Before we can answer this question, we must consider the definition of die. We commonly use the word die to describe when plants, animals, or humans no longer function biologically. However, this is not the definition of the word die or death in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word for die (or death), mût (or mavet or muwth), is used only in relation to the death of man or animals with the breath of life, not regarding plants.1 This usage indicates that plants are viewed differently from animals and humans.
Plants, Animals, and Man — All Different
What is the difference between plants and animals or man? For the answer we need to look at the phrase nephesh chayyah.2 Nephesh chayyah is used in the Bible to describe sea creatures (Genesis 1:20–21), land animals (Genesis 1:24), birds (Genesis 1:30), and man (Genesis 2:7).3 Nephesh is never used to refer to plants. Man specifically is denoted as nephesh chayyah, a living soul, after God breathed into him the breath of life. This contrasts with God telling the earth on day 3 to bring forth plants (Genesis 1:11). The science of taxonomy, the study of scientific classification, makes the same distinction between plants and animals.
Since God gave only plants (including their fruits and seeds) as food for man and animals, then Adam, Eve, and all animals and birds were originally vegetarian (Genesis 1:29–30). Plants were to be a resource of the earth that God provided for the benefit of nephesh chayyah creatures — both animals and man. Plants did not “die,” as in mût; they were clearly consumed as food. Scripture describes plants as withering (Hebrew yabesh), which means “to dry up.” This term is more descriptive of a plant or plant part ceasing to function biologically.
A “Very Good” Biological Cycle
When plants wither or shed leaves, various organisms, including bacteria and fungi, play an active part in recycling plant matter and thus in providing food for man and animals.
When plants wither or shed leaves, various organisms, including bacteria and fungi, play an active part in recycling plant matter and thus in providing food for man and animals. These decay agents do not appear to be nephesh chayyah and would also have a life cycle as nutrients are reclaimed through this “very good” biological cycle. As the plant withers, it may produce vibrant colors because, as a leaf ceases to function, the chlorophyll degrades, revealing the colors of previously hidden pigments.
Since decay involves the breakdown of complex sugars and carbohydrates into simpler nutrients, we see evidence for the second law of thermodynamics before the Fall of mankind. But in the pre-Fall world, this process would have been a perfect system, which God described as “very good.”
What Determines a Leaf’s Color?
When trees bud in the spring, their green leaves renew forests and delight our senses. The green color comes from the pigment chlorophyll, which resides in the leaf ’s cells and captures sunlight for photosynthesis. Other pigments called carotenoids are always present in the cells of leaves as well, but in the summer their yellow or orange colors are generally masked by the abundance of chlorophyll.
In the fall, a kaleidoscope of colors breaks through. With shorter days and colder weather, chlorophyll breaks down, and the yellowish colors become visible. Various pigments produce the purple of sumacs, the golden bronze of beeches, and the browns of oaks. Other chemical changes produce the fiery red of the sugar maple. When fall days are warm and sunny, much sugar is produced in the leaves. Cool nights trap it there, and the sugars form a red pigment called anthocyanin.
Leaf colors are most vivid after a warm, dry summer followed by early autumn rains, which prevent leaves from falling early. Prolonged rain in the fall prohibits sugar synthesis in the leaves and thus produces a drabness due to a lack of anthocyanin production.
Still other changes take place. A special layer of cells slowly severs the leaf ’s tissues that are attached to the twig. The leaf falls, and a tiny scar is all that remains. Soon the leaf decomposes on the forest floor, releasing important nutrients back into the soil to be recycled, perhaps by other trees that will once again delight our eyes with rich and vibrant colors.
A Creation That Groans
It is conceivable that God withdrew some of His sustaining (restraining) power at the Fall to no longer uphold things in a perfect state when He said, “Cursed is the ground” (Genesis 3:17), and the augmented second law of thermodynamics resulted in a creation that groans and suffers (Romans 8:22).4
Although plants are not the same as man or animals, God used them to be food and a support system for recycling nutrients and providing oxygen.
Although plants are not the same as man or animals, God used them to be food and a support system for recycling nutrients and providing oxygen. They also play a role in mankind’s choosing life or death. In the Garden were two trees — the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The fruit of the first was allowed for food, the other forbidden. In their rebellion, Adam and Eve sinned and ate the forbidden fruit, and death entered the world (Romans 5:12).
Furthermore, because of this sin, all of creation, including nephesh chayyah, suffers (Romans 8:19–23). We are born into this death as descendants of Adam, but we find our hope in Christ. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22, KJV). As you look at the “dead” leaves of fall and remember that the nutrients will be reclaimed into new life, recognize that we too can be reclaimed from death through Christ’s death and Resurrection.