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.
וּמֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע–לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ כִּי, בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ–מוֹת תָּמוּת
Here is the meat of the command, though the permission in v. 1:16 was ample and abundant. This is the prohibition whose violation started it all.
Structurally it is a beautiful example of the prominence device of fronting, both this verse and v. 16. The complement of the verb, in both cases a prepositional phrase with min “from” is brought forward from its unmarked position to begin the clause.
- 16: from all-X eat (emphatic).
- 17 but from Y negative eat.
The word (or proclitic) rendered “but” is the multipurpose we, which is typically glossed “and,” but in this case is plainly adversive, “but.” Both complements, as I mention, are fronted to establish contrast. All these can be eaten, however, this one may not be.
He calls it “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” We are not told how this works. We are not even told what it does. The only information we have on its function–apart from it being lethal if eaten–comes from the serpent in 3:5, possibly a distortion of the truth. It is said to give the ability, as God has, to distinguish good from evil. This ability has been clearly seen over and over in God’s seeing that His creation was good in chapter 1. Interestingly, evil has not been mentioned until the first reference to the tree in v. 9. Seeing that these things were good does in a way imply the opposite is possible. Darkness too may be symbolic of evil, though it is not something evil in itself.
“You shall not eat” is a strong injunction. It is the same form as the negative commandments of the decalogue. There is a way of simply saying “don’t eat.” This is more formal, stronger, more authoritarian even.
The penalty is death. This is another emphatic construction of the infinitive absolute and the finite verb. A major question here is what Adam knew about death–of any kind. Was there death of any kind on the earth. We have to factor in Romans 5:12-14:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
I’m just going to leave it as a question here. The reader certainly knew what death was, and evil.
Another point to consider is “in the day.” This is the same idiom, beyom, as we have seen before that means “when.” This doesn’t mean it cannot refer to that particular day. This will clue us into what kind of death is ultimately meant. But remember, that this is a prophecy given by God. While we may know His words, we may not ultimately know how He means them until they are fulfilled.