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Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: “On the Day You Eat of It…”

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November 9, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: “On the Day You Eat of It…”

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

For the past several weeks, we have been looking at some episodes in the first creation story in Genesis 1 and what early interpreters have said about them. Today we move to the second creation story. As you can well imagine, the stories of Adam and Eve, the Garden, and the serpent posed as many questions then as they do now.

One issue that occupied the attention of many early interpreters is found in Genesis 2:16-17, where God warns not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for on the day you eat of it you shall die.”

The problem is well known: Adam (and Eve) did eat of the fruit, but they did not die on that day. In fact, Adam continues to live until the age of 930 (Genesis 5:5), and Eve, we can presume, had a long life as well.

One way of resolving this problem was to do what many Christians and Jews have done throughout history: look elsewhere in the Bible for a resolution. The principle behind this approach is that God is the author of the Bible, and so it is “mutually interpretive.” A common way of putting it among Christians, at least Protestants, is “scripture interprets scripture.”

Based on that principle, Psalm 90:4 was brought into the discussion: “a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” A glance at Psalm 90 will show it is not concerned with the Adam story. The psalm is making the point that God is from everlasting to everlasting (v. 2), although people come and go quickly, in what is like a moment for God—like a single day, like a watch in the night (vv. 3-6).

Even though Psalm 90 does not address the question of Genesis 2:16-17, the connection between the two is not as random as one might think. Psalm 90:3-6 refers to death—specifically, the “sons of men” (literally, “sons of Adam”) returning to dust, or like grass they are here today and gone tomorrow (vv. 5-6). Also, as we read in the rest of the psalm, God is clearly angry with the Israelites for their “iniquities” and “secret sins” (v. 8).

You have in these three verses the use of the word “adam,” a reference to some trespass, and death described as a return to dust—and all this happening from God’s perspective in a span of time from morning to evening. Whether or not the psalmist intended to reflect the Adam story (Genesis 2:7), it is easy to understand how his choice of words would encourage interpreters to see Psalm 90 as commenting somehow on the Garden story, where you also have an “adam” retuning to dust in the face of God’s anger for his iniquities.

Given this overlap there is only one more element of Psalm 90 to apply to Genesis to make the connection complete. Maybe the divine day in Psalm 90:4 also applies to the Garden story: Adam’s life span, from God’s perspective, is also a mere day in length.

Before we got too excited thinking that Psalm 90 actually solves the dilemma of Genesis 2:16-17, we should note how the rest of the psalm plays out. In v. 10 the psalmist leaves the poetic description of death in vv. 3-6 and plainly says that the human life span is very brief, a mere 70-80 years, a mere moment compared to God. It seems clear that the point of the psalm is simply this: “Lord, you are everlasting and our time on earth is but a moment, relatively speaking. So relent of your anger and rather teach us to be mindful of how brief our stay here is.” (vv. 11-12)

Psalm 90 does not answer the question of the “day” of Adam’s death in Genesis 2, but you can see why—guided by the principle that all of Scripture is “connected” somehow—one might bring these two together.

In the New Testament, Peter picks up on this in 2 Peter 3:8 where he says, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” Peter is not talking about Adam’s death, but applies the language of Psalm 90 to another issue entirely. His readers were apparently concerned about the delay in the Lord’s return. Peter was simply telling them that “delay” is a relative term, and so “the Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness” (v. 9).

Other early interpreters, however, honed in on Psalm 90 to reconcile God’s warning in Genesis 2:16-17 with the fact that Adam died at the ripe old age of 930. After all, if a day in God’s mind is like 1000 years, and Adam died at 930 years of age, Adam died in a divine day—with 70 years to spare. And so we read in Jubilees 4:29-30 (written in the middle of the 2nd century B.C.):

Adam died, and all his sons buried him in the land of his creation, and he was the first to be buried on earth. And he lacked seventy years of one thousand years; for one thousand years are as one day in the testimony of the heavens [i.e., Psalm 90], and therefore it is written concerning the tree of knowledge: “On the day you eat of it you shall die.”

Another way of looking at the problem of Genesis 2:16-17 is simply to say that on the day Adam ate of the fruit, he was barred from eating of the other tree, the tree of life (Genesis 2:22-24). Adam had only been barred from the tree of knowledge, and so we can presume he had free access to the tree of life. But once barred from the tree of life, mortality was introduced. Hence, “on the day you eat of it you shall die” would mean that immortality was removed, and Adam and Eve then entered a state of mortality.

There are other solutions that have been proposed in the history of interpretation. But, once again, the more basic point should not be lost. In the pivotal opening chapters of the Bible, we have an ambiguity that readers worked to resolve.

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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Philistine Dog - #39198

November 9th 2010

normbv - #39196

Good try Norm.  You don’t need salvation from sin if sin and the associated penalty do not exist for you to be saved from.  If your “essentials of salvation” are based on a false premise at it’s foundation then they wouldn’t be so essential would they?

If God didn’t make his eternal message clear to humanity throughout history then either 1) we are not accountable to that message, or 2) that message is the product of mankind and not the product of god at all.

