A Brief Response to Dr. Kenneth Talbot’s ‘Dying, You Shall Die.’

By Samuel M. Frost, Th. M.

A paper by Dr. Talbot has recently resurfaced on the death of Adam and its ramifications. His article was re-published in light of my recent comments on the matter. However, it was written in 2009 and, therefore, is not interacting with my view. Let it be said, though, that is was re-published in light of this alleged controversy.  The issue is whether or not the phrase, “spiritual death”, is necessary to properly teach the Doctrine of Original Sin (OS).  I affirm that it is not necessary.  I also affirm that the document mainly used for such a view, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), does not contain the phrase.  One would think with such a stress placed on the phrase it would be readily used in the WCF for reference’s sake.  It isn’t.

                Dr. Talbot starts off with a brief mention of Pelagius, a rightly condemned heretic by the Council of Carthage.  That Council (May 1st, 418 CE) was followed by the Council of Ephesus (431 CE), which again condemned Pelagius’ teaching.  What is of interest to me, is that Dr. Talbot does not actually quote the Council of Carthage.  There were Eight Canons issued, or declarations.  Briefly, Canon 1 states that Adam was not created naturally mortal; that he would have died regardless of whether or not he ate from the dreadful tree.  I would agree wholeheartedly with this.  Let any that teach such a thing be anathema.  The second Canon simply states that sin is transmitted to all of Adam’s offspring, and quotes Romans 5.12-ff.  Again, a hearty amen from me.  I would read the rest, but they have nothing to do with the subject at hand.  This Council does not use the phrase, ‘spiritual death.’  It does teach OS.  Thus, ‘spiritual death’ is not needed to teach OS.  That is my contention.[1]

                Talbot then moves on to consider the Hebrew Text of Genesis 2.17.  There are a few errors here, and some of it is misleading, intentionally perhaps. For example, Talbot writes, “In Hebrew both terms relate to death but not physically in this context.”  That is, both verbs, môt Tämût, in Talbot’s view, “relate to death but not physically in this context.”  He supplies no references here to any Lexicon.  None.  He simply states the case as fact (begging the question).  He does, however, manage to quote Wilhelm Gesenius (1786-1842 CE), who was foundational to the grammatological studies of Hebrew Syntax.  His still referenced volume, Hebrew Grammar (1813), is a classic in the field.  Talbot does not give the reference he quotes, but I am very familiar with the volume.  Gesenius notes, “The infinitive absolute used before the verb to strengthen the verbal idea, i.e., to emphasize in this way either the certainty (especially in the case of threats) or the forcibleness and completeness of an occurrence” (§ 113. N (a)).  Gesenius’ first example of this intensive use is Genesis 2.17, wherein he translates it as, ‘thou shalt surely die.’  Talbot does two misleading things here: 1.  He fails to give the rendering of Gesenius its due.  2.  He writes immediately after he quotes Gesenius, “Therefore, the concept of a delayed penalty in its fullness is the proper rendering, based upon the syntactical construction as I have shown. In the disobedience of eating, they will, upon the day that they eat thereof, be guaranteed death, for themselves and their posterity.”  Gesenius states nothing of the kind!  Gesenius does not say that the infinitive absolute coupled with a finite verb (infabs+impf) means “delay”!  Also, there is a half truth here: death was “guaranteed” for Adam and his offspring; all of them.  What Talbot fails to understand is that this act of death was to happen “when” or “in the day” Adam ate.  It didn’t.  God did not bring about swift execution.  He is full of mercy.

                The second person, singular ‘he shall certainly die’ (môt yûmät) expresses the same form of infabsl+impf.  It is used well over 25 times in the Torah for capital punishment.  It is not delayed death.  It is not spiritual death.  It is actual death by stoning.  When the act is found out, and the party is guilty, he ‘must be put to death.’  Not tomorrow.  Not next week.  Not in a month from now.  Talbot believes that he has proven that 1. ‘death’ is spiritual with no lexical consideration.  2.  That the form infabsl+impf conveys the idea of “delay.”  Both are easily proven false by any appeal to any Hebrew Grammar.[2]

