Why Adam and Eve Did Not Die

The NRS translation of Genesis 2:17 is show below:

“… but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Indeed, most (all?) English Bibles translate this verse similarly. Here are just a few examples from a set of well-known English translations:

NRS 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 die.”
NIV but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
NAS but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.”
NAU but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”
NET but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.”
NIRV but you must not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you do, you can be sure that you will die.”
NLT except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit, you are sure to die.”
KJV 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.

However, we all know that Adam and Eve did not die on the day they ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Indeed, the primordial couple lives for hundreds of years following their expulsion. So, how do we reconcile these translations with the rest of the biblical narrative and Adam and Eve’s long lives? To answer this question we need to understand the literary context of the ancient audiences of this story.

We begin by noting that it is not the so-called “forbidden fruit” that confers mortality upon Adam and Eve. In other words, the fruit is not some sort of poison that converts the couple from immortal to mortal. Rather, they become mortal because once expelled, they no longer have access to the Tree of Life (as revealed in Genesis 3:22). Here is a paraphrase of 2:16-17 that incorporates God’s reasoning as revealed in Gen 3:22:

… but [if you eat] of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, I will expel you from the Garden and, no longer having access to the Tree of Life, you will become mortal as when you were made.

The background at work here, while unknown to many Westerners, was that the motif of immortality as a transient state was common in the literature of many ANE (Ancient Near East) and Greek legends. In these other ancient narratives, some substance (plant, fruit, water, etc.,) existed that, when ingested, conferred immortality. However, its effect was not permanent. In all of these stories, when access to the substance was denied or lost, mortality was regained.  For example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, Enkidu (Gilgamesh’s best friend) dies. Overcome with rage and sorrow, Gilgamesh began a life-long search for the secret of eternal life. In time, he discovers a plant that, when eaten, confers immortality. Later in the Epic, a serpent steals the plant and Gilgamesh, no longer having access to this plant reverts to his original mortal existence.

The parallel to Genesis is striking. In Genesis, man is initially created mortal but becomes immortal after gaining access to the Tree of Life. Later, in order to prevent the couple from eating from the Tree of Life (Gen 3:22) they are expelled and, no longer having access to its fruit, revert to their natural mortal existence.

One interesting note: an ancient Jewish legend attributes the long lives of Adam and Eve (and their direct generations) to the gradual decline of the effect of the Tree of Life.

Now, go and study

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 For a list of additional legends and myths about immortality, see Wikipedia’s entry for Ponce De Leon’s Fountain of Youth.

 

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