When we read in Genesis 2:17, do we not subconsciously read into it, "Yes, but He does not really mean that. He means we will eventually die"? We soften it, expecting that God will not carry through with what He literally says.
The Keil-Delitzsch Commentary says about this verse, "That in the day that you eat thereof you shall die." It means as soon as he ate, he would die. The Keil-Delitzsch is a very conservative commentary. The Interpreter's Bible Commentary, which is one of the most liberal commentaries, says, "Death would follow immediately!" From one of the most conservative commentaries, Keil-Delitzsch, to one of the most liberal, The Interpreter's Bible Commentary, they agree the verse says that when they touched that tree, thus showing the intent of their heart, they would die.
In the beginning, at creation, all sin is deemed as worthy of death. Every sin is a capital offense. In creation, God was not obligated in any way to give life to you or me. Life is a gift that puts us under obligation, and that obligation is stated, or at least implied very strongly, right when man is being created. God gave life to man and put him under the obligation of being the image-bearer of God (Genesis 1:26). That is why we were created.
In chapter 2, we are further obligated by God's command to take of the Tree of Life, and not the other tree. The implication there is that only God knows how we are to live in order to fill our obligation to be the image-bearer of God. We have to learn that the root of sin lies in the desire of men to live their lives in self-centered independence from God. This is what keeps us from being the image-bearers of God that He intended us to be. If we deviate from this, have we not broken our obligation to God? If we deviate from this—if we go from the path, if we miss the mark—we have sinned. We have broken our obligation to mirror and reflect the holiness of God.
Implied by the name “Tree of Life,” God is telling us that we do not intrinsically possess the kind of life that God has, and that if we want that kind of life, it must be added. It is added through what the Tree of Life symbolized. What if we do not meet our obligations? We forfeit the gift of life when we sin.
Is God unfair if something is so clearly stated? Do we see why He commands us to choose life? He sets before us two different ways. He commands us to go in a certain direction, because if we go in the other direction we have broken our obligation to be image-bearers, and then He is not obligated any longer after that to continue our lives. He is under no obligation to continue the life that He gave to us as a gift. God is not acting unfairly nor with injustice, for the commands are very clear.
When the penalty was stated to Adam and Eve, did God say, "If you sin, some day you will die"? No. The penalty is clearly stated to be instant death, just as suddenly as it fell on Nadab and Abihu, and on Ananias and Sapphira, and Uzza.
Let us look at this realistically and let us not try to soften what God very clearly and literally says. He meant the death penalty in the fullest sense of the word. The only reason they lived was because it was right at that point that God extended grace. God was no longer obligated to continue their life.
They had broken His Word, deviated from the path, and the just thing for God to have done would have been to kill them just as He did Uzza. That is not what He did though. Instead, He gave them mercy, and He gave them grace. There is a saying, "Justice delayed is justice denied," but not always so. In this case with Adam and Eve, the full measure of justice was delayed for grace to have time to work.
We need to be thinking of this in relation to ourselves, because He is establishing a pattern. Justice was delayed so grace would have time to work. In this case, the delay of justice was not the denial of justice, but the establishing of mercy and grace. So right at the very beginning of the Book, in its third chapter, grace is introduced.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Justice and Grace
Notice especially that God originally pronounced the curse of death should sin be committed. However, Jesus says in John 8:44 that Satan was a murderer from the beginning. When was the beginning? It had to be when God created beings whose life was in their blood, that is, humans, subject to death if they sinned. This did not occur until Adam and Eve were created. Thus, when they sinned, death had its beginning.
Genesis 3:13 adds, “And the LORD God said to the woman, 'What is this you have done?' The woman said, 'The serpent deceived me, and I ate.'” Thus, from what Jesus says in John 8:44 regarding Satan's part in this episode, we find that God held Satan guilty of murder. His weapon was the deceit that encouraged her to commit sin. She did not completely overlook her respect for God but discounted it enough to give into Satan's persuasion. She did this on the strength of her desire, fueled by her lust for the pleasure of eating the forbidden fruit—but even more so to fulfill her desire to become wise. Then, Adam, though not deceived as Eve was, also discounted God's counsel in order to make sure he did not displease Eve. He was guilty of idolatry.
What does knowing these things accomplish? It shows that, even though their deaths did not occur immediately, at the very least God had delivered the power of death into Satan's hands by means of deceit just before he induced her to sin. Satan used this means to murder them, and he uses this means to this day. Incidentally, Jesus indicates in the Olivet Prophecy, as well as in Revelation, that we will witness a rise in the intensity of deceit just prior to His return.
God did not intervene to stop either Satan or Adam and Eve from following their desires. Adam and Eve had a test to pass. They failed, as have all their progeny. Only Christ has succeeded. Unless one is converted and under Christ's blood, Satan continues to hold this power even to this day. But we are not defenseless; we have Christ to help us in this battle.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Eight): Death
The second death is only mentioned by name in the book of Revelation. However, as a theme, it winds throughout the Bible, always lingering in the background. But to see this, we need to understand how the Bible uses the term “death.”
There is a physical application as well as a spiritual implication, and it requires discernment to understand how the word “death” is being used in a given context. The physical application is simply the end of a human being's life, whether through age, disease, accident, or violence. The breath of life leaves the person, consciousness ceases, and the body begins to decay. This is the fate of all human beings.
But the Bible also uses death to describe the spiritual state of people who are undoubtedly physically alive. Notice Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.”