                But, in this section, which is the most important section because it is dealing with the Sacred Text, the “Supreme Judge” in all matters of faith and practice according to the WCF, Talbot is not finished.  He appeals to the LXX/OG, which has a noun in the Dative followed by a Future Indicative.  This hardly reflects the Hebrew Text.  He also appeals to a few translations, notably the Genevan Bible, and Young’s Literal Translation.  What he fails to show is the overwhelming translations of the Major Bible Translations, all of which have, “you shall certainly/surely die” (ASV, ESV, JPS, NIV; TNK has ‘for as soon as you eat of it, you will die’).  The first two points of Talbot’s argument, 1. A strange appeal to Pelagius, and, 2. Hebrew Syntax, have failed. I am assuming, of course, that his paper was recently re-published because I have also been slandered as “becoming a Pelagianist” – so, it is easy to see the link here, and the recent misrepresentation of my view.

                It goes from bad, however, to worse.  Talbot then moves on to consider the creation of man as being made from dust, and breathed into with ‘soul’.  From this, he concludes that man is both spiritual and physical.  However, this is not at all what the text states.  Man is made from dust, a chayyim nephesh: a living being.  To insert here the idea of Greek anthropology in a Hebrew text is very strange.  Man is a living being, a dust, formed, breathed into living being; a singular being called, adam.  Made in God’s image.  He does not have God’s image.  He is God’s image.  Talbot is desperately trying to smuggle in spirit and body here so that he can head towards his view of ‘spiritual death.’  He has already poisoned the well with erroneous Hebrew syntax.  With these two errors, he is now ready to defend spiritual death.  Now, I am not at all denying that man is ‘body/spirit.’  But, the text is not offering us a Greek anthropology here.  God made man as a singular being, what Paul called, “the one man” (Romans 5.12-ff.), or, ‘an earthy man’ (I Corinthians 15.47).  This one, earthy, natural man was given a commandment not to eat, and if he did eat, he would ‘certainly’ die in that day: the whole man would die that very day.  There is literally nothing at all in this text (Genesis 3) to suggest all of the verbiage of Dr. Talbot’s “theology.” 

All of his attempts, and many other attempts, beginning with Augustine mainly, are attempts to explain the seeming contradiction between these two facts: 1.  God said, unequivocally, that Adam would die when he ate; that day.  That’s the letter of the Law.  2.  Adam walked out of the Garden and died 930 years later.  There is no contradiction when it is understood that what is revealed to us in this text is that God can utter a commandment (law), and yet he is not obligated to perform under that law as stated.  The law stands, and death is the penalty.  God is righteous, and the penalty must come about.  However, God is also merciful as Judge.  The righteous law that stands over Adam is that he deserves to die, immediately, without question, without appeal, without excuse.  This same law still stands over all mankind: death is your just dessert, and God can bring that about at any time in your life, righteously so (because the law is holy, righteous, and good).  However, God is patient and long suffering (this, the wily serpent overlooked).  Although Adam deserved to die the second he ate, God stayed his execution.[3]  Our God is patient.  Paul states the same thing in Romans 1.32: ‘Who, having known the justice of God, did not understand that they who do such things, are worthy of death.’  He concludes with, ‘We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who do such things…Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?’  For Paul, this demonstration of God’s judgment will happen. ‘But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed’ (Romans 2.5).  Adam was worthy of death, that day.  God delayed that death, by his own will.  The fact of death will come.  Guaranteed.  And the Day of Wrath will most certainly come for all mankind.  ‘He will render to each one according to his works’ (Romans 2.6).  However, until it does, mankind is given time to repent, to seek God, and to be found by Him.  Paul, preaching to the heathen in Athens, says it best: ‘that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us’ (Acts 17.27).  This is the Gospel: God freely pardons you before you stand before him in the Day of Wrath.  All that is required of you, is that you believe God’s pardon.  Salvation is by grace through faith.[4]

