More on Adam and Eve: Did God lie?

appleOne of the earliest posts I did on this site was about the story of Adam and Eve. I argued that if eating the forbidden fruit was really what gave Adam and Eve the ability to distinguish right from wrong, it was unjust for God to punish them for actions taken before they had such knowledge, and if the fruit did not grant them such knowledge, it seems completely bizarre and arbitrary for God to have set up this strange game in the first place.

The Christian blogger Canterrain has addressed some of my points in the post Apples, Death, and Punishment. (A while back, I found and commented on his earlier post on the topic, which started this back-and-forth.)

The first thing Canterrain discusses is an aspect of my summary. I wrote:

God lies to Adam and Eve and tells them that eating the fruit will cause them to die that day. (We know it’s a lie, because they do eat the fruit and that’s not what happens.)

I don’t think this is at all a central aspect to my key complaint about the story, the unjustness (or, alternatively, arbitrariness) of God’s response. However, Canterrain’s answer to my parenthetical note is actually a common excuse Christians offer for scriptural oddities, and I think it’s ultimately very telling, so I’ll take a moment to respond to it.

Canterrain writes, “The problem herein lies in that NFQ is working from an English translation of the Bible.” And that is undoubtedly an issue. I certainly can’t read the Bible in its original Hebrew. The fact that most of the people reading the Bible today are reading a translation of a translation of a translation is definitely a problem, as far as conveying the (alleged) word of God is concerned.

If we agree on this much, though, we should move on to the next natural question: why is anyone reading the books of the Bible in anything other than the languages in which they were originally written? Teaching people the contents of the Bible in their own native languages seems like asking for trouble; you’re bound to misrepresent things and give them the wrong idea about God. Is it ever okay for me to read the Bible without the oldest known texts in front of me, and without years of training in ancient cultures and their languages’ idioms? It would seem not. It seems that only a very small percentage of people on the planet, real Biblical scholars, are at all qualified to read the Bible.

Remember also that even the Hebrew texts we have today are understood (by these same scholars) to be assembled from several different versions of the stories that make up the Bible. Only written down after generations of oral tradition, they were then lost and rewritten and edited numerous times. Sections were added in, and sections were tossed out. Even if you accept that God revealed the stories in the Torah directly to someone using Hebrew words, there’s really basically zero chance that the Hebrew we have today is perfectly representative of that original revelation. Even the most learned scholar couldn’t truly glean any certain knowledge from it.

But Canterrain wants to argue about the Hebrew anyhow. He says that the Hebrew corresponding to the last few words of Genesis 2:17 (KJV: “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”) is more like “dying you shall surely die.” That string of words doesn’t actually make sense to me, but he says it essentially means that they became mortal, that they were now the sort of people who would die. Perhaps. I’ve heard this angle argued before. However, if this is the case, what’s up with Genesis 3:22, where God basically says, “We’d better get these humans out of Eden before they eat from the tree of life too, or they’ll be immortal!” — doesn’t this make it sound like they were mortal already?

Anyhow, he builds his case for this interpretation by also arguing that the word “day” in the Bible sometimes doesn’t mean a real day, and points to Genesis 2:4 as an example; here, “the day” seems to refer to six days. Except Genesis 2:4 is actually the first line of a second creation story in Genesis. You might notice that God already made people back in Genesis 1:27 — in fact, made man and woman at the same time — but for some reason apparently has to recreate the first man and later the first woman in chapter 2. (This is a good example of how the Hebrew we have reflects different stories, pieced together.)

Ultimately, I do think I get what Canterrain is going for, and I appreciate the fact that ancient languages sometimes have idioms that don’t translate well and which modern readers might miss. I’m not sure, though, how we’re ever supposed to be able to tell the difference between a “day” in the Bible that’s an actual day and a “day” that means something like the modern expression “back in the day.” (I’ve explained before why I don’t think “context” is a satisfactory solution.) It’s clearly quite a difficult problem.

The key difference between Canterrain and me here is that I actually think the millennia of retranslation and the impossibility of interpretation are grounds to reject the entire text as any kind of reliable basis for religious beliefs; it’s pretty clear to me that we can’t discern any definitive facts from it.