The death that entered the world through Adam's sin was not physical death. Adam was a flesh-and-blood human being, so his body was naturally subject to entropy. The fact that he was created as flesh meant that, at some point, his heart would stop, and the breath of life would leave. Even if he had lived a sinless life, he still would have died when his body ceased to function. Adam was never immortal; he needed to eat of the Tree of Life to live forever (Genesis 3:22). When Adam sinned, he immediately entered a state of spiritual—not physical—death, which contributed to the foundation of Satan's deception that life continues after sin.
As it remains today, Satan's treachery was effective and destructive because, like Adam, we typically live on—physically—after sinning. While Adam's physical death was a foregone conclusion due to his being fleshly, it was not the death that entered the world through his sin. Instead, spiritual death entered the world at that point and spread to all of his offspring. His sin destroyed the union mankind had with God (see Isaiah 59:1-2), without which there is no life. Accordingly, separated from God, mankind has no future beyond physical death unless God acts. The wages of sin is eternal death, and there will not be everlasting life unless God gives it as a gift.
Later in the same context, Paul substitutes the word “condemnation” for “death”:
And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense [Adam's sin] resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification. . . . Therefore, as through one man's offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man's righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. (Romans 5:16, 18)
Adam did not physically die in the instant he sinned, but at that moment, he was brought under eternal condemnation. This is why Jesus said things like “let the dead bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22; Luke 9:60). Those who had not been called into a relationship with God were living in a state of death—condemnation—despite going about the normal activities of life. These people were devoid of spiritual life; they were the spiritual “walking dead.”
A major reason for Christ's incarnation was so that mankind could be redeemed from this state of death—condemnation—and given an opportunity for eternal life. Thus, He says, “If anyone keeps My word he shall never see death” (John 8:51). The Jews did not grasp His meaning: Those who keep His Word will never see eternal death; they will not lose the eternal life that comes from knowing the Father and Christ (John 17:3) following the Father's call (John 6:44, 65). However, He implies that those who have His Word and do not keep it will return to a state of condemnation.
David C. Grabbe
What Is the Second Death?
Did God Lie to Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:17)?
The first thing to remember is that God does not—cannot—lie (Titus 1:2). Neither does He contradict Himself. His Word is sure and reliable (II Peter 1:19). It is man—led by the father of lies (John 8:44)—who endlessly contradicts God's reliably true Word (Genesis 3:4; Acts 13:45; Hebrews 7:7; 12:3) and will continue to do so until Satan is permanently put out of commission (Revelation 20:7-10).
The second thing to bear in mind is this: God's Word clearly reveals that there are two deaths—the first and the second (Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8). All men are subject to the first, but it is the second that we are to fear and to avoid—by the grace of God (Matthew 10:28).
Keeping these things in mind, Genesis 2:17 says, "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."
A study of the various usages of the key phrases "in the day" and "thou shalt surely die" reveals that, in this instance, a good paraphrased translation might be:
- "for in the day that you eat thereof you'll be as good as dead," or
- "for in the day that you eat thereof you're a dead man," or
- "for in the day that you eat thereof your death penalty will begin."
God did not lie! Nor was He speaking figuratively. In the day that Adam and Eve ate of the fruit, like two condemned criminals, their death penalties began. By the way, because of our own sins, not Adam's or Eve's, we are all subject to that same death penalty.
How can we be sure of this interpretation? Quite simple: by letting the scriptures interpret themselves. Some basic questions:
What causes death? "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 6:23). Death is the automatic wage or penalty of sin.
What is sin? "Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness" (I John 3:4). Sin is the transgression of God's law. God gave Adam clear, advance warning that if he sinned—if he broke God's perfect law (James 1:25)—he would die.
Before the day Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they had not yet sinned, and thus were not as yet subject to the automatic death penalty. But as soon as they ate the fruit, they sinned—they broke God's law. God's automatic death penalty immediately kicked in.
Would Adam and Eve have lived for ever if they had not sinned? No. Why not? Because they were physical human beings, and "it is appointed for men to die once" (Hebrews 9:27). Even though they lived very long lives by modern-day standards, their bodies—probably the most physically perfect specimens that ever existed—were still physical and transitory, not spiritual and eternal. Their physical bodies were subject to normal physical decay (or "corruption" as it is termed in I Corinthians 15:53-54) and they eventually gave out.
We might compare this idea of the supposed deferral of God's automatic death penalty with the antithesis of death—birth! More specifically, we will consider the deferral of fully inheriting eternal life until Christ's Second Coming. When we are baptized and receive God's Holy Spirit, we are "born again" into His Family (John 3:3-7; I Peter 1:23). On that day, our spiritual life begins, but we are not immediately changed into spirit—we are only spiritually born at that time. From that moment, we begin growing spiritually "to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13; see also Romans 12:2; II Corinthians 3:18; II Peter 3:18), and we continue to do so until our eventual inheritance of the Kingdom of God as full spirit beings—children of God and siblings of Jesus Christ—at the time of our resurrection (or change) at His return (I Corinthians 15:50-54; I Thessalonians 4:13-17).
In a similar way, once a person sins, God's automatic death penalty kicks in, but the actual execution may not be carried out immediately. This so-called deferral of the death penalty has two major effects: First, it gives opportunities for the wise to repent. Second, the unwise erroneously believe that, because God does not send a lightning bolt immediately after their sin, they assume that He does not see what they are doing, and they feel free to continue doing it (Ecclesiastes 8:11). Thus, the period between the sin and its ultimate penalty allows the sinner to prove the true state of his heart to God.
What Sin Is & What Sin Does
How to Prevent Sin
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Genesis 2:17:
2 Samuel 12:9-14