Dying You Shall Die: The meaning of Genesis 2:17
When I was a district pastor, one of the more interesting elements in my work was fielding questions about a word or phrase from the original biblical languages. Like first year Hebrew students, members have unparalleled access to Internet and software resources that enable them to know enough to ask interesting questions about translation and interpretation.
Consider a classic example in the final phrase in Genesis 2:17: “ ‘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’ ” (emphasis added).1 The Hebrew text uses an idiomatic construction literally translated “dying you shall die.” Members and students figure out such literal translations, and come running to the pastor with questions. Some have asked me if this phrase indicates that Adam and Eve began dying that very day, even though they did not finish dying the same day. Others wonder if this might be a descriptive warning akin to a parent telling a child, “If you touch the fire, you will get burned.” Still others suspect it should be understood as a divine announcement disclosing an enforceable penalty.
Hebrew grammars inform us that this construction intensifies a sense of certainty.2 While the concept of certainty appears to weaken reading the text as “they began dying,” it does not, in itself, help us determine which of the other two options comprises the best one. How then, should we understand this phrase and why does it matter? Due to the limited scope of this article, I can only explore this question by surveying the biblical uses of this Hebrew idiom.
The biblical data
Variants of the phrase “dying you shall die” occur 49 times in the Old Testament.3 Of these, two are involved in the story of the fall of man—one in Genesis 2:17 and the other in Genesis 3:4.4
Texts in Genesis. This same idiom appears twice more in Genesis. In chapter 20, Abimelech takes Sarah as a wife thinking that she was not married. Before he consummates the relationship, God intervenes to prevent Abimelech from committing a moral blunder. The Lord appears to Abimelech in a dream, announcing a sentence on him, “ ‘You are a dead man’ ” (v. 3)—for unlawfully taking a married woman. Abimelech’s plea of innocence shows he understood himself as standing before a judge on trial. After acknowledging Abimelech’s moral innocence, God warns Abimelech that if he consummates with Sarah anyway, he will certainly die (v. 7). The setting shows clearly a localized instance of an investigative judgment, conducted by God, which closes with the announcement of a death penalty if Abimelech consummates the marriage anyway. The use of the idiomatic phrase in this instance comes through as thoroughly juridical in nature.
A similarity in Genesis 26 indicates how Isaac told a second Abimelech that his wife Rebecca was actually his sister. Then Abimelech discovered they were actually married. Abimelech rebuked Isaac for risking guilt on the king and his people as one of them might have had intercourse with Rebecca. The concept of guilt is not one usually associated with natural consequences. Rather, it indicates a matter of jurisprudence and morals. Additionally, these juridical overtones are reinforced because Abimelech commands that, “ ‘whoever touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death’ ” (v. 11). The announcement of certain death clearly depicts a legal punishment. It seems significant that both of the remaining uses of this idiom in Genesis are in the context of regal warnings, in both cases announcing a juridical penalty with the purpose of deterring illegal behavior. This suggests that the use of the phrase in Genesis 2 and 3 is juridical as well.
Texts in the remainder of the Pentateuch. In the remainder of the Pentateuch, variations of “dying you shall die” occur 26 times. In 23 cases, the writers use this phrase to state the penalty for various crimes including murder, Sabbath breaking, bestiality, and blasphemy.5 In each text, God is announcing criminal or civil laws with their penalties. Additionally, these capital penalties are interspersed among other laws with lesser punishments. It seems unquestionable that in these 23 occurrences, “dying you shall die” announces a legal penalty for breaking specific laws. Thus, these 23 texts align well with the two other uses in Genesis just examined. All announce a punishment to be given for breaking a law or command.
Before leaving the Pentateuch, there are two uses of this idiom that are less obviously juridical in nature. The first, in Exodus 19:12, God commands putting barriers on the flank of Mount Sinai and then states that anyone touching the mountain will certainly be put to death. The next verse indicates that the guilty party will be stoned or shot (presumably with an arrow). Stoning and shooting constitute volitional actions by a legal authority to execute punishment on a violator of the law. While this case appears to depict the establishment of a temporary statute and not a permanent civil law, it still carries a death penalty for violation expressed through the same idiom used in Genesis 2:17. As such, this text remains steeped with a strong juridical flavor that matches the 23 uses already cited.
