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Please be aware that my knowledge of theology is very limited, and thus can make my question naive

I was under the impression that the end should not justify the means in the spirit of the Bible.

However, God himself seems to be using what I would (maybe wrongly) interpret as deception for the greater good, when he warns Adam and Eve about the forbidden fruit (Genesis, 2:17):

“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die”

Adam and Eve's lives did not come to an end "in the day" they ate the fruit. The mention of such a specific time frame makes God's prediction verifiable, and in this case, unverified. Surely God can not have been mistaken. I personally see 2 ways of justifying it:

  1. He was not referring to actual death, but to a metaphorical death of their innocence. However, if that it is not a lie, that is at least deception to me, and can be deemed manipulative. Indeed, it will not be the understanding of the one who hears this message without additional information. God being all-knowing, I believe he should be aware that a human mind will perceive his words as "my life will come to an end if I eat this". Because of his omniscience, he has to speak those words knowing how it will be interpreted by Adam and Eve, or by a human reader that comes across those words for the first time.

  2. He is doing what some parents do when telling their child things like, "if you pick your nose with your finger, it will stay stuck in it forever!". Considering that Adam and Eve do not have the ability to understand what is good for them, he lies to protect them. However, this is a "the end justifies the means" kind of ideology. I thought (but maybe you will correct me) that the very act of lying is a sin, no matter the justification.

How does the Christian interpretation(s) go about the moral understanding of God's words in this instance?

I specifically want to remind that, in my understanding:

  • God's prediction had an expiry date ("in the day"), so that I don't understand how it could refer to an eventual but distant death

  • Even if God meant something very different than actual death, it is my understanding that He has to be aware of how his words will be understood by the feeble human mind (which is quite literally), and therefore knows what idea he is communicating in his warning to the two humans

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    Is a day always a 24 hour day? In my grandfathers day there were no computers. 2 Peter 3:8 1000 years is a day with God. Adam died at 930 years Less than a day in God Time.
    – Kris
    Sep 3 at 19:37
  • 2
    Since the answer to this question depends very much on an accurate examination of the text, I suggest that Stack Exchange - Biblical Hermeneutics would be the better site for the question.
    – Nigel J
    Sep 3 at 19:59
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    Neither of the two options; it is simply a Hebraism, as explained here; the same idiom also appears in 1 Kings 2:37-42.
    – Lucian
    Sep 3 at 20:28
  • Possible duplicate: christianity.stackexchange.com/q/84702/4 (just not asked in a way that puts God in the hot seat)
    – Peter Turner
    Sep 3 at 21:21
  • +1 This is a good question. Don't forget that within that same "day" God took a life and made a covering for their nakedness demonstrating, perhaps, that his mercy propitiated his judgement. It is near impossible to accurately encompass the meaning of smaller pieces of text without broad context and the Old Testament cannot be rightly divided without input from the New. Sep 4 at 11:45
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There are several instances in the Bible where God gives a warning about a future judgement. On a short timescale, He gives a demonstration as a warning. On a longer timescale, he executes the full impact of his decree if no change in behavior has occurred.

In this case, the demonstration of mortality is Cain slaying Abel, which likely occurred within two decades of the Fall. The full execution of God's decree that Adam would be mortal occurred 930 years later.

The length of time is important. In many Biblical prophecies, a day stands for a thousand years.

8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9)

Peter is reprising an earlier statement in the Psalms:

For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. (Psalm 90:4)

So Adam died just before the first "day" or millennium was over. By this definition of "day", Adam did indeed die during the day in which he and Eve ate of the tree.

Here is another example (also from Genesis) that demonstrates the same idea. In this instance, it relates to God's further reduction of the maximum lifespan of mankind:

6 When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. 3 Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” (Genesis 6:1-3)

Two common interpretations are offered for this passage.

  1. God set 120 years as the time remaining before judging the world by a flood in the days of Noah.

  2. God was reducing the maximum lifespan of all humans from almost a thousand years to 120 years.

The first interpretation is likely true. The second is challenged because after the flood, the patriarchs continued to live longer than 120 years for many centuries. This difficulty may be removed if you consider the question: Who was the last person in the Bible to live to 120 years?

