Genesis 2:16-17

Translation

וַיְצַו יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים עַל־הָֽאָדָם לֵאמֹ֑ר מִכֹּל עֵֽץ־הַגָּן אָכֹל תֹּאכֵֽל׃
17 וּמֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּ֑נּוּ כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ
מוֹת תָּמוּת

And the LORD God warned the man, saying,  “You may certainly eat from any tree in the garden; however should you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, you will surely become mortal and subject to death.”

Commentary

warned: most Bibles translate this verse using  the word ‘commanded’ (e.g., KJV, NIV, NRS, etc.). However, in this verse vayətzar would be a better translation if understood as a warning to Adam.  This interpretation is not unique. It also occurs in Genesis 26:11 where we find vayətzar used in a similar context. In 26:11, the NRS translates vayətzar as ‘warned’ because the consequences of touching either Isaac or Sarai was capital punishment. In 1 Kings 11:10 both the NLT and NET translate vayətzar as “warned” because of Solomon’s failure to avoid taking foreign wives. In these three cases vayətzar is associated with an action that was not forbidden but if ignored resulted in catastrophe or death.

In general, vayətzar  has a wide semantic range including other translations such as ‘ordered’, ‘instructed’, and ‘commissioned’. In other words, while the most common translation of vayətzar is ‘commanded’, depending on the context it may also be translated as ‘warned’, ‘ordered’, ‘instructed’, or ‘commissioned’.

Here is a paraphrased translation illustrating this point,

While you may surely eat from every tree in the garden, I warn you that if you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad you will lose your immortality.

The second reason for translating vayətzar as ‘warned’ arises from the logic of the text. Why would God give Adam permission to eat of every tree of the garden then command him not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge on pain of death. For example, He did not say, “From every tree in the garden you may eat except from the tree of knowledge…“. God was explicit. The fruit of all of the Garden’s trees were freely available. God is clearly warning the man of the consequences of eating from the tree of knowledge.

My translation follows Westermann’s view that the structure and context of this verse suggests God is issuing a warning1)Westermann, p 225 to be heeded, not a command to be obeyed. Consistent with this idea, Bruce Waltke also observes that in issuing this warning to the man, “God assumes man’s freedom to choose and thus a creature with a formed moral capacity.”2)Waltke p. 87 

certainly eat: translated from the Hebrew phrase,  אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל (akhol tokhel), it literally translates to, “to eat you may eat“. This is a classic example of the use of what is termed “the infinitive of emphasis”3)See Waltke and O’Connor, Biblical Hebrew Syntax, pp 585-593. It’s purpose is to emphasize or intensify the verbal clause in which it occurs. In this case, its use emphasizes that each and every tree in the Garden is available for food.

from every tree of the Garden: Contra the conventional interpretation of this verse, the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and bad is not off limits. The Hebrew text is explicit and unambiguous: מִכֹּל עֵֽץ־הַגָּן (mi-kol `eytz-haggan) meaning “from every4)kol is a preposition meaning all, every, or any tree of the garden“. It is manifest in the text that the fruit of any, every, and all trees in the Garden are available for eating, including the tree of knowledge.

surely become mortal and subject to death: derived from the Hebrew phrase  מוֹת תָּמֽוּת(mote tamut), its literal meaning is “to die you will die“. As described above, by placing a verb’s infinitive absolute immediately before the verb is a common technique biblical authors used to emphasize the action of the verb. To this end, translators often substitute the words “surely” or “certainly” for the infinitive expression.

The verb in question, tamut, usually means “you will/shall die” but its literary context manifestly shows that tamut is better translated as become mortal. Indeed, in the broader narrative (encompassing chapters 4 and beyond), the couple live long after their expulsion from Eden and die at a very old age.  Clearly, instant death (or death on that day) was not in the author’s mind. Rather, the author reveals that they become mortal (subject to death or, as Robert Alter translates this phrase, “doomed to die”5)Alter, p. 21) where before they were immortal. Other translators, recognizing this context, also translate mote tamut as doomed to die. Here, for example is the translation from The Living Bible

But the Lord God gave the man this warning … If you eat its fruit, you will be doomed to die.”

Marc Zvi Brettler6)Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies and former chair of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University puts it7)Brettler, pp 45, 295 Referring to Dalley, Stephanie, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, Oxford University Press (1991) pp. 1-38. this way,

“In fact, the divine command of 2:17 should not be understood as [it is] often translated — ‘for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die’ (JPS) — but rather ‘for as soon as you eat of it, you shall become mortal.’ The connection between (procreative) sexuality and mortality is compelling and was well understood, even in antiquity. If people were to be both sexually procreative and immortal, disastrous overpopulation would result.”

I felt that to adequately express the idea in this verse (and others, subsequently) the phrase “mortal and subject to death“, while redundant, conveyed a more meaningful translation.

moral-choiceAnd here we have the nub of the story of the Garden of Eden. God, through His divine author, reveals that man has been created as a creature with free will (understood as the the ability to make choices in the absence of coercion). Such choices, however, are not without their consequences and the consequences are what distinguish between the two choices presented to the man: between a benign, immortal existence in a utopia whose daily existence is without consequence or a mortal life in which consequences follow choice as night follows day. Such consequences, both good and bad, set it apart from life in Eden8)We learn later that certain consequences of mortal life are incompatible with immortal life of Eden and humans must be expelled.

