claimed that people are born spiritually dead. However, the Bible indicates just the opposite:

I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. (Rom. 7:9 ESV)

Clearly, we are alive until we begin to walk in sin at which point our fate is eternal death unless we repent. 

In the passages where the concept of spiritual death is assumed, there are other explanations that are more exegetically sound. This idea of spiritual death is based more on assumption and conjecture than on book, chapter and verse.

“Spiritual death” is an idea projected into the text in an attempt to grapple with the fact that Adam and Eve didn’t physically die the day they ate the fruit. God said they would die, but they didn’t physically perish so we look for some other kind of death to explain the story even though there is a biblically sound and simple explanation.

Why didn’t Adam and Eve die?

The fact that God didn’t take their lives in judgement for their disobedience is the first instance of undeserved mercy and loving-kindness (grace) we read about in the Bible. God’s mercy in this situation is explained by:

14 And if I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die [mut tamut],’ but they then turn away from their sin and do what is just and right– 15 if they give back what they took in pledge for a loan, return what they have stolen, follow the decrees that give life, and do no evil– that person will surely live; they will not die. 16 None of the sins that person has committed will be remembered against them. They have done what is just and right; they will surely live. (Ezek. 33:14-16 NIV)

“Surely die” is the same phrase found in Gen 2:17 – “dying you shall die.” God says that even though He has made this pronouncement to a wicked person, He will relent if there is repentance. They will surely live (yep, you guessed it): living you shall live.

Based upon this, I suggest that Adam and Eve felt remorse and desired to repent. The animals that were killed to clothe them probably represented the first sacrifice that covered sin. The penalty demanded death, but God allowed an animal to die in their place to illustrate graphically to Adam and Eve the consequences of their sin and the death that came with it. God’s grace allowed them to escape their death penalty. 

Dying of old age was not their punishment per se; it was a consequence of no longer having access to the Tree of Life. 

References

References
1 W. Hall Harris, eds. The NET Bible Notes. 1st, Accordance electronic ed. (Richardson: Biblical Studies Press, 2005), paragraph 345.
2 Koehler, Ludwig, Walter Baumgartner, and M. E. J. Richardson, eds. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Accordance electronic ed., version 3.6. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
3 Thielman, Frank. Ephesians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) (Kindle Location 3535). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
4 Ibid., Kindle Locations 3559-3565.