The second text in question, in Leviticus 27:29, reads, “No one devoted [h ¯ erem], who is to be devoted for destruction [haram] from mankind, shall be ransomed; he shall surely be put to death.” Forms of haram are sometimes used to describe God’s orders concerning the conquest of Canaan, and they are devoted to destruction.6 A possible basis for such a decree may be found in Leviticus 18:27, 28 and 20:22–26. Both texts assert that the people groups Israel was driving out of Canaan were being evicted from the land because of their abominable sexual practices. Leviticus 18 and 20 appear to supply a judicial basis for the devoting to destruction in the above texts. Hence, Leviticus 27:29 appears to state that when, in judgment, God devotes someone to destruction, there is no approved way to redeem them from being put to death. Leviticus 27:29 thus seems to reflect a context of judgment and penalty like all the other texts we have examined. The Pentateuch texts demonstrate a single, consistent use of this idiom that the authors used for announcing criminal penalties. Assuming Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, this uniform consistency would imply that Genesis 2:7 should be understood as announcing a legal penalty for eating the forbidden fruit.
Other Old Testament texts. In the rest of the Old Testament, the vast majority of texts using a form of “dying you shall die” are from kings or communities announcing death penalties for specific actions or crimes,7 thus reinforcing the pattern found in the Pentateuch. Of these, 1 Kings 2:37, 42 is most interesting. Solomon summoned Shimei—who had cursed David during Absalom’s rebellion—and issued an individualized edict. Solomon ordered Shimei to stay within the city limits of Jerusalem and then decreed a penalty for going outside them: “ ‘For on the day you go out and cross the brook Kidron, know for certain that you shall die’ ” (emphasis added). This text uses phrases identical to those found in Genesis 2:17. Clearly, Solomon issues a royal decree with an accompanying death penalty for violating it. Furthermore, once Shimei violates the decree, Solomon challenges Shimei, “ ‘Did I not make you swear by the Lord and solemnly warn you, saying, “Know for certain that on the day you go out and go to any place whatever, you shall die”?’ ” (v. 42; emphasis added). Solomon clearly understood “dying you shall die” as a prescribed penalty for violating an oath. Shimei is clearly standing trial. Solomon reminded Shimei of the announced penalty and then had Shimei executed (v. 46). It seems beyond dispute that “dying you shall die” was intended to announce a death penalty for violating the law laid down by King Solomon.
The parallel of this story to Genesis 2 and 3 is striking for both God and Solomon issue kingly commands. Both promise a penalty, framed using the same phrases “in the day” you do X, “you will certainly die.” Both conduct investigations prior to executing sentence, and, in both cases, sentence is announced and executed. The only difference is that for Adam and Eve, the sentence of death appears to be executed in a sacrifice, the skin of which was made into their new clothes (Gen. 3:21). The striking parallel between these two passages makes it exceedingly difficult to defend the position that “dying you shall die” warns of natural consequence and not announcing juridical penalty. Additionally, as Richard Davidson observes, “When God comes to the Garden after Adam and Eve sinned, he initiates an encounter that constitutes nothing less than ‘legal process,’ a ‘trial punishment by God.’ ”8 Davidson’s observation further reinforces the concept that “dying you shall die” is juridical in nature, a penalty for transgression announced to Adam and Eve as part of their stipulations for living in Eden.
The pattern is clear. Outside of Genesis 2 and 3, the variant uses of the “dying you shall die” are overwhelmingly used in the context of announcing penalties for some kind of violation of a command or law. Even the two or three texts that might be less clearly juridical in nature can be argued to fit into the dominant pattern on the basis of reasonably good evidence.9 Furthermore, I find no uses of this idiom describing a natural consequence scenario. Thus, it seems safest to conclude that the uses of this phrase in Genesis 2 and 3 are indeed juridical in nature, matching the pattern of usage established throughout the Old Testament. Why is this important?
Why should the meaning of Genesis 2:17 be important for the pastor? First, being able to give your members thoughtful, evidence-based, substantive answers to biblical questions helps build respect for your ministry. Members tend to be suspicious of methodological gimmicks, but respond more positively to depth of character, knowledge, and spirituality. Solid Bible answers evidence such depth.
Additionally, the pastor should be faithful to the whole biblical text. How one interprets Genesis 2:17 sets the tone of one’s view of divine judgment in the remainder of Scripture. If Genesis 2:17 is not announcing a punishment for violating a command, it implies that God does not actually threaten punishment and hold people accountable to His commandments. This, in turn, calls into question the meaning of the judgment depictions in Daniel and Revelation, as well as the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament authors. Are all these promises of future punishment on the wicked mere metaphors of natural consequences? If we answer Yes, are the teachings of a future paradise with a new heaven and new earth also metaphoric and not to be taken depicting a literal reality? Furthermore, if God threatens judicial punishment through a legal process in a heavenly court when there will be no such process, He would seem to be lying, threatening something He will not actually do.10 God is thus misrepresented as a being whose word cannot be trusted. As pastors, we have a duty to properly represent God. Part of the message we are called to proclaim includes the message of the first angel: “ ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come’ ” (Rev. 14:7). If we misinterpret Genesis 2:17 as merely announcing natural consequences, we set the foundations for misrepresenting the rest of the biblical teaching of judgment and accountability to God.
