Let's break down the Hebrew and get to the bottom of this verse's meaning:
גרש (garash) is being translated to "he drove..out". It can also mean being 'cast out,' 'put away,' 'divorced' or 'thrust out' according to the lexicon.
אדם ('adam) is being appropriately translated to 'the man,' although here, אדם symbolizes each of us.
גן (gan) and עדן (`Eden) are being correctly translated to "Garden of Eden," but קדם (qedem) is being translated to "On the east side" here. "On the east side" would be inappropriate in the context of what is being described.
The symbolic Adam (us) has been cast out of the spiritual world. Now the text is describing that God placed a barricade or barrier between the physical world (where we/Adam were thrown out to) and the spiritual realm. There is no relevance to "east side" in this context. However, קדם can also mean to 'the front' or 'in front' in addition to 'to the east.' "In front of" would thus be the better translation, as God has placed a barrier "in front of" the spiritual realm - or better, "in between" the spiritual realm and the physical realm.
Let's use an example. Let's say that there is a protest, and the police want to keep the protesters outside of a particular building. The police will typically form a barricade in front of the building in order to keep the protesters out. While the barricade is in front of the building, the position of the barricade lies in between the protesters and the building. In other words, if the protesters were in the lobby of the building, there would be no use putting a barricade in the front of the building outside.
And this is precisely what the next part of the verse refers to: a barricade.
The Hebrew שכן (shakan) is being translated to "placed," but 'stationed,' 'set,' and 'established' are also words that satisfy the meaning of this Hebrew word.
The Hebrew word כרוב (kĕruwb) here is being translated to "the cherubim." So what is a cherubim? According to the Hebrew, it is considered 'an angelic being,' a 'guardian of Eden,' a 'flank for God's throne,' or the 'chariot of Jehovah.' In this application, the meaning relates to a barrier protecting Eden ("guardian of Eden"), but it is clear there is another dimension to the word, in that "an angelic being" refers to a living being rather than an inanimate object. This is consistent with the fact that the Supreme Being typically utilizes living beings to support His activities in the spiritual realm. Everything is living in the spiritual realm.
להט (lahat) is being translated to "and the flaming," but the lexicon is clear that this sort of flame is not an ordinary flame. It is a special type of flame that comes from an "angelic sword" according to the ancient Hebrew.
"Sword" here is being translated from חרב (chereb), which can mean sword, but it can also refer to a 'sharp edge.' This later application is most appropriate. Remember that the verse is talking about a barricade being placed between the spiritual realm (the "Garden of Eden") and the physical world - where Adam (we) was driven out to. How would a flaming sword adequately block entrance to the spiritual realm?
The better translation is that barricade was "impenetrable."
The next two Hebrew words indicate the inability to penetrate the barrier. הפך (haphak) and שמר (shamar) are being translated to "flashing back and forth to guard..."
Yet הפך can also mean to 'transform,' 'turn about,' 'to change,' 'to turn over,' or 'to overthrow.' The notion of a fiery sword flashing back and forth and turning is speculative. The translators are trying to insert the words into their vision that Eden was a physical place on the planet. Therefore, they imagined some kind of mechanical thing with swords flashing back and forth like some sort of big chopping system.
The better application of הפך, however, relates to completeness or totality, as it relates to the next word. After הפך follows שמר, which is being translated to "to guard," but can also mean 'to keep,' 'to preserve,' 'to watch' or 'to beware.' This indicates the barrier is simply being described as completely guarding or completely protecting the "Garden" (spiritual realm) from intrusion.
In other words, the combination of the Hebrew of this verse so far would more appropriately be translated to something like:
After He cast Adam [us] out, God positioned an impenetrable fiery living barrier between the spiritual realm and the physical world to completely protect....There are two elements here that must be remembered. One is that the "flaming sharp edge" is being characterized as a living "guardian of Eden," an "angelic being."
The element of a living guardian of the spiritual realm relates to the fact that any entry to the spiritual realm must accompany personal permission. Our entry must be invited. We must be escorted in.
