Dying You Shall Die

A question arises: is the death that follows the eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil a penalty? The language used in the law—he shall surely be put to death, or the like—is not used here. The same emphatic verb doubling is used but the form of the verbs is different. In Genesis, the simple action is recorded. In the detailing of the law in Exodus and Leviticus (ex. Ex. 21:15-17, Lev. 20:10-16), it is the passive causative form. For example, “eat” would be the simple form; the causative would be “cause to eat; feed”; and the passive causative “be fed.” The different translations we have for these phrases—shall surely die (simple), or shall be put to death (passive causative)—do accurately reflect the differences in the Hebrew.

It also isn’t what God does. He does not put them to death. It isn’t even said that the man and woman are cursed. The serpent is cursed. The ground is cursed for man’s sake. The work that they had been given in the world is now made hard, child-bearing is painful, they are cast out of the garden and cut off from the Tree of Life. Even so, the ground doesn’t only bring up thorns and thistles; it also gives the blessings of bread, wine, and oil. Child-bearing is not merely a painful burden, but the hope and salvation of the world—the restoration and reconciliation of all things, and the crushing of the serpent—comes through the seed of the woman. The blessing of God and the command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it are still on them and he provides covering for them—here at last is a physical death. Animals are killed to provide this covering; God makes atonement by the shedding of blood.

When Paul talks of this event in Romans 5, he also doesn’t set it in terms of crime and punishment, but in terms of the contraction and spread of a disease. Sin entered the cosmos by the one man, and death came in through the sin. Death spread to all men, wherefore (ἐφ᾽ ᾧ) all sinned. The fear of death shackles all in bondage, in slavery to sin. This seems to be a rather fundamental principle upon which prison or concentration camps function. The inmates are kept in check, even though they may outnumber the guards 10 to 1. So Sin reigns as master through death, until the Christ comes to set us free—we who are slaves of sin under the fear of death.

Wages of Sin

It is interesting that Paul calls death the wage, the earned payment, of sin, not the penalty. Sin as master pays death as the wage to those who work for it, who serve it. An eye-opening metaphor. We gain death incrementally—what we accrue as we work in, for, and to sin is death. The lusts and wanton, ill-directed desires, which hold out such pictures of enjoyment, happiness, and fulfillment, and toward which we strive and expend our efforts pay death instead. It is truly an astounding bait-and-switch that we fall for over and over. We know it every time we do something we know we shouldn’t do, even when those things are self-imposed thou shalt nots. We do it and the joy and fulfillment that was just before us vanishes and we are left crushed and defeated, loathing our weakness and lack of self-control. Not only does doing the thing point out to us our weakness, it makes us weaker. Next time we have less resistance to the dictates of the master. We hate it, but not enough to change what we do. Slaves we are to Sin and shall be until we kill it, until we die to sin ourselves and live to serve the Righteous One.

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

One fatal tree there stands, of knowledge called,
Forbidden them to taste: Knowledge forbidden
Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord
Envy them that? Can it be sin to know?
Can it be death?

Paradise Lost, Book IV

Adam was given only one rule or commandment regarding food: he may eat fruit of any of the trees of the garden, except the one in the middle; death comes with the eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We’re so used to the story that we pass this over without thought but it is such an odd thing. Why does death come with eating this fruit? It could be simply a test of obedience. The creator of all things has the right to do what he wishes with his creation; he can set boundaries where he pleases. Adam and Eve—we—do not get all God’s reasons behind his actions and who are we to ask? But if it is about obedience to the command, why a prohibition against this specific tree? Why not just The Forbidden Tree? Is the death attached merely to transgression of the command or also with the nature of the tree itself? Again, why is the prohibition against the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? It is clear that the knowledge of good and evil—the precursor to wisdom—is a thing to be sought. The Book of Proverbs practically shouts it: Get wisdom! It is more precious than all the wealth that can be had. Why would such a tree, a tree declared good and able to make one wise, bring death in partaking? Not only that, but what is meant by dying here? It isn’t obvious. They don’t die physically, not in that day.

God had said that in the day they ate, they would surely die. The serpent said that God knew that in the day they ate, their eyes would be opened and they would be like God, knowing good and evil. Perhaps a psychological  reading can help. It is the gaining of wisdom itself, the opening of the eyes that brought the collapse of the world as they knew it, that is the death. They were no longer children, no longer in ignorant innocence. Once opened, their eyes could not be unopened. The knowledge they received was not exactly the wisdom that they hoped for, not the power to see and judge all things as God sees and judges; it was self-consciousness. Their eyes were opened, but all they could see was their own nakedness. Perhaps this was the knowledge of evil: they knew their vulnerability, weakness, mortality, and how to use this knowledge to hurt or exploit others. They knew what it was to miss the mark, to fall short of the glory of God. They learned deceit, ill-will, unfaithfulness, suspicion. The good it did do for them, though, was give them the fear of God. That was the beginning of wisdom. From this point, the way forward is not a return to paradisal ignorance but a pursuit of more wisdom.

