Monday, May 20, 2013

In the day that you eat of it...

A quick note on a Genesis question I have had and that you might not even know you had. Genesis 2:17-18 reads:
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 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.”
You know the story: Adam and Eve do eat the fruit, and then...don't die that day? Does this mean God lied to them, and the serpent was only guilty of correcting His lie? I've heard (and used) a number of responses. Some commentators focus on His mercy in letting them live--but this basically says of the lie, "it's no big deal, God can lie as long as He's merciful about it". Others, eager to fit the narrative into the evangelical narrative of salvation by grace through faith, interpret it as meaning spiritual death as separation from fellowship with God--nevermind that this dimension of death is not clearly seen until the New Testament. (And that it seems very likely that Genesis was supposed to explain the phenomenon of physical death) But there is a better way.

The Hebrew word translating to "in the day" is yowm, the same word used to give the "days" of creation in Genesis 1, which takes a variety of other temporal meanings throughout the OT including by not limited to a general "age" or period of time. (e.g. the "day of the Lord", which is really a new era of history) Because no two languages correspond exactly in their lexicons, yowm, while most often translated "day", should not be assumed to always have the same meaning as our English word "day"; we need to allow for a more flexible definition to account for the translational ambiguity.

Of course, lest you think Hebrew is just a sloppy language, the relationship can go the other way; for instance, Greek has two main words for "time", chronos, meaning a more specific length of time or specific point of occurrence and kairos, meaning an age or season similar to yowm. Now imagine a fictional first-century Greek person somehow listening to "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by the Byrds (nevermind that it it itself based on Ecclesiastes translated from Hebrew), assuming every instance of "time" meant chronos, and doing an intensive study to determine what the exact times to be born, die, plant, reap, etc. the song is talking about are. This person would be missing the point.

Or, of course, Biblical Greek has two words for "love": agape, meaning selfless love in the pattern of God's love for us, and philos, meaning love between friends, both contrasted with eros, meaning romantic love. I think a lot of the modern evangelical confusion with overly emotional spirituality and "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs comes from the fact that these three drastically different concepts are translated to the same word in English. Suppose a Greek individual, reading an English translation of 1 Corinthians 13, insisted on reading "love" only as eros love.

So, in this understanding, Adam's eating the fruit can be seen as inaugurating a new era in history in which people die. While I no longer believe this is literally/historically true (see my posts on the Fall), I think it's exactly what the text is saying in context--no trickery or double speech on God's part.

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