                Now, Talbot, above, wanted to argue for ‘delay of penalty in its fullness (italics mine).’  This is because he must bring in the idea of delay, and a progressive idea of ‘fullness’.  In what follows is a rather convoluted, and contrived explanation of “estates” divided between physical and spiritual states, and, for good measure, a big dose of progressive death.  That is, Adam died when he ate (spiritually), with a delayed 930 years later physical death (bringing in the death of the whole man).  Talbot claims to get this from the Hebrew, ‘you shall certainly die.’  However, try to apply this to the numerous occasions of the death penalty in the Torah!  It can’t be done.  If Talbot wishes to have a concept of ‘delay’ of penalty, he has to appeal to the fact that Adam was exiled from the Garden, cut off from the Tree of Life.  In fact, that text says, explicitly, ‘lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (3.22).  See that?  ‘Lest he live.’  Adam was alive when God said this.  We may note the idea of continuous living, not only with an appeal to the waw-consecutive (‘and live’) with a Qal perfect, but the extra adjectival qualification, ‘to age’ – often translated, ‘forever.’  Lest Adam eat from the Tree of Life and continue to live – forever.  Adam wasn’t dead.  This text affirms that he was alive.  Indeed, “Eve is the mother of all the living” (Genesis 3.20).  930 years later, Adam “died” (5.5).

                Secondly, and most explicit, is that the text defines for us the penalty of the death that was meant by God, and understood by Adam: ‘till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (3.19).  We place emphasis on the pronoun, ‘you’ – which constitutes the Man, Adam.  You were taken out of the ground, made from dust, and you are dust, and to dust you will return.  The dismal fact of this image is repeated throughout the Holy Word over and over again.  It means death.  Pushing up the daisies.  Kicking the bucket.  Taking a dirt nap.  Talbot cannot have this definition of death, the biblical definition, and the only definition mentioned directly in the text, as something that happened “in the day” Adam ate.  Obviously.  And, it is readily admitted that Adam did not, in fact, go the way of the dust “when” he ate that fateful day.  Obviously.  Therefore, Theologians have long puzzled over this and invented a spiritual death so that they can have something die when he ate!  Yet, because the soul is immortal by nature, and let us assume that it is,[5] then it cannot ‘die’, literally speaking.  Therefore, since his flesh did not die that day, and his soul cannot be said to have died that day, since it cannot die, then another kind of death must be sought out: separation from God death.  And, this is what Talbot does.  In this way, an immediate kind of death did take place “when” Adam ate that very day.  But, above, it was argued for “delay of the fullness” of the penalty!  In other words, the immediate effect (“in the day”) was separation from God in terms of oneness and communion; a right standing before God in terms of righteousness.  This immediately died (i.e., was severed, metaphorically speaking, or spiritually speaking).  Adam himself (?) only ‘began’ to die, and finally did die 930 years later.  Therefore, Talbot is arguing that there is both an immediate death (separation from God), and a delayed death (physical).  But, if the Hebrew syntax emphasizes a delayed death, as Talbot stated it does, then it must also infer an immediate death, too, at the same time!  This, dear readers, is what you call a contradiction.  And, Talbot was a student of Gordon Clark.  Contradictions cannot be maintained.

                Let me recap this portion before we proceed to analyze the theological framework Talbot builds from the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Doctrine of Original Sin.  Talbot has argued that something died the day Adam ate.  He cannot argue that Adam himself died, or that his body died, or that his soul/spirit literally died.  Thus, what he opts for is that Adam spiritually died; that he became, at that moment (when he ate), ‘dead in sins.’  Dead in sins, however, does not mean that any aspect of Adam as nephesh chayyim (living being) actually died, but only that something in terms of Adam’s standing before God died.  His loss of righteousness, or loss of the image of God, or a separation from God (God withdrew his Spirit from Adam in terms of Adam having direct knowledge of God, which implies Adam had God’s Spirit dwelling in him from the beginning – another matter altogether, and not addressed in this paper).  However one wishes to express spiritual death, it becomes clear that at the same time, Talbot wants to keep Adam alive, and able to interact with God to some limited degree.  And, so, the idea that Adam “began” to die is introduced.  Adam is immediately spiritually dead (an “estate” as Talbot calls it), but not ontologically, or existentially dead.  Talbot writes, “In stating that he fell, we could rightly state Adam died from the estate and entered a different estate which affected the whole man.”  Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t find any of this language in the WCF!  Why can’t one, just as easily, say, “In stating he fell, he disobeyed God, and was made to enter the rest of his life as a mortal doomed to die in his sins and be forever cut off from immortality and being one with Him for which God made him”?  For me, all of these attempts, albeit quite noble, and with a great history, fail to get to the heart of the problem of original sin; for it is original sin that I defend: from a biblical, textual standpoint.

