CNS Bible Blog: The ‘death penalty’ of Adam and Eve

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

If the opening story of creation in Genesis elevates our minds to appreciate the beauty and dignity of all creation, the stories that follow very quickly point out the pitfalls and dangers belonging to human life.

In the first story, human beings were compared to the divine: “Let us make them in our image.” In the following story, humans are made from earth. But they have the breath of God in them and so they have become a living being.

Michael Kolarcik S.J.

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

After God generously grants to Adam all the trees in the garden as food, one particular tree (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) is forbidden. With its eating comes a serious warning, “for in the day you eat of it, you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). Much has been made of trying to interpret the meaning of this tree and the actual punishment that follows from its eating. But I want to point out a few simple features of the story which are often overlooked.

The death that reads like a warning is a very technical term in Hebrew. It is the death penalty indicated by two words: you will “die the death.” Philo of Alexandria interpreted it as the second death or spiritual death. It does not necessarily mean mortal or physical death, but conveys more the meaning of “the most serious thing that can happen to you,” ¬≠namely the death penalty.

In point of fact, when Adam and Eve do eat of the tree they do “die the death,” but it is not an immediate physical death. They have become afraid of their weakness, of their dependency on each other, of their sexuality. And so they hide because they were afraid. Notice, the very first comment about Adam and Eve after they eat from the fruit of the forbidden tree is “then the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked … and they hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God…” (Gen 3:7-8).

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve are depicted departing from Eden in a stained-glass window at St. Nicolas Church in Feldkirch, Austria. (CNS photo from Crosiers)

The punishments which follow all touch on relationships: the relationship between the animal world and human (the serpent and the woman), the relationship between the man and the woman (Adam and Eve) and the relationship between humans and the earth (Adam and the earth). Where there was once harmony, now we have tension, competition and resistance. Without a trusting relationship with God, humans have become frightfully afraid of their mortal humanity. But not everything is lost.

Even though Adam and Eve are banished from the garden of Eden, God makes for them clothes of skin before sending them out, never to return to this place of paradise (Gen 3:21-24). Notice the first thing that happens to Adam and Eve once they are outside of the garden! “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the LORD’” (Gen 4:1).

This is nothing short of the blessing of man and woman in Genesis 1: “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth’” (Gen 1:28).

The opening stories of Genesis continue to place before our imagination our deepest desires for unity and creativity as well as our worst fears of failure and death. This I believe is why they continue to speak to us even with all their implied difficulties.

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