A Treatise on the Cherubim;
On the Flaming Sword.

Philo Judaeus

I. “And God cast out Adam, and placed him opposite the paradise of happiness; and he placed there the cherubim and a flaming sword, which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” [Genesis iii. 24.]

In this place Moses uses the expression, “He cast out,” but previously he said, “He sent out,” not using the various expressions at random, but being well aware with reference to what parts he was employing them with propriety and felicity. Now a man who is sent out is not hindered from returning at some subsequent time; but he who is cast out by God must endure an eternal banishment, for it is granted to him who has not yet been completely and violently taken prisoner by wickedness, to repent, and so to return back to virtue, from which he has been driven, as to his great country; but he who is weighed down by, and wholly subjected to, a violent and incurable disease, must bear his misfortunes for ever, being for all times unalterably cast out into the place of the wicked, that there he may endure unmitigated and everlasting misery. Since we see Agar, by whom we understand the middle kind of instruction which is confined to the encyclical system, twice going forth from Sarah, who is the symbol of predominant virtue, and once returning back by the same road, inasmuch as after she had fled the first time, without being banished by her mistress, she returned to see her master’s house, having been met by an angel, as the holy scriptures read [Genesis xvi. 9]: but the second time, she is utterly cast out, and is never to be brought back again. [Genesis xxi. 14.]

II. And we must speak of the causes of her first flight, and then again of her second perpetual banishment.

Before the names of the two were changed, that is to say, before they had been altered for the better as to the characteristics of their souls, and had been endowed with better dispositions, but while the name of the man was still Abram, or the sublime father, who delighted in the lofty philosophy which investigates the events which take place in the air, and the sublime nature of the beings which exist in heaven, which mathematical science claims for itself as the most excellent part of natural philosophy, and the name of the woman was still Sarai; the symbol of my authority, for she is called my authority, and she had not yet changed her nature so as to become generic virtue, and all genus is imperishable, but was as yet classed among things particular and things in species; that is to say, such as the prudence which is in me, the temperance which is in me, the courage, the justice, and so on in the same manner; and these particular virtues are perishable, because the place which receives them, that is to say I, am also perishable. Then Agar, who is the middle kind of encyclical instruction, even if she should endeavor to escape from the austere and stern life of the lovers of virtue, will again return to it, since it is not, as yet, able to receive the generic and imperishable excellencies of virtue, but can only touch the particular virtues, and such as are spoken of in species, in which it is sufficient to attain to mediocrity instead of extreme perfection.

But when Abram, instead of an inquirer into natural philosophy, became a wise man and a lover of God, having his name changed to Abraham, which being interpreted means the great father of sounds; for language when uttered sounds, and the father of language is the mind, which has attained to what is virtuous. And when Sarai instead of being my authority, had her name also changed to Sarah, the meaning of which is princess, and this change is equivalent to becoming generic and imperishable virtue, instead of virtue special and perishable: then will arise the genus of happiness, that is to say, Isaac; and he, when all the feminine affections have ceased, and when the passion of joy and cheerfulness are dead, will eagerly pursue, not childish amusements, but divine objects; then too those elementary branches of instruction which bear the name of Agar, will be cast out, and their sophistical child will also be cast out, who is named Ishmael.

III. And they shall undergo eternal banishment, God himself confirming their expulsion, when he bids the wise man obey the word spoken by Sarah, and she urges him expressly to cast out the serving woman and her son; and it is good to be guided by virtue, and especially so when it teaches such lessons as this, that the most perfect natures are very greatly different from the mediocre habits, and that wisdom is a wholly different thing from sophistry; for the one labors to devise what is persuasive for the establishment of a false opinion, which is pernicious to the soul, but wisdom, with long meditation on the truth by the knowledge of right reason, brings real advantage to the intellect. Why then do we wonder if God once for all banished Adam, that is to say, the mind out of the district of the virtues, after he had once contracted folly, that incurable disease, and if he never permitted him again to return, when he also drives out and banishes from wisdom and from the wise man every sophist, and the mother of sophists, the teaching that is of elementary instruction, while he calls the names of wisdom and of the wise man Abraham, and Sarah.

IV. Then also, “The flaming sword and the cherubim have an abode allotted to them exactly in front of paradise.” The expression, “in front,” is used partly to convey the idea of a resisting enemy, and partly as suitable to the notion of judgment, as a person whose cause is being decided appears in front of his judge: partly also in a friendly sense, in order that they may be perceived, and may be considered in closer connection by reason of the more accurate view of them that is thus obtained, just as archetypal pictures and statues are placed in front of painters and statuaries.

Now the first example of an enemy placed directly in front of one is derived from what is said in the case of Cain, that “he went out from the face of God, and dwelt in the land of Nod, in the front of Eden.” [Genesis iv. 16.] Now Nod being interpreted means commotion, and Eden means delight. The one therefore is a symbol of wickedness agitating the soul, and the other of virtue which creates for the soul a state of tranquillity and happiness, not meaning by happiness that effeminate luxury which is derived from the indulgence of the irrational passion of pleasure, but a joy free from toil and free from hardship, which is enjoyed with great tranquillity. And it follows of necessity that when the mind goes forth from any imagination of God, by which it would be good and expedient for it to be supported, then immediately, after the fashion of a ship, which is tossed in the sea, when the winds oppose it with great violence, it is tossed about in every direction, having disturbance as it were for its country and its home, a thing which is the most contrary of all things to steadiness of soul, which is engendered by joy, which is a term synonymous with Eden.

