[b-hebrew] Dying, you will die Gen 2:17

Harold Holmyard hholmyard3 at earthlink.net
Wed Apr 4 13:37:27 EDT 2007

Scott McAliley wrote:
> I was reading through some archives addressing the infinitive absolute in 
> Genesis 2:17, trying to find some answers to questions that only Hebrew 
> students and experts could answer(I am neither of these, by the way).  And I 
> am hoping that someone can give me some insight.  But before I ask my 
> questions, I may can offer some insight regarding the larger question that 
> much of that thread seemed to evolve into.  There was a lot of speculation 
> over how God could say that in the day they ate of the tree of knowledge of 
> good and evil, dying, they would die, since they didn't physically die that 
> day.  But were Adam and Eve not living and dying simultaneously as we all 
> are?  If they were already immortal, as so many people claim we innately 
> are, then the tree of life that God plainly said could make them live 
> forever would have no value to them at all if they indeed were already going 
> to live forever anyway.  And as far as we know, it was on the same day that 
> they sinned that they were barred from the only thing that would have given 
> them eternal life, therefore, in the day they sinned, already dying, they 
> died in another sense, losing personal access to the tree of life.  So my 
> theory is that they were already dying, but with the opportunity, by their 
> own effort in reaching out their hand, taking, and eating from the tree of 
> life, to have eternal life.  But the death sentence was fulfilled perfectly, 
> and even on that very day, by their banishment.  Does the Hebrew support 
> this theory?  I also see the slaying of a beast and covering the nakedness 
> of Adam and Eve as a foreshadowing of Christ's death on the cross.  So the 
> banishment seems to have more to do with them losing the ability to save 
> their own souls, than it does eternal death, because God provided the 
> provision(the covering) before He banished them, and because the tree of 
> life was only guarded, not chopped down.  The tree appears again in the very 
> last chapter of the Bible, when Christ says that He will give to eat from 
> it, to those who persevere.  All of this causes a serious problem for 
> Christians who try to maintain that the banishment from the garden 
> represents eternal damnation in the form of separation from God.  Most of 
> these same Christians believe, as I do, that the covering of skins 
> represents our salvation through Christ' death.  But you can't have both, 
> because you would have their salvation preceding their damnation.  The 
> banishment can only have to do with the fact that we cannot save ourselves 
> from death.  Only God can do it.  And this seems to be supported even more 
> because we don't just read, "lest they eat of it".  We read, "lest they 
> reach out their hand, and eat of it".  This seems to have to do with human 
> effort.  And the entire message of the Bible is that we are insufficient to 
> save ourselves, and God wants us totally reliant on Him.
>      It is also commonly taught that their sin ruptured their relationship 
> with God.  How can we claim that?  There is not one reference of Adam or Eve 
> communicating to God before sin. And there is no picture of worship either.  
> The relationship actually seems pretty bland.  But after they sin, then God 
> graciously comes to them, chastens them(a proof of love according to the New 
> Testament), then graciously covers their shame.  They could have rejected 
> the covering God offered and tried to maintain their own feeble coverings, 
> as many do.  And this seems to parralel how we still today have the choice 
> of accepting God's covering for our sin, Jesus death on the cross, or not.   
> Sorry so long there.  My question is: Could the infinitive absolute be 
> referencing either of the following?...1) That they were physically dying 
> and there was nothing that could change that, but that their soul, which 
> would have been saved by eating of the tree of life, will now die as well if 
> they eat th tree of knowledge of good and evil  or 2)That their body and 
> soul were always headed for death from the point of their creation, but that 
> they had the opportunity to save both by eating of the tree of life, but 
> would lose that opportunity if they sinned.   My next question is:  Does 
> anyone find any significance in the fact that when Eve was telling the 
> serpent what God had said, she only used one tense of die, but then the 
> serpent uses both, as God had?  And can someone tell me which tense Eve 
> used?  And last question:  When the serpent gives his response, the literal 
> version I found translates it as, "dying, you will not die", but when I look 
> at the Hebrew, the negation term precedes both forms of die.  Is this just 
> how Hebrew works?  Why is the term for negation in between the "dies" in the 
> literal translation?  I would appreciate any help with this.

