Gen. 2:17 – dying you will die

Our Sunday School teacher, Prof. Jim Edwards, is now taking us through the book of Genesis. As Jim did with the book of Acts, which we completed last Spring, he reads directly from the biblical language text, which, of course, fascinates me no end, as a Bible translator. The teaching is great–some previous classes are available for download from the church website.

Last Sunday Jim pointed out that a Hebrew phrase of Gen. 2:17 is emphatic. Literally, it is translated as “dying you will die” (or for the purists, “dying you shall die”). That repetitive construction–called an infinitive absolute–is quite common in Hebrew. If we kept its literal translation in an English Bible version, users of that version would not understand its Hebrew meaning, because English uses other ways to express emphasis and intensity.

The Next Bible webpage
(a new resource from the NET Bible folks) for Gen. 2:17 displays not a single English version which literally translates the Hebrew idiom. Even the NASB, which is one of the more literal of recent English versions, translates the Hebrew idiom to the appropriate, accurate, meaningful phrase, “you will surely die.” From the Next Bible webpage you can read the NET Bible notes on the Hebrew:

Heb “dying you will die.” The imperfect verb form here has the nuance of the specific future because it is introduced with the temporal clause, “when you eat…you will die.” That certainty is underscored with the infinitive absolute, “you will surely die.”

The Hebrew text (“dying you will die”) does not refer to two aspects of death (“dying spiritually, you will then die physically”). The construction simply emphasizes the certainty of death, however it is defined. …

In debates over Bible versions, there is often the assumption, and sometimes the claim, that literal Bibles are better or more accurate. But even translators of literal and essentially literal translations recognize that if a literal translation does not adequately communicate the original biblical meaning, it should not be used.

In my opinion, Bible translation debates over literalness should be reframed to ask: “How would we express this biblical text meaning in normal English?” With this approach we need not go to extremes of interpretive translation or paraphrase or translating as a commentary. Instead, we would translate within a range of normal, standard English which uses forms that are translationally equivalent to the meaning of the forms of the biblical language texts. Within that range, some Bible versions would be closer to the forms of the biblical texts and others would be less so, but all would be accurate and understandable. Bible translations within that range are better Bibles.

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10 Comments

  1. Richard A. Rhodes
    Posted September 29, 2006 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    As anyone who has read my posts knows, I think Bible translators are allowed luxuries that most other professional translators are not. We can argue philosophically about translation theory, because if we get a translation a little wrong, nobody can really say, and there’s no real penalty.

    If you want to see people translating who have to get it right or they lose their jobs, go to a website like http://www.proz.com/, pick two languages that you know well enough to appreciate what’s going on, and read through the posts and comments as professional translators struggle to get truly accurate translations with tough cases.

    At this level, all theory is out the window. The translators are using their linguistic intuitions to figure out what the communicative intent is (exegesis, to us) and then are looking for ways to express that intent in the target language. Sometimes they don’t quite get the meaning in the source language and are asking for help. Sometimes they don’t have good ideas for saying things in the target language in ways that minimize the loss of information.

    Watching the interactions can be very enlightening.

  2. Joe
    Posted September 29, 2006 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this explanation.

    Can we conclude that had it not been for “original sin” mankind would never have tasted either physical OR spiritual death?

  3. Peter Smythe
    Posted September 29, 2006 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    In Young’s literal translation, he correctly says, “Dying thou shalt die.” (going by memory here).

    By your quotation, the NET Bible notes say that the Hebrew text does not refer to two aspects of death in the passage. If that is the case, they should explain the meaning, if any, of God’s statement to Adam that he would “die” on the day that he ate the fruit. We know that he didn’t physically die on that day that he ate the fruit because scripture declares that he physically died much later.

  4. Peter Kirk
    Posted September 29, 2006 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Peter S wrote, “In Young’s literal translation, he correctly says, “Dying thou shalt die.”