It was Moses, the giver of the Law. This restriction on human lifespan was a law of God, put into full effect when Moses received the commandments. And when did Moses die? If you use Ussher's Chronology, the thousand-year warning period (which started circa 2,470 BC) before God fully implemented the limit of 120 years ended 19 years before Moses died (circa 1,451 BC). It says in Genesis that Moses was still vibrant and healthy up to the day he died. He died not of illness or violence, but by God's law. Even Moses did not receive an exception.

7 Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated. (Deuteronomy 34:7)

So was God being deceptive? No, he was challenging us to pursue wisdom. The understanding of God's timing is one of the deepest mysteries in the Bible. Even Solomon, the wisest man besides Jesus to ever live, could not comprehend God's timing and purposes for history.

9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:9-11)

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  • Thank you! This is actually a very interesting take on it. It does raise new questions to know whether there was some amount of deception, like: did Adam and Eve have access to that information on God's perception of Time? Did Adam and Eve have the ability to understand this subtelty in their primordial naivety, when most humans today would fail to notice it? But those would need another question I think. I will wait a bit to see if other answers come up, and if not, will accept yours as it is the one that adresses the specific of my question most accurately. Thank you ofr your input! Sep 5 at 6:47
  • Nice. Only nitpick is the statement that 930 years after the fall Adam died. That doesn’t account for the years Adam likely lived before Eve came along
    – Kris
    Sep 5 at 12:57
  • @Kris - You are correct in observing that there is no concensus on when Adam and Eve fell. Some believe it was in the first year, while others say later. Given that Seth was born in AM 130, and Cain and Abel had to grow up before their battle, and Cain went off with a sister as wife, the fall was certainly before the end of the first century. Sep 6 at 22:24
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God told no lie. He told the couple absolute truth when he warned that if they partook of something that appeared to be good and desirable (the forbidden fruit), they would die. And die they did. In a two-fold sense they died.

Given that they had not partaken of the fruit of the Tree of Life, they were not immortal. That is why God debarred them from access to it after both physical and spiritual death began to take effect on them. The Tree of Life only reappears in the Book of the Revelation, in the new heavens after all sin has been dealt with. Until then, all humanity suffers the corruption of the flesh that starts after birth and ends in physical death. "Life is a terminal condition" goes one saying. And all humanity born physically starts in a spiritually dead condition. To live without death is what happens to humans who believe what God says on the matter of life. Jesus confirmed that in his gospel, so that all who believe and trust Jesus pass over from death to life eternal. That is why he said that all who believe in him will never die (even though they may die physically.) Yet, until they do that, they are spiritually dead. They have to be born again, of the Spirit, to come to spiritual newness of life.

Spiritual death happened to Adam and Eve after they disobeyed God, within that very day. And within a symbolic 'day' in God's timing (1,000 earth-years) they had grown old and died physically. But that day in the Garden of Eden, they immediately knew they'd spoiled their relationship with God, seeking to hide from God, and to cover themselves (literally, with fig leaves, and symbolically by blaming others. Adam ultimately blamed God! "The woman thou gavest me..."!)

God knew what they had done but asked them to admit it. God had alerted them to a grave danger [pun intended]. The opposite of life - death - would happen if they partook of one particular thing. "Don't do that. Don't go there. Don't think you can live as I do by choosing a different way than the one I give" (not a verbatim statement, but that's what was involved).

God does not die. He is the source of all life, the great "I Am", who is utterly holy, righteous and almighty, and who gifts life eternal in Paradise to those he chooses. He does not gift life eternal to those who wilfully disobey him, for that is the path of unholiness, unrighteousness, and mortality. Now it is time to consider God's warning about death, as epitomized by eating one forbidden 'fruit'.

There was an enemy of God out to wrest God's sovereign and legal rule over his creation through deception - an illegal take-over-bid was made in Paradise, and the unseen deceiver utilized a creature in the garden to introduce an idea that would lead to death, but (obviously) without hinting at that. Quite the opposite. The deceiver first questioned what God had actually said, then ever so slightly twisted what God had said, then implied that if the humans disobeyed God they would not die but they would steal a march on God and become like him. The idea was that God was holding something back from the couple, and his warning of death was just not true - the opposite would happen. Without eating of the Tree of Life, they could grasp that divine life by knowing what this other 'fruit' was. But they had to partake of this other 'fruit', to find out. Then their eyes would be opened and they would be raised above their already glorious status as made in the image of God.