Following this line, it may be that the knowledge of good and evil is the knowledge of death. Moses prays that we would learn to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (or bring our heart to wisdom). The knowledge of and reflection on our mortality brings us closer to wisdom. Perhaps this is also the fear of the Lord, of the immortal one, the source of our being, who holds our very selves in existence. 

Another layer of meaning may be found in a, what would this be? a positional or action-in-the-world reading. Paul seems to have this event in mind at the beginning of his letter to the Romans. The invisible attributes of God—his power and deity—were known from the beginning of creation, known to the man and his wife. Though they knew him, they did not give him thanks. And how could they, when they were doing the only thing he had said not to do? Professing themselves, or having pretensions, to be wise, they became fools. They exchanged the glory of God, in whose image they were made, for the likeness of man, birds, beasts, and creeping things, the creatures they had originally been given dominion over. Man lives not by bread alone, but by all that comes from the mouth of God. They received the fruit, so to speak, from the mouth of the serpent. He suggested that God was withholding this good from them, that equality with God was a thing to be grasped. They were complicit with the serpent, turning the truth—you shall surely die—into a lie—you shall not surely die. Following, trusting in the word of the creature over and against the word of their creator and sustainer is a turn away from their source of life, a turn to death.

Maybe a physical/metaphysical reading is helpful. C.S. Lewis uses two Greek words translated life to draw a distinction between the physical life of the body, Bios, and the spiritual life, Zoe. When Paul says that we were all once dead in our trespass and sin, it is clearly not Bios that he is referring to. We are not biologically dead before being made alive together in Christ. But this “dead in trespass and sin,” is this like calling a death row inmate the walking dead? Condemned but not yet executed? Is it a state of waiting future punishment? or is it more than this? Is the death he speaks of here the sin and trespass itself? Is the sin the death in which we walk? Missing the mark, straying out of the way is a living (?) in death, a walking in the way of death rather than the way of life. They stepped out of the way and the way to the Tree of Life was closed and guarded by the cherub and the flaming sword. 

Sons of God

In a straight reading of the first part of Genesis 6, verse 3 seems oddly placed. Verses 1 and 2 are beginning to tell about men multiplying on earth and the Sons of God taking wives of the daughters of men. Then comes verse 3, where God interjects that his spirit will not always strive with men. Verse 4 picks right back up with the narrative of the first verses. If we look at it chiastically, it makes more sense:

A. men began to multiply
    B. daughters were born
        C. Sons of God took daughters of men to wife
            D. My spirit shall not always strive, days will be 120 years
        C. giants in the earth; Sons of God came into daughters of men
    B. daughters bore children
A. mighty men

God’s actions—removing his Spirit, ceasing to wrestle with man, and setting a countdown on the life of flesh—are the focal point of the passage, not just an aside awkwardly placed in the narrative. But this raises the question of what is going on that this is God’s answer? Who are the Sons of God and the daughters of men?

A place to start would be to note that chapter 6 comes after chapter 5 (how insightful! we shall see.) Chapter 5 outlines the lineage from Adam to Noah and his sons. Adam was made in the image and likeness of God; Seth was born in the image and likeness of Adam (who was made in the image and likeness of God). Enosh was born to Seth (in his image and likeness), and so on to Noah. 

Let’s look a little closer at Seth. He was born after Cain murdered his brother Abel. His mother named him Seth—appointed, or set in place (of another)—because he was given by God in the place of Abel. Abel had been the one who walked with God, who would carry on the line of the Seed who would come to crush the serpent’s head.

This lineage is also set in contrast with the lineage of Cain at the end of chapter 4. These two genealogies are, I submit, the basis for understanding the Sons of God and the daughters of men in chapter 6. In other words, the Sons of God is not an idea or class that just pops into the narrative from nowhere, but should be understood in the light of the list of the sons made in the image and likeness of God given immediately before.

But what about the giants, the Nephilim? How could normal men and women have giant offspring? I’m not sure what more can be said except that the word Nephilim just doesn’t mean giants. It comes from the root nephal, which means to fall. These are the fallen ones, the sons of the line who strayed from walking with God, who fell into diverting, corrupting union with the ungodly. More on this presently.