Ryan G - #39206

November 9th 2010

Philistine Dog - #39198
Sin and its penalty are spelled out in narrative after narrative right throughout the Scriptures. The need for Salvation by grace through faith cannot be missed if reading with honest and fairly basic intent.

I will concede that the God of the Bible uses a breadcrumb trail in some places - the denied request for a sign in the gospels for instance - however, if He is who He claims to be, he is entirely within his rights to be a wielder of breadcrumbs instead of sledgehammers.

Jesus repeatedly masked His divine identity in the gospels, although made Himself abundantly clear to true seekers. He will not be so subtle at His return.

Philistine Dog - #39210

November 9th 2010

Ryan G - #39206
You said… “Jesus repeatedly masked His divine identity in the gospels, although made Himself abundantly clear to true seekers. He will not be so subtle at His return.”

But Ryan, you are not addressing the issue at hand.  If God warned Adam, “the day you eat you shall surely die” followed by Adam eating and not dying, further followed by 2500 years of apologia twisting and turning to explain that Adams death some 900 years later really does jibe with God’s dire warning of same-day-death, smacks of an iron age cave dwellers superstitious explanation for why death exits in the first place.  Now fast forward into the bronze age with no new science and a whole historic pile of religous influence and you have a new “salvation” process built on an ancient superstition of a penalty of death for sin.

So, if as you say, “He will no be so subtle at His return” and the consequences are so grave, why is it not clear from the foundation of the fall of man and the consequent result??

conrad - #39238

November 9th 2010

Well I think “eating of the tree of life” refers to choosing the constantly upgraded cultural assets as the way of life.

When people are dependent upon constant improvement they eventually run out of places to improve and die.
Today if computers failed and electricity failed there would be massive deaths.
The survival skills for living off the land do not exist.

And the land itself is not productive.

Eating of the tree of knowledge dooms Adam’s race to eventual extinction.

All species are fated for extinction and the more specialized the species the nearer to the end they are.

We humans have about 2 weeks remaining by that method of calculation.

But I do not give a rats tail how the ancients interpreted it.
Nor does it matter.
The scripture has a timeless truth. [Fortunately.]
What Joe Blow said in the first century is meaningless.

Ryan G - #39257

November 10th 2010

Philistine Dog #39210
Even a symbolic reading of the text leaves one wondering why there was a tree of life in the first place (maybe there’s an implied alternate ending: Eve rejected the serpent’s suggestion and ate from the tree of life instead). Why would they need the tree of life if there was no death? The fact that Adam didn’t die immediately would have been obvious to the original readers (and author/editor), so this is no simple flaw in a Just-So story. I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that the original readers would have been too slow-witted to see this. The best interpretation is that this refers to spiritual death, which has been classically defined as permanent separation from God, following physical death.

A closer examination of the Hebrew (I am no expert) has subtle variations of “dying you shall die” used by God, Eve and the serpent (see eg. http://www.accuracyingenesis.com/die.html altho,ugh I wouldn’t subscribe to everything on that particular site). Although this has sometimes been translated as “surely you shall die”, a better rendering may be “you will be doomed to die”.

The original audience may have been prescientific, but they were very careful readers, and any interpretation should bear that in mind.

Justin B. - #39415

November 11th 2010

Is it possible that “death” here meant meant exile? When Adam and Eve are forced from Eden, they are cut off from the tree of life and immortality. Also, exile and death are connected in the Old Testament, as in Ezekiel 37, in which the resurrection of the dry bones of Israel is another way of saying that the exiles would be restored.

Bryan Hodge - #39424

November 11th 2010


Yes, I was waiting for someone to get that. We’re imposing our view of death on the ancient world. To us, it means physical non-existence. To them, it means moving in spheres from the ordered world to the chaotic world/netherworld. Adam and Eve actually do die that day in the story. They are moved from the temple garden to the “field,” i.e., the place from whence the serpent (a symbol of chaos) derives. Cain is then terrified by his punishment to wander further out into the realm of the uncreated lands/death, since he enters into a further sphere from order and one closer to the netherworld. He is afraid that being unprotected in that chaotic land will lead to his entering the final sphere when killed by someone. Of course, God gives him a protective mark so that he has something to protect him even within that sphere, but it shows that death and life are in terms of how far one is from the presence of the deity who shelters from chaos (cf. the spheres of life and death seen in the tabernacle/wilderness narratives). Nice observation. I talk about this in a book coming out in a couple weeks. It is interesting to see how ancient interpreters took it, but we need to see them as also influenced by their Hellenistic culture

Jon Garvey - #39431

November 11th 2010

@Bryan Hodge - #39424

A good and useful perspective. By implication, death is not possible in the presence of God, and conversely true human life is only possible in relationship with God, yes?

Bryan Hodge - #39444

November 11th 2010


I think that’s a good application of it, yes.

normbv - #39445

November 11th 2010

Bryan Hodge,

I touched on a similar theme in the earlier post #39145

I really liked the way you presented the picture and would be interested in your book when it comes out.

Let me know how to get a copy.

Bryan Hodge - #39488

November 12th 2010

Thanks normbv,

It’s called Revisiting the Days of Genesis and will be published by Wipf and Stock. I hope it helps people work through some of these issues. God bless.

