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Q116 : What is the “the flaming sword which turned every way”?

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Q116 : What is the “the flaming sword which turned every way”?

When Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, it is said that God placed a flaming sword that went every direction to guard the place so that mankind couldn't return to eat from the tree of life. Considering a sword is a man-made tool used for war, I don't see why God would send a sword down. Other than that, I don't really understand what it means when it says that it went every direction. It seems abstract, so maybe Adam saw something that resembled a flaming sword and wrote what He thought it was. What do you think?

A116 : by Tony Garland

The flaming sword passage (Gen. 3:24) is indeed mysterious. The Hebrew word for “flaming”, לַהַט [lahaṭ], can mean both “burning” or “consuming.” It is often associated with judgment and God's anger. Although the sword may be just that—a literal sword—some have understood it to be a figure of speech (a metonymy representing a battle, or in this case, a conflict)—as it is clearly used in many other passages (Isa. 49:2; 2Th. 2:8; Rev. 1:16; 19:15 cf. Isa. 11:4; 30:27-28).

As to its turning “every way,” this Hebrew word, הָפַךְ [hāp̄ak], has many different uses which can differ significantly from the rendering, “turned every way.” For example, overturning (a throne, Haggai 2:22), overthrowing (as in destroying a city, Gen. 19:21), transforming (Deu. 23:6), and to turn as a cake (Hos. 7:8).

In this passage, it is in the hithpael stem which is the reflexive form of the verb—so whatever it is doing, it is acting as both subject and object, acting upon itself (overturning itself, turning itself). Perhaps it means that it spun or mixed in some visible way?

To me, the unusual aspect has less to do with the concept of a “flaming sword” and more to do with the fact that this object appears to be self-animated—as indicated by the reflexive stem (nor are the cherubim said to be wielding it). Whatever it is, it is active, dangerous, and speaks of God's wrath in judgment. In his commentary on Genesisa, Hebrew Christian scholar Arnold Fruchtenbaum takes the flaming sword as a visible manifestation of God's shekinah (dwelling) presence—similar to the flames within the burning bush of Genesis 3.

As for it being a “man made tool,” I wouldn't necessarily conclude this to be the case. The term for “sword” may merely denote a “cutting instrument” and is cognate with an Arabic term meaning “to plunder, war, or battle.” Clearly it represents God's judgment however it precisely was manifested, as in the “sword of Yahweh” in Ezekiel 21.

It may also be fruitful to study the analogy between the expulsion of Adam and Even from God's presence in this passage and the later reentry of the high priest toward God's presence in the tabernacle and temple. It would seem there is a close correlationb, and that the flaming sword may be analogous to the altar of incense. We can be sure, however, that the details of Scripture are not accidental, however puzzling they may seem.


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