“Dying Thou Shalt Die” Gen 2:17

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.”  Gen 2:17 KJV

Were Adam and Eve told that they would incur mortality if they disobeyed God?  This is a common exposition of this phrase and if unquestionably correct would count against EC as it would suggest mortality was a new condition (despite the evidence already presented to the contrary).

The record in Genesis has two explicit comments on Adam’s state pre Fall – calling him a living soul as per above and the expression “dying Thou shalt die”.  The Hebrew is a grammatical form called the infinitive absolute where the verb is repeated.  Essentially it is a repetition of the word “die” to underline the certainty of the statement.  Scripture furnishes us plenty of other examples of this pattern so it should not be a contentious matter.

By searching for “surely die” I located multiple examples of the same Hebrew expression.  One of these is the serpent quoting Eve’s words (God’s instruction).  The rest clearly emphasise the certainty of judgement on mortal men.  Some examples to demonstrate the point:

  • God tells Abimelech in Gen 20:7 to restore Sarah to Abraham because if he does then he will “surely die” – the same Hebrew “Dying thou shalt die
  • God pronounced judgement on the exodus generation that dying they would die Num26:65
  • Saul tells Jonathan that dying he will die 1 Sam 14:44
  • In 1Kings2:37 Solomon issues a warning/judgement to Shimei that if he leaves the city then dying he will die.
  • A prophet had a responsibility to warn the people if God said they would surely die Ezek 3:18

This is not a unique phrase and is applied to people who are already mortal.

This is consistent with the exposition of Bro Thirtle back in 1880 who stated

Some consider these words to have found verification on the day Adam sinned, by his becoming a corruptible creature, and ultimately dying. This, however, is not so …As the words stand, certainty is implied, and nothing more; so the authorised version is not far wrong in rendering the words, “thou shalt surely die.” It is out of the question to suppose that a process of decay is implied in the words[1]

After completing the previous analysis, I found Bro Levin’s work and note he came to the same conclusion for the same reasons.  In commenting on whether the phrase could mean an introduction of mortality, bro Levin writes “this is not a possible meaning.  To render ‘surely die’ as ‘become mortal’ weakens the force of the verb![2]

This Hebrew idiom of repetition is not unique to “dying thou shalt die”.  It is boringly common (in a simple search I found 620 instances of Hebrew root pairs).  Some examples are Deborah declaring that “walking she would walk” with Barak in Judges 4:9 and prophecy of the King of Babylon who coming would come Jeremiah 36:29.  Translators use words like “surely” and “certainly” to convey the meaning of this Hebrew form.  In fact, the same idiom is used one verse earlier when God told Adam that eating he should eat of every tree in Gen 2:16.  God later tells Eve that multiplying He will multiply her troubles with children in Gen 3:16.  Ie this idiom is used continuously and has no meaning other than certainty/completeness/emphasis.

The same idiom is observable in the New Testament in Luke 22:15 “where the expression “epithymia epethymesa” (literally “with desire I have desired”) means “I have earnestly desired.””[3]

So the expression in Gen2:17 “dying thou shalt die” in its context, and based on other occurrences of the phrase & idiom, means no more and no less than certain death would follow sin.  It cannot be used to assert mortality would be the punishment for transgression – this is entirely absent from the meaning of the expression and is poor exposition.

This consistency also goes to the core of the serpent’s proposition – “Ye shalt not SURELY die” in contrast to the declaration of God.  It was not a question of whether one would die or live in the absolute sense, rather it was questioning the certainty of the judgement subsequent to the consumption of the fruit.  Scripture is silent on whether Adam and Eve may have, given certain circumstances, entered into life eternal.  All we know is the judgement of certain death would follow disobedience.  We also know the judgement may have been thwarted if access had been allowed to the tree of life.  The reasonable conclusion is that even subsequent to the pronouncement of the judgement, life was possible contingent on accessing the tree of life, hence the necessity for removal from the garden and any opportunity for access to that tree.

Arguments and speculation about whether Adam would have died if he never ate are simply vain speculations.  We are simply not told of what may or may not have happened.  God knew/knows the outcome before the beginning (Isa46:10), the Garden of Eden was a stepping stone on the path to bringing His Son into the world millennia later.  The introduction of our Father’s Son into the world was not in that sense as a consequence of the Fall, but in fact was orchestrated as a lamb slain before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8).  (Please note I’m not saying Adam didn’t have a choice – just God knew what the choice would be).


[1] Thirtle, ‘The Day of Adam’s Transgression’, The Christadelphian (17.187.26-27), 1880

[2] Levin, David (2011) The creation text: studies in early Genesis” The Christadelphian Tidings Publishing Company, Livonia Michigan USA page 191

[3] http://www.bible-researcher.com/hebraisms.html The Semitic Style of the New Testament by Michael D. Marlowe accessed 23 April 2014

9 thoughts on ““Dying Thou Shalt Die” Gen 2:17

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  3. Russell

    I have always believed the expression “dying thou shalt die” is simply a statement of certainty, the veracity of which was the basis of the serpent’s challenge “ye shall not surely die”. The issue was one of certainty, not the introduction of a new “state” , supported by the simple fact that Adam did not die “in that day” or the self same day, but several centuries later. It is rather inconsistent and poor scholastic integrity to insist, on the one hand, to a “literal” reading of the record but on the other, the liberty to exercise significant tautology to avoid “unintended consequences”.


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  7. John Davy

    There appears to be an assumption that God is threatening to put Adam to death. That this was to be a pronouncement of judgement in response to sin. God is not saying “I will kill you” but “you will surely die”. The death they suffered was a death of innocence because of the effect of the tree. Death of a spiritual type in not unknown in scripture (Eph 2) and while God spoke on a spiritual plain to Adam, it was interpreted on a natural plain by Eve and the serpent mind.
    The tree was not poisonous of toxic in the natural sense – it was good for food – but it awakened a moral awareness that rendered the natural behaviour of Adam and Eve as sinful.


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