Nevertheless, people still do base their religious beliefs on the Bible, including Genesis. And even if those people have found a way to justify for themselves that God was not in fact lying to Adam and Eve, this is really separate from the real question I was raising about the Adam and Eve story: whether or not God’s reaction to them can be considered just.

I’ll continue with that question in my next post, Is God unjust?.

Leave a comment


  1. Aristarchus

     /  June 20, 2010 at 10:39 am

    “Ancient Hebrew is incredibly hard to interpret correctly” is a good reason why lots of ways of reading the Bible are a bit dubious, and it’s definitely a reason why doctrines/practices based on a very particular passage are questionable, but it’s not really a reason why the thing can’t be true.

    This is illustrative of the problem you posted about before where you’re arguing with lots of different versions of Christianity. This reasoning definitely refutes literalists very well, but I could easily imagine someone saying, “It’s really hard to interpret, and might have been copied wrong, and we can’t really rely on any of the details being correct, but clearly the original version, properly interpreted, did claim God existed, was very powerful, wanted people to be good, etc.” That would be enough for some of the more liberal versions of Judaism/Christianity. I don’t really know where Canterrain is on that spectrum, but it might be worth being more clear about what versions you are addressing in particular posts. (I know it’s hard – a big disclaimer before each post seems dumb… I’m not sure what the solution is.)

  2. Aristarchus,
    “It’s really hard to interpret…” etc. is not what I said at all. Which is among my many problems with this particular post. I don’t think it reflects any of what I -really- said at all. NFQ cut the substance to the point of turning my words into something else entirely, something I discussed on my own site.


    In regards to your comment on my latest post,

    I realize you split it in two, but the parts I say you ignored are the parts directly dealing with the section you put in your first post. I realized you intended to hit on the ‘not God is a liar’ sections with your next post.

    Debate doesn’t upset me. Deep debate isn’t offensive to me. I’ve been in and around it for much of my life.

    Accusing me of something, while doing that exact something is what I can’t agree with. And when I see it, I’m done. That’s what I saw here. Your tone often comes not off as, “You’re wrong.” but rather, “You’re an idiot.” And there’s no point in continuing that conversation. If that isn’t your intended tone, then I’d have to say there’s probably equal blame on both our parts for the tone coming across. (Along with the internet’s lack of tone).

  3. Aristarchus

     /  June 20, 2010 at 11:19 am

    Canterrain, the thing I put in quotes was my characterization of NFQ’s argument, not yours. I did however go back and read what she was responding to, and it seems totally fair of her to claim it’s implied by what you said. If something as seemingly obvious as the word “day” can actually mean something very different because it’s part of an archaic idiom, then fine. Maybe that line means something very different than it seems. But if that’s true, then you must certainly think it could be true other places too. If anything that seems to have obvious meaning can’t really be trusted until we check the ancient Hebrew for archaic idioms, then yes, the Bible is extremely difficult to interpret and we shouldn’t really trust that our interpretations don’t have many errors in them. As I said, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t believe it at all (I don’t think we should, but for other reasons), but it does mean we shouldn’t hang a lot of what we believe on very precise details of the interpretation.

  4. Aristarchus: I see your point. I think my sweeping conclusions about the Bible as wholly unreliable aren’t ultimately based on quite this problem, but on the clear human (political, cultural, fallible) motives behind the Bible’s history. That’s closely related to the problems of translation, and the idioms, and the intermixing of different stories. But I do see how someone might conclude that the ancient texts of the Bible are enough to suggest that there is some sort of deity, etc., without staking that many claims on the precise words of the Bible. … I saw a really good documentary on this political history stuff a while back. I’ll see if I can find it online to post here.

    Canterrain: I answered you where you left the very similar comment on your own blog.