                First, let me quote from Dr. Talbot, who, after this paper was re-published, issued a declaration of sorts against me, his former student, and personal friend that spans well over two decades now.  Talbot wrote, “Samuel Frost has posted a doctrinal position that is clearly at odds to the historic view of Original Sin…as it relates To the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647.  Now it seems that he has once again drifted from the Reformed Faith into a new heresy.”  These charges are entirely false, baseless, without any proof, any quotations from me, witnesses, or personal confrontation of witnesses.  Let me be clear: I affirm Original Sin, as I will demonstrate.  I affirm that the concept of spiritual death is unnecessary to defend Original Sin.  Talbot cannot produce one sentence from my pen that is anywhere near the teaching of Pelagius.  Not one. 

                First off, since I assume the reader is familiar with the WCF, there is not one word I would change in that document on that section (WCF 6.1-ff.).  We may notice, too, that “spiritual death” is not mentioned. “Dead in sins” (6.2) is, and even quotes Genesis 2.17 in its “prooftexts.”  Great.  There is no theological discussion on what that actually means, however.  There is elaboration given, technically, as found in our theology books and such, and from history, as to what exactly this phrase means, and how it is applied upon the entirety of one’s life before God.  Is it a “state”, or an “estate”, a “sentence”, or a “liability”?  Later in the Confession, we read, “made subject to death” (6.6).  Here it uses Romans 6.23 as a prooftext: “the wages of sin is death.”  Yes it is.  Spiritual death?  Is the wage of sin the fullness of death, including eternal death?  Doesn’t sin deserve eternal death?  Yes it does.  Is “death” here limited to “spiritual death”?  Impossible.  Now, “made subject to death” and “dead in sins”, to me, are the same thing; another biblical word would be ‘mortal.’  Being mortal is due to sin.  Declared “dead in sin” from birth is due to Adam’s sin.  The fact that I am born under this judgment of God, yet given the opportunity to hear God by faith before I die in sin (the sentence carried out, and applied), means that, like Adam, I am alive.  Mortal.  But, alive nonetheless.  I don’t speak of man in his “parts” in terms of Greek philosophy.  For example, when Paul speaks of an “inner” and “outer” man, he is not speaking like Plato, or Sophocles.  The single human being, the man, is one outer/inner man (duality, not dualism; dual-unality).  If the soul is also “corrupt”, that is, “this corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated” (WCF 6.5), then how can one speak of their “incorruptible” and “now made alive” soul, wherein also their “corrupt” outer man (flesh?) that dies, while at the same time maintain they are a “new creature” (in their spirit), where corruption ‘doth remain in those that are regenerated’?  This, the WCF does not, again, elaborate on.  It leaves room for discussion and development while operating under these guidelines.  Fine.  That’s exactly what I am doing.  And, I do not need to use the phrase, “spiritual death” to cloud the already very difficult issue.  My failure to use spiritual death does not logically mean, however, and this my lazy detractors have not proven other than simply stating it as a fact, that I deny Original Sin.

