“in the day.” The wording of the Hebrew text does not make it clear whether Genesis 2:17 is speaking of a single day or a period of time. The Hebrew word is more literally, “in day” (or, “in a day”) because there is no definite article “the” in the Hebrew text. The Hebrew is just the prefix preposition “b” (the letter beth), which means “in,” combined with the word “day” (yōm), making the Hebrew word, b-yōm, “in day.” The Hebrew does not have the definite article, “the,” in the phrase, but it could have had by making a change in the vowel associated with the beth, which tells us that the Massorites did not think the text was saying “the day.” The decision whether b-yōm means “in the day,” referring to that very same day, or whether it refers to a period of time, has to be made from the context. But in Genesis 2:17 the context is unclear as to whether God meant “in the day,” or “in a day” meaning at some later time.” The same Hebrew wording that is in Genesis 2:17 is in Genesis 2:4, which refers to a period of time and not in one day. Similarly, when the Hebrew text was translated into Greek starting around 250 BC, the Jewish scholars did the same thing in Greek as was in the Hebrew text; they used a phrase that could mean “in the day,” or could mean in a period of time (cp. Gen. 2:4; Exod. 32:34; Deut. 21:16; Ps. 102:2 (101:3 in LXX); Ezek. 33:12). In English, we also use “day” for a period of time.
So should the text be understood to say, “on the day” or “at some future time”? On the one hand, there seems to be evidence for the translation, “in the day.” For example, in most English versions, Genesis 2:17 ends with a phrase such as, “you will surely die” (NIV), and that is the translation of the Hebrew phrase, “dying you will die,” which is the figure of speech polyptoton, repeating the same root word for emphasis, in this case, to emphasize the fact that Adam would die.a Having the polyptoton adjacent to b-yōm, “in day,” seems to validate the translation, “in the day.” There are also a large number of verses where b-yōm refers to the same day.
On the other hand, however, Adam and Eve did not die the very day on which they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but hundreds of years later, and that supports the translation of b-yōm as “on a day” (“someday,” “in a [future] time”). Further support for “a day” referring to a larger period of time comes from the use of b-yōm, in some other verses in the Old Testament. For example, Genesis 2:4 says “…in the day when Yahweh God made the earth and the heavens.” In that case, b-yōm clearly does not refer to one day, but to a period of time—the time it took God to create the heavens and the earth. There are also other verses where a period of time is a more logical understanding of b-yōm than one single day (cp. Gen. 35:3; Num. 3:1; Deut. 21:16, 31:17; 1 Sam. 3:2, etc.).
So the Hebrew text in and of itself is not clear whether Adam and Eve would die the very day they ate of the forbidden fruit, or simply at some future time. What is clear and uncontested in the text is that God told Adam that if he ate of the forbidden fruit, he would die. The text note in the First Edition of the NET Bible says it well: “The Hebrew text (‘dying you will die’) does not refer to two aspects of death (‘dying spiritually, you will then die physically’). The construction simply emphasizes the certainty of death….”
In the final analysis, we may never know exactly what God meant, whether it was “in the very day,” or “at some day in the future,” but we do know that Adam and Eve did not die the day they sinned, or for hundreds of years afterward. However, something did die that day—an animal. We know that because God clothed Adam and Eve with animal skins (Gen. 3:21).
From what the Bible tells us about animal sacrifice as a covering for sin, and from knowing that Jesus, the “lamb of God,” died for our sin, it seems logical to conclude that God postponed the death of Adam and Eve and sacrificed an animal in their place. The animal sacrifices that temporarily covered sin ultimately pointed to God’s great act of mercy in commuting the death sentence and granting everlasting life to everyone who accepted the death of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, in place of their own death. If the conclusion that God postponed Adam’s death and sacrificed an animal is correct, then it is also logical to conclude that the animal that was killed to provide skin-coverings for Adam and Eve was a lamb (or lambs), and it foreshadowed the sacrifice of the Messiah.