  5. i must agree. the bible was originally written in greek and hebrew so how can we know read the bible in a anglo saxon text and still get an accurate translation.this is my question though. Eve acted out of ignorance which god says is no excuse. the serpant came, is it possible that the serpant did not want worship for itself but to lead humankind out of the darkness that is ignorance? Adam followed his wife knowing what it meant but still chose his wife. this showed such a great amount of love why would God punish one for such an act. also, why would god punish anyone for trying to be delivered from ignorance and into the light of knowledge. why is it that he who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. i know that these are a lot of questions but i really would like to finally know the truth. im a 17 year old kid that has asked the people in my town these questions but been branded a heratic for it. so pleas help me discover the truth. Does God Hide something behind the tree of knowledge?

  6. You ask why does increased knowledge lead to increased sorrow i would say have you never heard ignorance is bliss. I personally believe that Genesis talks about Adam and Eve and their state of mind like that of a child who is still innocent and has no concept of nakedness or good or evil. And also of the difference of when suddenly they are aware. Once you are aware you can never go back to innocence. I would also argue that even a young child can know right and wrong and be held accountable for their actions and yet have no concept of good and evil yet and therefore still be innocent just as Adam and Eve. Did God hide something behind the tree of knowledge? No, God merely sought to have them remain innocent as any parent wishes for their own children. I would support my theory by Genesis chapter 4 verse 1 speaking of Adam knew Eve his wife and she conveived. No where prior to eating of the tree of knowledge was there mention of this type of behavior between the two which would be consist with innocence verses knowledge.

  7. meant to say And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived.

  8. also meant to say would be consistent

  9. This is the only thing that Canterrain said about ‘interpretation’…The problem herein lies in that NFQ is working from an English translation of the Bible. The phrase is rendered, “And you shall surely die.” This does lend to certain problems in understanding the text.

    I agree AND it actually supports NFQ, it IS hard to rationalize why we base some much of our faith and understanding on english translated texts that are most likely not conveying the truth of the original message and would therefore have be rendered ‘un-inspired’ whereas the original text and the original message would be inspired of God.

    There were so many english-speaking translations coming out at the same time (mid 1500s all the way through the 1600s and into the 1700s) and most of those ‘scholars’ were not qualified to translate greek and hebrew. You also could not hope to exclude all social and political agendas in each translation. And sometimes they just accidently got it wrong!

    But after many years of studying I have also came to this same conclusion. God did lie to Adam and Eve. Read the story again and follow it step by step. The only way the serpent is able to trick Eve is to tell her that ‘NO, you will not die, but you will know things as God does.’ She believes him and eats the fruit. And does NOT die. When she sees that she does not die she takes it upon herself to show this to Adam. He then believes her and eats the fruit too. HOW COULD THIS STORY EVEN WORK IF GOD DID NOT LIE TO THEM. This is the ONLY conclusion you can come to. Now this is something I’ve never seen discussed and I don’t know why. It’s blaringly obvious. For the crimes that Adam, Even, and the Serpent have comitted GOD proceeds to hand out punishment. RIGHT? He never says ‘Oh well look now you ate the fruit so you’re gonna die like I said.’ Wouldn’t this be the FIRST thing he’d say? What would be more important than his two perfect creations (Adam and Eve) to lose their immortal lives and eventually die, but its not mentioned as a transition from immortal to mortal!!!

    The closest thing God says to this is Gen:3:19 ‘…and unto dust shalt thou return.’ But this seems more of a statement than punishment.

    It is never said anywhere that Adam and Eve were ever made to be immortal. It also never says anywhere that Adam and Eve died because they ate of the tree of knowledge. It also does NOT say in any form anywhere that they even suffered a spiritual death. That is all uninspired conjecture. <–show me where it says this anywhere in the bible

    The only thing that hints at or implies their mortality is Gen 3:22 -And the LORD God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever."

    This implies that Adam and Eve were never meant to be immortal and God decided to bar the way to the tree of life to prevent that from happening. The tree of life also is an enigma in itself, it represents a way that God's Law/Will can be circumvented. If Adam and Eve could have eaten of the tree of LIFE they would have lived forever whether it was God's will or not. (This implies that if we could eat of the tree of life now, WE'D live forever too) This should not exist if God is all powerful and all knowing, can not lie, and is the ultimate authority. Same with the tree of knowledge, why didn't God just wipe their memories and zap the serpent and have a restart? Was it really THAT important to test TWO people who did not have the knowledge to protect themselves and therefore damning the REST OF US to die for the original sin? The bible implies that once the deed was done even God couldn't make it undone.

