NKJV - 17 "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."
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It is my opinion that the death spoken of here is a spiritual one. Man was created perfect by God. By eating of the fruit of the tree when they were commanded not to, Adam and Eve disobeyed God and thus began sin. They were dead in sin and lost the relationship with their Creator that they once had. As we are descendants of Adam, we are born dead in our sins. This is why we need a savior, Jesus Christ. Sin is death and Jesus is life. We have the gift of life in Jesus by the grace of God. We are born again and restored when we accept Jesus as the Lord and savior of our life.
According to the Strong's Hebrew dictionary the word die in Genesis 2:17 means "to die" and is used 790 times in the Old Testament. The Webster Dictionary says the definition Is to "cease to live". Although they did not die physically immediately they did die spiritually as they were separated from God. This was made evident in Genesis 3:8-24 Ephesians 2:1 says "And you were dead in the trespasses and sins " Speaking to people who are alive physically. And we were born into this death because of the original sin of Adam and Eve which also made them spiritually dead. It could be speculated that physical death is just a product of spiritual death. It is also worth considering Adam and Eves punishment in 3:8-24, it would of been entirely just for God to kill Adam and Eve on the spot sending them to Hell forever. Yet he clothed them with animal skins in Vs 21. They were cast out of the Garden of Eden but not from Earth(Which is likely only so they could not eat from the tree of life and live forever in this fallen state) Vs22. Most importantly Vs15 we have what most scholars believe to be a prophecy referring to Jesus Christ dying for our sins. So even at this point God's redemptive plan was in action, and hope was given to Adam and Eve. I would suggest that the answer to your question is that to die was to die spiritually, and that is to be separated from the Living God. Yet although this happened God in his grace offered hope of redemption immediately.
It meant the same thing it means today. We all bear the curse of the fall, which in part, is a physical death. While Adam and Eve may not have experienced death first hand, they were still intelligent beings, and I'm sure they understood that at the time they were perfect, immortal, without sickness or decay. However, should they eat of the tree they would be changed and their bodies would age and they would eventually die. They may not have known to the extent that we now know what it meant to die, but they knew enough to know that it was not a good thing.
God is all knowing. He knows our past, present and future. This was a warning to Adam and Eve. This passage of Scripture is speaking of spiritual death as well as natural death. The relationship between Man and God would be severed as Adam ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil therefore making evil present and the authority in the earth to Satan. Man had dominion over the earth and every living thing. In disobedience to God's command, Adam put a wedge between man and God and gave his authority to Satan. It took Jesus Christ to get the authority back, through his death, burial and resurrection. Now we can say " Greater is he that is within me than he that is in the world. The Physical death as a result of Adam's sin is mentioned as God drove them out of the Garden for mercy so they would not live with evil and sickness and disease forever.
The death referred to in Gen. 2:17 is that death wherein there is no resurrection, the 2nd death. There are 2 kinds of death: 1. The death from which there is resurrection. This refers to natural death and buried in "hades" from which there is coming resurrection. Many examples of man dying but resurrected back to life: A. Elijah raised the son of the Zarephath widow from the dead (1 Kings 17:17-22). B. Elisha raised the son of the Shunammite woman from the dead (2 Kings 4:32-35). C. A man was raised from the dead when his body touched Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:20, 21). D. Many saints rose from the dead at the resurrection of Jesus (Matt 27:50-53). E. Jesus raised the son of the widow of Nain from the dead (Luke 7:11-15). F. Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead (Luke 8:41, 42, 49-55). G. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44). H. Peter raised Dorcas from the dead (Acts 9:36-41). I. Eutychus was raised from the dead by Paul (Acts 20:9, 10). All were resurrected to live again on earth but died again. 2."Second" death or "eternal death" from which there is no resurrection (Rev 2:11; 20:6, 7- 14; 21:8). Notice that those in the end who overcame through the power of the Holy Spirit in them, will participate in the 1st resurrection and the 2nd death has no power as they have eternal life. Those in the 1st resurrection are those living and dead prior to the start of the Millenium, who will change from mortality to immortality "in a twinkling of an eye"(I Cor. 15:52). Those who did not participate in the 1st resurrection will still be in the grave/hades and stay dead, but will resurrect to mortal life, their "first resurrection", after the Millenium. At that time, God will give them their first chance to receive the promise of the Holy Spirit to sanctify them. As to whether they "submit themselves" (Eph. 5:1-33) freely and be "one" with God, depends on their choice. The second death will be after the Millenium when Satan will be released from "prison" and will again attempt to deceive the world; Gog and Magog will be with him. This is the death from "Gehenna fire" in the "valley of the son of Hinnom" outside Jerusalem mentioned in Matt 5:29-30; 10:29; 18:9; 23:33; Mk 9:43-50; Lu 12:5; James 3:6; Rev 20:14). Gehenna fire's death is clearly a punishment from which there is no resurrection; eternal or second death. Being mortal, their lives will cease, unlike Satan who will be "living in torment", being a spirit-being.
I believe the death was three-fold. 1. The spiritual relationship that had previously existed was severed. 2. The aging process began. As with us all, every time the heart beats we are one heart beat closer to death. 3. In their fallen state and without redemption they would one day die eternally, forever separated from God.
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