If the couple had had faith in God their Creator, who had gifted them life on a glorious planet, with every need and good desire already met, they would have been allowed to partake of the Tree of Life. But they failed to trust God, who does not lie. Who cannot lie, otherwise he would not be God!

So, the simple answer to your question is that God told no lies, but the great deceiver lied, for the greater evil. And he's still at it, trying to twist what God has actually said to make people think God is lying. Don't fall for it.

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  • Thank you for your answer! It goes in the direction of my proposed explanation 2. However, it does not adress why I do not consider it a flawless explanation. If it is true that God did not lie since he meant something else than litteral death, you, I, or any human who hears "don't do this or you'll die" will understand "I will lose my life this day if I do it". God all-knowing must be aware of this. Therefore, if it is not a lie, I can not ignore that it seems to be deception (since God knows that he is de facto communicating a different idea than the one he truly means). Cf 2nd bullet point Sep 5 at 6:26
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    @BarbaudJulien God's Wisdom sees things differently from the finite understanding of men. When God said, they will die, it is the Truth, and God meant it according to the Wisdom of God, and not thru our finite knowledge of things. Sep 5 at 22:22
  • @jongricafort yes, it is indeed my point. Humans see things differently. God knows it. Therefore he knows he is communicating to them an idea that is different from the truth he technically speaks (according to his own reference frame). This is a common deceptive technique even among humans (in my language we call that a half-lie, when the speaker says semthing that can be technically true, that the receiver will however understand differently, so that the speaker can later say "oh, but I didn't lie, I just meant [insert a convoluted interpretation of his initial words]") Sep 6 at 4:30
  • @Barbaud Julien That account in Genesis is staggeringly brief. It also does not show us the perfect knowledge and thinking of Adam; what God had already told him, what Adam knew of death. Have you considered that he might have seen animals dying? We are not told so I’m not saying that he did, but those who go beyond what the account actually states are inclined to speculate all sorts of scenarios that seem to allow them to question God. Was that not the whole point of the lesson with an evil one putting a question of doubt into the human mind? “Did God really say…?”
    – Anne
    Sep 6 at 7:43
  • You find in the Bible that God really does say things, and he means what he says, even though we, in our now sinful, largely ignorant state of the mind of God fail to grasp either its significance or its depth of meaning. But what God wants us to know about him and being restored to fellowship with him is all in the Bible, for those prepared to take God at his word. Only after they do that do they then grasp the wonder of all of God’s words. Only when Adam obeyed God did he then grasp the wonder of all of God's words. Only after Adam doubted God and chose to disobey did
    – Anne
    Sep 6 at 7:47
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Good question. Per the notes from the Net Bible below, there are several possible explanations. I would add that what we have in Genesis is surely only a summary of God's interactions with Adam and Eve and it is reasonable to assume God may have made Himself clear in other ways as well. Moreover, even if Adam and Eve did not fully understand what God meant, that is not the same as God lying. Think of when we warn a child of danger like burning their hand on the stove, the child cannot understand fully if they have never been burned - they must trust their parent's judgment.

  • given that they were immortal as long as they ate of the tree of life, the meaning here could be that they would become mortal if they disobeyed God. This could be true even if the literal meaning of the words was that they would die immediately - not all language is literal. For example, in English, "Mom is going to kill you" can simply mean "You're in big trouble". Hebrew is an ancient language so we must be careful when drawing these types of conclusions from the English text.

  • God had mercy and extended their lives

Net Bible Notes - https://netbible.org/bible/Genesis+2

Or “in the very day, as soon as.” If one understands the expression to have this more precise meaning, then the following narrative presents a problem, for the man does not die physically as soon as he eats from the tree. In this case one may argue that spiritual death is in view. If physical death is in view here, there are two options to explain the following narrative: (1) The following phrase “You will surely die” concerns mortality which ultimately results in death (a natural paraphrase would be, “You will become mortal”), or (2) God mercifully gave man a reprieve, allowing him to live longer than he deserved.

