môt Tämût as execution by royal decree


It’s no wonder Adam tried to hide from God in the garden as Adam expected to be executed as soon as his guilt was established. I first found this understanding of death as execution in Hamilton’s commentary on Genesis 2:17 (you shall surely die, môt tāmût) where he states: “all that môt tāmût clearly conveys is the announcement of death sentence by divine or royal decree.“ (Hamilton, The book of Genesis, NICOT, 1987). I’ve since found that Gordon Wenham agrees in his Word Biblical Commentary. Both scholars cite the use of the term môt tāmût in 1 Kings 2:37 as their justification for this view.

Helpfully, môt tāmût appears eleven times in scripture, though in only eight separate incidents. In the first seven cases the following pattern is observed:

  1. A condition or law is stipulated by God or by a king
  2. A threat of execution is made should the condition or law be breached
  3. When a breach is discovered and guilt established, the guilty party is normally executed.

These last incident in Ezekiel, God gives a more general warning to his people to turn from their wickedness. These are the cases in question:

1. Abraham has let Abimelech take Sarah into his harem. Abimelech has not touched Sarah, but God says in a dream:
Genesis 20:7 Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die [ki-môt Tämût], you, and all who are yours.”

2. In 1 Samuel, Saul makes a rash oath, cursing any soldier who might eat before evening following victory in a battle (1 Sam 14:24). Jonathan did not hear the oath and ate some honey, breaking the king’s oath.
1 Samuel 14:43-44 Then Saul said to Jonathan, “Tell me what you have done.” And Jonathan told him, “I tasted a little honey with the tip of the staff that was in my hand. Here I am; I will die.”
44 And Saul said, “God do so to me and more also; you shall surely die [ki-môt Tämût], Jonathan.”

3. Later, Saul threatens the execution of Ahimelech for a charge of treason:
1 Samuel 22:15-16 Is today the first time that I have inquired of God for him? No! Let not the king impute anything to his servant or to all the house of my father, for your servant has known nothing of all this, much or little.” 16 And the king said, “You shall surely die [môt Tämût], Ahimelech, you and all your father’s house.” 17 And the king said to the guard who stood about him, “Turn and kill the priests of the LORD, because their hand also is with David,

4. Then again, in 1 Kings, king Solomon tells Shimei to build a house in Jerusalem and to stay there (this is the use Hamilton and Wenham referred to in their commentaries on Genesis):
1 Kings 2:37 For on the day you go out and cross the brook Kidron, know for certain that you shall die [ki-môt Tämût]. Your blood shall be on your own head.”

1 Kings 2:41-43 And when Solomon was told that Shimei had gone from Jerusalem to Gath and returned, 42 the king sent and summoned Shimei and said to him, “Did I not make you swear by the LORD and solemnly warn you, saying, ‘Know for certain that on the day you go out and go to any place whatever, you shall die [ki-môt Tämût]‘? And you said to me, ‘What you say is good; I will obey.’ 43 Why then have you not kept your oath to the LORD and the commandment with which I commanded you?”…1 Kings 2:46 Then the king commanded Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and he went out and struck him down, and he died. So the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon.

5. Then there is Ahaziah who enquires of the god of Ekron about his fate following an accident:
2 Kings 1:3-4 But the angel of the LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Arise, go up to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria, and say to them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron? 4 Now therefore thus says the LORD, You shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die [ki-môt Tämût].'”So Elijah went.

2 Kings 1:6 And they said to him, “There came a man to meet us, and said to us, ‘Go back to the king who sent you, and say to him, Thus says the LORD, Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron? Therefore you shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die [ki-môt Tämût].'”

2 Kings 1:16-17 “Thus says the LORD, ‘Because you have sent messengers to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron- is it because there is no God in Israel to inquire of his word?- therefore you shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die [ki-môt Tämût].'” 17 So he died according to the word of the LORD that Elijah had spoken.

7. And then in the beginning of the reign of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, God warns the people of Judah to walk according to his law…
Jeremiah 26:8 And when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, “You shall die! [môt Tämût]

8. The last incident is the charge given to Ezekiel to be a watchman…
Ezekiel 33:8 If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die [môt Tämût], and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.

Ezekiel 33:14-15 Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die [môt Tämût],’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, 15 if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die.

The pattern is clear. When Adam was told not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he knew that this law of God came with the threat of execution by royal decree. If he breached the condition of the oath, and his guilt was established, he could expect to be executed on the spot. In the exchange between God and Adam in Genesis 3:11-12 we are to expect something like:

[God] said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” So God took Adam, struck him down and he died.

But God did not strike Adam down, he let him live but excluded him from his presence. When Adam died at 930 years old, his death was not the one threatened by God. Adam, like all human beings is mortally dead but his soul is alive and waiting to be raised by God to face judgement. The penalty of Genesis 2:17 will be carried out on that day. For some it will fall by faith on Christ, who was executed on the cross for them, but for others the threat remains active and without a gracious and merciful substitute.

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One Response to môt Tämût as execution by royal decree

  1. James Oakley says:

    Thanks, Neil, for all your posts thinking hard about the nature of death. I’m finding them helpful, and haven’t commented before because I’m quietly thinking about what you write, and have nothing particular to contribute. But I thought it was overdue that I posted to say ta.

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