Properly understanding the Genesis record should clear up an incorrect belief that is held by some Christians who believe that God said that Adam would die that very day, so he must have died in some way that very day. Since Adam and Eve did not physically die that day, those Christians then conclude that Adam must have had holy spirit, and it was the spirit that “died” that day. However, that conclusion is based on faulty logic and evidence. For one thing, as we have seen from the Hebrew text, God did not necessarily say Adam had to die on the day he ate the forbidden fruit. Also, God said to Adam that “you” will die, He did not say, “a part of you will die.”
Actually, the Bible says nothing about Adam and Eve even having holy spirit before the Fall; that is just speculation that is generated by the assumption that God said Adam would die that very day, so therefore he had to die in some way. But since the Bible says nothing about Adam and Eve having or not having holy spirit, there are a lot of possibilities that have to be considered, and we will see that trying to introduce holy spirit into the Genesis record of Adam and Eve may not be the best one.
One possibility is that Adam and Eve never had the gift of holy spirit before the Fall. After all, the Bible says God made Adam’s body out of dust and breathed into it the breath of life, at which time Adam became a “living soul,” a living being. There is no mention of Adam and Eve having holy spirit, and they may not have needed it because God fellowshipped with them personally, like when He walked in the Garden (Gen. 3:8). Furthermore, while it is possible that God put His gift of holy spirit upon Adam and Eve after the Fall so that they could learn to live in a fallen world, just like He put it on Moses, Joshua, and the prophets, there is no verse that confirms that; it is just speculation.
Another possibility is that Adam and Eve had God’s gift of holy spirit upon them before the Fall, but that God did not take it from them when they sinned. The Old Testament prophets had holy spirit upon them, but God did not take it away from them every time they sinned. No verse says that Adam and Eve had spirit before the Fall, or that they lost it after they sinned, so speculation about it is not very helpful. On the other hand, studying the records of people who did have holy spirit upon them and lost it is helpful. For example, God took away His gift of holy spirit from Saul (1 Sam. 16:14), and also apparently from Samson (Judg. 16:20), because of the serious nature of their sin, but those men were not said to “die.”
There is no verse where God’s taking holy spirit from someone is called their death. The Church Epistles use the phrase, “dead in sin” (Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13), but that is referring to people who were never saved and who will die instead of living forever; it is not a direct reference to having or not having holy spirit—holy spirit is not mentioned in any of the verses that use the phrase “dead in sin.”
It is true that in the Church Age, after Pentecost, when a person gets “born again” they receive holy spirit, which is the guarantee of everlasting life. So in the Church Age having holy spirit and having everlasting life are tied together, but that was not the case before the Day of Pentecost. The majority of the people in the Old Testament did not have holy spirit upon them, but that did not mean they would not be saved at the Judgment.
In Romans 5 the apostle Paul gave us more evidence that God telling Adam, “in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die,” did not mean Adam would die that very same day. Paul explained why every human dies, and he did so by a brief retelling of the record in Genesis 3. Paul wrote: “…just as through one man [Adam] sin entered the world and death through sin, in this way death came to all mankind” (Rom. 5:12). Paul showed that it was because of Adam’s sin that death entered the world, and not only did Adam die, but so did all his progeny, all mankind.
When Paul said, “through one man sin entered the world,” he was speaking of Adam’s sin of disobeying God and eating the forbidden fruit. Then, when Paul continued his sentence and wrote, “and death through sin,” he was referring to the sentence of death that God had told Adam about, which was not something that happened that day, but many years later after Adam had children who also died, which is how “death came to all mankind.” Thus Romans helps us see that the meaning of b-yōm (in the day) in Genesis 2:17 refers to an indefinite time in the future, not the same day Adam sinned.
There are many lessons to be gleaned from the story of Adam and Eve. One is that we can be deceived by our five senses and our emotions; another is that if we disobey God, hurt and pain will be the result. However, it seems that the greatest lesson of the record of Adam and Eve is that God is so loving that even when we disobey Him, if we repent and return to Him, He will make a provision to cover our sin so that we can live forever with Him—and living forever with Him is what He wanted all along.
“die, yes, die.” This is a translation of the figure polyptoton (Many Inflections), that is in the Hebrew text. The Hebrew reads, “dying you will die.” The figure shows the certainty of Adam’s death if he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
[For more on polyptoton and this way of translating it, see commentary on Genesis 2:16.]