                Appealing to the likes of Vos, and Gill only issues a further problem in that I have devoured these authors due to my heavy load required at Whitefield Theological Seminary.  I am thoroughly familiar with them, and have them in my own personal library.  For example, from Gill, Talbot quotes, that death “may have regard to more deaths than one; not only a corporeal one, which in some sense immediately took place, man became at once a mortal creature, who otherwise continuing in a state of innocence, and by eating of the tree of life, he was allowed to do, would have lived an immortal life; of the eating of which tree, by sinning he was debarred, his natural life not now to be continued long, at least not for ever; he was immediately arraigned, tried, and condemned to death, was found guilty of it, and became obnoxious to it, and death at once began to work in him; sin sowed the seeds of it in his body, and a train of miseries, afflictions, and diseases, began to appear, which at length issued in death. Moreover, a spiritual or moral death immediately ensured; he lost his original righteousness, in which he was created; the image of God in him was deformed; the powers and faculties of his soul were corrupted, and he became dead in sins and trespasses; the consequence of which, had it not been for the interposition of a Surety and Savior, who engaged to make satisfaction to law and justice, must have been eternal death, or an everlasting separation from God, to him and all his posterity”  First off, Gill notes that it may have regard to more deaths.  It may not, too.  Gill is not ipso facto ruling out any other possible considerations.  Second, again we see the emphasis on the “immediate” (in the day), to which Vos almost dismisses as something not to emphasize too much.  Why?  Because Adam did not die that day.  It is only in these other regards that he “spiritually or morally died.”  All of the descriptions listed by Gill here are all good, and certainly by the time we get to Noah’s generation, God was sickened by mankind.  But, this is not due to the fact that “something died”.  Why can it not be due to the fact that they were mortal, they were estranged from the direct revelation of the knowledge of God (which is required), and that they reasoned within their minds with fixed limited thoughts on what is Good, and what is Evil on their own abilities to reason apart from any knowledge of God?  After all, that Adam ate from the tree of knowledge, and that upon doing so became likened to God, as God himself states (Genesis 3.22), wouldn’t this also be transmitted to his offspring?  Wouldn’t Adam’s ability to reason within the framework of right and wrong, good and bad, evil and righteousness, correct and incorrect, error and true carry to all his children?  And, if we did, in fact, reason within this framework, and yet without God’s direct revelation communicated to us to such a degree that we would be convinced of it as truth, wouldn’t that bring us to the place that we would call what God says is, “good”, evil, and what he says is, “evil”, good?  Yes.  It would.  It did.  Still does.  Man’s estrangement from God (not his death, spiritual or otherwise) is his autonomy from God, his independence from God.  In his thinking he is alienated from God.  Without God’s revelation directly conveyed to him, revealing to him to the extent that when He is heard, the response is, “Here I am!”, then man’s irrevocable destination is dust, dead in sins, eternally to be condemned when raised from the dust, and thrown into a lake of fire….forever.  He can reason all he likes.  It won’t save him.

                At this point, there is enough here to prove that my recent accusers are false in their charges.  It matters not to me whether or not they see what I am saying.  What does matter, though, is that they are entirely wrong in what they are saying about my view.  Pelagius flatly denied Original Sin, and by Original Sin, that the actions of Adam was transmitted to his children; that the effects of his sin, affected us all.  That since he died, we die, and we die because we sin, and we sin because Adam sinned.  We sinned in Adam, since we came from Adam, and inherited his nature; fallen, corrupt, liable to death, confused in mind, breaking God’s law at every turn, and, if not restrained by God, and God alone, would act out every evil inclination of every evil thought based on our own evil designations of what we, evilly, think is Good, and Evil.  If a person wants to call this, “spiritually dead”, be my guest.  But, for me, the term is inadequate to convey just how bad we have it apart from God.  For me, the situation is far worse.  Impossibly worse.  Death, that is, when we kick the bucket, the death we all hate, try to avoid, go to the doctor for, have surgery, wear seatbelts, helmets, try to eat right, exercise; the death we have insurance for so that we can have assurance from dying at this moment, if I can only be spared by a pill to get another day here on this wonderful earth (!), the death that takes our loved ones away, the one we spend a ton of money on for caskets; the death that we know is coming, and try to avoid talking about because, well, it’s just not that fun of a subject, is it.  That death, that fills our airwaves, our halls, and workplaces, our news and our movies and arts.  The death that we know is there, and can feel it at times, and we try to put it off with the best healthcare we can get.  Why?  Is death just some “thing” that happens?  If you think that, you are not reading your Bibles.  Where did death come from?  Adam.  Well, more precise: God.  He gave the law to Adam.  And in that law, it said, “death.”  Death would color Adam’s life from start to finish, not life.  And, even if he received life renewed, death still comes knocking.  “And Adam died.”  Sad sentence.  “And God breathed in his nostrils, and Adam became a living being.”  “And Adam died.”  Very, very sad.  But, there is a hope introduced to Adam before he goes the way of the dust.  The Woman God made will produce a Seed.  The commandment to be fruitful is not revoked!  Even though Eternal Life is cut off, and dust is a one way ticket that cannot be stopped (sadly, mortal we are), there is a hope to come!  Maybe even a reversal of death in the dust!  Maybe, since God made man of the dust the first time, he will make him again from dust a second time, only this time there will be no more death.