Heb “dying you will die.” The imperfect verb form here has the nuance of the specific future because it is introduced with the temporal clause, “when you eat…you will die.” That certainty is underscored with the infinitive absolute, “you will surely die.” sn 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, however it is defined. Death is essentially separation. To die physically means separation from the land of the living, but not extinction. To die spiritually means to be separated from God. Both occur with sin, although the physical alienation is more gradual than instant, and the spiritual is immediate, although the effects of it continue the separation.

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  • Immortality means undying an immortal being cannot die. So did god lie? Or did Adam die? Adam eve had opportunity to live forever That is different from being immortal.
    – Kris
    Sep 3 at 19:48
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    Inasmuch as I'd like to close this question as opinion based, I think spiritual death is the normal Christian interpretation. I think you ought to highlight that a bit!
    – Peter Turner
    Sep 3 at 21:11
  • I recognize Adam and Eve were not immortal in the true sense of that word - hence why I qualified that statement - valid point. I bolded the text about this phrase not meaning spiritual death.
    – Zanarkand
    Sep 3 at 22:12
  • "even if Adam and Eve did not fully understand what God meant, that is not the same as God lying". I understand your point and actually already mentionned it in my question. But I must insist that my question specifically emphasizes that, if God spoke knowing that he would not be understood (as He must know), then he has been conciously using deception, knowing that Adam and Eve would understand a different threat than the truth He spoke. Sep 5 at 6:39
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Briefly, in the Bible the word death has a couple of meanings. One is often described as spiritual death. This is similar to death meaning, "dead to the things of God". The natural man, not a Christian, is unable to perceive the things of God, much like the Pharisees and Saducees in the gospel were unable to perceive that Christ is the Son of God, the Father, and ultimately God Himself. A more direct answer to the question and in agreement with the previous two variations, death is separation from God. Even those who spend in eternity in hell, are alive in a sense. However they are separated from God. In another sense, this separation is an eternal death. So in all three meanings they died that day, being separated from God, like us they became unable to perceive God and dead to the things of God. All three of these fully applied when God evicted them from the garden.

The Bible uses death to describe the spiritual state of people who are undoubtedly physically alive. Notice Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.”
from What Does the Bible Say About Death as Separation from God?

Many passages such as Romans mention this in various words.

Note: in the New Testament, the book of Romans and other passages write those who have been baptized into Christ are baptized into his death and raised unto newness in Christ. The sinful nature, including inability to perceive God no longer rule our lives. Under the New Testament, Christians may perceive the mysteries of God as Paul did and are no longer dead to the things of God.

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  1. I don’t know for sure that this Hebrew word תָּמֽוּת׃ means to die immediately and physically. In Gen 35:18, Rachel dies and “she called his name Benoni”, afterward. But then she was buried. I believe elsewhere it meant dead to God, to the Spirit. My understanding of the story is that their spirits immediately left. Instant spiritual death. “Spirit will not occupy a dirty house” is how I heard one preacher out it.

  2. More importantly, it is very difficult or impossible to know what in the Bible is metaphor and what is literal/historic. We certainly cannot say that nothing is metaphor. Even the disciples said plainly that Christ spoke in metaphors. I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that every single metaphor is clearly delineated as a metaphor:

Through time, it becomes more clear that the Bible, especially KJV, is a collection of the words of God inspired through and for the human race over thousands of years, revealed and tabulated and collated and protected for the English speaking man. And that Jesus Christ the Lord is real and saves those who accept and proclaim Him as Lord, the Lord and Savior Who came in the flesh to die and be resurrected for us. God has made a plan and a pact and communicated it to us.

I do not know the details beyond this reality and I don’t especially dispute those who claim to know; they might, but it has never been given to my heart and soul (or even my intellect by honest and sincere study) that every incident is a historical fact. That may one day change. If someone convinced me that it was indeed meant to be taken literally and factually I would. This story may be the wisdom of the ages outlined in metaphor, in a way we can understand, how we ended up in this predicament of sin, and later how He gets us out of it. Seeking the real Christ and the living waters through reading and praying and fasting and putting God first is more important. Accepting the Truth, the loving Christ as savior as Lord and repenting is most important.

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