By ERIC SIEVERS
“Ye shall not surely die.” One of my favorite quotes from the King James Bible, but also one that has confused me, because of the way it is translated. Every version of the Bible has this phrased differently. The NIV has it as ““You will not certainly die.” The NASB has it as ” “You surely will not die!” And my New Jerusalem Catholic Bible has it as ‘No! You will not die!”
But in English, “You will not surely die” and “You surely will not die” can have a subtle difference in meaning. The first could be interpreted as, “You could die, but it isn’t certain”, and the second is much more definite; death will NOT happen. The reason it confused me so was because I often wondered whether Satan was lying outright, or just trying to plant doubt in Eve’s mind by telling a half-truth. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, because Satan deceived her and caused the fall, but it’s still fun to contemplate. So let’s look at the Hebrew:
The phrase in question is לֹֽא־ מ֖וֹת תְּמֻתֽוּן׃ or “lo mot tamut”. According to Strong’s Concordance, this is translated as “Not surely die”. A more literal translation of “mot tamut” is “Dying, you shall die”. Both words mean “to die”, but this phrase combines the infinitive absolute (mot), and the imperfect verb (tamut), thus adding emphasis, which is why mot (die) is translated into English as “surely” or “definitely”.
From what I can understand, by adding לֹֽא־ (no, or not) before “mot tamut”, the more accurate translation into English would be the more definite “surely not die” instead of the more ambiguous (but more literal) “not surely die”. Satan, therefore, wasn’t twisting words around, but was simply lying.
For reference, “mot tamut” occurs also in Genesis 2, 20, and 26. The phrase, or variants of it occur 49 times in the Old Testament.