    This may be word for word literal, but it is not “correct” in the sense of accurately giving the meaning of the Hebrew.

  5. bulbul
    Posted September 29, 2006 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    The construction simply emphasizes the certainty of death, however it is defined.
    Same goes for Arabic and other Semitic languages, such as Syriac, although in Arabic, such structure often not only emphasizes, but also intensifies the original meaning. I am not sure whether this holds true for Ancient Hebrew, but if I were to see a phrase like “sa-tamūtu mawtan” (“thou shalt die dying/though shalt die a death”), I would interpret it as either “you will surely die” or even “you will die a horrible death”.

  6. Brian
    Posted September 29, 2006 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    i couldn;t download your ss teacher’s lessons from the linked website.

    also, what aould be the appropriate translation of the verse?

  7. Wayne Leman
    Posted September 29, 2006 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    Brian asked:

    also, what would be the appropriate translation of the verse?

    Any of the English translations given in the Next Bible link are appropriate.

    For example, each of the following are accurate translations in English:

    “you will surely die”
    “you shall surely die”
    “you will certainly die”

  8. Wayne Leman
    Posted September 29, 2006 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Peter Smythe asked:

    Is the Word bound by what linguists or translators say the common or ordinary meaning of a word or phrase?

    I don’t know of any linguists or translators who state this. But any who do are wrong. The words of the Bible, or any words of any language, for that matter, have meaning within their context.

    It’s nonsensical to say that had human authorities known the plan of redemption then they never would have crucified Jesus.

    I don’t understand why you believe it is nonsensical. Please explain further.

    Next example is John 10:10. Jesus says to people who are alive that He came to give life. Ordinary meaning just doesn’t make sense.

    What do you mean by “ordinary meaning”? Do you mean that giving life, in its ordinary meaning, means causing someone to be alive, so saying to people who are alive that he causes people to be alive is a kind of contradiction. If so, then there is a superficial conflict. When that occurs in communication, we need to look for some other meaning of the words, such as a metaphorical meaning for “give life.” Jesus often used words in metaphorical (non-literal) ways. He wanted people to think about what he had said. He deliberately used non-literal expressions to try to get people to get beyond the literal to spiritual meanings.

    I don’t see any problem in any of this for translation. Non-literal usage of language is extremely common and must be dealt with appropriately in translation.

  9. Peter Kirk
    Posted September 29, 2006 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    Peter S, the issue is a very simple one of the meaning of a regular construction in Hebrew. It simply cannot be divided up in this way. This is a bit like trying to divide up English “I have gone” and ask what it is that I have, or to insist on translating it with a verb meaning “have” in a language which forms its past tense without any auxiliary verbs. Or like dissecting an idiom like “kick the bucket” and asking about the bucket.

    The Bible usually uses words according to their usual Hebrew and Greek meanings. Sometimes it can use figurative language in otherwise unfamiliar ways, and this is probably what is happening in 1 Corinthians 2:8. But that is quite irrelevant to Genesis 2:17. The repetition of the verb “die” is within the grammatical form, and so it is out of the question that it is being used in two different senses.

  10. Chuck Grantham
    Posted September 30, 2006 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    A belated, already misposted once example of infinitive absolute:

    1Ki 2:42 “And the king sent and called for Shimei, and said to him, Did I not cause you to swear by Jehovah, and testify to you, saying, In the day you go out, and you have gone anywhere, knowing you shall know that dying you shall die. And you said to me, The word I have heard is good.”

    From the Literal Translation of Jay P. Green, Sr.

    Interesting repetition in the verse. Surely it isn’t speaking of two kinds of knowing. Nor of spiritual and physical death. Could even Solomon could peer into the spiritual state of someone? That hardly seems required in the context of the narrative. But the repetitions as emphasis make sense, since Shimei dies immediately after. Surely he knew that surely he would die.

    Word for word translation has its uses. But the “plain sense of scripture” frequently isn’t so plain, and can lead one astray.


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