With this understanding of the Sons of God, we can look again at God’s declaration in 6:3. God wrestles with men to bring them to maturity and glory. Jacob, as one of the clearest examples, became Israel—Prince-with-God—after wrestling with God and man and prevailing. Here God is giving them up, ceasing to wrestle. Giving them up to what? To their own lust and idolatry (which are perhaps the same thing). They are doing what the later Israelites did over and over. Numbers 25 is a good example. After Balaam could not curse Israel, he taught the Moabites to send out their pretty girls to entice the Hebrew men into taking them as wives and yoking themselves to the idol-gods of the Moabites (see Num. 31:15-16). The Sons of God were intermarrying with the line of Cain, the daughters of men, and were being led astray from following God; really, were ceasing to be sons and were becoming “mighty men”, tyrants like Nimrod who wanted to displace God, building a city and a tower with its head in the heavens, trying to make a name for himself rather than proclaiming the name of God.

Noah was the only uncorrupted man, the only one who walked uprightly in his whole generation. His father Lamech saw the corruption and lamented, but hoped that Noah would bring rest. The ark stood as a warning for how long? decades? They had had verbal warning through the prophet Enoch (see Jude 1:14-15), who named his son Methuselah—His-death-shall-bring-it. The flood is coming!

The Sons of God ignored it. 

The flood came.

Sun, Moon, and Stars

The sun moon and stars created on day four give light to the earth below. They are called rulers of the day and of the night, symbols or types of the spiritual and temporal rulers on earth. When Joseph dreams of the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him, Jacob immediately and rightly understands these symbols to represent himself as the sun, the head of the chosen people of God, his wife, the moon, and his other sons, the stars. Likewise in the prophets, frequently the sun is said to be darkened, and the moon to not give its light or to be turned to blood (as in an eclipse), and the stars to not shine or to fall from the heavens. Isaiah 13 is a characteristic example. He takes up a discourse against Babylon; God is going to move the Medes against them to destroy them without pity. Man, woman, and child will be thrust through, houses spoiled, wives ravished. For the Babylonians, this is an earth-shaking event. Their world, their empire, is being torn down and replaced with another. The sun, moon, and stars, will be darkened—their king, rulers, and priests will no longer give their light, their direction, their uncovering judgment on the earth (see also Eze 32, Joel 2, 3, Amos 8, Matthew 24).

It is significant that each of the days of creation are given as evening and morning, a period of darkness followed by the dawning of the light. The whole Jewish calendar was almost entirely ruled by the moon. The months and the phases of the moon dictated the timing of feasts and holy days. Even the years were reckoned by the moon, adding months as needed to keep the calendar in sync with the seasons. The history of the Jews until Christ can be said symbolically to be night, ruled by moon and stars. With Christ comes the day.

Evening and Morning

On the first day God created light. He separated the light from the darkness. He called the light Day and the darkness he called Night. These are divided; they’re not present together but one follows the other in rhythm. The days of the creation week are marked out by the repeated phrase evening and morning. This is interesting. Day and night have been established and named but aren’t used to mark the days. Evening and morning, not night and day. Night can be seen, or is implied in evening and day is implied in morning but the focus or emphasis is on the transition between the periods of dark and light. Why? Maybe because night and day would be awfully binary. There would still be a rhythm, but it would be a square wave, an off-on switch. That isn’t how the world comes to us. Life is mostly rise and fall, not up and down (unless one is manic-depressive, which isn’t a pleasant way to move through life). This is seen in the falling away and the drawing near of God’s people throughout scripture (and history); in the decline and renewal of the sanctuary; in the fall of empires and the rise of new ones. C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity) points out that the difference between Christians and atheists is not so black and white as we’d like. A person with a highly disagreeable temperament, or one from a rough background, even though a Christian, may not show the same level of care, love, consideration, or humility as an agreeable or better nurtured atheist. The one should, and they both may, be moving toward “light.” Likewise, a long-time professing Christian may be moving away, toward “darkness.” Neither is an all-at-once thing. Stasis or limbo are fleeting. We are (nearly) always moving somewhere. Evening and morning captures the dynamic rhythm, the constant becoming of life.

