"But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."
-- Gen 2:17
Is God here threatening that if Adam ate from the forbidden tree, he would be dead before the day was over? A number of critics have made that statement that Satan, who denied that Eve would die (Gen 3:4) was more honest than God, for Adam lived 900 more years after eating of the tree. A number of atheists have even called this "God's first lie."
Christian commentators have occasionally tried to get around the fact that Adam did not drop over dead by saying that ‘spiritual’ death, rather than physical death, is what God is threatening (e.g. "The primary warning is undoubtedly that of spiritual death" - Morris, The Genesis Record, p.94). This seems to get around the ‘immediacy’ problem, because we can then say that Adam died spiritually without dying physically, necessitating a savior who would rescue us who were "dead in tresspasses and sins" (Eph 2:1). The savior is promised to Eve and all mankind in the next chapter (Gen 3:15).
However, as the ideas of "spiritual death" vs. "physical death" are developed so much later in scripture, I cannot help the feeling that we are imposing on the text to make such a proclamation; that certainly was not what the ancients had in mind when they read the passage. God seems here to be talking about physical death, the kind of death Adam and Eve likely witnessed for the first time when God made clothing from an animal (Gen 3:21) to cover their nakedness, and the kind of death we speak of when we say someone died. But if physical death is what is in view here, then our original problem remains: Adam did not die on the day he ate.
On the other hand, the fact that he did not die the very day he ate never seemed to bother the ancients. They never tried to tidy up the text or gloss it over. In fact, those critics who say that this story is a pious fabrication - of course, they would say ‘late tradition’ - must also add idiocy to the list of maladies allegedly suffered by the ancients, for no intelligent person would create a story with such a blatant faux pas only 2 chapters in. The fact that it did not bother the ancients, however, gives us a clue to understanding the verse; maybe they did not understand it the same way we do from a casual reading.
So let us begin by looking where our problem lies, in the words ‘in the day you eat’. To our minds, this suggests an immediacy of consequence: eat, then die. But is that the way the Hebrews understood the phrase?
Fortunately, we have a good example of how the phrase was used from another source: 1Kings 2:36-46.
The story is this: King Solomon sent for a man named Shimei who had cursed his father David (2Sa 16:5) when Absalom rebelled. Upon his entrance to the court, Solomon condemned him to a form of house arrest and threatened him with death if he ever crossed over the Brook Kidron (1Ki 2:36-37).
Some time later, Shimei took a trip to Gath to chase some of his runaway servants and Solomon found out about it. Calling him to the palace, Solomon reminded him of the oath: Did I not make you swear by the LORD, and protest to you, saying, "Know certainly that on the day you go out and walk abroad anywhere that you shall surely die?" (2Ki 2:42). After which Solomon carried out the promised death penalty.
Solomon's threat "On the day...you shall surely die" parallels God's threat to Adam, yet it is clear from Solomon’s usage of it that the promised penalty was not carried out the very day, for Shimei had to go to Gath, then return, then the king had to deal with it. And Solomon did not say "Well, since you lived past that day, I guess I can’t carry out sentence on you". What Solomon was saying was "When you cross the brook, your fate is sealed, and that fate is death."
In fact, reading the original oath spells this out clearly: "For it shall be that on the day you go out and pass over the brook Kidron, you will know for certain that you shall surely die: your blood shall be upon your own head." 1Kings 2:37
Now, if this usage is carried back to Gen 2:17, it will cause us to read God’s command something like this: "You shall not eat of the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, for when you do, your fate is sealed, and that fate is death". "On that day" represents not an issue of immediacy, then, but an issue of certainty.
So although Shimei lived on past the actual day of his transgression, he was in fact a walking dead man; his fate was sealed. Adam was the same way, "for the wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23a). But God mercifully extended Adam’s physical life, gave him a reprieve so to speak, from immediate judgement, and he was allowed to live a long time afterwards. Just as we do not immediately die upon sinning, Adam did not.
Thank God, though, he allowed Paul to finish the verse:
"but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Rom 6:23b