Finally, to interpret Genesis 2:17 as announcing natural consequences instead of a juridical penalty ignores the overwhelming biblical evidence of how authors used the phrase in question throughout the Old Testament. As such, the natural consequences interpretation seems to establish human arbiters as higher authorities than the text to determine its truthfulness and relevance. Scripture no longer interprets Scripture. How the pastor handles texts like Genesis 2:17 remains vital to maintaining a ministry faithful to the authority of Scripture and that properly disciples the church members in their walk with God.
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- All Scripture passages in English are from the English Standard Version.
- Bruce Waltke and M. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 584–586; Gary D. Pratico and Miles Van Pelt, Basics of Biblical Hebrew, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 253, 254.
- Some occur with the second person form (you shall surely die), two occur with a first person form (I/we will surely die), and the majority occur with the third person (he/they shall surely die). The third masculine singular forms in the Pentateuch, Judges, and Ezekiel all are in the hophal stem (he shall certainly be made to die), literalistically expressing the involuntary nature of the death. There are a small handful of third masculine singular forms using the qal stem (he shall certainly die) used in other books. All first and second person forms use the qal stem. In surveying the use of this phrase in each text, I see no evidence that the use of the hophal stem indicates any significant difference in nuance from the qal stem usage.
- Interestingly, when Eve repeats the command, she rephrases the language to “lest you die.” A cursory look at this verse seems to add no real evidence to help solve the problem of whether the base phrase is a juridical warning of penalty, or a descriptive enumeration of natural consequences.
- Exod. 21:12,15–17 (death penalty for various crimes); Exod. 22:18 (death penalty for bestiality); Exod. 31:14, 15 (death penalty for profaning or working on Sabbath)–see also Num. 15:35 (man gathers sticks on Sabbath to certainly die); Lev. 20:2, 9–13, 15, 16, 27 (death penalty for various crimes, generally sexual); Lev. 24:16, 17 (death penalties for blaspheming God and killing a man); Num. 26:65 (the wilderness generation will certainly die except Caleb and Joshua as punishment for lack of faith); and Num. 35:16–18, 21, 31 (the murderer shall certainly die).
- For some examples, see Deut.7:1, 2; Josh. 6:17, 18, 21; 7:1, 11–13, 15.
- For communal announcements of a death penalty using this idiom, see Judg. 21:5; Jer. 26:8. For various kingly announcements of a death penalty for a given action, see 1 Sam. 14:39, 44; 1 Sam. 22:16; 2 Sam. 12:14; 2 Sam. 14:14; 1 Kings 2:37, 42. God announces death penalties through prophets in 2 Kings 1:4, 6, 16 (a judgment on Ahaziah for inquiring of Baalzebub concerning his sickness); 2 Kings 8:10 (Elisha assures Hazael that Benhadad will live and recover from his sickness. Then he says Benhadad will certainly die at the hand of the Hazael. Judgment seems implied but is not as clear as other references); and through Ezekiel (3:18; 18:13; 33:8, 14). All these (with the possible exception of 2 Kings 8:10) clearly use forms of the phrase “dying you/he shall die” to announce juridical penalties.
- Richard M. Davidson. Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 58, 59. Footnote 16 on page 59 has an extensive list of scholars advocating the view that Genesis 3 contains a judicial trial conducted by God.
- I have not discussed Judges 13:22, where “Manoah said to his wife, ‘We shall surely die, for we have seen God.’ ” This is unusual in that it is in the first person plural, a self-pronouncement, which would not seem to be fully analogous with the examples we have seen in which an authority figure is announcing a penalty to someone else. On the other hand, this seems to be a dir ect allusion to Exodus 33:20 where God told Moses that no one can see His face and live. The context of Exodus 33 is God’s judgment on the people for worshiping the golden calf, so even here Manoah’s pronouncement may have juridical overtones.
- Disbelieving that God will actually follow through with punishment appears to have been a regular problem in ancient Israel. This is especially evident in Jeremiah 7; 27; 28; Ezekiel 12; 13; and Amos 7; 8.