The late Homer Hoeksema was professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
We may well conclude this phase of sacred history where Scripture concludes it, with the narrative of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, in Genesis 3:21-24: “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them. And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”
We will not take the time to refute various foolish denials of the literal character of the historical record of this passage, except to remark that they all have in common that they greatly impoverish the Word of God and deprive it of any real spiritual significance. Even as we have conceived of this entire section of God’s Word as being the literal and historical record of real events, so we must consider this passage also in the same light. Then we must try to get from the passage some conception of the facts as they are narrated here, and of their spiritual significance.
In the first place, we should notice that it is implied in this passage that Paradise remained. The garden, the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—these all remained for a time. They were not destroyed, but Adam and Eve were driven from the garden. Precisely how long these things remained is not told us by Scripture. But it is more than likely that Paradise continued as long as the first world continued, that is, until the Flood, and that then the same waters which destroyed the first world (what the Bible calls “the world that then was”) also wiped out Paradise.
We may observe in connection with this fact that there must have been a reason for this also. It would have been a simple matter, if man might no longer eat of the tree of life, to destroy the garden and its special trees. Hence, if the Lord does not do this, but instead drives man out and takes pains to place Cherubim and a flaming sword to keep the way of the tree of life, there must be a reason for this. Nor is it difficult to discover this reason. On the one hand, the garden and its tree of life—and we may note that the emphasis falls here on the tree of life—constituted a reminder of the past. Even the very presence of the Cherubim and the flaming sword stood as a stark reminder of what had been and of what was now no longer possible. At the same time, on the other hand, Paradise stood as a promise of the future. After all, the first Paradise was but a picture of a better Paradise to come, the heavenly Paradise of God with its heavenly tree of life. That picture must for a time remain as a gospel, pointing forward to better things to come.
To understand this, let us also take note for a moment of how Paradise remained.
In the first place, we must observe that the very heart of Paradise was now gone, and, as far as that earthly Paradise was concerned, gone forever. Remember that the idea of Paradise consisted in the fact that it was God’s tabernacle with man—God’s covenant dwelling with His friend-servant—and man’s dwelling with God in covenant communion. In the midst of the garden, and especially through the tree of life, God dwelt. There He would have communion with His friend. In the garden proper was man’s house with God, where man, made after God’s image, dwelt as the friend-servant of the living God, walking with Him and talking with Him and blessed in God’s communion. This very heart of Paradise from now on would be no more, and could be no more. Man is expelled from Paradise, to be sure. But neither does God remain any longer in the midst of the garden, in that earthly sanctuary. He leaves for heaven, that is, as far as His covenant dwelling and friendship are concerned. Not only does this follow from the very nature of things, from the fact that God had made His presence known in the garden as man’s covenant-Friend-Sovereign, and from the fact that this relation had now ceased. But this is also the presentation of Scripture from this point forward in history. God is in heaven, and from heaven He looks down on the doings of the children of men.
Nevertheless, the form, the shell of that earthly dwelling of God with man remained. The garden as such was still there. The trees were there. The tree of life is specifically mentioned in this passage as remaining there, so that it was necessary that the way of the tree of life be guarded. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was also still there. All these things stood there as a solemn reminder of what had been, of a Paradise lost.
It was much like the case of a person who has been absent from his parental home for some time, and who returns there when he receives word that his parents have died. The old homestead is still there. As he enters the house, all the old familiar furnishings are in their accustomed places. But father and mother are there no longer, and all those furnishings are silent reminders of a family fellowship which had been, but which has ceased.
Thus it was also with respect to Paradise. The house, the shell, of God’s dwelling with man still stood as a solemn reminder of the past that had been, of what had been spoiled and lost through sin and disobedience. But there was another element also. For otherwise Paradise could only serve to arouse remorse and regret. In the light of the revelation of God’s grace after the fall, in the light of the promise of the gospel, Paradise silently but eloquently preached a gospel: it spoke mightily of the promise of better and heavenly things to come.