    This to me is enough that I am compelled to reject Genesis as an accurate account of ANYTHING. The God that created me would not play these games with trees and snakes and lies. That's not my God. Sorry.

    Also someone said Adam knew his wife and conceived is not something you see until AFTER they eat of the tree:

    Gen 1-28 —God already gives the command to screw each other…sorry to be so blunt…
    God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."

    ^^And yes I am aware of the 3rd day, 6th day, and 8th day creation myths that put an even more extreme twist on everything we are discussing.

    I have come to the conclusion that a LOT of english translated bibles are simply unreliable.

  10. And before anyone responds, I know the counter-answers I always get…

    Well he said ‘in the day they eat of the tree they will die’ and to God 1,000 years is one day so both Adam and Eve did die before the 1,000 years was up.

    Peter 3:8–9 reads:

    ‘But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’

    But it had been debated that the phrasing ‘is like’ and ‘slow’ and ‘patient’ all imply that God is so far outside of time that one day to us is spread out like 1,000 years to him OR 1,000 years can become miniscule to him and be as a day, this is part of how he is able to see and know all. So when one day passes to us God is outside of time so it moves slowly to him and 1,000 years of observance can occur to his senses while only a day has passed for us. Since both Adam and Eve lived just past 900years he actually gave them roughly 328,500,000 days of his existence, which is far more than one.

    Another of the counter arguments is that they died spiritually, it didn’t mean physically. It does NOT say this in any form anywhere in the bible, especially in Genesis.

    Lots of bible students like to say things like ‘Well God CAN’T LIE. And God didn’t mean they would instantly die. And God didn’t even mean a physical death as much as meant SPIRITUAL death.’

    Are you telling me that between God(the perfect, all powerful and all knowing) and Adam and Eve (the first two humans, supposedly genetically perfect in every way) that there existed a COMMUNICATION problem??? That Adam and Eve didn’t understand that God meant you’d die in a thousand years or you’d die spiritually? Are you serious? Adam and Eve didn’t understand that? And God didn’t make it clear to them? What?? That is far fetched! It is simple and obvious. God told them they’d die if they even TOUCHED the tree. And they didn’t die.

  11. Adam and Eve didn’t eat fruit, or rather an apple that is as is always preached. Have you ever walked in a garden and seen a tree of knowledge of good and evil or a tree of life? Cause I never have. Have you ever seen a talking snake? The word states that if you do not walk in the spirit you die. What does that mean? You won’t walk in life. We choose life or death all the time. God said choose life or death.

    The tree of life in the Garden of Eden which is within us. The Garden of Eden is/was not a literal place on Earth. Where God dwells within all of us. It is the symbol of Jesus. The knowledge of good and evil is the Law. If you eat from the law you will die because apart from God is death/ignorance/darkness. He is life. He had Adam and Eve choose and they chose the law. That is a type of fruit. If they had chose the tree of life they would have kept receiving the fruit if the spirit:Love, Peace, Joy, Kindness and all that is explained in Galatians 5. We all are still choosing.

    The snake/serpent was their carnal mind. We have have the serpent within us. Which is the carnal mind. That is the enmity or God’s enemy. That is what alienates us from teh life of God when we do not walk in the spirit of the truth, Again all of that is explained in Galatians 5 and Romans 8.

    So did God lie? That is the whole question. No. He didn’t lie at all. They chose to live in death. They had the voice of God walking with them(in them) and the law makes you fear. I gotta live like this or that and make sure I live this rule and don’t break that rule. God isn’t rules. The law is.

  12. This is the best open, intelligent, respectful and thoughtful discourse on biblical comparative interpretation I have seen. THANK YOU. I was beginning to think there was no openness to seeking meaning in the texts that belong to us all.

  13. It does NOT say they will die that day

  14. Fle

    There are so many versions of bible.

    Genesis 2 (KJV)
    “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.”

    17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

    (Mechon Mamre, Hebrew-English Bible, Masoretic Text and the JPS 1917 Edition)
    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.’

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