The mortality of Adam: a reflection
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’”
- Gen 2:15-17 (ESV)
I remember reading the story of Adam and Eve as a young child. I encountered it in a storybook Bible, essentially a collection of famous Bible passages retold in a simple yet imaginative way suitable for little kids. It was my first exposure to the literary genre of tragedy:
Two star-cross’d lovers, both alike in immortality,
In the Garden of Eden, with a talking snake.
A tree of evil which provoked their curiosity,
And a bitten apple, their immortality take.
Here were two immortals, the first humans, who sacrificed eternal life in paradise for a taste of forbidden fruit. “How stupid,” I remember thinking as a five year old, “not only that Adam and Eve gave up immortality for an apple, but that all of humanity was cursed to death as a result.” A few years later I finally read the story on my own from an actual Bible.
It was then that I first realized – the text never says that Adam and Eve were immortal.
To me it was as clear as can be: God told Adam he would die the day he ate from the tree. God did not say, “You will lose your immortality and die at the age of 930,” and Adam seemed to have a pretty good idea of what death meant for a guy who lived in a land of immortality.
I would learn pretty quickly that this was not the kind of question to bring up in a Sunday School class; unless you wanted to be talked down to by the teacher and forcibly removed for insubordination (i.e. – asking questions that crappy children’s Sunday School teachers were not equipped to answer).
It was another 15 years or so before I took a class on the Pentateuch in seminary and learned that a number of rabbis, Bible scholars, and theologians had pointed out the exact same thing. This brought the walls of faith crumbling down for a few of my classmates and brought eight-year-old Dan a dose of sweet justification.
You may not agree with my reading, which is fine – this is the internet and we live in a free country (and there are passages like Genesis 3:22 and Romans 6:23 which seem at first glance to support the other side). You may be thinking that I’m needlessly nitpicking an otherwise straightforward passage with an observation that is unwarranted and irrelevant. Here are three reasons I think you might be wrong:
1. The way we read this story impacts our understanding of God’s character.
When the story of Adam is interpreted in the “classic” manner, God comes off as short-tempered, judgmental, and petty. It is a freaking piece of fruit, after all. Adam’s disobedience leads God to revoke the greatest gift he had bestowed on human beings (immortality) and introduce death to an otherwise unblemished creation. This is what we get if we understand Adam as an immortal before the fall.
When the passage is read at face value, without this inference about Adam’s immortality, the picture of God presented in the opening chapters of Genesis becomes much different. God tells mortal Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree, warning him that on the day he eats from it he will die. Adam and his wife decide to eat from the tree anyway and they don’t die – the first act of mercy God bestows on sinful human beings.
2. The classic understanding of this story needlessly complicates the dialogue between faith and science.
Evolutionary biology has forced many Christians to reconsider our understanding of the opening chapters of Genesis. For many, this has led to a better understanding of Genesis within its cultural and historical contexts, as well as an appreciation for truth as it is found both in natural science and God’s word. For others, the tension between Darwin and the Bible has had – let’s say – the opposite effect.
If you thought a literal six-day creation account was tricky to navigate in light of The Origin of Species, just wait until you have to deal with primordial immortality. Even if you’re willing to view Adam as a representative of humanity or a symbol of ancient Israel, belief in Adam’s immortality is ultimately untenable in light of the evolutionary process, which utilizes death to foster life.
Of course if Adam wasn’t immortal, you can pretty easily avoid this entire conversation…
3. The need to differentiate between what is actually contained in the text and our inferences based on the text.
This is the point I am particularly sensitive to as a theologian. My job requires me to draw inferences based on Scripture fairly regularly. If I don’t maintain balance and differentiate between what the text actually says and my own constructive extrapolations based on the text, I would be wandering into some pretty dangerous territory.
Of course reading the Bible always requires some degree of interpretation, otherwise we are not really engaging with the text. But when Christians conflate our interpretations with the inspired word itself, we do a disservice to both and perform an act of violence upon Scripture.
In that vein, it should be noted that the text of Genesis 2 does not explicitly attribute mortality or immortality to Adam prior to the fall. It only says that when he eats from the tree he will die. My view is just as interpretive as the more classic rendering.
I just wish Christians were all willing to admit this fact while discussing passages like this one.