The biblical story of origins teaches that death was not a part of the original creation.
Jacques B. Doukhan
The question of the origin of death is interpreted differently, depending on whether one holds to the theory of evolution or to the biblical story of Creation. Evolution teaches on the basis of observation that death is a natural and necessary process in the hard struggle for life—death is a part of life. The Bible, on the contrary, asserts that death was not a part of the original plan.
From the testimony of biblical creation, four arguments can be used to support this assertion: (1) The world was originally created “good”; (2) the created world was therefore “not yet” affected by death; (3) death was not planned; and (4) death will no longer be in the new re-created world of the eschatological hope. Literary clues in the biblical text suggest that not only was death not a part of God’s creation, but the biblical text attests even to a specific intentionality about this assumption.
The Good of Creation
The use of the Hebrew word translated as “create,” to describe God’s operation of creation, and the regular refrain “it was good,” to qualify His work, testify to the “goodness” of creation.
The divine work of creation is rendered through the use of the term “it was good,” which is often used in parallelism with “to do, to make” (Isa. 41:20; 43:1, 7; 45:7, 12, 18; Amos 4:13). It implies a positive connotation that is on the opposite range of meanings to the negative ideas of destruction and death. In addition, “to do, to make” denotes the concept of producing something new, which has nothing to do with a former condition (Isa. 41:20; 48:6, 7; 65:17), marvels which have never been seen before (Ex. 34:10).
This usage of the “to do, to make” does not therefore allow the sense of “separating,” which has sometimes been advocated. This interpretation does not take the following arguments into consideration:
● Semantic argument. Although the Genesis creation story contains a series of separations, this does not mean that the Hebrew word means “separate.” If it were the case, why did the biblical author choose to use it seven times in the Creation narrative: 1:1, 21, 27 [3x]; 2:3; 2:4a), instead of another specific word for “separate,” which is used in the same context when the idea of separation is really intended? (Gen. 1:4, 6, 7, 14, 18).
● Logical argument. Other biblical occurrences of “to do, to make” would not make sense if the verb were translated “separate” instead of “create” (Gen. 1:21; Ex. 30:10; Deut. 4:32; Isa. 45:12). Also, the fact that “to do, to make” has only God as subject, whereas the word for “separate” has generally humankind as subject, testifies to the fundamental difference of meaning between the two verbs.
● Ancient Near Eastern argument. In ancient Egypt, as well as in Mesopotamia, the divine operation of Creation is similarly rendered by the verbs create, make, build, and form, but never by the verb separate or divide.
● Translation argument. The Septuagint translates the word generally as create (17 times), and make (15 times), but never as separate or divide.
The divine work of creation is at each stage of its progress unambiguously characterized as “good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 18, 21, 25) and at the end of the last step as “very good” (vs. 31). The meaning of the Hebrew word for “good” needs to be clarified here. Indeed, the Hebrew idea of “good” is more total and comprehensive than what is implied in the English translation. It should not be limited to the idea of “function,” meaning that only the efficiency of the operation is here intended. Rather, the word good may also refer to aesthetic beauty (Gen. 24:16; Dan. 1:4; 1 Kings 1:6; 1 Sam. 16:36), especially when it is associated with the word for “see” as is the case in the Creation story (Gen. 1:1, 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).
The word good may also have an ethical connotation (1 Sam. 18:5; 29:6, 9; 2 Sam. 3:36)—a sense that is also attested in the context of the Creation story, especially in God’s recognition, “‘It is not good that man should be alone’” (Gen. 2:18).1 This divine statement clearly implies a relational dimension, including ethics, aesthetics, and even love and emotional happiness, as the immediate context suggests (Gen. 2:23, Ps. 133:1). This divine evaluation is particularly significant, as it appears to be in direct connection to the first Creation story, which was deemed as “good.”
In the second Creation story (Gen. 2:4–25), the word for “good” occurs five times, thus playing the role of a key word in response to the seven occurrences of good of the first Creation story (1:1–2:4). This echo between the two Creation stories on the word good sheds light on its meaning. Though “not good” alludes negatively to the perfect and complete Creation of the first Creation story, the phrase translated as “good and bad,” the word and its opposite, suggests that the word good should be understood as expressing a distinct and different notion from bad, evil. The fact that Creation was “good” means, then, that it contained no evil.
The reappearance of the same phrase in Genesis 3:22 will confirm this argument from another perspective. The knowledge of good and evil, suggesting discernment, knowing the difference between right and wrong, was possible only when “Adam was like one of us [God] in regard to the distinguishing between good and evil.”2 The verb was refers to a past situation. It is only when Adam was like God, not having sinned yet, that is, from the perspective of pure “good,” that Adam was still able to distinguish between good and evil.
