Why did Adam not die immediately after eating the forbidden fruit, rather than several hundred years later?
And Jehovah commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17, emp. added).
It was the dawn of mankind. Surrounded by all of the wonder and beauty of newly formed perfection, man enjoyed a harmonious relationship with his Father. On the sixth and final day of creation, man had been formed from the dust of the ground—a humble beginning for a being that was to be exalted and given dominion over all the other creatures. So dignified was this creature of dust, that he was given the unequivocal privilege of “walking with God in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8). Jehovah had formed man in His image and after His likeness, and placed him in an earthly paradise; but Eden was not only a place of leisure—there was work to be done. Adam was given the tasks of tending and keeping the garden, and assigning names to the animals. After allowing Adam to see that none from the animal kingdom was suitable to be his companion, Jehovah created woman from Adam’s rib. Man now occupied a most perfect environment, with the perfect mate by his side. Truly, Jehovah had done everything possible to ensure His children’s comfort, and to make their lives full and complete. Adam and Eve were commanded to tend the garden paradise, and to be fruitful and multiply so that the Earth would be filled (Genesis 1:28; 2:15; cf. Isaiah 45:18).
After issuing these initial commands, the Lord delivered a single, solemn prohibition. Adam was permitted to eat of any tree in Eden he desired—save one. In the midst of the garden stood the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—a tree that was strictly forbidden, on penalty of death. The command, though ominous, was not grievous, as Jehovah demonstrated by setting it against a “background of broad permission” (Leupold, 1942, 1:127). One might question why God placed such a peculiar limitation on man, by allowing him to eat of every tree but one. Perhaps the tree was somehow dangerous to His children. Or maybe the fruit of the tree served only as a test—similar to the test Abraham was given in Genesis 22:1-19. Man, fashioned in the image of God, was given the capacity to make moral decisions, but with only “good” surrounding him, what was there to choose? Only after a command was given, could a decision/response be made (cf. Aalders, 1981, p. 92), and the options were only too clear: man could live up to his potential as a creature made in the image of Divinity, or he could, as certain angels had in earlier times, rebel against his Holy Creator and Benefactor (2 Peter 2:4), obeying his own desires instead of sacred fiat. Good—or evil; those were his choices.
This tree, which, as it turned out, would change the course of human history forever, was planted in the midst of the garden near another tree of equal or greater significance—the Tree of Life. Seemingly, these two trees were planted side by side as a reminder to the inhabitants of the garden—as long as Jehovah’s words were heeded, the life-giving tree was readily accessible. It was this promise of ever-renewed life that Adam stood to lose, should he choose to disobey His Creator.
Genesis 3, the chapter that outlines the events that transpired directly after the happenings discussed above, is one of the saddest chapters in the entire Bible—perhaps second only to the heart-rending record of the Lord’s crucifixion. Evil entered paradise in the form of a serpent. John informs us in the Revelation that this serpent actually was Satan, the “deceiver of the whole world” (12:9). And “deceive” is precisely what he proceeded to do. Using a clever mix of persuasive words and partial truths, the devil convinced Eve to partake of the fruit, assuring her that she would “not surely die.” So she ate, and passed it on to Adam, who was as guilty as she. The tree had lived up to its potential. Adam and Eve knew what evil was; they now realized the horrible burden of guilt—the pervasive shame of sin. Remembering the penalty for eating the fruit, the couple ran and hid themselves, in fear of the wrath of God.
Jehovah had pledged death to the transgressor of His law. Satan, however, accused Him of exaggeration, and guaranteed Eve the knowledge of God. Whom would she believe? The fate of the human race was bound up in the decision that Eve faced on that day, and the penalty for that decision likewise affects us all. Paul commented in Romans: “Therefore, as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, so death passed unto all men, for that all sinned” (5:12). Some have suggested that the devil spoke more accurately than God, because man did not actually die on the day he ate the forbidden fruit (see Beatty, as quoted by Hamilton, 1990, 1:172). If this were true, the statement of Paul would be of none effect. If this theory were correct, death would not have passed to all men. However, this old world hardly seems to house a society of immortal humans who possess the promised knowledge of God. The very pains we endure are a result of the fall of man in the garden; of that there can be no doubt. Paul was accurate in his epistle, yet the Genesis text does not reveal the “immediate death” of the first sinners. Death is the penalty for sin, yet Adam lived for hundreds of years after his transgression. Could there possibly be some truth to the devil’s assessment after all?
Two things must be examined in this situation. First, we must consider the words of warning that Jehovah uttered on the day He actually gave Adam access to the trees of the garden. What is the intended definition of “death”? Second, knowing that “the Lord is not slack concerning His promise” (2 Peter 3:9), we can take a retrospective look back at the events that transpired after the fall, to see in what way the promised penalty was executed.
The words of God to Adam were: “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). In an earlier article that appeared in Reason & Revelation on this subject, Garry Brantley addressed the grammatics of this phrase:
[T]he usage of the phrase “you shall surely die” (mot tamut) indicates that a violent, physical death is under consideration. This grammatical construction juxtaposes an infinitive absolute (mot), and the imperfect verb (tamut), which provides the emphatic nuance you will “surely, or indeed” die (Lambdin, 1971, p. 158). While it is true that the word “die” can refer to natural causes or to violent death (Smick, 1980, 1:496), the manner in which the verb is used in this phrase indicates the latter. In fact, this grammatical construction appears several times in the Hebrew Bible, and commonly denotes a physical, violent death (1995, 15:23).
