Why didn’t Adam and Eve die the moment they ate, as Genesis 2:17 implies?
The basis for this questions stems from Genesis 2:17, where Adam was told not to eat from forbidden fruit.
“. . . 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” (Genesis 2:17).
Some have claimed that the Bible doesn’t necessarily mean what it says in Genesis 2:17 since Adam and Eve didn’t die the moment they ate. They argue that the passage really means “die,” not “surely die,” which is what gives the implication that Adam and Eve should have died that day.
Die That Day or Begin to Die?
It is true that Adam and Eve didn’t die the exact day they ate the fruit (Genesis 5:4–5), as some seem to think Genesis 2:17 implies. So, the options are either that God was in error or man’s interpretation is in error. But God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18), so then fallible humans must be making the mistake. Let’s take a look at where the confusion begins to arise. The Hebrew phrase in English is more literally:
“Tree knowledge good evil eat day eat die (dying) die.”
The Hebrew is “die die” (muwth—muwth) with two different verb tenses (dying and die), which can be translated as “surely die” or literally as “dying you shall die,” indicating the beginning of dying — an ingressive sense — and finally culminating with death. At the point when they ate, Adam and Eve began to die and would return to dust (Genesis 3:19). If they were meant to die right then, God would have used muwth only once, as is used in the Hebrew to mean dead, died, or die, not beginning to die or surely die as die-die is used in Hebrew. Old Testament authors understood this and used the terms appropriately, but sometimes we lose a little during translation.
There are primarily two ways people translate: one is literal or word-for-word, and the other is dynamic equivalence or thought-for-thought. If this were translated word-for-word, it would be “dying die” or “die die,” which is difficult for English readers to understand since our grammatical construct doesn’t have a changed emphasis when a word is repeated. The Latin Vulgate by Jerome, which permits such grammatical constructs, does translate this as “dying die” or “dying you will die” (morte morieris). So most translations into English rightly use a more dynamic equivalence and say “surely die,” which implies that it isn’t an instant death but will certainly happen (surely).
What Is Yom Referring To?
With regard to the Hebrew word yom for “day” in Genesis 2:17, it refers directly to the following action — eating — not the latter “dying die.” For example, Solomon used an almost identical construct in 1 Kings 2:37 when referring to Shimei:
For on the day [yom] you go out and cross over the brook Kidron, you will know for certain that you shall surely [muwth] die [muwth]; your blood shall be on your own head (NASB).
This uses yom (day) and the dual muwth just as Genesis 2:17 did. In Genesis 2:17, yom referred to the action (eating) in the same way that yom refers the action here (go out and cross over). In neither case do they mean that was the particular day they would die, but the particular day they did what they weren’t supposed to do. Solomon also understood that it would not be a death on that particular day, but that Shimei’s days were numbered from that point. In other words, their (Adam and Shimei) actions on that day were what gave them the final death sentence — it was coming, and they would surely die as a result of their actions. Therefore, the day in Genesis 2:17 was referring to when they ate (disobeyed), and not the day they died.