                It is my hope that my accusers repent of their sin of false accusation and rush to judgment.  That their actions have only harmed themselves, and their image.  That they have introduced division where there need be none, and have dearly hurt some folks in the process without justification, folks that make the same claim you: Jesus is Lord.  God raised him from the dead and seated him at the right hand.  Salvation is a free gift, given of God, to those who hear his voice, and love him, and his word.  He will come again, and judge the living and the dead

[1] See, ‘Canons of the Council of Carthage to Investigate Pelagianism May 1, 418’, Translated By The Right Rev. Charles Joseph Hefele, D.D. & Henry Nutcombe Oxenham, M.A. Edited By Rev. Daniel R. Jennings, M.A.

[2] Arthur W. Walker Jones, Hebrew for Biblical Interpretation, Society of Biblical Literature Resources for Biblical Study, No. 48, Ed., Steven L. McKenzie, Society of Biblical Literature: Atlanta.  2003.  194-195.  Also, for a full discussion, see Bruce K. Waltke, M. O’Conner, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Eisenbrauns: Winona Lake, Indiana 1990.  580-ff., part. 586 where Gn 2.17 is translated.  The infinitive absolute followed by the finite verb intensifies the meaning, thus ‘surely’ or ‘certainly’ is brought out in translation.  There is virtually unanimous agreement within the Grammars on this point.  The grammars also note several examples of this ‘intensive’ use of the infinitive+imperfect verbal pairing.  In the transliteration of the Hebrew, môt Tämût, we see that the verb for death, môt, is repeated in the second form of the same verb. 

[3] The stay of execution, an idea developed from Reformed Theology, is not at all implied in the Hebrew phrase, “you will certainly die.”  God does not stay his execution because there is some “wiggle room” in the Law.  This would render the Law “ambiguous” in its meaning; that God’s Law is not clear.  Rather, the law to Adam was very clear, and there is no ambiguity in it.  This is what makes the pardoning of God so rich in mercy because it means, quite precisely means, that Adam stands before God not by law, but by grace in his patience and mercy.  If Adam understood such pardon (which he did), then he could accept any chastisement, any punishment from God’s good hand, because he knows that even in death and the grave, God will deliver his soul freely, and solely on his grace and love.  The measure of God’s grace is the measure of the severity of God’s righteousness, and in Adam’s case, the fullest extent of God’s righteousness would have been to swiftly end Adam and Eve’s life and consign them eternally, body and soul, in a lake of burning sulfur because of what they had done.  The other message this teaches is that even the slightest infraction over something seemingly insignificant as to eating fruit, demands the fullest punishment possible not because of the thing denied, but because of the God who commanded that it be denied.  To do what God has said not to do, even if one thing, God says, “death is deserved the instant you do it.”  Not “spiritual death”, but the fullest expression of death possible: eternal death.  This, Adam deserved.  This, Adam did not get.  The same grace is demonstrated to all born of Adam and Eve, precisely because the same punishment, to “die in sins” and be thrown into eternal damnation, stands over all.  Man’s sentence: ‘dead in sins’ carries with it the full penalty due him: eternal damnation.  But, because “grace reigns over death”, from the day Adam sinned til now, those who accept the blood of the risen Christ are spared the full rendering of dead in sins.  Their death is now “dead in Christ.”

[4] I am currently writing on this theme in a much more technical and developed paper.

[5] We are treading dangerously close to Greek pagan philosophy when we say, carelessly, that the “soul is naturally immortal”.  Only God is immortal (1 Timothy 6.16).  He can destroy even the soul (Isaiah 10.18; Matthew 10.28), but God, who also is with ‘soul’ (Jeremiah 51.14; Amos 6.8), cannot be destroyed.  To say that the human “soul” cannot be destroyed, even by God, cannot be said to be a biblical teaching. I am not denying eternal punishment by these statements.  If eternal punishment is true, then the soul is eternally punished because God does not destroy it, not because it is inherently immortal.

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