The same line of reasoning may be perceived, somewhat in a parallel way, in regard to the issue of death, which is in this context immediately related to the issue of the knowledge of good and evil. Indeed, the tree of life is associated with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:9) as they are located at the same place “in the midst of the garden” (vs. 9; 3:3). And Adam is threatened by the loss of life as soon as he fails to distinguish between good and evil (2:17). For just as good (without evil) is the only way to be saved from evil, life (without death) is the only antidote to death.
It is also noteworthy that this divine appreciation of “good” does not concern God. Unlike the Egyptian stories of creation that emphasize that God created only for His own good, for His own pleasure, and that His progeny was only accidental, the Bible insists that the work of creation was deliberately intended for the benefit of His Creation and essentially designed for the “good” of humans (Psalm 8). Indeed, the two parallel texts of Creation in Genesis 1 and 2 teach that perfect peace reigned initially. In both texts, humankind’s relationship to nature is described in the positive terms of ruling and responsibility. In Genesis 1:26 and 28, the word for “to have dominion,” which is used to express humankind’s relationship to animals, belongs to the language of the suzerain-vassal covenant and of royal dominion without any connotation of abuse or cruelty.
In the parallel text of Genesis 2, humankind’s relationship to nature is also described in the positive terms of covenant. Adam gives names to the animals and thereby not only indicates the establishment of a covenant between humankind and them but also declares lordship over them. That death and suffering are not part of this relationship is clearly suggested in Genesis 1 by the fact that this dominion is immediately associated with the food designated to both humans and animals; it is just the product of plants (Gen. 1:28–30). In Genesis 2, the same harmony is pictured in the fact that animals are designed to provide companionship for humans (vs. 18).
At this point in the story, humankind’s relationship to God has not suffered from any disturbance. The perfection of this relationship is suggested through a description of that relationship given in only positive terms: Genesis 1 mentions that humankind has been created “in the image of God” (vss. 26, 27), and Genesis 2 reports that God was personally involved in creating humans and breathed into them the breath of life (vs. 7).
Likewise, the relationship between man and woman is blameless. The perfection of the conjugal unity is indicated by mentioning that humankind has been created in Genesis 1 “male and female” (vs. 27), and in Genesis 2 through Adam’s statement about his wife being “‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’” (vs. 23). The whole creation is described as perfect. Unlike the ancient Egyptian tradition of origins, which implies the presence of evil already at the stage of creation, the Bible makes no room for evil in the original Creation. Significantly at the end of the work, the very idea of perfection is expressed in verses 1 and 2, qualifying the whole creation. This Hebrew word, generally translated “finished” (NKJV) or “completed” (NIV), conveys more than the mere chronological idea of end; it also implies the quantitative idea that nothing is missing, and there is nothing to add, again confirming that death and all the evil were totally absent from the picture.
Furthermore, the biblical text does not allow for the speculation of a pre-creation in which death and destruction would have been involved. The echoes between introduction and conclusion indicate that the Creation referred to in the conclusion is the same as the one that is mentioned in the introduction.
The “heavens and earth” that are mentioned in Genesis 2:4, at the conclusion of the Creation story, are the same as in Genesis 1:1, the introduction of the Creation story. The echoes between the two framing phrases are significant.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).
“This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created” (2:4).
The fact that the same verb created is used to designate the act of creation and with the same object (“the heavens and the earth”) suggests that the conclusion points to the same act of creation as that in the introduction. In fact, this echoing phenomenon goes even beyond these two lines. Genesis 2:1 to 3 echoes Genesis 1:1 by using the same phrase but in reverse order: the words “created,” “God,” “the heavens and the earth” of Genesis 1:1 reappear in Genesis 1:1 to 3 as “the heavens and the earth” (vs. 1), “God” (vs. 2), “created” (vs. 3). This chiastic structure and the inclusion of “God created,” linking Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 2:3 reinforce the close connection between the two sections in the beginning and the end of the text, again confirming that the Creation referred to at the end of the story is the same as the Creation referred to in the beginning of the story. The event of Creation found in Genesis 1:1 to 2:4 is then told as a complete event that does not complement a pre-work in a far past (gap theory) nor is to be complemented in a post-work of the future (evolution).
The "Not Yet" of Creation
It seems, in fact, that the whole Eden story has been written from the perspective of a writer who already knows the effect of death and suffering and therefore describes these events of Genesis 2 as a “not yet” situation. Significantly, the word translated as “not yet” is stated twice in the introduction of the text (Gen. 2:5) to set the tone for the whole passage. And further in the text, the idea of “not yet” is implicit. The “dust” from which humankind has been formed (vs. 7) anticipates the sentence of chapter 3: “‘To dust you shall return’” (3:19). The tree of knowledge of good and evil (2:17) anticipates the dilemma of humankind later confronted with the choice between good and evil (3:2–6).