We could compare this to how a large venue such as a concert or professional sports event will be staffed with people - doormen, guards or gatekeepers - who will personally screen people before they get into the event's venue. They will check the ticket or invitation and check people's purses or backpacks. If a person does not have a ticket or invitation, or they are inappropriate for the venue - say it is a black-tie event and the person is wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt - then the staff will deny entry to the person. Often these gatekeepers have some weapon or defense measure in the case of an unruly person. In some venues, like night clubs, where the doormen are called "bouncers," they are often large and strong people so they can handle people who get unruly or try to get in without their permission. The bottom line is that these gatekeepers are people, because entering the venue requires a personal preview of each person. It is not automated because there are too many variables. The door-person has to make a personal judgment call for each person.
The other thing to remember is that the verses before this, particularly Genesis 3:21, describes that Adam (we) became covered by these physical bodies (See this verse and commentary).
Thus we need to understand that re-entry into the spiritual realm requires that one is specifically prepared for entry, has personal permission, an invitation and an escort.
And this very point is why sectarian translators have such a hard time translating this and the other verses of Genesis from Hebrew to English. Their ability to see into the spiritual realm and the personal elements involved is covered by their desires to gain recognition from their peers and followers, and to maintain their professional positions within their respective organized religious institutions.
In other words, the translators of these verses of Genesis have typically consisted of professional clergy or scholars who are beholden to their respective organizations and their professional positions. They were not empowered through the lineage of those ancient teachers who originally spoke this beautiful parable, deep in wisdom and spiritual power. They were not thus empowered by loving service to God. So they had no entrance into the deep subject matter being discussed here.
These restrictions are actually part of the barrier that guards our re-entry to the spiritual realm. The makeup of our physical eyes and our physical minds, together with the illusion that this world is our permanent home protects the spiritual realm and the Supreme Being from being perceived by us. There are many layers to the illusions of this word which clog our minds with what our senses have picked up, together with our proud assumption that our physical senses and physical minds can perceive spiritual matters, and the spiritual realm in general.
These are only parts of the totality of the barrier. Yet these are bound together by our false identification of ourselves as our temporary physical bodies, and this false identification is bound together by our envy of God and our desire for God's position (being the center of attention, being powerful, being served by others, etc.). Thus, the self-centeredness that got us cast out of the spiritual realm in the first place is also the central element that prevents us from being invited back to the spiritual realm. And the material desires that result from our self-centeredness are part of the fiery barrier preventing our entry to the spiritual realm.
We can see these points is in the next part of this verse.
דרך (derek) is being translated to "the way" here, and עץ (`ets) is being translated to "to the tree," and חי (chay) to "of life."
However, דרך can also be translated to 'path,' 'road,' 'journey,' 'direction,' and 'of life.' In other words, what is being described it is not necessarily a physical road, path or way, but rather, a path, course or direction in life.
To understand this verse, we must understand the symbolic meaning of the "tree of life" in this parable. It is symbolizing love for God, which is why God placed this "tree" in the "middle" of the Garden (Gen. 2:9). Let's explain this symbolism a little further.
In ancient times, a tree was seen as symbolizing a course or direction in life, because it rooted itself deeply, branched out, and gave fruit. This represents having a foundation (establishing roots), expression (branching out) and rendering the results (giving fruits). This is why even in modern English, this symbolism still exists, as we often talk about "putting down roots" or "branching out" or "giving fruit." The reason we use these phrases is because our ancestors - thousands of years ago - considered the tree symbolic to our particular direction in life.
Thus the "tree" symbolizes the different choices in life people can take. Each choice has its specific form of foundation (roots), expression (branching out) and its particular results (fruits). The fact that this particular tree is a tree of "life" brings us another dimension of the wisdom of Genesis and this parable about our fall from the spiritual realm.
Genesis also described different types of trees within Eden:
And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground - trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:9)In this context, the "all kinds of trees" is describing the variegatedness of the spiritual realm. The spiritual realm is full of so many different lifestyles, just as the physical world contains so many different lifestyle choices. However, the difference between the spiritual world and the physical world is that here our lifestyle choices revolve around our self-centered search for happiness, while the lifestyles of those in the spiritual realm revolve around what makes the Supreme Person happy.
In other words, Eden's "all kinds of trees" represents the various types of loving relationships that exist between God and His children.
