[b-hebrew] Mortality: the return to dust

eric hirsch eric.hirsch.jr at gmail.com
Tue Nov 27 01:57:35 EST 2012


16 Then Yahweh 'elohim 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 bad you
shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die."

Norman Gottwald, in his *The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction, *
writes:

It is to be noted that Yahweh lies, or at least equivocates, when he says
that "on the day that you eat of it [the forbidden fruit] you shall die,"
and the serpent exploits this divine "bluff" by claiming "you will not die.
. . . your eyes will be opened and you will be like God."  In large
measure, the serpent was right: instead of immediate death, human eyes are
opened to knowledge that both empowers and debilitates, leading to a
constant struggle between life and death."  (pp 330-331).

Instead, I would suggest that Yahweh is not portrayed as lying or bluffing
or is the serpent portrayed as telling the truth.  After all, Eve claims
later state that the serpent deceived her.  The use of the infinitive
absolute with a verb of the same stem can indicate an emphasis upon the
verbal idea, and so most translations translate MOT YAMUT as "you will
surely die."  But Gesenius in his grammar also states:

The infinitive absolute is employed according to § 45 to emphasize the idea
of the verb *in the abstract*, i.e. it speaks of an action (or state)
without any regard to the agent or to the circumstances of time and mood
under which it takes place.

This understanding could render the phrase in English as "dying, you will
die."

What I think is often overlooked is to ask, is this construction compatible
with what happens in the story.  Perhaps its use is not to add emphasis.
 As a result of their disobedience, Yahweh curses the ground and identifies
Adam with the dust of the ground from which he was taken:  "For dust you
are and to dust you shall return."  So I would suggest that because Adam is
composed of the ground (and a breath from Yahweh), this identification
makes Adam's body cursed..  So the cursed ground is meant to teach that
cursing the ground includes cursing Adam's body and thereby makes him
mortal.  This interpretation is supported by Qoheleth, where at the close
of his allegory on aging and death writes:

12:7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was,

and the life’s breath returns to God who gave it
Here the implicit distinction between Adam's "breath" and his body" is
explicitly articulated..

If fact, human mortality is a major and climatic theme in Qoheleth.  The
above statement immediately precedes a restatement of his opening and
concluding theme that all of life is "vanity of vanities."  Life is "vain"
because man is mortal.
To rephrase Yahweh's warning, we could render it based upon what happens
as, "in the day you eat of it, your  ground-made body will begin to return
to dust."  Yahweh cursed Adam with mortality by cursing the ground of which
his body was made and so explicitly states, "Dust you are . . ."  From this
perspective, "dying, you shall die" seems intended to express that his
disobedience will lead to a "degeneration (dying) and death (you shall
die), a "return to dust." That process and its ultimate result is what
Qoheleth contemplates with such relish and  detail in his closing allegory
on aging and death.  Such an interpretation avoids the problematic one that
Yahweh is portrayed as lying, bluffing or equivocating and that the serpent
told the truth yet somehow "deceived" Eve.

Eric Hirsch
Tetragrammaton Software.
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