HARD SAYINGS OF THE BIBLE
By Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce and Manfred T. Brauch
OLD TESTAMENT SAYINGS
Why Didn't Adam and Eve Die at Once? (Gen 2:17)
WHY DID NOT ADAM AND EVE DROP DEAD THE SAME DAY that they disobeyed God and ate of the forbidden fruit? Adam lived to be 930 years old according to Genesis 5:5. Was Satan's word in Genesis 3:4--"You will not surely die"--a more accurate assessment of the real state of affairs than what God had said in Genesis 2:17--"When you eat of it you will surely die"? Is Satan more scrupulously honest than God himself?
This hard saying calls for an examination of at least three different concepts embraced within the quotation from Genesis 2:17--(1) the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; (2) the meaning of the phrase "when [more literally, in the day] you eat of it"; and (3) the meaning of the phrase "you will surely die."
First the tree. There are no grounds whatsoever for believing that the tree was a magical symbol or that it contained a secret enzyme which would automatically induce a wide body of knowledge that embraced the whole gamut of good and evil. Instead it is safer to assume that the tree functioned much as the New Testament ordinance or sacrament of the Lord's Supper or Eucharist does. The tree was a symbol embodied in an actual tree, just as the bread and wine of the Eucharist are symbols embodied in real bread and wine. In a similar way the tree of life was also a real tree, yet it symbolized the fact that life was a special gift given to individuals from God. That is also why participants are warned not to partake of the elements of the Lord's Supper in an unworthy manner, for when the elements are eaten and drunk in a flippant manner and when a person has not truly confessed Christ as Savior, the unworthy partaking of these rather ordinary elements (ordinary at least from all outward appearances) will cause illness and, in some cases, death (1 Cor 11:30).
In the same way, the tree was a symbol to test the first human couple's actions. Would they obey God or would they assert their own wills in opposition to God's clear command? To argue that the tree had magical power to confer knowledge of good and evil would be to miss the divine point: the tree was a test of the couple's intention to obey God. That men and women can attain the knowledge of good and evil is not in itself either undesirable or blameworthy; knowledge per se was not what was being forbidden here. The tree only represents the possibility that creatures made in God's image could refuse to obey him. The tree served as the concrete expression of that rebellion.
It is just as naive to insist that the phrase "in the day" means that on that very day death would occur. A little knowledge of the Hebrew idiom will relieve the tension here as well. For example, in 1 Kings 2:37 King Solomon warned a seditious Shimei, "The day you leave [Jerusalem] and cross the Kidron Valley [which is immediately outside the city walls on the east side of the city], you can be sure you will die." Neither the 1 Kings nor the Genesis text implies immediacy of action on that very same day; instead they point to the certainty of the predicted consequence that would be set in motion by the act initiated on that day. Alternate wordings include at the time when, at that time, now when and the day [when] (see Gen 5:1; Ex 6:28; 10:28; 32:34).
The final concern is over the definition of death. Scripture refers to three different types of death. Often only the context helps distinguish which is intended. There are physical death, spiritual death (the kind that forces guilty persons to hide from the presence of God, as this couple did when it was time for fellowship in the Garden, Gen 3:8) and the "second death" (to which Rev 20:14 refers, when a person is finally, totally and eternally separated from God without hope of reversal, after a lifetime of rejecting God).
In this case, spiritual death was the immediate outcome of disobedience demonstrated by a deliberate snatching of real fruit from a real tree in a real garden. Death ensued immediately: They became "dead in . . . transgressions and sins" (Eph 2:1). But such separation and isolation from God eventually resulted in physical death as well. This, however, was more a byproduct than a direct result of their sin. Spiritual death was the real killer!
See also comment on ROMANS 5:12.
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