The Serpent Was Right

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.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This entry was posted in Book of Genesis, Eve, Serpent and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Serpent Was Right

  1. Bill says:

    >Dr. Mariottini, there is yet another option. With a tripartite view of Adam's being, we might conclude that his spirit is what died that day, although his body and soul lived on.So when Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born from above, it is that third part of man which has been missing since the Garden, which He is wanting to restore.

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  2. Nick says:

    >The Church teaches that God gave the gift of immortality to man. In light of this, I believe man was born immortal, free from suffering and death; he lived in paradise, an earthly paradise, after all. I also interpret Genesis in light of Jesus Christ; the Tree of Life is the fruit of the New Jersalem, the same symbol for the same gift of immortality, which God would give to Adam, not only increasing, as it were, his own immortality but giving him true immortality – which was lost in his fall but which the New Adam obtained for us by His sorrowful death; moreover, the death of Adam is twofold, for it is, on one hand, immediate and true death, the soul's death, and, on the other hand, the seed of what we consider to be death, the seperation of the soul and the body, i.e., Adam became a mortal man. But just as death came into the world through one man, so through another Man life was restored.

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  3. >Bill,The tripartite view of human beings does not reflect Old Testament teaching. This view is yet again another aspect of "death before death"," a view I rejected in the post.Claude Mariottini

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  4. >Nick,Genesis 3:22 clearly teaches that man would obtain immortality by eating of the fruit of the tree. Death entered the world because Adam disobeyed God: he ate the fruit he was not supposed to eat.Claude Mariottini

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  5. Nate says:

    >This topic reminds me of something I read in The Legend of the Jews by Louis Ginzberg. There, he describes Adam's days as set for 1,000 years, equal to one day of God. God, when asked by the Angels why he still lived, said he meant one of His days when issuing his decree. On why Adam lived only to be 930, it's because he granted 70 of his years to King David.–Quote–The perfections of Adam's soul showed themselves as soon as he received her, indeed, while he was still without life. In the hour that intervened between breathing a soul into the first man and his becoming alive, God revealed the whole history of mankind to him. He showed him each generation and its leaders; each generation and its prophets; each generation and its teachers; each generation and its scholars; each generation and its statesmen; each generation and its judges; each generation and its pious members; each generation and its average, commonplace members; and each generation and its impious members. The tale of their years, the number of their days, the reckoning of their hours, and the measure of their steps, all were made known unto him.Of his own free will Adam relinquished seventy of his allotted years. His appointed span was to be a thousand years, one of the Lord's days. But he saw that only a single minute of life was apportioned to the great soul of David, and he made a gift of seventy years to her, reducing his own years to nine hundred and thirty.'—end quote—It seems the granting of infinite knowledge to God's servants of subsequent history is a typical act of God in much Jewish/Christian unofficial apocrypha and legends, and it often makes me wonder if Jesus' cryptic statement in John 8:56 refers to some similar tradition.

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  6. Nate says:

    >Here is part of the passages relating to the punishment (and the entry of death into the world):Yet she could not bring herself to disobey the command of God utterly. She made a compromise with her conscience. First she ate only the outside skin of the fruit, and then, seeing that death did not fell her, she ate the fruit itself. Scarce had she finished, when she saw the Angel of Death before her. Expecting her end to come immediately, she resolved to make Adam eat of the forbidden fruit, too, lest he espouse another wife after her death. It required tears and lamentations on her part to prevail upon Adam to take the baleful step. Not yet satisfied, she gave of the fruit to all other living beings, that they, too, might be subject to death. All ate, and they all are mortal, with the exception of the bird malham, who refused the fruit, with the words: "Is it not enough that ye have sinned against God, and have brought death to others? Must ye still come to me and seek to persuade me into disobeying God's command, that I may eat and die thereof? I will not do your bidding." A heavenly voice was heard then to say to Adam and Eve: "To you was the command given. Ye did not heed it; ye did transgress it, and ye did seek to persuade the bird malham. He was steadfast, and he feared Me, although I gave him no command. Therefore he shall never taste of death, neither he nor his descendants–they all shall live forever in Paradise."… THE PUNISHMENTAs long as Adam stood naked, casting about for means of escape from his embarrassment, God did not appear unto him, for one should not "strive to see a man in the hour of his disgrace." He waited until Adam and Eve had covered themselves with fig leaves. But even before God spoke to him, Adam knew what was impending. He heard the angels announce, "God betaketh Himself unto those that dwell in Paradise." He heard more, too. He heard what the angels were saying to one another about his fall, and what they were saying to God. In astonishment the angels exclaimed: "What! He still walks about in Paradise? He is not yet dead?" Whereupon God: "I said to him, 'In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die!' Now, ye know not what manner of day I meant–one of My days of a thousand years, or one of your days. I will give him one of My days. He shall have nine hundred and thirty years to live, and seventy to leave to his descendants."When Adam and Eve heard God approaching, they hid among the trees–which would not have been possible before the fall. Before he committed his trespass, Adam's height was from the heavens to the earth, but afterward it was reduced to one hundred ells. Another consequence of his sin was the fear Adam felt when he heard the voice of God: before his fall it had not disquieted him in the least. Hence it was that when Adam said, "I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid," God replied, "Aforetime thou wert not afraid, and now thou art afraid?"

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  7. >Nate,Thank you for this information. I had never seen it before.Claude Mariottini

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  8. Bill says:

    >I was speaking ontologically, which seems a reasonable next step if the original writer and audience truly left the point unexplained. That said, I do see your point. Thanks for responding.

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  9. Nate says:

    >I found it interesting too when I discovered it. Some of the stories are truly bizare, others just interesting anectodes. But I remember hearing some of them in Hebrew School growing up, with no distinction between whether they appeared in the Scriptures or whether they were from secondary sources like a Mishnah or the Talmud.(For instance, when I began reading Genesis as an adult I was surprised to find the story of Terah as an idol-maker was not part of the biblical narrative.)

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