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Joel Kaminsky





Attaining and Forfeiting Adam’s Immortality at Sinai





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Joel Kaminsky





Attaining and Forfeiting Adam’s Immortality at Sinai








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Attaining and Forfeiting Adam’s Immortality at Sinai

The golden calf is a Jewish version of the “fall” of Adam and Eve in Christian tradition.


Attaining and Forfeiting Adam’s Immortality at Sinai

Giving of the Ten Commandments (detail), Lette Valeska, 1948. Wikimedia

The Immortality of Adam and Eve: What the Torah Does and Does not Say

In the garden of Eden, God warns Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and bad lest he die:

בראשׁית ב:יז וּמֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ מוֹת תָּמוּת.
Gen 2:17 But as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die (mot tamut).

A straightforward reading suggests he would die on the very day he violated God’s prohibition. This stands in tension with the lifespan of Adam reported in Genesis 5:5 of 930 years. Granted this is a Priestly source, but even in the non-Priestly Adam and Eve story, they do not die immediately upon eating the fruit. How might this problem be resolved?

God describes to Adam the consequences of his sin by noting:

בראשׁית ג:יט בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם עַד שׁוּבְךָ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה כִּי מִמֶּנָּה לֻקָּחְתָּ כִּי עָפָר אַתָּה וְאֶל עָפָר תָּשׁוּב.
Gen 3:19 “By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground—for from it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

God here is describing Adam’s mortality. Could this be what God meant, i.e., that mot tamut means that Adam and Eve would now be mortal and that if they had not sinned they would have lived forever?

One can find support for this interpretation in a comment God makes ostensibly to his angelic court:

בראשׁית ג:כב וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים הֵן הָאָדָם הָיָה כְּאַחַד מִמֶּנּוּ לָדַעַת טוֹב וָרָע וְעַתָּה פֶּן יִשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וְלָקַח גַּם מֵעֵץ הַחַיִּים וְאָכַל וָחַי לְעֹלָם.... ג:כד וַיְגָרֶשׁ אֶת הָאָדָם וַיַּשְׁכֵּן מִקֶּדֶם לְגַן עֵדֶן אֶת הַכְּרֻבִים וְאֵת לַהַט הַחֶרֶב הַמִּתְהַפֶּכֶת לִשְׁמֹר אֶת דֶּרֶךְ עֵץ הַחַיִּים.
Gen 3:22 And YHWH God said, “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!”…. 3:24 He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.

The Torah here is explicit that God wishes to guard the tree of life from humans. Connecting these dots, some rabbinic interpreters went well beyond what the text seems to say and suggested that God originally created humans as immortal, but because of Adam’s sin, they became mortal.[1]

Interweaving the Golden Calf, Adam’s Sin, and Psalm 82

A midrash in Exodus Rabbah (32:1)[2] reads the golden calf story as closely parallel to that of Adam and Eve in Eden. The midrash adduces a rabbinic interpretation of a passage in Psalms 82 in order to bolster this parallel:

תהלים פב:ו אֲ‍נִי אָמַרְתִּי אֱלֹהִים אַתֶּם וּבְנֵי עֶלְיוֹן כֻּלְּכֶם. פב:ז אָכֵן כְּאָדָם תְּמוּתוּן וּכְאַחַד הַשָּׂרִים תִּפֹּלוּ.
Psalms 82:6 I had taken you for divine beings, sons of the Most High, all of you; 82:7 but you shall die as men do, fall like any prince.

Elohim is here speaking with other gods (or angels), telling them that whereas they were previously divine beings, because of their poor behavior, they will be de-deified, and die like mortals. The Rabbis, however, connect these verses to Israel after the sin of the golden calf, suggesting that when they accepted the Torah at Sinai, all of Israel regained the immortality that Adam had before he sinned. (For the origin of this conception, see below.) Yet, Israel once more lost this Adamic immortality when the people committed idolatry with the golden calf:

אלו המתינו ישראל למשה ולא היו עושים אותו מעשה לא היתה גליות ולא מלאך המות שולט בהן.
Had Israel waited for Moses and not perpetrated that act, there would have been no exile, neither would the Angel of Death had any power over them.[3]

Just as Adam’s sin led to the loss of immortality and his banishment from Eden, so too Israel’s sin led to its loss of new acquired immortality, as well as to the eventual banishment from the paradisiacal situation in the land of Israel.

“Freedom” on the Tablets

The rabbis support this point exegetically by making a pun on Exodus 32:16 in which they playfully substitute the Hebrew word cherut, meaning freedom, for the word charut, meaning engraved.

