God Abandons the Garden of Eden and Dwells with the Cherubim
The story of the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve’s eating from the tree ends with the following verse:
בראשית ג:כד וַיְגָרֶשׁ אֶת הָאָדָם וַיַּשְׁכֵּן מִקֶּדֶם לְגַן עֵדֶן אֶת הַכְּרֻבִים וְאֵת לַהַט הַחֶרֶב הַמִּתְהַפֶּכֶת לִשְׁמֹר אֶת דֶּרֶךְ עֵץ הַחַיִּים.
Gen 3:24Having driven Man out,he [God] stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the spinning-sword-flame, to guard the way to the tree of life.
Four ancient Jewishtargumim(translations of the Torah into Aramaic) however, understand the verse differently, at least up to the word cherubim:
Targum Neofiti (TN)
וטרד ית אדם ואשרי יקר שכינתיה מן מלקדמין מן מדנ[חה] לגנתה דעדן מן בני תרין כרוביה…
And he drove Man out, and he caused the glory of his Immanence to dwell of oldto the east of the garden of Eden between the two cherubim…
Fragmentary Targum V(FT-V)
וטרד ית אדם ואשרי איקר שכינתיה מן לקדמין מן מדנח לגינתא דעדן מעילוי תרין כרובייא…
And he drove Man out, and he caused the glory of his Immanence to dwell of old to the east of the garden of Eden above the two cherubim…
Fragmentary Targum P(FT-P)
וטרד ית אדם ואשרי יקר שכינתיה מן לקדמין מעלוי גינתא דעדן מן ביני תרין כרוביא…
And he drove Man out, and he caused the glory of his Immanence to dwell of old above the garden of Eden between the two cherubim…
וטרד ית אדם מן דאשרי יקר שכינתיה מן לקדמין בין תרין כרוביא…
And he drove Man out from the place where he caused the glory of his Immanence to dwell of old between the two cherubim…
These four translations differ from one another in the following particulars:
- Was God’s presence between (TN, FT-P, TPJ) or above (FT-V) the cherubim?
- Was God east of Eden (FN, FT-V), above Eden (FT-P), or unspecified (TPJ avoids mentioning Eden here altogether, and no gives no direction for the expulsion, only that it was “from”)?
Even so, they take the same basic approach, stating that God dwelled somewhere, rather than that God stationed separate entities—cherubim and the spinning-sword-flame—somewhere. This understanding is based on two main considerations:
1. Vocalization of וישכן: Qal vs. Hiphil
In place of the Torah’s word וַיַּשְׁכֵּן, “he stationed,” all four Targumim have the Aramaic words [ו]אשרי [א]יקר שכינתיה, “he caused the glory of his Immanence to dwell.” In other words YHWH himself, or “his Immanence” dwelled east of Eden. This shows that the vocalization of the verse’s fourth word underlying their translations was וַיִּשְׁכֹּן, aqalform meaning “he dwelled” or “he went to settle”, rather than MT’s וַיַּשְׁכֵּן, ahiph‘ilform meaning “he caused to dwell” or “he stationed.”(For a similar confusion with the pointing of this verb, see appendix.)
The surplus reference to “God’s Immanence” does not reflect a different text, but is the way the targumimeuphemistically refer to God when he is said to be dwelling somewhere, likely in order to avoid applying anthropomorphic language to the Deity.
2. “ʾEt the Cherubim” – Accusative Particle or Preposition?
But if וישכן is an intransitive verb meaning “God dwelled” according to this reading, how does it parse the phrase את הכרובים, which seems to be the object of the verb in the biblical text? In the targumim, their function in the sentence is merely to specify where the divine Immanence was caused to dwell, i.e., God dwells between or above them, but how are they reading the Hebrew? The answer is that they understand the word אֶת preceding הכרבים differently.
Like English, Biblical Hebrew has homonyms, i.e., two different words with different meanings that are spelled the same (homograph) and sound the same (homophone). The Hebrew את is just such a homonym. Two different words with different meanings are spelled this way and sound the same:
- The accusative particle, which functions as a marker of a following direct object.