The assignment given to humankind was to “keep” the garden in its original state, which implies the risk of losing it, therefore it anticipates God’s decision in Genesis 3 to expel them from the garden (vs. 23) and entrust the keeping of the garden to the cherubim (vs. 24). This same word is used in both passages, showing the bridge between them; the former pointing to the latter suggesting the “not yet” situation. Likewise, the motif of shame in Genesis 2:25 points to the shame they will experience later (Gen. 3:7). The same idea is intended through the play on words between naked and cunning of the serpent; the former (2:25) is here also an anticipation of and points forward to the latter (3:1) to indicate that the tragedy that will later be initiated through the association between the serpent and human beings has not yet occurred. Indeed, as Walsh noticed, “There is a frequent occurrence of prolepsis [assumption of something to be accomplished] in the Eden account.3
Death Was Not Planned
The biblical text goes on in Genesis 3 to describe an unplanned event and reversal of the original picture of peace into a picture of conflict: between animals and humans (Gen. 3:1, 13, 15), between man and woman (vss.12, 16, 17), between nature and humans (vss. 18, 19), and, finally, between humans and God (vss. 8–10, 22–24). Death makes its first appearance since an animal is killed in order to cover humankind’s nakedness (vs. 21) and is now clearly profiled on the horizon of humankind (vss. 19, 24). The blessing of Genesis 1 and 2 has been replaced with a curse (vv. 14, 17). Indeed, the original ecological balance has been upset, and only the new incident of the sin of humankind is to be blamed for this. This theological observation is also reflected in the literary connection between the biblical texts. It is indeed significant that Genesis 3 is not only telling the events that reversed Creation; the story of Genesis 3 is written in a reversed order to the story of Genesis 2, following the movement of the chiastic structure:4
|A Settlement (2:5–8)||C’ Separation (3:1–3)|
|B Life (2:9–17)||B’ Death (3:14–21)|
|C Union (2:18–23)||A’ Expulsion (3:22–24)|
The correspondence between the sections is also supported by the use of common Hebrew words and expressions. This literary reversal of motifs (settlement–expulsion; life–death; union–separation) confirms the intention of the biblical author, namely that sin provoked the reversal of the original Creation.
Later, this is the same principle behind the eruption of the Flood since the cosmic disruption is directly related to the iniquity of humankind (Gen. 6:13). As Clines notes, “The flood is only the final stage in a process of cosmic disintegration which began in Eden.”5 More particularly, the picture of the harmonious relationship between humankind and animals depicted in Genesis 1 is again disrupted after the Flood (9:1–7). The literary bridge between the two passages indicates that the relationship was upset after the Creation and was not a natural part of it. Among a number of common motifs, the same concern with the relationship between humankind and animals is found. The parallelism is striking:
|Genesis 1:28–30||Genesis 7:1–4|
|A God blessed man||A’ God blessed man|
|B Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth||B’ Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth|
|C Have dominion over all animals||C’ Have dominion over all animals|
|D Food for humankind: plants||D’ Food for humankind: animals|
The parallelism works not only in the fact that both passages use the same words and motifs, but also that these occur in the same sequence. No doubt the connection between the two passages is intended. One important difference, however, concerns the relationship between humankind and animals. Although it involves the same ingredients—humankind, animals (beast, birds, fish) and food given by God—the nature of this relationship has changed. While in Genesis 1 humankind’s relationship to animals consists of peace and respect (see above on Genesis 1:29, 30), in Genesis 9 it consists of fear and dread on the part of every beast, which are “‘given into your hand’” (9:2). The reason for this change is suggested in the texts. Since the peaceful relationship in Genesis 1 is associated with the herbal food for humankind, and the conflict relationship in Genesis 9 is associated with the animal food, the conclusion may be drawn that it is the dietary change, implying the killing of animals, that has affected the humankind-beast relationship.
In other words, the picture of conflict is not understood to be original and natural but must have come as a result of an ecological imbalance that is due essentially to death, the fact that humans (as well as animals) started hunting. In that connection, it is noteworthy that the consumption of herbal food was a part of Creation, as death was not yet implied at that stage; this is confirmed by the second Genesis creation story, which specifies that the eating of fruit preceded and therefore excluded the appearance of death (2:16, 17).
It is significant that the overwhelming majority of occurrences of the technical word for “death” refer to human beings,but rarely apply to animals (Gen. 33:13; Ex. 7:18, 21; 8:9; 9:6; Lev. 11:39; Eccl. 3:19; Isa. 66:24), and is never used for plants per se. The same perspective is reflected in the use of the word for “life,” whose departure is the equivalent of death, which also applies generally to humans, sometimes to animals, but never to plants.