But this is just the setup. Beginning with this verse God reveals the answer to a profoundly fundamental question – what is the nature of evil? Remember that this story was written for a largely pagan audience whose prevailing theology understood evil as residing in nature. Because evil was inherent in nature, nature was a moral agent able to do good or bad. In the literature of the ANE, the pagan gods, each an embodiment  of some natural object such as the sun, the moon, the stars, the oceans, and the winds, were responsible for the good and evil in the world. When evil causes man to suffer, man sought to obviate its consequences by offering a sufficiently large and earnest sacrifice. To the pagan, changing one’s behavior and accepting responsibility for their actions was not contemplated9)This conception of evil — as the acts of capricious gods — is broadly and deeply described by Podnay and McGee, especially chapters 5, 9, and 10 and by  James, chapter 5).

In the Garden story all this changes. The pagan gods have been dismissed and demythologized. In the Garden story, the experience of suffering and joy10)Experienced after making the choice to eat from the tree of knowledge. are no longer due to the deeds of capricious gods. Rather, the Garden story places evil and its suffering squarely in the metaphysical realm of mankind’s moral order.  The Garden story elevates evil from the supernatural realm of the pagan to the natural, moral realm of man. Man has free will. Man controls his moral destiny. Nature, as embodied in the sun, moon, wind, or stars, are morally inert. It is man who is responsible for his actions, not nature!

The theological implications of this idea are profound. Properly understood, the primordial couple is not portrayed as disobedient nor is their suffering portrayed as a punishment administered by God. Such a view (universally accepted by many Christians) retains the pagan concept of suffering as a deliberate act of a divine power11)e.g., for Christians and some Jews, the Devil. But, in the Garden story, man is portrayed as a creature capable of rationale choice12)For example, later in the story we see how they rationalize their choice to eat from the tree of knowledge. – choices that are their own, as are the consequences with which they must live. They knew full well what would happen should they ignore God’s warning. But, they weighed the consequences and made their choice.

In these two verses, then, the author introduces the deeper, metaphysical truth of moral responsibility. Man is accountable for his choices, good or bad – God nor gods are not to blame! Thus, the Garden story is not so much about disobedience for which God imposes eternal punishment on mankind. It is about the exercise of free will and the lesson that those graced with free will must also bear the consequences of their choices for good or bad.

Recall Brettler’s quote above and the phrase sexual procreativity. Just how is sexuality in view is the question to which we now turn.

הַדַּעַת(hadda’at): This is translated “the knowledge of” and occurs in the phrase “the knowledge of good and evil/bad“. Of course, this raises the question: good and evil? What in the world does that mean?

Ibn Ezra followed by many (most?) modern commentators felt that eating its fruit conferred carnal knowledge, citing that immediately upon eating the fruit they became aware of their sexuality13)or, according to some, had actually just committed sexual intercourse – a topic made explicit in chapter three and the first verse of chapter 4. and its possible consequences. To support this conclusion, these scholars point out that the man and his wife chose to cover only their genitals. If sex (or sexual activity) were not in view, why would the author describe them as covering their loins (Gen 3:7) and not their heads or legs? The meaning is clear. Upon eating the fruit, they gained the awareness of, and the ability and desire to engage in sexual activity. Sexual activity and the possibility of procreation is inconsistent with (and cannot exist within) an immortal life in an enclosed space, i.e., Eden (c.f., Genesis 3:22b).

There are textual reasons for interpreting hadda’at tov vara` (the knowledge of good and bad) as a metaphor for sexual ability. First, in the Hebrew Bible, da’at represents a kind of intimate knowledge (usually sexual) that is gained by experience. To “know” someone biblically is to experience that person in a sexual context. Put more bluntly, da’at usually means carnal knowledge in the Bible.

In addition, in Deut 1:39 tov vara` (good and evil/bad) is used to describe an awareness that little children do not yet possess and an ability that the very old have lost (2 Samuel 19:35). In the latter, for example, Barzillai laments to king David that at age 80 he can no longer distinguish between tov vara`.  These two observations raises the question – of what ability are little children not yet aware and that old men have lost?

Answer: sexual desire and its ultimate expression procreative intercourse!

But this presents a serious problem. Why is God warning the man about the dangers of sexual activity? There is, as of yet, no woman. Why doesn’t the author portray the man as mystified by this warning. What is sex? Why is it dangerous? The next verse offers a clue.

Preliminary Translations

Mechanical

16and-He-warned, the LORD God, to-the-man to-say, “From-every tree-of-the-garden to-eat you-may-eat. 17But-from-the-tree-of the-knowledge-of  good-and-bad not will-you-eat from-it because in-the-day-of your-eating14)The Hebrew here is a Qal infinitive contstruct with a 2nd person masculine singular suffix. This grammatical form does not occur in English, hence its clumsiness. from-it to-die you-will-die

Literal

16And the LORD God warned the man saying, “From every tree of the garden you may surely eat, 17but from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, not will you eat from it, because in the day of your eating from it, you will surely die.

Commercial Bible Translations

  • (nas) And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; 17 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.”
  • (kjv) And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: 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.
  • (niv) And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”
  • (net)  Then the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat fruit from every tree of the orchard, 17 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.”
  • (nlt) But the LORD God warned him, “You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden  — except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit, you are sure to die.”

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