Three Old Testament texts are cited in which this exact wording (“thou shalt surely die”) is used: Genesis 20:7; 1 Samuel 14:44; and 1 Kings 2:37. Each of these passages indicates a physical death. Not only does the grammar itself seem to indicate that a physical death is under discussion, but the text also appears to lack any warrant for interpreting “death” in a purely figurative manner (cf. Brantley, 1995). In the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Smick discussed the word “death” in this context.
The normative OT teaching about death is presented in Gen 3:3, where God warns Adam and Eve that death is the result of rebellion against his commands. Since God’s purpose for our first parents was never ending life, the introduction of death was an undesirable but necessary result of disobedience. The physical corruption of the human body and the consequent suffering and pain brought about by the Fall were only the obvious symptoms of death. Death is the consequence and the punishment of sin (Harris, et al., 1980, 1:497).
When Jehovah issued the penalty for eating the fruit of the tree, He used terms that Adam could comprehend, lest the penalty be of no effect. While it is possible that Adam understood the concept of spiritual death (we do know that creation in the Divine image includes knowledge, righteousness, and holiness [Colossians 3:10; Ephesians 4:24]—cf. Barnes, 1949, 6:127), it seems more likely that Adam better understood physical death. His entire existence had been in the presence of Jehovah, surrounded only by good. It is possible that he had witnessed the extermination of some plant or animal, but the abstract idea of spiritual death surely would have been difficult for him to grasp. Biblical commentator Matthew Henry took some exegetical license, and expanded upon the words “in that day shalt thou surely die,” when he wrote:
Thou shalt become mortal and capable of dying; the grant of immortality shall be recalled, and that defence [sic] shall depart from thee; Thou shalt become obnoxious to death, like a condemned malefactor that is dead in law...nay, the harbingers and forerunners of death shall immediately seize thee and thy life, thenceforward, shall be a dying life: and this, surely; it is a settled rule, the soul that sinneth, it shall die (1706, 1:18).
As these and other authors have noted, God obviously intended a physical death for Adam and Eve. However, this is not to deny a spiritual death. The moment that man chose to follow his own desires—instead of God’s will—he cut himself off from God. Isaiah reminded us that our sin and iniquity have separated us from God (Isaiah 59:1-2), and James taught that death is a separation (James 2:26). Without doubt, man perished spiritually on that day, but equally certain is the fact that God’s punishment for that sin was a physical death.
But was it to be an immediate death, or the beginning of a long process of death? The phrases “surely” and “in that day” are matters of interest. The footnote accompanying Genesis 2:17 in the King James Version gives this alternate reading to “thou shalt surely die”: dying thou shalt die. The double emphasis in the Hebrew of the word “die” (mot), makes the marginal translation the more literal, and, together with the context, indicates the beginning of a process that eventually would terminate in Adam’s death (the immediate result of separation from the tree of life). “In that day” (the phrase that has caused so much confusion over the centuries) does not, of necessity, mean the very day that it happens; rather, it is an indication of the certainty of the command. Notice the comments of the following scholars regarding this difficult phrase:
It is just as naïve 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 predicated 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) [Kaiser, et al., 1996, p. 92, emp. in orig.].
Hamilton, too, in commenting on Genesis 2:17, concluded by stating: “The verse is underscoring the certainty of death, not its chronology” (1990, 1:172).
Scholarly commentary aside, the true meaning of Jehovah’s intended punishment can be discovered in the conclusion of the story itself. Man, shameful of his nakedness and sin, hid himself in the garden. God called out to Adam, who timidly answered. Jehovah questioned Adam and Eve as a loving Father questions his children, trying to elicit a confession of guilt. “What is this thou hast done?” Though both attempted to pass the blame to another, they eventually confessed their sin. Then the sentencing began.
Unto the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy conception; in pain thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” And unto Adam he said, “Because thou hast harkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; in the sweat of they face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return....” Therefore, Jehovah God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from when he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden the Cherubim, and the flame of a sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life (Genesis 3:16-19, 23-24, emp. added).
The consequences of the first sin were many, and its results were far-reaching. Notice this observation by Albert Barnes in his commentary on Romans (5:12, which refers back to the sin and death of Adam, and, antithetically to life in Christ): “The evident meaning is, that the word ‘death,’ as here used by the apostle, refers to the train of evils which have been introduced by sin. It does not mean simply temporal death, condemnation, and exposure to eternal death, which is the consequence of transgression” (1949, 5:127, emp. in orig.). The dust in which Adam toiled (and in which we today still toil), he would become. From that point on, humanity would return to the dust whence it came. And that, in fact, has been our fate ever since. On the day of Adam’s sin, he began to die.
Exile from paradise, separation from the tree of life, the initiation of aging, and a severance from the very presence of God Almighty, were all consequences of our parents’ sin. That sin would have resulted in an eternal death, had it not been for the tender mercies of God. At some point, we all stand in the place of Adam and Eve—guilty of doing the exact opposite of what God has commanded. The inevitable result of our sin is likewise death—spiritual and eternal. Thanks be to God that, although we were dead in our trespasses, we have the opportunity to be made alive through His beloved Son (Ephesians 2:1ff.).
Aalders, G.C. (1981), Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Barnes, Albert (1949), Notes on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Brantley, Garry (1995), “Questions and Answers,” Reason and Revelation, 15:23-24, March.
Hamilton, Victor (1990), The Book of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Harris, R. Laird, Gleason Archer Jr., and Bruce Waltke (1980), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody).
Henry, Matthew (1706), Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (McLean, VA: MacDonald).
Kaiser, Walter Jr., Peter Davids, F.F. Bruce, and Manfred Brauch (1996), Hard Sayings of the Bible, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).
Lambdin, Thomas (1971), Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons).
Leupold, H.C. (1942), Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Smick, Elmer (1980), “mut,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago, IL: Moody Press), 1:496-497.