Something that I've been hearing with some frequency is the claim that there is something called “spiritual death” which means separation from God. When I've asked where this definition is found in the Bible or where the word “death” is used like this and have gotten weak and unconvincing responses. But there is a place where some of them think it is quite clear which seems like the very foundation of their idea.
In Bereshis [Genesis] 2:17, God warns the first man, whom I'll call “Adam,” not to eat from a certain tree. Commonly, this verse is translated thusly.
"... but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat from it; for in the day that you shall eat from it, you shall surely die." (Bereshis [Genesis] 2:17)
Now that's how it is commonly translated. Further in the historical narrative, Adam, and with him his wife, did eat from the forbidden tree. But Christians note that neither Adam nor his wife died on the day that they ate from the tree. In fact, Adam lived 930 years in total before he died.
Therefore they come to a conclusion: Adam did in fact die on the day he ate from the tree. How so? Well, on that day, because of that sin, that original sin, he was “separated from God,” whatever that means. I will evidence this using various Christian commentaries commenting on Genesis 2:17 found at https://biblehub.com/commentaries/genesis/2-17.htm.
With a threefold death.
1. Spiritual, by the guilt and power of sin: at that instant thou shalt be dead in trespasses and sins, Ephesians 2.1.
2. Temporal, or the death of the body, which shall then begin in thee, by decays, infirmities, terrors, dangers, and other harbingers of death.
3. Eternal, which shall immediately succeed the other. (Matthew Poole's Commentary)
for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die; or “in dying, die” (z); which denotes the certainty of it, as our version expresses it; and may have regard to more deaths than one; not only a corporeal one, which in some sense immediately took place, man became at once a mortal creature, who otherwise continuing in a state of innocence, and by eating of the tree of life, he was allowed to do, would have lived an immortal life; of the eating of which tree, by sinning he was debarred, his natural life not now to be continued long, at least not for ever; he was immediately arraigned, tried, and condemned to death, was found guilty of it, and became obnoxious to it, and death at once began to work in him; sin sowed the seeds of it in his body, and a train of miseries, afflictions, and diseases, began to appear, which at length issued in death. Moreover, a spiritual or moral death immediately ensued; he lost his original righteousness, in which he was created; the image of God in him was deformed; the powers and faculties of his soul were corrupted, and he became dead in sins and trespasses; the consequence of which, had it not been for the interposition of a surety and Saviour, who engaged to make satisfaction to law and justice, must have been eternal death, or an everlasting separation from God, to him and all his posterity; for the wages of sin is death, even death eternal, Romans 6:23. So the Jews (a) interpret this of death, both in this world and in the world to come. (Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible)
By death he means the separation of man from God, who is our life and chief happiness: and also that our disobedience is the cause of it. (Geneva Study Bible)
Not only thou shalt become mortal, but spiritual death and the forerunners of temporal death shall immediately seize thee. (Wesley's Notes on the Bible)
To use some more modern resources, a website called bible.org attempts to say the way in which Adam died on the day he ate from the forbidden tree in its article, “The Death of Death“. To set the foundation, it first “defines” what death is. Under the section, “The Meaning of Death,” it opines,
Death means “separation” regardless of the type of death involved. Death is never cessation of existence, nor is it cessation of consciousness.
On this allegation of a definition, it then helps us to understand what happened to poor Adam on that fateful day.
Spiritual death is “separation from God in time.” The moment Adam and Eve sinned they died toward God. Adam and Eve died spiritually right away and this is seen in the fact that they hid themselves from God. They had a nature that was contrary to God's nature and that nature, now fallen, found no fellowship with God. The life Adam and Eve possessed did not respond to the life possessed and enjoyed by God. God had not died. Man had died spiritually. No longer did he have spiritual life; he was spiritually dead.
Because this was Adam and Eve's permanent nature as a result of their sin, this nature is passed on to each child born of the seed of man. We are all born spiritually dead toward God. (ibid.)
Wait! Do you have questions about what happened to Adam when he ate from the tree? Well, the website, gotquestions.org, is going to “help” us again.
Death is separation. A physical death is the separation of the soul from the body. Spiritual death, which is of greater significance, is the separation of the soul from God. In Genesis 2:17, God tells Adam that in the day he eats of the forbidden fruit he will “surely die.” Adam does fall, but his physical death does not occur immediately; God must have had another type of death in mind—spiritual death. This separation from God is exactly what we see in Genesis 3:8. When Adam and Eve heard the voice of the Lord, they “hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God.” The fellowship had been broken. They were spiritually dead.