Jon Garvey - #39494

November 12th 2010

@Bryan Hodge - #39444

Taking the idea further (I hope not illegitimately) the special covenant relationship God made between himself and Adam (and Eve) in the story, encompassing communion, eternal life, and the possibility of the loss of both, is what actually constitutes the human condition, as opposed to that of the animals.

Human death therefore differs profoundly from animal, or hominid, death because of the radically different quality of the life that is lost.

Steve Ruble - #39545

November 12th 2010

Isn’t it possible that the people who originally wrote the story of the fall had a different concept of God than those who came after them? After all, they write of God “walking in the garden” and displaying ignorance about what Adam had been up to, things that later theists would find anathema ... so it seems reasonable to think that when they wrote that God made a prediction that didn’t come true, that’s all they meant to write. God tried to warn the humans off using a scary threat, and it didn’t work.

Of course, by the time people started thinking of God as less anthropomorphic (and more omniscient), the story was already written and part of their scripture. So the later thinkers needed to eisegete their more refined concepts of God back into the story - a process that continues to this day.  But really, neither the idea that God would walk around puzzled nor the idea that God would speak an untruth are compatible with the modern concept of God.

I wonder why the second incompatibility gets so much more attention than the first.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #39556

November 12th 2010

The real question is why did the primal couple believed the lies of the serpent who had done nothing for them against God Who had everything for them?  I guess we understand this because it happens all the time even in our lives, which is the point of the story.

Why was this serious apparent gaffe allowed to stand, if this were a truly human invention?  God appears to tell a lie and Satan appears to tell the truth.  I think this is an instance of progressive revelation in which the deeper meaning of the passage is not understood until long after the revelation itself. 

If the primal couple had quickly died after eating the fruit, then it would mean that the fruit itself was poisonous, which it was not.  On the other hand they did suffer the penalty of death, not because they ate the fruit, but because they betrayed the trust of YHWH Who told them not to this. 

As a result of this betrayal of trust they EXPERIENCED sin and evil for the first time, knew shame and guilt, and were alienated from from each other, YHWH, and their environment.  They understood that they were wrong, but never took responsibility for it and asked for forgiveness.  They personified the problem of sin for which Jesus Christ is the answer.

Alice C. Linsley - #39658

November 13th 2010

Conrad asked, “Why do you think that “early interpreters” have a better perspective for interpreting the Bible than today’s scientists?”

That’s an interesting question.  Early interpreters appears to refer to Church Fathers, most of whom were Greek-speaking and non-semitic.  The context of Genesis 1-3 is African, as has been demonstrated using the sciences of anthropology and linguistics.  To understand these narratives, we must understand the binary worldview of Abrahm’s Kushite ancestors.  Meaning is mediated by exploring the relationship between the binary opposites: heaven-earth; the waters above-the waters below; male-female; the tree of life- the tree of knowledge of good-evil.

We note in Gen. 2:9 that only the tree of life is said to be at the sacred center of the garden.  This important detail was not lost on the original hearers of this story.

Alice C. Linsley - #39711

November 13th 2010

The Eastern Church holds that death entered the world as a result of eating from the forbidden tree.  In the Western Church sin entered.  Given that the 2 trees are binary opposites, the tree from which the primal ancestors ate was the tree of death, and in the Eastern tradition they became the living dead, having consumed the seed of death through disobedience.

Win Johnson - #39850

November 14th 2010

Covenantal death is just that - all of the above. To reduce death in Gen. 3 to mere physical death would be to deny the judgment, condemnation, rejection, and horror of God saying, “You are dead to me.” Mere biological death carries very little threat; it’s the way of all flesh, right? But to say it was merely symbolic of a netherword or whatever is to deny the power of God’s word, which carries the very real power of life and death. Thus, when God says, in the day you eat thereof you shall die, he, as Judge, Creator, and Executioner, is saying, in the day you eat thereof you shall die. That Adam & Even had time to live and pass on the covenantal curse to their progeny shows the enduring power of God’s word, the irreversible nature of the curse (aside from Christ), and the spiritual, genetic, and physical power of death, which is clearly more than the mere cessation of being. Modern, secular, biological science, in its ignorance, asserts that death is the mere cessation of being. That’s the only way the scientist can live with himself and his sin - he keeps repeating the mantra, “I’m just a biological entity,” “Really, one day I’ll prove it, I’m just a biological entity.”

BTW, the tree of life was (and is) Christ.

Alice C. Linsley - #39865

November 14th 2010

Through the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15, the curse is reversed.  The Orthodox sing this lovely hymn at the beginning of Advent:

Troparion of the Forefeast   Tone 4

Make ready, Bethlehem, Eden has been opened to all.
Prepare Ephratha, for the Tree of Life has blossomed in the cave from the Virgin.
Her womb was a spiritual paradise whence came the Divine Plant.
If we eat it we shall live and not die like Adam.
Christ is born to raise up the image that of old had fallen.

Really, the whole Bible is about the fulfillment of the first divine promise in Gen. 3:15.

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