In the Beginning

In the beginning, God created… This  word beginning (Heb. reshiyth) is interesting. It can mean first in time and also in position or prominence, as in head or chief. It is also frequently rendered as firstfruits. The article, the in English, isn’t present in the Hebrew. It just reads b’reshiyth, In beginning… This is common for abstract nouns—the same way we would say he is in love rather than he is in the love—and also for persons. The construction allows for understanding this both in terms of time and of person. Colossians 1:18 brings all these ideas together in the person of the Son: he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead… George MacDonald makes a similar argument, that when John says in his gospel In the beginning was the Word, it should be understood not only, or maybe even not primarily, as a reference to the start of time, but to the fact that all of creation is made in and through the Word. Or, in other words, Beginning was another name for the Word who is with God and is God. He is the origin, the source, the underlying being from which all beings have existence.

I Am Naked

Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and their eyes were opened and they knew that they were naked. They sewed fig leaves together to make a covering for themselves. In their own open eyes, they were covered. But in the revealing light of the glory of the Spirit of God, they were dis-covered. Even hidden among the trees of the garden, Adam cried out I am naked—Woe is me! I am undone; for mine eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of armies.

The Spirit of the Day

Meredith Kline, in Images of the Spirit, has a wonderful exposition of the post-fall encounter of Adam and Eve with God. They had eaten of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; their eyes were opened and they sewed fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. The KJV (most other English versions are similar) renders the next verse: And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. The mental picture is often that of God in human form, perhaps the pre-incarnate Christ, strolling through the garden, taking in the fresh air. The discovery and judgment of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is cast as merely coincidental to this evening walk. Kline proposes another picture.

They heard the voice of the LORD God. This word voice (qol in Hebrew) isn’t limited to vocal sound. It can mean a cry, call, proclamation, and also a noise, thunder, or sound in general. In manifestations of God’s presence, it is prominent, usually an overwhelming sound as of thunder, a multitude, an army, or many waters. In the descent on Mount Sinai the voice came in thunder and the sound of a trumpet that grew so loud it shook the mountain and the people begged that no further word be spoken (Ex. 20:18-19, see also Heb 12:18-21). Before they entered the land, Moses reminded the people that when God had spoken to them out of the fire, they heard the voice only; there was no image—the sound was the primary or focal element of the experience (Deut. 4:12). The presence of God came to David as the sound of an army advancing above (2 Sam. 5:24). David highlights the powerful and awe-inspiring qol of the Lord in Psalm 29:

  The qol of the LORD is upon the waters:
    the God of glory thundereth:
  the LORD is upon many waters.
  The qol of the LORD is powerful;
    the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
  The qol of the LORD breaketh the cedars;
    yea, the LORD breaketh the cedars of Lebanon…
  The qol of the LORD divideth the flames of fire.
  The qol of the LORD shaketh the wilderness;
    the LORD shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh.
  The qol of the LORD maketh the hinds to calve,
    and discovereth the forests:
    and in his temple doth every one speak of his glory.

Isaiah is given a vision of God coming in judgment against the city of David with thunder, and with earthquake, and great noise, with storm and tempest, and the flame of devouring fire (Isa. 29:6, see also Jer. 25:29-31). But when God fights for mount Zion, he roars like a young lion (Isa. 31:4). When Ezekiel is brought into the presence of God, the sound of God’s coming in his living throne-chariot is like great waters, like the voice of the Almighty, the sound of an army (Ez. 1:24). The first thing John encounters in the Revelation of Jesus Christ is a great voice like a trumpet behind him (Rev. 1:10). The sound of God’s coming in the garden should be understood along these lines, a great and thunderous sound, the approach of the living God.

Walking in the garden in the cool of the day. The Hebrew verb halak is most often translated go or walk, both of which are good and appropriate. The main idea is the act of moving from one place to another, or through or over a place. This broader idea, rather than the more specific walking fits better here, as should be evident when the whole is taken together.

It is cool of the day that is the primary problem spot in most English renderings. The Hebrew is ruach ha yom, an odd and unique phrase in scripture. Ruach has the same basic range of meaning as the Latin anima (where we get animated, inanimate): breath, spirit, life, wind. A few English translations have breeze, which gets a little closer to the idea. Even better would be to link it with the ruach elohim already seen in 1:2 moving upon the face of the waters. But how would that be better? What would it mean that God was moving through the garden in the spirit of the day?