Got Questions (n.d.). “What is spiritual death?” [online]. Available at: https://www.gotquestions.org/spiritual-death.html. Accessed: 27th December 2022
I think I've made it clear that this is a typical Christian understanding of the death that occurred to Adam on the day he ate from the tree. This “original sin” and “spiritual death” scenario is merely setup for the necessity of Jesus' alleged (and failed) sacrifice which should save us from this original sin and get us back right with God again.
Now, me personally, experientially and biblically, I cannot get with or behind this apparent contrivance of what death is for a number of reasons. I guess it would be more substantive for me to focus on the biblical reasons because my experience would be irrelevant to many. But I may still touch on it if I feel like it.
In my eyes, there are two fundamental weaknesses with this Christian conclusion: the first interpretation of the Christian reader; and the actual use of the word “death.”
So what happens first? The reader takes up the bible in this native tongue, normally not Hebrew – we'll go with English for now – and reads the words: “in the day you eat of it, you will surely die.” Question: how will he understand that phrase? Quite naturally, only one impression forms in the mind. “In the day” is interpreted as “in that very 24-hour period, not another day-night cycle passing.” And, “you will surely die” in connection means that you must be dead! To use a clearer analogy, if Adam was using our calendar, and he did the act on Tuesday the 2nd of May, then he must be put to death or die before Wednesday the 3rd of May. That's the understanding that people normally come up with.
But that's how one would read the normal English version. But what about the original Hebrew? Well, in the phrase translated “you shall surely die,” the Hebrew doesn't have the word “must” or “surely” in it. There are separate Hebrew words that mean “truly” or “surely,” like Strongs numbers 389 and 403. But no such words are in the text. This is important when it comes to a further point: words are added in the English to help convey an understanding, in this case “surely.”
In the phrase translated “you shall surely die,” the Hebrew just has one verb repeated in two different forms. It's the verb would sound like “Mooth” (Strongs 4191), and it means “to die.” To hear the statement in Hebrew, it would sound like “mooth tah-mooth.” The first “mooth” is in a form called “the infinitive absolute.” The second time, the “tah-mooth,” it is in the second person singular imperfect form. What does that all mean?
The “infinitive absolute” form has a scope of meaning, where it attempts to convey a more abstract meaning of a verb, like the difference between the more concrete “desolate” and more abstract and general term “desolation”. When it is used before another form of the same verb it increases the sense of certainty or force or completeness of an act. To quote,
The infinitive absolute used before the verb to strengthen the verbal idea, i.e. to emphasize in this way either the certainty (especially in the case of threats) or the forcibleness and completeness of an occurrence. In English, such an infinitive is mostly expressed by a corresponding adverb, but sometimes merely by putting greater stress on the verb ...
Gesenius, W. (1909). “Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar” [online]. Available at: https://en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/Gesenius%27_Hebrew_Grammar/113._The_Infinitive_Absolute. Accessed on: 27th December 2022
So, as Gesenius says, this form of the verb is used to either increase the certainty of an thing, or its forcefulness and completeness.
The second occasion, “tahmooth,” being in the second person singular imperfect means that it refers to the second person, meaning “you,” but only the singular, meaning one person, rather than “you people,” and imperfect means that the action is incomplete, so it's generally (but not always) interpreted as a future act, especially when it's not connected to any prefixes or connected letters. In short, it means “you will die [in the future]”.
So putting them together, if we were to translate it more “literally,” it would not say “you shall surely die,” but rather “death you shall die,” or “dying you shall die.”
Now comes the question: how does the translator bring across the concepts of the certainty and death happening to some “you” person, especially when read in the context of the whole story where it's obvious that man doesn't die the very same day? He could leave the translation difficult and unnatural in his native language (“dying, you shall die”) and challenge the reader to dig for its potential meaning, but translators rarely do that for some reason. Or he can try to clarify it for readers by adding words that may “guide” the reader to the understanding that he has.
But one thing is reasonably clear: the phrase is forceful and certain, and it's about the death of the “you” in the text.
I'm gonna leave that point hanging there to deal with the second weakness of the Christian argument, the way “death” is to be understood.
Now this is the first time that that Hebrew word “death” is used in the Hebrew Bible. Let's pretend that it's unclear what it means. So now I'd ask, how is it used in the rest of the book of Bereshis [Genesis]? Would I be led to this Christian notion of “separation”, like how I separate my son from his games, or separate the two slices of bread that once made a sandwich? Or would I get a different answer?
So there's a number of ways you can do this. You can use online resources (like this) to see all the times the Hebrew verb “mooth” or Strongs number 4191 is used at least in the book of Bereshis [Genesis] or throughout the five books of Moshe, him being their writer or scribe under God's dictation. Or you can use Bible software like e-sword to search for the Strongs number.