But though Paradise remained, Adam and Eve were expelled from it. You will recall that Scripture makes a distinction between the garden itself and the country of Eden. The former constituted, as it were, a holy place, a sanctuary. The latter, the land of Eden, may be compared to the outer court of that tabernacle. From that garden, the holy place, man is now expelled. Never again may he return there. But he remains in Eden. He is sent forth to the east in Eden, as is evident from the fact that the Cherubim, guarding the way of the tree of life, are stationed at the east. But he is not expelled from the country of Eden. This is plain also from the subsequent history of Cain in Genesis 4. Cain becomes a vagabond, and he leaves Eden and dwells in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. Adam and Eve therefore, expelled from the garden, now lived in the country of Eden, in the proximity of the garden, their former home. This is also significant. Figuratively speaking, they stood with their noses against the fence, peering in. That is, they were in a constant position to look upon Paradise, the old dwelling of God with man, the place from which they had been driven.
It is evident that the essence of their being expelled from the garden consisted in the fact that they were barred from the tree of life. This is clear from the passage when it tells us that the Lord said: “… and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” It is also clear from the fact that the Cherubim were “to keep the way of the tree of life.”
The question is: why are Adam and Eve barred from the tree of life?
This question can be answered only in the light of the meaning and the purpose of that tree.
Man, according to the passage, now “knew” good and evil. This is certainly not to be understood as if the devil’s words had actually been realized, and as if man knew good and evil in the sense in which Satan had promised this. But neither is the language of verse 22, where the Lord says, “Behold the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil,” to be understood as irony. Such irony would have been worthy of the devil, not of God. God does not mock with the condition of Adam and Eve. Especially in the light of the promise it is inconceivable that the Lord would employ irony in connection with their misery. Rather is this knowledge to be understood in the sense of determining, as meaning that man had sinfully assumed the prerogative of knowing for himself what was good and what was evil. God had determined that for man, and had revealed it in the command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. That was a divine prerogative. No mere creature may determine sovereignly what is good and what is evil. But this was exactly what man had proposed to do for himself. He assumed the right to know for himself, in separation from God, what would be good and evil. In his sinful imagination and presumption he had become like God.
That was exactly his misery, however. He could not live by bread alone, but only by the Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. From that Word of God, and therefore from the communion of God, he had willfully separated himself. He had gone down into death, spiritually. He lived apart from God. In himself he became dead in sin and misery. In that condition he must now live forever.
Hence, he must be separated from the tree of life. Remember that the tree of life, as we explained in connection with Genesis 2, had the power to perpetuate the earthly existence of man. This is plain especially from this passage, which would otherwise be inexplicable. The text presupposes that the tree of life had the power by its fruit to perpetuate the earthly, physical existence of man, even after he had sinned. The text also presupposes that man would be inclined to partake of this tree and to perpetuate his earthly life. In fact it is exactly this striving that is still evident in all the attempts of the sinful world. It is fear of death, fear of the end of this temporal existence. It fills man. It pursues him. He clings to his sin. He does not seek after God. Yet he will avoid the consequence of his sin and strive to perpetuate his present state.
Hence, God must send man out and bar him from this tree.
At the same time God’s people are reminded by this act of God not to cling to the things below. It is wrong, and it is also vain. They must seek the things above.
All this stands in connection, of course, with the fact that man had forfeited God’s friendship through his sin. That tree of life was also the symbol of God’s covenant communion. To eat of that tree was closely connected with entrance into that covenant fellowship. But this, man had forfeited by his sin. God is holy and righteous. He can, therefore, have no fellowship with sin. He that is unholy and unrighteous cannot approach Him. Yet, the sinful nature does not understand this, will not recognize it. Cain presently reveals this plainly. All modern Christianity reveals this same spiritual ignorance. With works of their own, with the righteousness of works that cannot possibly stand before God, they will approach God. But this is impossible.