- A preposition meaning “with.”
Although the preposition is less common than the accusative particle, it is still quite common, even appearing in the very next verse (Gen 4:1), in Eve’s declaration:
קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת יְ-הוָה
I have made a man with YHWH.
“Between,” “Above,” or “With”?
Admittedly, if the phrase את הכרובים means “with the cherubim,” then we may have expected the targumimto translate this as עם כרוביא, “with the cherubim,” as opposed to the somewhat different בין תרין כרוביא, “between the two cherubim,” employed by TN, FT-P, and TPJ (with minor variations). This unexpected rendering, however, is inspired by Exod 25:22 and Num 7:89, in which God is said to speak with Moses מבין שני הכרבים, “from between the two cherubim” over the ark in the tabernacle.
In contrast, FT-V’s slightly different rendering of the phrase as מעילוי תרין כרובייא, “above the two cherubim,” is probably inspired by the variant reading of 2 Sam 22:11 and Ps 18:11 found in the targumim, the Septuagint, and the Vulgate, in which God is said to ride “upon” (על) cherubim.
In other words, although the targumimare certainly translating את as “with,” they adjust the imagery to fit with other biblical descriptions of YHWH in relation to his cherubim, so that YHWH dwells outside the garden, between or above them.
The End of the Verse
At this point in the verse, after the word cherubim, all four Targumim examined above shift into midrashic expansions, and thus we can only reconstruct how they would have read what follows.
With the Sword– The word וְאֵת preceding להט החרב המתהפכת, “the spinning-sword-flame,” would have been understood the same way it was in the previous phrase, as “with.” Consequently, the targumimlikely understood this as “God settled between (or above) the cherubim and with the spinning-sword-flame.”
God guards the way– Finally, in this reading, the words לשמר את דרך עץ החיים, “to guard the way to the tree of life,” refer to what God will be doing, as he dwells with his cherubim and spinning-sword-flame.
All this yields the following reading of the verse (differences in bold):
בראשית ג:כדוַיְגָרֶשׁ אֶת הָאָדָם וַיִּשְׁכֹּן מִקֶּדֶם לְגַן עֵדֶן אֶת הַכְּרֻבִים וְאֵת לַהַט הַחֶרֶב הַמִּתְהַפֶּכֶת לִשְׁמֹר אֶת דֶּרֶךְ עֵץ הַחַיִּים.
Gen 3:24Having driven Man out, he [God]settled east of the Garden of Eden with the cherubim and with the spinning-sword-flame to guard the way to the tree of life.
In short, once we repoint the word וישכן, we learn that it is God himself who settles east of the garden of Eden in order to guard the way to the tree of life, while the cherubim and the spinning-sword-flame assist him in this task.
Similar Usages in the Bible
The reading of the targumimin Gen 3:24, which takes the particle את as a preposition, fits with other biblical passages.
Dwelling with the Israelites
The precise combination שָׁכַן את also occurs in Lev 16:16 (with a pronoun suffixed to the preposition את):
ויקרא טז:טז…וְכֵן יַעֲשֶׂה לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד הַשֹּׁכֵן אִתָּם בְּתוֹךְ טֻמְאֹתָם.
Lev 16:16 …and he shall do the same for the Meeting Tent of the one who dwells with them in the midst of their uncleanness.
According to this translation, the one who dwells with Israel is a direct reference to God. Alternatively, it could refer to the Meeting Tent and would then be translated “which dwells with them in the midst of their impurities.” Even so, the reference to the Meeting Tent still alludes metonymically to God, since God is present in the Tent (Exod 29:42, 30:36, 40:34; Lev 1:1).
With a Cherub (LXX)
Most remarkably, the combination of prepositional את and כרוב may appear in the Hebrew Bible’s other Eden story, incorporated into Ezekiel’s dirge over the King of Tyre in Ezek 28:11–19. In the MT version of v. 14, Ezekiel calls the king of Tyre a cherub:
אַתְּ כְּרוּב מִמְשַׁח הַסּוֹכֵךְ
בְּהַר קֹדֶשׁ אֱלֹהִים הָיִיתָ
בְּתוֹךְ אַבְנֵי אֵשׁ הִתְהַלָּכְתָּ.