After the “ambiguous”(?) episode with Adam his wife, the word is used 8 times in Bereshis [Genesis] chapter 5. It only has one meaning: life ends, the end of life. For example,
And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died. Bereshis [Genesis] 5:5
The formula is the same for all the times the verb is used in this chapter: all the days of a guy's life was some number of years, and then it was over. That's it. Life is over.
The next time it is used, it says that during the worldwide flood, all living animals “died.”
All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died. Bereshis [Genesis] 7:22
No sign of some lofty “spiritual death” here, just the expiration of one's life.
This trend does not change throughout the book of Bereshis [Genesis]. Nothing helps in the rest of the books of Moshe either.
So let me get this straight. If I pretend that I'm unsure about what “mooth” or death means in the episode of Adam & Co. eating from the forbidden tree, and I read EVERY other usage of the word in Bereshis or the books of Moshe and just see “the end of life” then why would I interpret the first usages any differently? Surely the first usage should be the main template for how the term is used in future. If all the future usages in the book are just the simple and natural end of life, then that should tell me what the first usage must have meant to inform or limit the rest of occurrences. Why would I treat one passage differently to the others?
In addition, “mooth” or “death” doesn't mean “separation” biblically. It is never defined as “to separate” and is never translated as, for example “all the days of Adam was 930 years and then he separated(???).” It just means the end of life. What Christians have done is skip the step of just determining the biblical usage of the word and shove in some “deeper” or “spiritualised” understanding that is not actually in the simple reading of the text.
So “death” just means “the end of life.” So the later occurrences of the Hebrew term contradict the idea that there is some “spiritual death” or “separation from God” as Christians imagine.
But what does that mean for Adam and his fate that “in the day you eat from it, mooth tamooth?”
Well, as discussed above, the Hebrew phrase means certainty and that death will happen. And the phrase in Bereshis [Genesis] always refers to a natural death. So, contextually, in line with the story, it would be understood as follows: in the day that you eat from it, your death is certain and must happen. So it doesn't simply mean, “you do the act on Tuesday, you will die that same Tuesday.” It means that when you eat of it, your death is fixed to happen. It wasn't so certain while man was in the garden of Eden and had access to “the tree of life” that could give everlasting life. But after eating from the forbidden tree, its fruit, man was given his punishment, certain death in the future (“you will die”), and expulsion from the garden forever cut off from the tree that would give immortality (“it is certain that you will die”). Hence we have the meaning of the verse according to the Hebrew: certainty and death in the future for the “you” character. And I'm not alone or unique in this conclusion.
IN THE DAY THOU EATEST THEREOF THOU SHALT SURELY DIE. At the time you eat of it, you will be condemned to die. Similarly, we find: On the day thou goest out, and walkest abroad any whither, thou shalt surely die. This does not mean that he [Shimi] is to die immediately on that day; nor does it refer to his mere knowledge thereof, namely that he is to know that he will die eventually for all the living know that they shall die. But it does mean that at the time he [Shimi] goes forth from Jerusalem, he is liable to death at the hand of the king, and he will slay him when he pleases.
Nachmanides (or Rambam) (date unknown). Available at: https://www.sefaria.org/Ramban_on_Genesis.2.17.2?lang=en. Accessed on: 27 December 2022.
Here the commentator, Nachmanides, refers to an episode in 1 Kings 2 where the king told Shimi that if he leaves his city, he will die. How did the king phrase it?
And the king sent and called for Shimei, and said to him, Didn't I make you swear by the LORD, and warn you, saying, “Know for certain, on the day you go out, and walk abroad anywhere, that you shall surely die?” and you said to me, The word I've heard is good. 1 Kings 2:42
Again, the king didn't have to mean “you do the deed on Friday, you die on Friday.” Rather it means that Shimi (or Shimei) is condemned to death the day he does it, the actual execution not necessarily happening on that day.
So, again, “in the day you do it, mooth tahmooth” can mean “on the day you do it, you're condemned to die,” or “it is certain that you will die.”
Now the argument may arise that the word “condemned” is not in the original Hebrew, or the phrase, “it is certain” is absent. But as I said before, the word “surely” isn't there either. It is a word that is added to give clarity to the understanding of the Hebrew phrase in English, and is not absent from the meaning or usage of the Hebrew phrase or idiom.
So this is why I think the notion of “spiritual death” or “death is separation from God” or “original sin” is just a Christian invention added to the text of the story of Adam; it is eisegesis rather than exegesis. Adam didn't die spiritually; no such notion is in the text of Bereshis [Genesis]!