Hence, the way is barred by God Himself. Cherubim are placed at the entrance, to keep the way of the tree of life. We cannot take the time now to study these Cherubim in detail. Suffice it to say that they are spirits, angels, whose particular service is to guard the holiness of God’s covenant. Thus also they appear above the ark, later, in the tabernacle. Thus it is that Scripture speaks of God as dwelling between the Cherubim. These Cherubim signify, therefore, that God is jealous of His holiness, and that He will avenge every attempt of the unholy to approach Him. Thus we can also understand the significance of the flaming sword, which was perhaps in the hands of these Cherubim, turning every way, to warn that approach to the tree of life was impossible, that it could be attempted only at the cost of being slain by the consuming fire of God’s holiness. Indeed, the way to life for Adam, and for us, is barred. Man cannot enter! He chose, in effect, to till the ground, because he proposed to live by bread alone. Now he must go to till the ground from whence he was taken, and to die, returning to the dust.
How miserable Adam and Eve must have been! Paradise was still there. They could see it, even though they could not enter. And you may imagine that as they tilled the ground, wresting a bare subsistence from it in the sweat of their face, they often must have pressed their face, so to speak, against the fence of the garden, to see it. Banished they were from God’s presence. God’s friends they had been, and they remembered it. They had been blessed with life, and they could still recall it. Now they were exiles. God’s wrath was upon them as they were in themselves; children of wrath they were by nature. The Cherubim and the flaming sword reminded them continually of their misery. They had been happy in their earthly life. King and queen they had been, and Paradise yielded to them its fruit in abundance without toil and sweat on their part. Rich they had been. Now they were banished! The Cherubim and flaming sword reminded them of it all. How they must have felt sorely their misery, and known the nature of it.
Yet their position was also hopeful.
For Paradise was still there. The tree of life remained; it was not destroyed, but only waiting for its higher fulfillment. The way to the tree was barred, but it was also kept. The way was there—if only those Cherubim and that sword could be removed. Or if only they could somehow pass the Cherubim without the sword slaying them! The continued presence of the tree of life and the way to it were therefore elements of hope for better things to come.
This we can understand in the light of the promise they had received, the promise of victory. God had promised them a seed. Their faith in the promise was reflected in the name Adam had given his wife. She was Eve, the mother of the living, or the mother of life. Surely, they had died. Yet life would come out of death. Eve was, by reason of the promise, the mother of life.
Moreover, as they were sent forth from the garden, they were garbed in clothes of skins. The Lord God had made them these coats of skins. Do not say that this is impossible, for that is foolish. The Bible does not tell us exactly how God made this provision. But this is certain, that the Lord who calls the animals and gave them their skins could also deprive them of those skins to make coats for His people. But notice that this implies, in the first place, that the Lord taught Adam and Eve that their self-made coverings were not sufficient. In the second place, it means that God would provide them a covering sufficient in His sight. In the third place, it signifies that this covering could be provided only in the way of death, the punishment of sin. God would exact that punishment and death from another, in order to cover His people. The Lord clothed them. Is that not just exactly the way it still is? The Lord provides the sacrifice. And the Lord makes us partakers of it. The clothes provided are clothes of grace, pure grace. In the light of the cross we today can see this in reality, even as Adam and Eve could see it only dimly in the far off.
Hence, there was hope.
In Paradise the sun went down. God’s tabernacle was there. But God’s tabernacle there disappeared, and it was no more with men. There were wrath and fire and Cherubim and a sword instead. The way was barred.
But another way is also opened. That is the way of sacrifice, the way of atonement. Presently, the sons of God will build altars, little spots where God will have communion with His people from heaven. Then the earthly tabernacle and temple will follow, where God dwells typically and symbolically, though still in heaven. Then Christ comes, Emmanuel, God with us, the tabernacle of God with men in higher reality. He returns to heaven. But He comes again, in the Spirit. And in the hearts of His people the heavenly tabernacle of God is with man. At the end, He comes again, in order to make all things new. Then the tree of life will be in the midst of the Paradise of God.
Toward that goal all history, with its ongoing conflict between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, now begins to move.