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.”
…Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 2:16-17, 3:1-5, ESV)
Even as a boy I was bothered by the above passages. It seemed like God had made an empty threat to Adam: Adam did not die when he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; in fact, he lived at least 800 more years. The serpent had been telling the truth! I’m not saying that the curse Adam and Eve received wasn’t terrible, especially given Adam and Eve’s pre-fall context, but it just seemed like God didn’t follow through on the threat. (Aside: maybe this was the first case of God’s grace?)
However, if we see the death that came about after the fruit is eaten as a spiritual death, the threat no longer seems so “empty”. Indeed, nothing outward noticably happened once they ate the fruit. They became aware of their nakedness, felt ashamed and felt guilt?the immediate change was psychological or spiritual as they became aware of things they were not aware of before. In this sense, perhaps the “death” that came about was a spiritual one: separation from God, the “death” of innocence, the “death” of their pre-fall relationship with God (he walked with them only one more time according to the text). If this is the case, the consequences of eating of that tree were just what God said they would be.
“Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever–” (Genesis 3:22, ESV)
And then he banishes Adam and Eve from the garden. Apparently eating of the tree of life would have made humans immortal (why didn’t they eat from that tree first?), implying, perhaps, that humans were not yet immortal. (It could also be read to mean that humans could regain their immortality, but that seems less likely.) But I think these verse is important to note when discussing this issue.
On the other hand, the curse against Adam mentions death: “By the sweat of your face / you shall eat bread, / till you return to the ground, / for out of it you were taken; / for you are dust, / and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19 ESV) But is “returning to dust” a new concept, part of the curse, or is God merely stating a fact? The curses are all written in a poetic form; what difference would this make to how we read it?
Some further questions:
1. Is the “tree” was an actual tree or does it have a symbolic function in the story? After all, it doesn’t appear as if there was something on or in the fruit itself that would effect the change Adam and Eve experienced, no poison or “serum”. From what I can tell, it was their disobedience that was the problem, not the fruit itself. (rabbit trail question: could the “tree of life” in the garden being a metaphor for Christ?)
2. If Adam and Eve were immortal before the fall and they (or their descendants) never disobeyed God and they continued to be fruitful and multiply, would the earth not have been overpopulated ages ago?
These questions may seem trivial, but they are an inevitable outcome of the way I have understood the creation story and the fall of humans. How much of the accounts of creation and the first humans is symbolic or metaphor? Need we read the first couple of chapters of Genesis as literal history?
Of course, any doctrinal study of Genesis 1 and 2 assumes that all the details necessary to do that are in the text (e.g. every word God spoke is recorded), and we all know what assuming does. It also assumes (such as with the question of overpopulation) that things as they have been will continue on indefinitely, which, from a Christian point of view, is not going to be the case.