Genesis 5:5 says that Adam lived nine hundred thirty years and then he died. The longevity of the patriarchs has been a matter of debate. The many different interpretations about the age of the patriarchs demonstrate that scholars have not yet found a good explanation for the longevity of the antediluvian population.
The statement that Adam died at the ripe old-age of nine hundred thirty years is surprising in light of God’s words to Adam in Genesis 2:17.
After God made man and placed him in the garden of Eden, God gave Adam the following command: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 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 die” (Genesis 2:16-17).
When Adam told Eve of God’s prohibition, he probably also told her that they were forbidden even to touch the fruit of the tree, for when the serpent enticed Eve to eat of the fruit of the tree, Eve said to the serpent: “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die’” (Genesis 3:3).
In response to Eve’s reluctance to eat of the fruit, the serpent said to the woman: “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5).
The serpent was right. The serpent did not lie, for everything the serpent said to Eve happened. This is what happened:
1. Eve touched the fruit (Genesis 3:6) and nothing happened.
2. Eve ate the fruit and gave it to Adam who was by her side (Genesis 3:6) and neither of them died.
3. Adam and Eve became like God, knowing good and evil. God himself said that, after Adam and Eve ate of the tree: “Then the LORD God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil’” (Genesis 3:22).
If the serpent was right and Adam and Eve did not die when they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, what then did God mean when he told Adam that “in the day that you eat of it you shall die?”
The Hebrew construction of the verb in Genesis 2:17 includes two forms of the verb מות (to die): the infinitive absolute and the imperfect. In Hebrew, the infinitive absolute emphasizes an action when it immediately precedes the finite verb.
Gesenius, in his Hebrew Grammar (113n) wrote:
“The infinitive absolute used before the verb to strengthen the verbal idea, I. e. to emphasize in this way either the certainty (especially in the case to threats) or the forcibleness and completeness of an occurrence.” He translates môth tāmûth (מ֥וֹת תָּמֽוּת) thou shalt surely die.
Thus, the full implication of God’s threat to Adam is clear: Adam must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for the moment he would eat from it he would die. But Adam ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and he did not die. So, how must one understand God’s prohibition in Genesis 2:17?
One way to interpret the divine prohibition is to say that since one day with God is like a thousand years (2 Peter 3:8), then Adam died before “the Lord’s day” was over.
Another way of interpreting the prohibition is by taking the infinitive form of the verb and translating it as a verbal noun: “dying you shall die.” Thus, God’s threat means that if Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil then, he would eventually die. The Septuagint translates 2:17 as “you shall die by death.”
Another interpretation is that if Adam disobeyed God’s command, he would become mortal. However, this interpretation contradicts Genesis because the book seems to imply that humans were already mortal. The book of Genesis says that man would only live forever after eating from the tree of life: “Then the LORD God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’” (Genesis 3:22).
In his commentary on Genesis 1-11 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 224, Claus Westermann cites Th. C. Vriezen’s study of the expression “in the day” (Genesis 2:17) to explain that death would not occur the day Adam violated the command. According to Vriezen, the expression “in the day” has a general meaning in the Old Testament and that the expression must not be understood literally, inferring that death would occur immediately after the transgression.
According to Westermann, God’s words to Adam, “in the day that you eat of it you shall die,” “is not a threat of death, but rather the clear expression of the limit which is the necessary accompaniment of the freedom entrusted to humanity in the command. To say no to God–and this is what freedom allows–is ultimately to say no to life; for life comes from God” (p. 224).
I believe that the divine threat should be taken literally, that Adam and Eve should have died on the day they violated the prohibition not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
I disagree with Gordon J. Wenham’s interpretation of this threat as “death before death,” an interpretation that appears in his commentary on Genesis, Word Bible Commentary (Waco: Word Books, Publisher, 1987), p. 74. He wrote: “If to be expelled from the camp of Israel [as lepers were] was to ‘die,’ expulsion from the garden was an even more drastic kind of death. In this sense they did die on the day they ate of the tree: they were no longer able to have daily conversation with God, enjoy his bounteous provision, and eat of the tree of life; instead they had to toil for food, suffer, and eventually return to the dust from which they were taken.”
The reason the divine threat was not fulfilled was because the grace of God intervened and the penalty was not carried out. Probably the best commentary on this verse is found in 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his word, as he seems to some, but he is waiting in mercy for you, not desiring the destruction of any, but that all may be turned from their evil ways.”
This was the same position taken by John Skinner in his commentary on Genesis: The International Critical Commentary (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), p. 67. According to Skinner, the simple explanation why the punishment was not carried out “is that God, having regard to the circumstances of the temptation, changed His purpose and modified the penalty.”
Westermann also intimates a change in God’s decision to carry out the punishment. He wrote: “After the man and the woman have eaten from the tree, a new situation arises in which God acts differently from the way he had indicated.” God’s failure to carry out the punishment “shows that God’s dealing with his creatures cannot be pinned down, not even by what God has said previously” (p. 225).
Westermann concludes his study of Genesis 2:17 by saying: “And so even God’s acts and words are open to misinterpretation and the serpent makes use of this.” I believe it was Westermann who misinterpreted God’s word to Adam when he said that the words in Genesis 2;17 are not a threat but only a warning.
I do not think the serpent misunderstood God. The serpent knew that Eve would not die because it knew the true nature of God, that he was a compassionate God who is gracious to whom he wants to be gracious and who shows mercy on whom he wants to show mercy (Exodus 33:19).
As the Lord said to Moses at the time he had decided to consume Israel because of their great sin (Exodus 32:10): “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).
So, when it comes to understanding God’s acts and words, Westermann was wrong and the serpent was right.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary