“You Won’t Die”: Was the Serpent Right?

canstockphoto12927416In Genesis 3, the Man and the Woman eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, even though they had been warned that “in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:17).

That’s a pretty specific warning. It specifies 1) what they are and aren’t supposed to do; 2) what will happen if they disobey; and 3) when those consequences will occur.

Very specific. If you eat, you will die, and you will die on the day you eat.

This fruit will kill you, and kill you quickly.

They eat anyway.

And on the day that they eat of it, they don’t die.

Pretty much exactly as the serpent had said.

That is the plain reading of the text, and there’s no way around it.

You can’t appeal to translation issues. The English accurately translates the Hebrew, and there is no dispute among Hebrew scholars over it.

You can’t say that it refers to a spiritual as opposed to a physical death, as many often do, because that’s not what the warning said.

God didn’t say, “In the day that you eat of it, you shall die spiritually.” That’s just simply not what the text says.

And one of the reasons that the text doesn’t say that is because that’s not how ancient Jews thought. They didn’t have separate categories for physical death and spiritual death.

There was no such thing in their thinking as a spiritual death—when you died your body stopped moving and began the slow process of turning into dust. They believed that a person’s essential being—what we call a soul, although that’s not really what they meant by the word—didn’t die but continued on in a place called Sheol.

You also can’t say that they did die eventually, because the warning didn’t say that they would die eventually but that they would die in the day that they ate of it.

Besides, if you read the rest of the story you learn that eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil wasn’t the direct cause of their eventual deaths. Not having access to the Tree of Life that was the direct cause, and that was caused by their expulsion from the Garden. Their eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is therefore a couple of steps removed from their eventual deaths.

So what gives?

It is my assertion that Genesis 1-11 serves as a prologue, not just for the rest of Genesis, but for the whole Old Testament as well. It’s purpose is to show the downward spiral of humanity from life to death. The more humans try to act like gods, the more they lose their humanity. The more they lose their humanity, the more they act inhumanly, the result being that violence is increased on the earth.

Rather than going forth and bringing forth life, they go forth and bring forth death. It all starts with a small step—wanting to decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong, rather than trusting God to do it for us.

That first step takes us inexorably down the road that leads to death. The serpent in the Garden might have been more crafty than any other creature, and what he said might have been true regarding the deaths of a man and a woman, but God is never concerned with just a man and a woman.

It was the entire creation that God declared very good in Genesis 1, and it is the entire creation that suffers when humans fill the earth with death rather than life, with violence rather than peace, with exploitation rather than nurture.

None of it happens without that first step. When we accept our humanity and are content with being made in the image of God, life flourishes.

When we aren’t content with being made in the image of God and want instead to act like gods, death flourishes.

Life happens when we let God alone be God.

Which, by the way, is why the First Commandment (“I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me”) is the first Commandment.

Because wanting to decide right and wrong for ourselves is the first act of idolatry, and violence is the ultimate blasphemy.

Image by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / zatletic

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