Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever -“ Genesis 3:22 NASB
Live forever – Before we attempt to understand this tangled verse, we need to listen to Ellul. “Hebrew thought was sown in a field nourished by Greek thought and Roman law. [in a footnote] A familiar example of the mutation to which revelation was actually subjected is its contamination by the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul. I will briefly recall it. In Jewish thought death is total. There is no immortal soul, no division of body and soul. Paul’s thinking is Jewish in this regard. The soul belongs to the ‘psychical’ realm and is part of the flesh. The body is the whole being. In death, there is no separation of body and soul. The soul is as mortal as the body. But there is a resurrection. Out of the nothingness that human life becomes, God creates anew the being that was dead. This is a creation by grace; there is no immortal soul intrinsic to us. Greek philosophy, however, introduces among theologians the idea of the immortal soul. The belief was widespread in popular religion and it was integrated into Christianity. But it is a total perversion. Everything is not now dependent on the grace of God, and assurance of immortality comes to be evaluated by virtues and works. All Christian thinking is led astray by this initial mutation that comes through Greek philosophy and Near Eastern cults. . . . belief in the soul’s celestial immortality arose in the second half of the fifth century B.C. on the basis of astronomy. Pythagorean astronomy radically transformed the idea of the destiny of the soul held by Mediterranean peoples. For the notion of a vital breath that dissipates at death, for belief in a survival of shades wandering about in the subterranean realm of the dead, it substitutes the notion of a soul of celestial substance exiled in this world. This idea completely contaminates biblical thinking, gradually replaces the affirmation of the resurrection, and transforms the kingdom of the dead into the kingdom of God.”
Were you aware of this Hellenization of Hebrew thinking? If we separate ourselves (as best we can) from the pervasive Greek idea of the eternal existence of the soul, will that help us understand this knotty verse? It might. First we need to correct our idea of va-hay le-olam (live forever). Remember that these words find their meanings within the context of recently-freed Israel, in other words, within the context of ancient Egyptian mythology. In Egyptian mythology, unquestionably there is life after death. But it is not clear if such life is full or worth living. Eternal punishment is not part of the thinking of Egypt (nor is it part of the thinking of Israel). In general, the world to come is merely an extension of this world, with all of its consequent difficulties. Therefore, continued existence without death was especially important. Postponing entry into a world of eternal unsatisfying existence was the highest priority. This mythology stands in the background of this complicated verse. It explains the elaborate funeral embalming processes of the Egyptians, including the interment of food, slaves, wives and utensils.
Remove yourself from concerns with the eternal soul and ask, “What message does this verse send to people who came from a culture that prized staying alive at all costs?” Sarna provides a clue. “ . . the text presupposes a belief that man, created from perishable matter, was mortal from the outset but he had within his grasp the possibility of immortality.” What message does this relay to a people who had just emerged from saturation in Egyptian thinking? Sarna comments: “Man, having already exceeded the limits of creaturehood, has radically altered the perspective of human existence. He lives henceforth in the consciousness of his mortality. He may therefore be tempted to change his condition by artificial means, rather than by restoring the ruptured harmony between divine will and human will, . . .”
In other words, this passage in Genesis closes the door on the Egyptian idea that men may somehow postpone indefinitely the specter of death without reconciliation with God. The verse is aimed directly at overturning Egyptian mythology. It is not a theological proclamation about eternal existence through some magical means. It is a statement that the Egyptian idea is impossible. That door is closed and locked shut. God has insured that no magical rite, no fountain of youth, no priestly incantation, no “holy grail” brings everlasting life. Ancient near-Eastern expressions of human acquisition of living forever are false. The only path is the path back to God, teshuvah – repentance.
Does this unknot the passage? Well, it helps. It helps us see that the verse is not about some Greek idea of the eternal existence of the soul. It is about invalidating Egyptian religious beliefs. Who more than Israel needed to know this?
Topical Index: live forever, hay le-olam, Egyptian mythology, soul, Genesis 3:22