Genesis 3:22-24

Here is Alter’s translation of these final verses in the narrative:

“And the LORD God said, Now that the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, he may reach out and take as well from the tree of life and live forever.” And the LORD God sent him from the garden of Eden to till the soil from which he had been taken. And he drove out the human and set up east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the flame of the whirling sword to guard the way to the tree of life.”

Here is the NIV translation:

“And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”

Some thoughts:

1. First of all, I don’t know who designed the reading schedule and left so much material to cram into the final week. They should have planned ahead better.

2. “And the LORD God said . . . ” If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time in this narrative that God addresses a heavenly “us” not identified in the story. We get such a move in 1:26, but nowhere else in chapters 2 or 3. How this “us” gets read and identified will, I think, profoundly inflect one’s interpretation of the rest of the story. An “us” referring to heavenly parents (both genders!) is a very different context from a “royal” we or a heavenly council of angels or a Holy Trinity. But the “us” is left undefined. (The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary refers to this, of course, as “inner-divine communication.”)

3. “The man has become like one of us . . . ” Is the “man” here to be understood as a proper name, as a general name (human) referring to Adam in particular, as a general name referring to both Adam and Eve, or as a general name referring to all human beings? If it just refers to Adam, why? Why does Eve get left aside?

Is Adam (a single person) here becoming like some ONE else (another single person)? Or is Adam (a single person) here becoming a like an “us” (i.e., a plurality of persons)? Has Adam himself been split and multiplied by the acquisition of knowledge? Knowledge itself certainly requires the ability to adopt multiple points of view which aren’t necessary compatible in any simple way with one another. (Rosalynde knows about this one: ask her :)

4. “. . . has become . . .” Is the verb here the most important part of the sentence? Meaning: is the most important thing here not that the man has become X, but that the man has just plain started to become? Of course, this observation touches a major nerve in the Western philosophical tradition, much of which is structured around Plato’s distinction between Being (good!) vs. Becoming (bad!). It’s not entirely clear, I would argue, in the Mormon tradition which side we take in the debate: is time real (and, hence, Becoming is real) or is time an illusion (and, hence, only Being is real)? Does a positive Mormon evaluation of temporality have a lot to do with a positive evaluation of what happens as a result of the fall?

5. ” . . . has become like one of us . . .” The way in which we’ve become “like” whoever the “us” is is specified: “like one of us, knowing good and evil.” Though, again, the “like” at work in this verse touches another major nerve in the history of Christian theology: what exactly is the nature of this analogical relationship? Or, more generally, there is the philosophical problem of deciding even what an analogy is or how analogies function. How one answers this question will depend on how one treats “universals” or “categories” or “classes” and on how one treats their construction and population. It’s not clear me that we have anything like a Mormon position on these kinds of questions. Which, in some ways, is nice. Because it means we’re free to experiment for ourselves with different metaphysical platforms and see what happens. The nature of the “like” is crucial.

6. he may reach out and take as well from the tree of life and live forever . . .” There is an important difference here between Alter’s translation and the NIV. Where Alter translates all of vs. 22 as a single sentence, the NIV breaks it into two. The effect, in the former case is that there is a causal link between the first part (“man has become like one of us:) and the second part (“so he may now reach out and partake of the tree of life”). The connection, if legitimate, is obscured by the NIV’s version that splits the construction in two.

If there is a connection, what is it? Why is it that only now, after knowing good and evil, that the man might reach out and eat the fruit of the tree of life? Is the claim that the man couldn’t have done it before now? Or is the claim that it only matters whether he eats it or not now after he knows the difference and death has entered the picture? (We’d already noted the possibility that until now they may have already been eating of the fruit of the tree of life. Though that seems less likely, I think, in light of these verses.)

If the tree of life is read symbolically, then what kind of reading would we give of it? If there was no actual fruit for the man to risk eating, then what is the X to which the fruit refers? What is God protecting us from? What X in our daily recapitulation of this story is guarded from us by way of the flaming sword? What’s the flaming sword? It seems much easier to give a naturalized existential/developmental reading of what happens with the fruit of TTOK than of the fruit of TTOL.