The reason for this accent on human death (versus animals and plants) lies in the biblical concern for human salvation and the place of human consciousness and human responsibility in the cosmic destiny. For death is related to human sin as noted in Romans 6:23. Sin belongs essentially to the human sphere (Gen. 2:17; Num. 27:3; Deut. 24:16; Eze. 3:18; Jer. 31:30). It is significant that the first and the last appearance of death in the history of humankind is in the Bible associated with human sin and human destiny (Gen. 2:17; Isa. 25:8; Rev. 21:3, 4).
The expression that “no man is an island” is invariably registered in the pages of the Bible with all the responsibility and the tragic destiny this organic connection implies for humankind. Thus, the biblical view of death is essentially different from the one proposed by evolution. While the belief in evolution implies that death is inextricably intertwined with life and therefore has to be accepted and eventually managed, the biblical teaching of Creation implies that death is an absurdity to be feared and rejected. Evolution teaches an intellectual submission to death.
The Hebrew view of death stood also apart in the ancient Near East. Though the Canaanites and the ancient Egyptians normalized or denied death through the myths of the gods of death, the Bible confronts death and utters an existential shout of revolt and a sigh of yearning (Job 10:18–22; 31:35, 36; Rom. 8:22).
For the biblical authors, death is a contradiction to the Creator God who is pure life. The expression “God [or the Lord] is alive” is one of the most frequently used phrases about God. Holiness, which is the fullness of life, is incompatible with death. In the Mosaic law, the blood was forbidden to be consumed, precisely because the “‘life of the flesh is in the blood’” (Lev. 17:11), and “‘You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood’” (Gen. 9:4). Corpses were considered unclean, and any person who had been in contact with death would become unclean for seven days and for that period of time would be cut off from the sanctuary and the people of Israel (Num. 19:11–13). Priests who were consecrated to God were even forbidden to come near a dead person; they were prohibited from entering a graveyard or attending a funeral, except for a close relative (Num. 21:1, 2; Eze. 44:25). All these commandments and rituals were meant to affirm life and to signify the Hebrew attitude toward death as the result of sin.
When Death Shall Be No More: An Argument From the Future
It should not come as a surprise, then, that the biblical prophets understood hope and salvation only as a total re-creation of a new order in which humankind and nature will enjoy God’s last reversal, in which creation will be totally “good” again, and “no longer” affected by sin, and where death will be no more (Isa. 65:17; 66:22; Rev. 21:1–4). In this new order, “good” will no longer be mixed with “evil,” as death will no longer be mixed with life. It will be an order in which the glory of God occupies the whole space (Rev. 21:23; 22:5). As Irving Greenberg points out, “In the end, therefore, death must be overcome, ‘God will destroy death for ever. My Lord will wipe the tears away from every face’ (Isa. 25:8). In fact, since God is all good and all life, ideally there should have been no death in God’s Creation in the first place.”6 The hope for the new creation of heavens and earth, where death shall be no more, provides us an additional confirmation that death was not a part of God’s original creation.
The biblical story of origins teaches that death was not a part of the original creation, for four fundamental reasons, provided by the biblical testimony of Creation:
1. Death was not a part of creation, because the story qualifies creation as “good,” that is without any evil.
2. Death was “not yet,” because the story is characterized as a “not yet” situation, from the perspective of someone whose condition is already affected by death and evil.
3. Death was due to human sin, which resulted in reversing God’s original intention for creation.
4. That death was not intended to be a part of God’s original Creation is evidenced in the future re-creation of heavens and earth where death will be absent.
Close literary reading of the Genesis texts suggests that there is even a deliberate intention to emphasize these reasons to justify the absence of death at Creation. In the first Creation story (Gen. 1:1–2:4), the sevenfold repetition of the word for “good” reaches its seventh sequence in “very good.” In the second Creation story (2:4–25), the twofold repetition of the word for “not yet” anticipates the “not yet” of Genesis 3. In the story of the Fall (Genesis 3), the literary reversal expresses the cosmic reversal of Creation.
The scientific difficulty to assume that death was not part of the original creation is an honest struggle. For us, it is indeed impossible to conceive life without death, just as it would be philosophically impossible to conceive good without evil. Only the imagination of faith that takes us supernaturally beyond this reality would allow us to transcend and even negate our condition. Only the visceral intuition of eternity and the life granted by God to all of us, “He has put eternity in their hearts” (Eccl. 3:11), and the imagination of faith could help us to see beyond the reality of our present condition that death has indeed nothing to do with life.
Jacques Doukhan, D.Heb.Lett., Th.D., is Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament Exegesis at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and Director of the Institute of Jewish-Christian Studies, both located at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES