“The LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand, and also take of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever—” Therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:22-24, WEB)
I admit it. This passage provokes me to ask so many uncomfortable questions. Who is the “us” that God addresses? Why put the cherubim in the East – couldn’t someone enter through the other three directions? What exactly is “a flaming sword of itself returning” (as the awkward Hebrew reads)? And how long was Paradise guarded?
Who is this “us”?
On God saying “Behold, the man has become as one from us”, a great deal of Christian commentaries exclaim something like ‘It’s the Godhead!’ but I’m afraid that these are merely confirmation biases to promote Christian doctrines of the Trinity. However, I think there IS evidence that this refers to the cheruvim that would guard Eden shortly thereafter. This becomes apparent when we compare other supernatural utterances of God in the first-person plural (“we”, “us”, etc.).
Yeshayahu (Isaiah) once heard the voice of YHVH saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Isa. 6:8) Upon closer inspection of the context, YHVH says this when surrounded by seraphim (“flames”, denoting fiery angels). He also uses the first person plural at the Creation of Mankind (cf. Gen. 1:26), and from other Scriptures, it’s clear that angels were in fact present at Creation (i.e. Job 38:27).
So, there IS a biblical precedent for God using first-person-plural speech with various manifestations of angels. In the case of Genesis 3:22-24, the context points to cheruvim. This is further evident by the use of the –ha proclitic, Hebrew’s definitive article. In other words, it says “the cheruvim” (hacheruvim), as opposed to just “cheruvim” (as some English translations drop the definitive article completely). So, if one sees “the cheruvim”, he might ask, ‘which cheruvim?’ The answer would be, ‘the ones God was just speaking to when He said, ‘Behold, man has become as one from us…’
The cheruvim are the same as the Four Living Creatures (cf. Ezekiel 1:1-15, 10:10-14, and Rev. 4:6-8) who appear on and off again for the same reason as they appeared in Eden – judgment. They are often associated with fire, whether they pass coals of fire to “the Man in Linen” to be scattered over Jerusalem (cf. Eze. 10:2), which is a symbol for passing on the wrath of God from Heaven to the dimension of Earth (Rev. 15:7). Therefore, I make the argument that the placement of the cheruvim at Eden is a result of God’s judgment on Adam.
Why Put the Cherubim in the East?
The use of the word qedem does mean “East”. However, it also means “ancient”, “long ago”, or “in front of”. I believe the latter “in front of” is the intended meaning.
It is possible that qedem means “East” to denote direction, but it proffers the question, ‘East of what?’ Where Adam was created, or East of Israel? Secondly, it may be adding to the story to suggest that Adam was driven out toward the East (where the cherubim were supposedly placed). I’m slow, but I would think that God would not just protect one side of Eden!
Let’s consider that qedem was first used when God planted the Garden (Genesis 2:8) to which the context says “a river flowed from Eden to water the Garden”. In this case, the Garden is “in front” of the greater land of Eden. Later – here in Genesis 3:24 – we read how the cheruvim were placed “in the front” – the same place Adam entered into and was later expelled from Paradise.
“The Sword that Turned Itself Back”
However, though the cheruvim were in “the front” of the Garden, they had that flaming sword which “turned itself back” to cover everything behind them. This means there wouldn’t be any way to circumvent the cheruvim to connive a way back to the Tree of Life. The text suggests that the cheruvim were first placed between Adam and the Garden, and then immediately burned Paradise with a consuming fire.
Just as Ezekiel saw the cheruvim move as one unit with a wheel, that “when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them… for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels (Ezekiel 1:20)” the sword of flames returned on itself with the cheruvim who directed it. In other words, the cheruvim were placed at the front, and turned back with the sword to completely burn the Garden to a crisp. Thus the cheruvim preserved the way back to the Tree of Life.
So the cheruvim were not guarding it but for a brief moment in time – they were not there to preserve the Garden, but the “way”, meaning they were meant to keep Adam from “stretching forth a hand to take from the Tree of Life.” Thus, Adam was there to see it go up in smoke, and completely erased from the Earth forever.
Sometimes, it’s a hard lesson to learn that best way to preserve something is to completely destroy it, and then to start anew.
From hereafter, cheruvim would keep guarding the Way to the Tree of Life – on the mercy seat of the Ark that no one was allowed to open, the Glory of the Temple that no one could enter, and the Great Throne that no one could stand upon… until that time when Someone proved worthy enough, and become caretaker of the Tree of Life in Heaven. Ω