“And from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you will not eat – for when you eat from it, by dying you will die.” (Genesis 2:17, my translation)

The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (SAB) criticizes this verse: “God says that if Adam eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then the day that he does so, he will die. But later Adam eats the forbidden fruit (3:6) and yet lives for another 930 years (5:5).”

The SAB commentary isn’t surprising, given that several Biblical translations of Genesis 2:17b seem to concur:

  • because on the day you eat from it, you will die!” (Common English Bible)
  • If you eat any fruit from that tree, you will die before the day is over!” (Contemporary English Version)
  • If you eat fruit from that tree, on that day you will certainly die!” (Easy-to-Read Version)
  • You must not eat the fruit of that tree; if you do, you will die the same day.” (Good News Translation)
  • because you will certainly die during the day that you eat from it.” (International Standard Version)
  • Don’t eat from it. The moment you eat from that tree, you’re dead.” (The Message)
  • Beware: the day you eat the fruit of this tree, you will certainly die. (The VOICE)

I’ve posted before on what I think the Hebrew says literally (‘in the day you eat from it, dying you die’), but I hope that novices can see that several tidbits of the above translations are far from warranted! The phrases ‘before the day is over!’, ‘certainly/surely die’, ‘the same day’, even ‘moment’, are imaginations, and nowhere near inspired from the text. I will address these poor translations in a moment, but I will first focus on the translation of “in the day.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve blogged about the Hebrew idiom b’yom. In that previous post I noted how a pseudo-theologian with a Ph.D. used this idiom to prove his Old Earth  agenda. In Genesis 2:17, there just seems to be a hesitance to interpret (as opposed to translate) this idiom. It’s unfortunate that nearly all the popular translations leave the idiom as “in the day”. A few of them, such as the ESV and RSV, provide a footnote explaining it metaphorically means “when”, but none of them interpret the idiom for their cross-culture, Western audience within the text itself. Some, like the samples listed above, take the idiom way too literally as a 24-hour period (i.e. before the day is over!)

I understand some readers may want idioms translated literally, but when it’s coupled with other poor translations like the latter clause of this verse (such as “you’re dead” or “you will certainly die!”) it breeds confusion and contempt. It leads to accusations of Biblical contradictions.

The latter clause means that if Adam ate from the forbidden tree, he would experience “death by dying”, which happened exactly how God warned – Adam began to die when He disobeyed the commandment. I realize there’s a campaign to portray the God of the Old Testament as a stone cold killer, but the language was not a stay of execution like some would spin it!

The ironic thing is that our English-speaking ancestors were closer to the original Hebrew than what we have today:

  • “for in whatever day thou shalt eat thereof, thou shalt die by death.” (Wycliffe, 1395)
  • “for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt die the death.” (Geneva Bible, 1599)
  • for in the day of thine eating of it — dying thou dost die.” (Young’s Literal Translation, 1862)
  • For in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death.” (Douay-Rheims American, 1899)

It seems the closer we get to “modern” or “contemporary” English, the further we get from the intent of the original Scriptures!

Believers everywhere intend to rightly divide the Word of Truth (see 2 Tim. 2:15). If we are seriously invested in scriptural accuracy, we should probably demand better biblical translations – lest before the day is over they mislead us in a moment with the Message of God’s Word in Common, Modern, and Contemporary English! ♦

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