dying you shall die
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 surely die.”
When God forbade Adam from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, He warned him of imminent death if he disobeyed. According to Young’s Literal Translation, God said, ‘…dying thou dost die.’ Based on this literal translation, some have interpreted this to mean there would be a long process of death that would begin the moment Adam ate the fruit.
However, many have pointed out that this phrasing, ‘dying you shall die’, is a common method that the Old Testament employed to show (or intensify) the certainty of the action. They say that the Hebrew phrase means, ‘you shall surely die.’
Solomon used the same phrase (1 Kings 2:37, 42) in a way that supports the latter interpretation. The king told Shimei that the day he left Jerusalem, ‘dying you shall die.’ What he meant was that if Shimei ever left Jerusalem, he would most certainly be put to death.
Additionally, the English translation of the Greek Old Testament shows us what ancient Hebrew linguists thought the phrase meant as they translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. The Greek Old Testament rendering of Genesis 2:17 reads, ‘…but in whatever day you should eat of it, to death you shall die.’ This reading conveys the idea of certain death, not a process of death.
Thus, the phrase, ‘dying you shall die’, means they would most certainly die if they ate of the fruit.
Understanding what kind of death this was is a little more challenging. It clearly wasn’t physical death, because their bodies remained functional. It must have been some kind of spiritual death. But we see they continued to interact with God, so it doesn’t seem that their spirit ceased to function either.
In my opinion, the Lord Himself answers the question for us in the parable of the prodigal son. At the end of the parable, the father speaks of his younger son, saying, ‘…your brother was dead and is alive again…’ I think the only way to understand how the younger boy was dead is to recognize that the boy lived a completely different life than his father’s life. Instead of living the life of his father – at his father’s house, eating his father’s food, wearing his father’s clothing – he lived his own life apart and independent of his father.
In much the same way, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they gained a knowledge of good and evil that was completely independent of God’s knowledge of good and evil. You see, wisdom is the knowledge of how to live life. Having their own wisdom meant they were living no longer living life based on God’s wisdom; they were living their own life independent of God.
God’s life is a life of life. Their life, by definition, was a life of death because it was separate from God’s life.
Thus, when the Lord Jesus promised us eternal life, He was promising to bring us into God’s life – forever. He fulfills the promise by giving us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit produces life in our mortal bodies. When we submit to Him, we are no longer living independently but are living God’s life.