וכה"א (שמות לב:טז) והמכתב מכתב אלהים הוא חרות על הלוחות, מהו חרות? ר' יהודה ור' נחמיה, ר' יהודה אומר חירו' מן גליות, ור' נחמיה אומר חירות ממלאך המות.
And thus it says (Exod 32:16), “And the writing was the writing of God, graven (charut) on the tablets.” What is the meaning of charut? R. Judah and R. Nehemiah [each have an answer] R. Judah says: “Free (cherut) from captivity.” And R. Nehemiah says: “Free from the Angel of Death.”

Elsewhere in rabbinic literature this pun is used to make the point that true freedom is found by living in obedience to God’s law revealed at Sinai (see Pirke Avot 6:2). Here R. Nehemiah uses it as proof that Israel at Sinai had attained a state of perfection closely analogous to the state they believe Adam had before he sinned, one that included both immortality and its counterpart, life in God’s garden/land. This text implies that such immortality was indeed potentially eternal.

A Kal ve-Chomer that the Israelites Were Immortal After Sinai

The passage then uses a fortiori (a kal ve-chomer) argument to explain why God felt obliged to grant Israel the same immortality that Adam had once been given:

בשעה שאמרו ישראל כל אשר דבר ה' נעשה ונשמע אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא אדם הראשון צויתיו מצוה אחת כדי שיקיימנה והשויתיו למלאכי השרת שנא' (בראשית ג:כב) הן האדם היה כאחד ממנו, אלו שהן עושין ומקיימין תרי"ג מצות חוץ מן הכללים ומן הפרטים ומן הדקדוקים, אינו דין שיהיו הן חיין וקיימין לעולם?!
When Israel exclaimed (Exod 24:7): All that the Lord has spoken will we do, and hearken, the Holy One blessed be He said: “If I gave Adam but one commandment that he might fulfill it, and I made him equal to the ministering angels—for it says (Gen 3:22), ‘behold the man was one of us’—how much more so should those who practice and fulfill all the six hundred and thirteen commandments, not to mention their general principles, details and minutiae, be deserving of eternal life?!”

In short, if Adam received eternal life as a reward for his reception of a single divine commandment, Israel’s acceptance of the six hundred and thirteen commandments should certainly entitle them to eternal life!

From the Gift of Torah to the Coming of Death

The rabbis further bolster their argument by creatively rereading a verse that describes one of Israel’s encampments in the wilderness:

במדבר כא:יט וּמִמַּתָּנָה נַחֲלִיאֵל וּמִנַּחֲלִיאֵל בָּמוֹת.
Num 21:19 From Mattanah to Nahaliel and from Nahaliel to Bamot.

While a plain sense reading of this verse suggests that it is narrating a series of locations in Israel’s wilderness wanderings, the rabbis—likely due to their belief that the Torah is not simply giving mundane geography reports, combined with their attention to the assonance between these locations and certain important rabbinic ideas—here suggest that this terse passage contains a cryptic code of Israel’s spiritual wanderings:

וכה"א (במדבר כא) וממתנה נחליאל שנחלו מהקב"ה שיהיו חיים וקיימין לעולם, כיון שאמרו אלה אלהיך ישראל בא מות עליהן.
This is the meaning of (Num 21:19), “And from Mattanah to Nahaliel”—for they had inherited (nachalu) eternal life from God [through the gift (mattanah) of torah]. As soon, however, as they said (Exod 32:4), “This is your god, O Israel” death came (baʾ mot) upon them.

The location Mattanah is interpreted as shorthand for the giving of the law, which Jews even today call mattan Torah. The place name Nahaliel is split into two words: nachalu (they inherited) and ʾel (God), which in this midrash is understood to mean that Israel inherited eternal life and thus became god-like through receiving the Torah.[4]

The midrash then interprets the last location in Numbers 21:19. The place name Bamoth is split into two words and understood as baʾ mot (death came), which is understood to imply that when Israel committed idolatry in Exodus 32:4, the people again became mortal and susceptible to death.

Dying like Adam

The correlation between Israel and Adam is then driven home by citing Psalm 82:7.

אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא בשיטתו של אדם הראשון הלכתם... אני אמרתי אלהים אתם והלכתם אחר מדותיו של אדה"ר אכן כאדם תמותון.
The Holy One, blessed be He, said: “You have followed the ways of Adam… ‘I said you are like God’ but since you have followed the footsteps of Adam, ‘Nevertheless ye shall die like Adam.’”