You are the anointed sheltering cherub,
And I have set you [so],
You were upon the holy mountain of God,
You walked among the stones of fire.
The verse is problematic in two ways. First, what does it mean that the king of Tyre is an anointed cherub? Second, the phrase “and I have set you so” seems to say nothing at all, and it throws off the poetic rhythm of the sentence.
But according to the reading reflected in the Septuagint, Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion and the Peshitta, v. 14 reads as follows:
אֶת כְּרוּב מִמְשַׁח הַסּוֹכֵךְ נְתַתִּיךָ
בְּהַר קֹדֶשׁ אֱלֹהִים הָיִיתָ
בְּתוֹךְ אַבְנֵי אֵשׁ הִתְהַלָּכְתָּ.
With the anointed sheltering cherub Iset you,
You were upon the holy mountain of God,
You walked among the stones of fire.
This reading has one consonantal difference, the lack of a conjunction “and” (vav) before the word “I set you,” but this is related to the other difference, which is based on how the opening word is to be understood. The alternative reading, which is considered by many to be superior to that of MT for the reasons discussed above, understands the opening word as the preposition "with".
This difference between MT and the Greek and Syriac translations highlights two things:
- The word את is easy to confuse with other words (in this case the f. sg. personal pronoun, which is a homograph).
- The phrase “with a cherub,” using the less common word for “with,” את (instead of עם), also appears in the only other biblical text about the Garden of Eden.
This supports the translation of the targumimin Genesis 3:24, that God dwells “with the cherubim” outside Eden.
Is YHWH Omnipresent in Genesis 3-4?
Conceptually, the targumic reading fits well with other elements of the Eden story corpus that demonstrate that YHWH is not omnipresent but dwells in a particular place. God walks about in the garden, and after they eat from the fruit and realize they are naked, Man and his wife must hide from him when he appears so that he doesn’t see them (3:8–10).
In the sequel to the Garden of Eden story, both Cain, in his complaint to God, and the narrator consider Cain’s location (from which he will depart at the story’s conclusion) as being “in the presence of” God:
בראשית ד:ידהֵן גֵּרַשְׁתָּ אֹתִי הַיּוֹם מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה וּמִפָּנֶיךָ אֶסָּתֵר וְהָיִיתִי נָע וָנָד בָּאָרֶץ…ד:טזוַיֵּצֵא קַיִן מִלִּפְנֵי יְ-הוָה וַיֵּשֶׁב בְּאֶרֶץ נוֹד קִדְמַת עֵדֶן.
Gen 4:14Since You have banished me this day from the soil, and I will be hidden from Your presence and become a restless wanderer on earth…4:16 Cain left the presence of YHWH and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
These verses indicate that God is located in a particular place rather than being omnipresent, and, that he is located in the same place as Cain.
God speaks on two separate occasions with Cain (4:6–7, 9–15). Since Cain, at this point, is certainly outside the Garden of Eden, it seems that the narrator expects it to be clear to the reader that God too is now located outside the garden. Such an expectation would only be justified if the targumic reading of 3:24 is original, “Having driven Man out, he [God] settled east of the Garden of Edenwiththe cherubim andwiththe spinning-sword-flame to guard the way to the tree of life,” and God was said to have taken up residence right outside the garden.
A Garden no Longer?
Indeed, it is only natural that God should abandon the garden of Eden after driving Man out. His original plan was for Man to till and tend it (לעבדה ולשמרה: Gen 2:15); once Man was absent from the garden, there would be no one to maintain it, and thus it would not be fit for habitation nor serve any constructive purpose.
The reader, therefore, expects God to relocate; our verse explains where God chooses to settle and why. Never again in the Hebrew Bible is the Garden of Eden referred to as an extant habitation of God; yet, unless the targumic reading is original, we are never told when or even that it ceased to be so.