Understanding the two "trees" in the "middle" of Eden is critical. The "tree of life" represents love for God; and the "tree of knowledge of good and evil" (better translated to "self-centered pleasure and pain") represents our freedom to love God or not.
Love for God and loving service to God are being symbolized by "life" in this parable because love for God and loving service to God is our real life. It completes our existence. Each of us was created by God to be His servitor, and to exchange a loving relationship with Him. This is what will ultimately fulfill us, because we were made for this reason.
This is why we are all so desperate for love. This is why each of us constantly looks for love within the physical world, whether it be in our "soulmate" or friends, family or even fame and glory. Our books, movies, television shows and culture revolves around love stories. This is because we are all chasing true love. This is because we were each created to love and care for the Supreme Person, God.
Let's consider again the barrier discussed in this verse. Now why would God put a barrier between us and the spiritual realm? It is because Adam (we) disobeyed God? Is God upset because Adam (we) ate the fruit that God said not to eat?
Don't be ridiculous. God is not a petty person. God is the Perfect Person. Every trait that we admire (or want to admire) in someone else - God has in the fullest extent possible. God is magnanimous, understanding, merciful, loving, giving and gracious. He does have emotions and was certainly upset that Adam (we) decided to rebel against Him. But this emotion is pure love. He deeply cares for us, and wants the best for us. He doesn't need us, and He doesn't need us to love Him. But He knows we will be happy when we are loving Him.
So why were we cast out of the spiritual realm then? We wanted out. We wanted to get away from the Supreme Person. We wanted to be on our own. God tossed us out because we wanted to get away from our loving relationship with Him. Why?
Because we became envious of God. We became jealous. We wanted what He has. We wanted the attention, fame, admiration, pleasure and power that God has. We got jealous of Him. This is symbolized by the serpent's statement:
"For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Gen. 3:5)As we know from practical life, a person who becomes jealous of another cannot continue having a loving relationship with that person. It is impossible to love someone and be jealous of them at the same time. Jealousy takes over the relationship, as we no longer want to please the other person. We want what they have.
So we wanted to get away from God. We needed to have our own space so we could try to exercise our desires for pleasure, power and independence. This is why God designed and created the physical dimension. This world is part playground, and part rehabilitation center.
And this is also why God created a virtually impenetrable barrier between the spiritual world and the physical world. We cannot get back to the spiritual world - our home - until we are ready. And then we have to be invited back in by the Supreme Being, and escorted by Him and/or His loving associates.
But this must come when He knows we really want to return to His loving arms. This requires us to be serious. We cannot return whimsically.
We can compare this with any relationship. If we broke up with a former girl- or boy-friend, or spouse, and ran off, and then called them up out of the blue asking to come back to them, would they let us back in their arms right away? Not likely. They would likely want to start slowly. They would want us to reacquaint ourselves first, and take it one step at a time. Because there is a trust issue here. How do they know we won't run off again? They want to be sure we are serious this time.
It is no different with the Supreme Person. He wants to make sure that we are serious before we can return to Him. He doesn't want us to whimsically be running back and forth between the physical and spiritual worlds - back and forth between our self-centeredness and a relationship with Him.
Is this any different than any loving relationship? Any loving relationship requires commitment. It requires dedication. Our loving relationship with the Supreme Being is no different - and even requires more dedication because this is a very deep relationship.
This is why this verse discusses the "way" back to the "tree of life" as a path or journey. Here is a more appropriate translation of the verse:
After He cast Adam [us] out, God positioned an impenetrable fiery living barrier between the spiritual realm and the physical world to completely protect and guard the path back to the tree of life.There is a lot of work to do for us to prepare for returning to the spiritual realm. It is not easy, as it requires a complete change of heart. It requires us to refocus ourselves upon our loving relationship with Him and focus our lives upon pleasing Him. Our preparation thus consists of thinking of Him, praying to Him, offering gifts to Him and singing/repeating His Holy Names.
As we begin this journey, we can know that He will be there to guide us. For every step we take, He takes a thousand. As we seriously continue our journey He speeds it up.
He wants us to come home to Him. He wants us back in His loving arms. But only we can start that journey. Only we can decide to change course and begin our journey to return home to Him.