“eat, yes, eat.” The Hebrew text has the figure of speech polyptoton, which might be literally translated as “eating you may eat.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines polyptoton as: “A rhetorical figure consisting in the repetition of a word in different cases or inflections in the same sentence.” E. W. Bullinger gives it the English name, “Many Inflections” (cp. Bullinger, Figures of Speech), and says that it is “a repetition of the same noun in several cases, or the same verb in several moods or tenses” (Figures, p. 267). According to Bullinger, the Greeks called this figure of speech, metagōgē (in essence, “to lead the same word through different inflections), and the Romans referred to it as casuum varietas (a variety of cases). Bullinger says, “This figure, therefore, is a repetition of the same word in the same sense, but not in the same form: from the same root, but in some other termination; as that of case, mood, tense, person, degree, number, gender, etc.” (p. 267). Bullinger gives examples of polyptoton occurring in nouns, verbs, and adjectives.
Here in Genesis 2:16, the last two words in the Hebrew text are “eat, eat.” However, the first verb is in one tense while the second one is in a different tense. This could be perhaps translated as, “eating you [may] eat.” That phraseology is hard to understand in English, but the translators pick up on the intent of what God is saying by using the translation, “you may freely eat.” While that translation gets the sense of what God is saying, some of the power and punchiness of what He said is lost, as is the emphasis on “eat,” which is clearly emphasized in the Hebrew text. To our knowledge, the Hebrew scholar Everett Fox is the first one to suggest a translation that repeats the words like the Hebrew text does, and include the word “yes” between them, as if God is giving his approval to the emphasis, which of course He is since He is the author of the Hebrew text. If God says to Adam, “you may eat, yes, eat,” we should be able to understand that God is saying Adam is free to eat of the fruit.
The very next verse has another polyptoton. In contrast to saying that Adam may eat, yes, eat, of the trees in the garden, God says that if Adam eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he will “die, yes, die” (Gen. 2:17). The two polyptotons back to back add a force to the text that is very powerful and cannot be missed. In spite of that, however, when Eve is repeating to the serpent the statement God made to Adam about dying if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she does not repeat the powerful figure of speech God used, and thus loses the emphasis (Gen. 3:3). In contrast, the serpent, in a bold move and perhaps because Adam was right there, said (if we use the same translating form): “No! You will not ‘die, yes, die.” Thus the serpent boldly and directly contradicted what God said, even almost exactly quoting his words.
There are occasions when the translation formula of the two words with a “yes” in the middle is used with the figure epizeuxis instead of polyptoton. For an example of that and the figure epizeuxis, see commentary on Genesis 7:19, “exceedingly, yes, exceedingly.”