The key to this midrash is that the last word should be translated here as “like Adam” and not, as the Soncino translation reads, “like men.” Thus, R. Judah says that the next line about “princes” refers to Adam or Eve:

מהו וכאחד השרים תפולו, אמר רבי יהודה או כאדם או כחוה
What is the meaning of [the next phrase in the verse], “And fall like one of the princes”? R. Judah said: Either as Adam or as Eve.[5]

Much of the midrash grows out of and further reinforces the rabbinic belief that both Adam and the whole people of Israel had once attained immortality, but both lost it through disobedience. But it is important to see that even as the rabbinic discussion moves far beyond the biblical materials, it builds upon and sheds light on a number of thematic and verbal links between the two biblical stories.

In general terms, each story begins with humans in close proximity to God and the requirement of obedience to God’s commandment(s). Both stories include an act of human disobedience that results in a fractured relationship between the humans and God.[6] Finally, neither story ends with God completely severing all relations with the humans who disobeyed his command(s).

Comparison with Paul’s Epistles

While this religious outlook is by no means identical to that found in various texts from early Christianity, it does share certain affinities with some of these texts. For example, in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Paul sees Adam’s sin as resulting in a state in which humans are alienated from God. This state is characterized as one of sin leading to death. Of course, in Christian theology, Jesus provides the cure for this state and belief in him gives one access to eternal life:

Rom 5:17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. 5:18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.... 5:21 So that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

While Paul does not see a second fall at Sinai as the rabbis do, he does believe, as he writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, that even though Jesus has remedied the consequences of Adam’s sin, the full effect of this remedy will only be realized at Christ’s second coming.[7]

Hellenistic Jewish Origin of Both Traditions

The similar readings of Adam’s sin in Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity derives from ideas in various Hellenistic Jewish texts that probably influenced both traditions. Thus Ben Sira 25:24 notes that “from woman sin had its beginning and because of her we all die.”[8]

Similarly 4 Ezra, a Pseudepigraphic book from around 100 C.E., slightly after Paul’s time but reflecting quite similar ideas, states:

4 Ezra 7:118 O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants.

Agreeing on Immortality, Disagreeing How to Achieve It

It is widely recognized that the notion of a primal sin resulting in humans losing their original immortal state plays a major role within Christian thinking that affirms the idea of original sin. Yet, one can see that certain streams of classical Jewish thinking also picked up aspects of this theological complex of ideas and also suggested that one fatal sin led first Adam in Eden (representing all humanity) and then later at the golden calf all Israel to lose their original immortal state.

At the same time, Jews and Christians disagree over whether the new path toward immortality was made available through the events of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection as suggested by the New Testaments texts cited earlier or whether it was created at Sinai and is accessible through the observance of the commandments as suggested in the Tannaitic midrash below (Sifre Devarim 306), with which I conclude:

וכן היה ר' סימיי אומר כל בריות שנבראו מן השמים נפשם וגופם מן השמים וכל בריות שנבראו מן הארץ נפשם וגופם מן הארץ חוץ מאדם זה שנפשו מן השמים וגופו מן הארץ לפיכך אם עשה אדם תורה ועשה רצון אביו שבשמים הרי הוא כבריות של מעלה שנאמר (תהלים פב:ו) אני אמרתי אלהים אתם ובני עליון כלכם לא עשה תורה ולא עשה רצון אביו שבשמים הרי הוא כבריות של מטה שנאמר (תהלים פב:ז) אכן כאדם תמותון.
Rabbi Simai said: all creatures that are created from heaven, their souls and their bodies are from heaven. All creatures that are created from earth, their souls and their bodies are from earth. Except this Adam (or man) whose soul is from heaven and his body from earth. Therefore if man does Torah and fulfills the will of his father in heaven, behold he becomes like one of the creatures from above, as it says, I have said: “You are gods, all of you sons of the Most High” (Ps 82:6). But when man does not do Torah and fulfill the will of his father in heaven he becomes like one of the creatures from below, as it says, “Nevertheless, you will die like an earth creature” (Ps 82:7).[9]


October 16, 2016


Last Updated

March 20, 2023


View Footnotes

Prof. Joel Kaminsky is the Morningstar Professor of Jewish Studies and a Professor of Religion at Smith College. He holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from the University of Chicago. Among his publications are The Hebrew Bible for Beginners: A Jewish and Christian Introduction (with Joel N. Lohr), and Yet I Loved Jacob: Reclaiming the Biblical Concept of Election.