The nature of death
What is the nature of the ‘death’ threatened in Genesis 2:17? The most obvious answer is that it refers to physical death, for this is the way the term is used elsewhere in Genesis, not least in connection with the death of Adam himself in Genesis 5:5. Physical death is implied also in the imagery of Genesis 3:19, ‘dust you are and to dust you will return’.
Having said that, there are good reasons for thinking that ‘death’ here is not limited to physical death. First, as Augustine noted back in the fourth century, physical death does not come immediately upon Adam and Eve, despite the warning of Genesis 2:17 that (literally) ‘in the day [běyộm] you eat of it you will surely die’ (italics added).” Gordon Wenham draws attention to the use of a very similar Hebrew expression in I Kings 2:37 (repeated in V. 42), where King Solomon warns Shimei, ‘The day you [disobey me], you can be sure you will die.” When Shimei does disobey, he is executed forthwith. Adam’s case in Genesis is strangely different, for by the reckoning of Genesis 5:4, he does not fit physically for at least 800 years after eating the forbidden fruit.
How does this view of Genesis 2:17 relate to Christ’s death? His death is physical but the primary focus in the gospels is that Christ died by summary execution as stipulated in Gen 2:17. This aspect of the death of Christ is emphasised by the evangelists who are at pains to show that the trial before the Sanhedrin was a sham (Matt 26:59-60) and that Pilate believed that Christ was innocent (Matt 27:23) so that the crowd finally and simply insisted that Christ be crucified (Matt 27:23). In effect, his execution was conducted summarily without a proper trial.
Matthew 27:22-23 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” 23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
This has implications for the way we understand our own death and the second death of Revelation 20:14-15 (see link above). The authors of Pierced for our Transgressions draw the conclusion that the death threatened in Genesis 2:17 is threefold: physical, spiritual and synonymous with eternal suffering in hell (p123). This view takes its starting point as the rest of scripture and reads back into Genesis 2:17. If Genesis 2:17 is taken literally as “execution by royal decree” and this is read forward into the rest of scripture a different picture of the nature of death emerges. More later.