It was God the Spirit who brought forth the light of day at the beginning of creation. It was not the light of the sun, moon, and stars—they were formed later to correspond to the light that proceeded forth from God, the same fiery light that is seen in the glory cloud in later manifestations throughout scripture. By that light he evaluated his work at the end of each day, pronouncing judgment: He saw that it was good; in other words, the work had been accomplished according to his decree. Often the Spirit empowers human agents to carry out his judgment in the world. The Spirit comes upon the judges of Israel so that they are able to execute the judgment of God on the oppressors (3:10; see also 6:34, 11:29, 14:19, 15:14, 20; 1 Sam. 11:6, 16:13). Likewise in Isaiah, under the glory-cloud as a “spirit of judgment” and a “spirit of burning”, Jerusalem is purged of her blood and filth (Isa. 4:4-6). The Spirit of God rests upon the branch, the son of Jesse, to judge rightly the poor, the meek, and the wicked (11:1ff). In chapter 28, Isaiah talks of a day coming when God will be “a spirit of judgment to him that sitteth in judgment” against the rulers, priests, and prophets who have stumbled out of the way by wine and strong drink. God puts his Spirit on his Servant to bring judgment to the nations, judgment unto truth to the whole earth (42:1ff). The passage in Isaiah that Jesus finds and reads in the synagogue carries the same theme, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me…” The first part, Jesus said, was fulfilled in their hearing. He stopped before “and the day of vengeance of our God.” That was not his mission in the flesh, but was to come.

It is not explicit in the Genesis account how long after creation man transgressed, but there is no indication of time passing (the fact that Adam did not know his wife until after they left the garden is a clue that the fall happened almost immediately). In the first chapter, the narrative shows that man is made on the sixth day, and next day, the seventh, is blessed by God and made holy; it is the day of rest. This is the Sabbath day, the Lord’s Day. In the second chapter, more detail is given about the sixth day and the creation of man and formation of woman. Then follows God’s coming into the garden to evaluate man’s work and bring judgment, for good or bad. This is judgment day, the Day of the Lord. The two phrases in English are only one phrase in both Hebrew and Greek; the Lord’s Day is the Day of the Lord. The blessed and holy day, the day when God takes his rest is the day he evaluates all the work done in creation. This is exactly what is happening here. The man and his wife have eaten from the forbidden tree and God has come to evaluate their work and pass judgment on them and the serpent. It is no wonder they fled from his presence and tried to hide themselves when they heard him coming. It wasn’t guilt or shame only. They heard the thunderous, terrifying sound of God moving through the garden as the Spirit of the Day.

In the Day You Eat

God had said in the day you eat of [the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil], you shall surely die. They ate and didn’t die, not in that day. Their eyes were opened, they became like God, knowing good and evil. All this is even confirmed by God. It seems the serpent told no lie at all. What happened?

Part of it may be their exile, which is a kind of picture of death. Perhaps in the same way that a branch cut from a tree does not immediately look dead, but being cut off from its source of life, it really no longer lives, so Adam and Eve, being cut off from the Tree of Life no longer really lived. Maybe. But they never ate from that tree. It wasn’t their source of life. God breathed into the man’s nostrils the breath of life and he became a living creature. Still, they were cut off from the sanctuary, from the presence of God.

A case can also be made out of the Hebrew grammatical construction. A stricter translation would read something more like in the day you eat of it, dying you shall die. Eating the fruit begins the process of ageing, decay, and death. The rest of their days would be a slow decline toward death. Dying, the process, you shall die, the end. This is certainly what we experience, and as far as that goes is good and true. I’m not sure the Hebrew is meant this way, though. This kind of construction is used throughout scripture for emphasis, as in the immediately preceding verse you may freely eat, or, eating you may eat—which is why nearly every English translation renders it you shall surely (or certainly) die.


A more complete answer might be found by digging into verse 21: And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. Where did the skins come from? An animal or animals had to die to provide the covering for them. This covering was given by God in place of the covering of fig leaves they had made for themselves. Why? To show that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness—release, letting go, deliverance—from sin. This is the inauguration of the sacrificial system—or better, the provision of covering—later given more fully in Leviticus. The way back to the sanctuary is past the cherub and the flaming sword. Who can go through that? A man cannot enter, so he leans his hand on the head of an animal, identifying with it, sending it as his representative, and in a sense it carries him through the knife and the fire where it ascends to the glory cloud of the presence. This act, and most especially the blood spilled, provides a covering for the one who would draw near to God. This whole system is given by God as the way of approach. It is his provision, as is emphatically demonstrated by Jesus in his own death.

This helps (partly) explain why Abel’s offering was accepted and Cain’s wasn’t, and why Abel was a shepherd at all at a time when people didn’t eat meat (Gen 1:29-30, cf. Gen. 9:3). The fruit of the ground is a fine tribute or thanksgiving offering, but not an appropriate covering for the sin crouching at the door, trying to get mastery over him.