Gen 2:17 Thou Shalt Surely Die

Soon after Adam was created, it is recorded in Genesis that God said this to him:

“… Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: 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 2:16-17)

This was even before God created Eve; when death was unknown. Now, death has become the lot of mankind. People expect to die (and pay taxes) but until close to an expected end we generally don’t know how that will happen. If someone came unexpectedly to you and said “tomorrow you will die” your natural question would be “how will that happen and who will be responsible?”

Take note that Gen 2:17 simply says that Adam would die, it does not say how he would die or who would be the agent of death. “Thou shalt surely die” can be meant and understood in different ways. First of all, it is either a threat or a warning. A threat, in this situation, is basically “I will kill you” whereas a warning is “there is danger of death from another source.” Clearly, to take from just this statement that God is threatening them is an assumption. It does not say how he would die; it is just stating the certainty that it would “surely” happen.

If fact, we could easily reason that it must have been a warning. In the context of the whole Bible and God’s law, foremost of which is to love God, it makes no sense whatsoever that God would essentially say to Adam “I command you to love me and if you don’t I will kill you.” Force or the threat of it never brings the reaction of love.

It seems much more reasonable that Adam would have understood that the danger was from the fruit itself. If someone was to come to you and say “if you eat of this (whatever this is) you will die” you would more naturally assume that the item itself would be the cause of death – like the fruit was poisonous. If someone was to point out a mushroom growing in the woods and say to you “if you eat that you will surely die” would you think that if you take a bite that person will pull out a gun and shoot you? Of course not! The most obvious way to think is that the action being warned against would bring the result.

In fact, this is substantiated by Eve’s reaction to the fruit:

“And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” (Gen 3:6)

She ate because the fruit looked good – she was going by her senses which seemed, to her, to contradict what God had said. In her mind, it was a question of the edibility of the fruit and by, extension, a question of the truthfulness of God. She chose to belief her senses and the serpent over the word of God. The Bible does not say that she doubted that God would kill her.

What did Adam Understand?

When God gave the warning in Genesis 2:17 to Adam, there is no indication about how the message was received. Perhaps more was said. Perhaps there was some “body language.” Perhaps Adam asked for further clarification which seems quite possible as he was totally unfamiliar with death. Whatever happened, he would have come out of the conversation with one of two understandings.

  1. If I disobey, and eat of this fruit God will kill me.
  2. If I disobey, the natural consequence will be death.

In the second case, we do have some information about the means and timing of death. It seems likely that Adam simply died of old age – there is no indication that God killed him.

“And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died.” (Gen 5:5)

It was something like “If you chose to rebel against me and disobey you will infect yourself with distrust of me; you are essentially choosing another God and the end result of that distrust and choice will be death.”

God said sin is deadly; it will kill you. The Bible, over and over, says that death is the consequence of sin. Sin and death came from Satan not from God.

What was Satan Really Saying?

So within the second possible understanding what is the scenario? The lie of Satan was that “eating the fruit is fine; see, I have eaten without harm; sin will not kill you. Sin is harmless. There is nothing wrong with wanting to have more knowledge. Not only will you not die but you will enter a higher plane of existence and become like God.”

Satan was not saying to Adam and Eve that God would not kill them – God never said He would. Satan said nothing like “God will not kill you” or “God is too good to do that.” He had no evidence to counter Adam and Eve’s understanding that God would kill them – had that been their belief (the first of Adam’s possible understandings in the list given above). But Satan could provide evidence that the fruit was fine. On that point he could lead Eve to question what God had said and begin to doubt His word.

“And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food …” (Gen 3:6)

Her evidence for this would have been that the serpent had eaten and was still alive.

Satan was denying the results of sin. That is the lie that he has spread throughout history – there is nothing wrong with sin; you can live as you please without negative consequences. Satan continues to promote the belief that there is nothing wrong with sin; that it is not harmful. However, even science is catching up with that and showing the harm from so many of the world’s vices.

Satan’s Lies Continue

Once Satan had his initial success in tempting Adam and Eve and introducing distrust of God into their minds he went further with his lies. At that point, he could have suggested that, having transgressed, they were in danger of God killing them. Or perhaps they imagined that possibility on their own.

Satan wants everyone to distrust God and a good way to do that is to introduce the idea that God will actually kill people for transgression. It is pretty hard to trust in someone who you think might harm you. The threat of death certainly does not promote an attitude of love in return – it never can.

Throughout Biblical history and to this day, Satan has been blaming God for death and destruction. Far from saying “You will not surely die by the hand of God” Satan has always been charging God with responsibility. We see the lie still in common belief and sayings such as “acts of God.” Is God saying that? Is God the one presently bringing disasters on the world? No, He has commissioned His angels to hold back the winds (rev 7:1); to protect from Satan who is commonly called “the destroyer” in scripture.

From there, the idea of having to pay God back or of doing something to appease Him has come in rather than simply turning to Him and accepting His forgiveness. We can see that this idea of self-justification through some form of works or payment by sacrifice has permeated all of mankind including all pagan religions and much of Christianity.

Some Further Thoughts

If God had actually threatened Adam and Eve with death should they have transgressed, then Satan saying “Ye shall not surely die” would be highly unlikely. It is more likely that Satan would say “Yes, God is cruel, He will kill you and it will be horrible.” Then they would only serve Him from fear which is the opposite of what God wants.

“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” (2 Tim 1:7)

Fear comes from Satan, not from God.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)

God was warning Adam and Eve about eating the fruit as He did not want them to be subject to the bondage of the fear of death.

“And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” (Heb 2:15)

This is stated as a reason for Jesus taking on flesh and working to save us. Why would He do that to save us from something He had threatened us with?

God was warning Adam about eating the fruit – not so much because of danger in the fruit itself but because of the danger of trusting Satan more than Himself. Satan, being a murderer and a liar (John 8:44) and having the power of death (Heb 2:14), is not one that we should trust.

The real danger was not from God or the tree or its fruit but from trusting in the lying and murdering one lurking in the tree – the one God always seeks to protect us from. We need to trust in God and His Word – there is safety.