7.  “. . . banished from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken . . .” Does the “take” in vs. 22 echo in any meaningful the “take” in 23 (it’s the same word in Hebrew)? Are they intertwined, contrasted? Is there irony at work here? Is it ironic (or not?) that the man, by way of his banishment, will be able now to fulfill the purpose originally given to him?

Banished may actually be a little strong of a translation for the Hebrew here that Alter, showing more restraint, translates simply as “sent.” Adam here is one who is “sent” out into the world. This word, of course, also has serious resonances for Christians in that an “apostle” is literally one who is sent. Should Adam here be associated with an apostle/angel insofar as he is “sent by God himself out into the world”?

8. “. . . at the east of the Garden of Eden . . .” Why does only the east side of the Garden need guarded? Can’t you get in from any of the other three sides?

9. I wish I had something cool to say about cherubim or flaming swords, but I really don’t. But I’d love to here something about it. Consider yourselves tasked!

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2 Responses to Genesis 3:22-24

  1. Like us: The medieval Jewish commentator, Rashi, says that by pointing out that the couple has become “like us,” God distinguishes them from all other animals: they have the same kind of unique status in relation to the rest of creation that God has.
    Live forever: Rashi says that if the couple were to live forever, other beings might be deceived into thinking that they are gods.
    Has become: I think this could be translated literally “has happened that.” The verb can also denote the simple existence of something (though, unlike English, Hebrew rarely needs the “to be” verb). The verb, hāyâ, is generally agreed to be the root of the name YHWH, though it remains up in the air which form of the verb is at work in that name: does it mean “He-Causes-to-Be” or “He-is.” Exodus 3:14 is where this root is most obvious. The Septuagint translates the Hebrew as Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν, “I am the existing One,” reading hāyâ as “He is.” As much as I would like “become” to be the sense at work here, I doubt it.
    Take: I don’t have anything to add to Adam’s point, but the repetition of this word in 22 and 23 is very interesting. I need to think about what to make of it.
    Placed: In the Word Biblical Commentary Genesis volume, Wenham points out that the word literally means “camped out.” Another translation is “dwelled.” So what? I don’t know. But it’s interesting.
    Why on the east of the Garden? Cassuto says “There apparently was the entrance and exit.” (Duh.) Wenham, however, says “. . . one is reminded of the orientation of the tabernacle and temple, which were entered from the east” (86). That’s more helpful.

  2. Candice says:

    Adam is created on what would appear as barren dirt, then brought in/placed in God’s garden, and then placed outside of it seemingly to the same spot again, “the soil from which he had been taken.” God’s acts of placing Adam seem very significant. It is important for us to see these details, I think most readers imagine the creation in Edenic soil. In a sense, the barren dirt is Adam’s “home” to which he returns. The dreary earth is where he belongs, and where his work is needed. I like your comment about irony here at his expulsion. It might also be ironic that Adam is compelled to “return” to the dust before his body’s full return to the dust in death. It almost seems like this Eden experience is just a little glimpse of God’s creative acts, like an accelerated course in environmental education among other things. A glimpse into the kind of being that Adam’s father is and who he could become. For whatever reasons, what Adam needed to learn couldn’t be taught on dry, barren and dreary land. God wanted to be with him in the context of a garden. You could say God’s being placed in the garden himself is a part of him, his way of being. The homes God builds are part of who he is.

    Perhaps Adam and Eve’s desire to partake of the fruit of the tree rapidly increased once their eyes began to be opened. When babies are small and immobile and oblivious enough to not be able to access things, we don’t have to baby proof our homes. A parents eats a food in front of a child at 6 months without the child blinking an eye, and only a few months later, a tantrum would ensue if the parent doesn’t share. Maybe they could’ve eaten the fruit earlier, but maybe they couldn’t even see how remarkable life giving, desirable and delicious it would be until eating this other fruit that was more enticing to their less mature eyes. This cherubim and the flaming sword thing could be seen as a kind of toddler proofing of God’s house. New humans with fruit of knowledge in their stomachs and just a little mortal experience might be comparable to our two year children with just enough agency and knowledge to know what is interesting and tasty, and just enough physical strength to wreck havoc and endanger themselves.

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