Who Dwells Among the Cherubim
A final point in favor of this reading is its elegant consonance with the phrase ישב הכרבים, an epithet of God that appears seven times in the Hebrew Bible (1 Sam 4:4, 2 Sam 6:2 = 1 Chron 13:6; 2 Kings 19:15 = Isa 37,16; Ps 80:2, 99:1). This epithet is usually taken by modern scholars and English Bible translations to mean “who is seated upon the cherubim” but, as I have argued elsewhere on independent grammatical grounds, it should properly be rendered "who dwells among the cherubim."(Genesis 3:24), which tells of God settling with the cherubim at the dawn of the world, is thus the verse that describes how he came to be the one "who dwells among the cherubim."
God Abandons the Garden
If the targumic reading is original, then Gen 3:24 suggests that when Man and his wife disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, their deed led not only to their expulsion from the garden but to God’s self-expulsion as well.This reading is therefore, highly significant for understanding the way in which the biblical writer viewed the events of the Garden of Eden and the ensuing relationship between humans and God.
Similar Instances ofQal/PiʿelConfusion with שכן את
A similar text-critical phenomenon to that identified in this piece, namely שכן את followed by a noun being vocalized and understood variously as “cause <noun> to dwell” and “dwell with <noun>,” recurs twice in Jeremiah 7.
In Jeremiah 7:3, God tells the Judahites:
MT; LXX (καὶ κατοικιῶ ὑμᾶς); Symmachus (Latin rendering,et confirmabo vos); Targum Jonathan (ואשרי יתכון); Peshitta (ואשריכון)
הֵיטִיבוּ דַרְכֵיכֶם וּמַעַלְלֵיכֶם וַאֲשַׁכְּנָה אֶתְכֶם בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה.
Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place.
Aquila (και σκηνωσω συν υμιν); Vulgate (et habitabo vobiscum)
הֵיטִיבוּ דַרְכֵיכֶם וּמַעַלְלֵיכֶם וְאֶשְׁכְּנָה אִתְּכֶם בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה.
Mend your ways and your actions,and I will dwell with you in this place.
The only difference is in the pointing, but the messages are very different. The former,piʿelpointing is a threat of exile, whereas the latter,qalpointing is God threatening to abandon the Temple in Jerusalem.
Later on in this same chapter, in verse 7, God repeats his promise, that if the Judahites improve their behavior:
MT (Aleppo and Leningrad); LXX (καὶ κατοικιῶ ὑμᾶς); Targum Jonathan (ואשרי יתכון); Peshitta (ואשריכון)
וְשִׁכַּנְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לַאֲבוֹתֵיכֶם לְמִן עוֹלָם וְעַד עוֹלָם.
Then only will I let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers for all time.
MT (some other MSS); Vulgate (habitabo vobiscum)
וְשָׁכַנְתִי אִתְּכֶם בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לַאֲבוֹתֵיכֶם לְמִן עוֹלָם וְעַד עוֹלָם.
Then only will I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers for all time.
Concerning the similar instances in Jer 7:3 and 7:7, many scholars have maintained that the qal readings (“dwell with you”) are original.
For example, Abraham Geiger, a nineteenth-century scholar and founder of Reform Judaism, and Emanuel Tov, a contemporary expert on the textual history of the Bible, argue that the piʿel readings (“let you dwell”) here are theological alterations in vocalization. They explain that there would have been uneasiness with the notion, expressed in the original reading, of God dwelling among lesser beings. There are additional instances in which it seems that original qal forms of שכן having God as their subject were deliberately changed topiʿel, or to some other form, for the same reason.
Thus, while in our verse (Gen 3:24) both vocalization options are acceptable and either one could have developed unconsciously from the other, the direction of development from qal topiʿel fits an identified pattern of deliberate, theologically-motivated alterations. Although not decisive on its own, this consideration, too, weighs in favor of the originality of the targumic reading.
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Dr. Raanan Eichler is a Senior Lecturer of Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and completed fellowships at Harvard University and Tel Aviv University. His publications include “Jeremiah and the Assyrian Sacred Tree,” Vetus Testamentum 67/3 (2017): 403–413, and The Ark and the Cherubim (Mohr Siebeck, 2021).
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