Genesis 3:19 and Romans 5:12-21—Is death an element of the curse?

The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Pentateuch and Historical Books course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

In Romans 5 Paul argues that when Adam sinned all of humanity sinned in solidarity with him (5:18). As a result, death entered the world through sin (5:12). Clearly, Paul believed that although death was typical, it is not normal, not the way things should be, a result of the fall, the punishment for sin (cf. Rom 6:23). But does Genesis 3:14-19, God’s announcement of “the curse,” jive with Paul’s theology? Specifically, does v.19’s language of returning to the ground or dust teach that death is an element of the curse?

Many scholars contend that death was not an aspect of the curse. For example, critical scholar, Westermann, argues that v.19c,  כִּֽי־עָפָ֣ר אַ֔תָּה וְאֶל־עָפָ֖ר תָּשֽׁוּב, is a proverbial saying that was added to the text and has “no connection either with the curse of the narrative” (263-264).[1] More common is the proposal that this “return to the ground” or “dust” language is not intended to address the entrance of death into the created world; and hence death is not an element of the curse. But rather, this language simply adds intensity to man’s toil, which is an aspect of the curse. As Westermann says, these words “have one function, to underline that man’s work will be full of toil right up to his death; his whole existence will be stamped with it” (267). This language of returning to the dust is only understood correctly in relation to man’s toil (266); it is the term of his toil. In fact, quite contrary to a curse, Westermann understands this reference to death as positive, marking the cessation of this toil (267). Wenham notes that 3:19’s parallel language with 2:7 may be seen as evidence that this “returning to dust” is a part of the natural order (83). And finally, Hamilton claims that the absence of the word “death” anywhere in vv.17-19 argues against seeing death as punishment (204).

However, various reasons exist in favor of understanding death as somehow bound up with the curse and the consequences of sin. First, v.19c comes in God’s address of the curse to Adam, which involves the consequences of sin—a change of state, not the mere continuation of the previous order of existence (Wenham, 83). Certainly producing crop from the ground has changed; but if the author’s simply sought to address that change alone, v.19c would be an unnecessary addition. On its own, v.19c teaches the inevitability of death, suggesting that death itself is part of the curse. Second, surely the threat of death in 2:17 would be looming in the reader’s mind at this point and informing his understanding of Adam’s curse. One is forced to ask, if death was natural prior to the fall, what sort of weight would such a threat carry? Third, that God set a cherubim to prohibit man from access to the tree of life (3:22-24) implies that God intended death to be at most an aspect of the curse and at least an implication of banishment from the garden.[2]

In conclusion, whether or not death is a direct curse or an implication of man’s banishment from the garden and consequent inability to access the tree of life, death is a result of the fall. Death is bound up with the fall and is a result of man’s sin. Therefore, Paul’s theology of sin and the Genesis account are coherent.

[1] Even if an addition, v.19c is part of the final form of the text and should be treated as such—connected to the preceding material and larger narrative.

[2] Examining whether man was originally created immortal and death is a direct punishment due to sin or man was created mortal and would experience death as a result of being banished from access to the tree of life (“conditioned immortality” as Erickson argues, 611-613) is beyond the scope of this paper.