Chris W. Lee’s volume, titled Death Warning in the Garden of Eden, is a revised product of his doctoral thesis at the University of Edinburgh in 2019. Seven of its chapters trace the history of theological explanations of God’s unique, single-verse warning: if you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, mot tamut—“you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Lee’s study covers the meaning of Genesis 2:17 for the human fate of mortality, the punishments that follow humanity’s disobedience, and the varied treatment of Genesis 2:17 through Jewish and Christian biblical history.
Reading Lee’s research pushes the conscientious Bible believer toward one more careful look at the Genesis warning, and the whole Bible story of the relation between Genesis 2:17 and mortality. Paul’s categorical statement that in Adam all die (1 Cor. 15:22) leaves no room for doubt, but Lee’s work invites the reader to know their Scriptures rather than live with assumptions, e.g., that the text’s report of the Fall specifically blames human disobedience. This is a bold claim, deserving of scrutiny.
Lee’s point is that the matter of humans’ pre-Fall state is not necessarily straightforward. This claim of a biblical quandary, expressed in his questions, reminds one of Jesus’ remark that alleged spiritual guides have been known to “strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel” (Matt. 23:34). His counsel against projecting one’s own views onto the biblical text will always be apropos. The Bible student must be careful to know and teach the Scriptures rather than proclaiming their personal impositions as “Thus saith the Lord.”
Lee’s interpretative balance may yet improve. His respect for textual silence may have gone too far when, according to him, what is said about woman does not apply to the creation of man (Gen. 2:7), since woman appears later (verse 18). The thinking behind that position may deserve its own dissertation. But seeing Genesis 2:7 and 18-25 as linked involves no exaggerated exegetical exercise.
About his main focus, Genesis 2:17, Lee shows that its legalistic setting implies an immediate death penalty regardless of the prior state of the one condemned. The biblical narrative that best makes his argument is the horrible story of King Saul’s pronouncement and Doeg’s prompt slaughter of 85 priests (1 Sam 22:16ff.).
Many Bible readers may be surprised to hear Lee’s position on a variety of topics in Genesis 1-3, particularly the claim that the link between the death warning (Gen. 2:17) and any stated punishment (Gen. 3:16-24) is weak. The directness and specificity of God’s speeches to the serpent (Gen. 3:14, 15), the woman (verse 16) and the man (verses 17-19) sound with much more clarity than Lee’s discussion suggests.
Notwithstanding its limitations, or perhaps because of them, Lee’s analysis will stimulate the thinking, even as the student is compelled to recognize anew, the import of the words of Lee’s focused text on the world we and he occupy today, thousands of years from when God spoke them in Eden.