HH: The general understanding is that the infinitive absolute adds 
emphasis to what is said in a construction like this. That's why many 
Bible translations render the phrase as "you will surely die." The 
negative from the devil negates the positive statement of the Lord's, so 
I might translate it as, "You will surely not die." So the serpent is 
being just as emphatic as God was, but in contradicting the Lord. Eve 
just made a simple statement, not an emphatic one. Here is a quote about 
the infinitive absolute that touches on this verse. I hope that the 
Greek lettering comes through, but perhaps you can understand the gist, 
even if it does not:

One of the most common Hebraisms of this kind is the intensifying 
infinitive absolute. An infinitive is the unconjugated or uninflected 
form of a verb. In English the preposition to usually precedes the 
infinitive, as in to read or to write. The infinitive in Hebrew takes 
two different forms, the construct and the absolute. But we are 
concerned only with the absolute form here. One of its most common 
purposes is to intensify the cognate finite verb in the same sentence. 
In other words, a Hebrew sentence might have the same verb twice in a 
row, once in the infinitive absolute form, and again in a conjugated or 
inflected form.

The result is an expression that, if translated literally into English, 
might look like to think he thought, or to speak he spoke. These phrases 
make little sense in English. Only slightly improving their 
intelligibility, some literal translations will use participles instead 
of infinitives, as in thinking he thought, or speaking he spoke. That is 
better, perhaps, but still odd in English, and probably missing the 
point of the Hebrew idiom, which is to intensify the main verb. So most 
translations obscure the Hebrew idiom altogether, and translate 
something like he thought carefully, or surely he spoke. The subject of 
the verb is not only doing the verb, he or she is doing it intensely in 
some manner.

The nice thing for scholars is that this particular Hebraism makes as 
little good sense translated literally into Greek or Latin as it does 
translated literally into English. And quite often the Greek and Latin 
translations of ancient Hebrew texts were almost painfully literal.

One has to be careful. Sometimes a Hebraism might show up in an 
originally Greek or Latin text just because the writer was a native 
speaker of Hebrew, and is thinking Hebraically. So the scholar will 
usually look for more than one or two Hebraisms here or there to come to 
a judgment on the original language of the text at hand. If the whole of 
an originally Hebrew text has been translated literally, however, the 
scholar will not have far to look. The translation will be teeming with 

Below are two examples from the Hebrew scriptures. There is no doubt, of 
course, that our Old Testament was composed originally in Hebrew. We 
still have the Hebrew texts, and are historically aware of the stories 
behind some of the more popular ancient translations of those texts. 
What will be of interest is how two of these translations, the Greek 
Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, handle the Hebraic infinitive absolute.

My first example is possibly the most famous instance of this Hebraism, 
Genesis 2.17 (Masoretic, LXX, Vulgate):

ומעץ הדעח מוב ורע לא חאכל ממנו כי ביום אכלך ממנו מוח חמוח׃

Απο δε του ξυλου του γινωσκειν καλον και πονηρον ου φαγεσθε απ αυτου· η 
δ αν ημερα φαγητε απ αυτου θανατω αποθανεισθε.

De ligno autem scientiae boni et mali ne comedas. in quocumque enim die 
comederis ex eo morte morieris.

But from the tree of knowing good and evil do not eat, because in the 
day you eat from it dying you will die.

In the Hebrew, מוח is the infinitive absolute and חמוח is the main verb. 
I have rendered this phrase participially in my wooden English 
translation. The New American Standard renders it as you will surely die.

But note what the Greek translation has done. It has rendered the main 
verb nicely, but added a cognate noun, as unnecessary in Greek as it is 
in English, as a translation of the Hebrew infinitive absolute. So we 
read θανατω αποθανεισθε, or by death you shall die.

HH: In other words, a double sort of translation like the Greek may not 
reflect the Hebrew idea well and may give the reader incorrect ideas by 
the addition of the noun, as though there were some contrast with "by 
death you shall live" or "living you will die," or whatever.

Harold Holmyard

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