וַיֹּאמֶר הַנָּחָשׁ אֶל־הָֽאִשָּׁ֑ה לֹֽא־מוֹת תְּמֻתֽוּן׃ כִּי יֹדֵעַ אֱלֹהִים כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְכֶם מִמֶּנּוּ וְנִפְקְחוּ עֵֽינֵיכֶ֑ם וִהְיִיתֶם כֵּֽאלֹהִים יֹדְעֵי טוֹב וָרָֽע
And the serpent said to the woman, “It is not certain you will become mortal, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will open and you will become like gods, knowing good and bad.”
It is not certain you will become mortal: normally translated as “Surely you will not die”, all commercial Bibles of which I am aware translate this phrase to mean that death is a certainty. However, there exists a puzzling ambiguity here in that the text (both English and Hebrew) can be read in one of two ways, both of which are grammatically correct. For example,
- Certainly you will not become mortal.
- It is not certain that you will become mortal.
The Hebrew, however, seems to favor the second reading and to understand why, it’s important that we dig into a little Hebrew grammar.
In biblical Hebrew, when an author wants to emphasize that an action is certain beyond a doubt, he will use an infinitive phrase. Such phrases occur when the infinitive of a verb closely precedes the actual subject-verb of the sentence. For example, in Genesis 2:17, the infinitive phrase, “to die, you will die” is translated as “surely you will die” or “certainly you will die“. Here the author wants us to know that death is a certainty beyond a doubt. These infinitive phrases are very, very common in the Bible and are universally translated using “certainly” or “surely“. Indeed, wherever the words surely or certainly or without a doubt occur in an English translation, the underlying Hebrew almost certainly consists of an infinitive phrase.
To express uncertainty, then, the biblical authors negate the infinitive part of the construct as in “not to die, you will die“. And this is exactly how this is written, לֹֽא־מוֹת תְּמֻתֽוּן (lo-mot təmutun), literally “not to die, you will die“.
ASIDE: So, how is an infinitive of certainty negated absolutely? To express the idea that “you will absolutely not die, no ifs ands or buts about it“, the negation (“not”) is placed between the infinitive and the verb. Had the serpent desired to state absolutely that the humans would not become mortal (and that God was lying), for example, Genesis 2:17 would have been written “to die not will you die“.
Thus, given the plain reading of the Hebrew, I translated this phrase as “It is not certain that you will die“((For a more detailed description, including grammar references, please see Wenham, p.74)).
become like gods: the Hebrew word for God is אֱלֹהִים (Elohim). Elohim is also the plural of god, i.e., gods (note the small ‘g’). In the Bible, whenever the word Elohim is encountered, the translator can examine the associated parts of speech. For example, if Elohim is a subject of a plural verb it is to be translated as the plural ‘gods’ ((See, for example, the first commandment, Exodus 20:3)). If the verb is singular, Elohim is translated as the single, unitary, Judeo Christian God of creation, God (with a capital ‘G’).
In this verse, Elohim occurs twice:
And the serpent said to the woman, “It is not certain you will die, for Elohim knows that when you eat of it your eyes will open and you will become like elohim, knowing good and bad.”
The Hebrew word from which is translated ‘knows’ is singular, so the first occurrence of Elohim must be translated as ‘God’ with a capital ‘G’. On the other hand, the second occurrence of Elohim is as the subject of the plural participle, ‘knowing’. Hence ‘gods’ is its correct translation((Of all the commercial Bibles I’ve examined, only the KJV gets this correct.)).
The general consensus from scholars suggests that the serpent is referring to God and His royal court — angels, cherubim, and so forth. As we’ll see later in verse 22, this view is largely confirmed in that God uses the same grammatical formulation to refer to His court or divine council.
This being the case, eating from the tree of knowledge should not be taken to mean that Adam and Eve would not become like God, but something less.
My translation conventions can be found here.
and-said the-serpent to-the-woman, “not-to-die shall-you-die because knowing((Singular)) God then when to-eat from-it and-opened-will-be your-eyes and-you-will-become like-gods knowing((Plural)) good and-bad.
And the serpent said to the woman, “That you will die is not certain because God [is] knowing that when you [are] to eat from it and your eyes will be opened and you will become like gods knowing good and bad
Commercial Bible Translations
- (nas) And the serpent said to the woman, “You surely shall not die! 5 “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
- (kjv) And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: 5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
- (niv) “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
- (nlt) “You won’t die!” the serpent replied to the woman. 5 “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”