V. Now of the kind of opposition of place which is connected with standing in front of a judge for judgment, we have an example in the case of the woman who has been suspected of having committed adultery. For, says Moses, “the priest shall cause the woman to stand in front of her lord, and she shall uncover her head.” [Numbers v. 18.] Let us now examine what he intends to show by this direction.

It often happens that what ought to be done is not done, in the manner in which it ought to be done, and sometimes too that which is not proper is nevertheless done in a proper manner. For instance, when the return of a deposit is not made in an honest spirit, but is intended either to work the injury of him who receives it back again, or by way of a snare to bear out a denial in the case of another deposit of greater value, in that case a proper action is done in an improper manner. On the other hand, for a physician not to tell the exact truth to a sick patient, when he has decided on purging him, or performing some operation with the knife or with the cautery for the benefit of the patient, lest if the sick man were to be moved too strongly by the anticipation of the suffering, he might refuse to submit to the cure, or through weakness of mind might despair of its succeeding; or in the case of a wise man giving false information to the enemy to secure the safety of his country, fearing lest through his speaking the truth the affairs of the adversaries should succeed, in this case an action which is not intrinsically right is done in a proper manner.

In reference to which distinction Moses says, “to pursue what is just justly,” [Deuteronomy xvi. 20], as if it were possible also to pursue it unjustly, if at any time the judge who gives sentence does not decide in an honest spirit. Since therefore what is said or done is openly notorious to all men, but since the intention, the consequence of which what is said is said, and what is done is done, is not notorious, but it is uncertain whether it be a sound and healthy motive, or an unhealthy design, stained with numerous pollutions; and since no created being is capable of discerning the secret intention of an invisible mind, but God alone; in reference to this Moses says that “all secret things are known to the Lord God, but only such as are manifest are known to the creature.” And therefore it is enjoined to the priest and prophet, that is to say to reason, “to place the soul in front of God, with the head uncovered,” [Numbers v. 18], that is to say, the soul must be laid bare as to its principal design, and the sentiments which it nourished must be revealed, in order that being brought before the judgment seat of the most accurate vision of the incorruptible God, it may be thoroughly examined as to all its concealed disguises, like a base coin, or, on the other hand, if it be found to be free from all participation in any kind of wickedness, it may wash away all the calumnies that have been uttered against its bringing him for a testimony to its purity, who is alone able to behold the soul naked.

VI. This, then, is the meaning of coming in front of one’s judge, when brought up for judgment. But the case of coming in front of any one which has a bearing upon connection or familiarity, may be illustrated by the example of the all-wise Abraham. “For,” says Moses, “he was still standing in front of God.” [Genesis xviii. 22.] And a proof of his familiarity is contained in the expression that “he came near to God, and spoke.” For it is fitting for one who has no connection with another to stand at a distance, and to be separated from him, but he who is connected with him should stand near to him. And to stand, and to have an unchangeable mind comes very near to the power of God, since the Divinity is unchangeable, but that which is created is intrinsically and essentially changeable. Therefore, if any one, restraining the changeableness natural to all created things by his love of knowledge, has been able to put such violence on any thing as to cause it to stand firm, let him be sure that he has come near to the happiness of the Deity.

But God very appropriately assigns to the cherubim and to the flaming sword a city or abode in front of Paradise, not as to enemies about to oppose and to fight him, but rather as to near connections and friends, in order that in consequence of a continued sight and contemplation of one another, the two powers might conceive an affection for one another, the all-bounteous God inspiring them with a winged and heavenly love.

VII. But we must now consider what the figurative allusions are which are enigmatically expressed in the mention of the cherubim and of the flaming sword which turned every way. May we not say that Moses here introduces under a figure an intimation of the revolutions of the whole heaven? For the spheres in heaven received a motion in opposite directions to one another, the one sphere receiving a fixed motion towards the right hand, but the sphere of the other side receiving a wandering motion towards the left. But that outermost circle of what are called the fixed stars is one sphere, which also proceeds in a fixed periodical revolution from east to west. But the interior circle of the seven planets, whose course is at the same time compulsory and voluntary, has two motions, which are to a certain degree contrary to one another. And one of these motions is involuntary, like that of the planets. For they appear every day proceeding onwards from the east to the west. But their peculiar and voluntary motion is from west to east, according to which last motion we find that the periods of the seven planets have received their exact measure of time, moving on in an equal course, as the Sun, and Lucifer, and what is called Stilbon. For these three planets are of equal speed; but some of the others are unequal in point of time, but preserve a certain sort of relative proportion to one another and to the other three which have been mentioned.

Accordingly, by one of the cherubim is understood the extreme outermost circumference of the entire heaven, in which the fixed stars celebrate their truly divine dance, which always proceeds on similar principles and is always the same, without ever leaving the order which the Father, who created them, appointed for them in the world.

But the other of the cherubim is the inner sphere which is contained within that previously mentioned, which God originally divided in two parts, and created seven orbits, bearing a certain definite proportion to one another, and he adapted each of the planets to one of these; and then, having placed each of these stars in its proper orbit, like a driver in a chariot, he did not entrust the reins to any one of them, fearing that some inharmonious sort of management might be the result, but he made them all to depend upon himself, thinking that, by that arrangement, the character of their motion would be rendered most harmonious. For every thing which exists in combination with God is deserving of praise; but every thing which exists without him is faulty.

VIII. This, then, is one of the systems, according to which what is said of the cherubim may be understood allegorically. But we must suppose that the sword, consisting of flame and always turning in every direction, intimates their motion and the everlasting agitation of the entire heaven. And may we not say, according to another way of understanding this allegory, that the two cherubim are meant as symbols of each of the hemispheres? For they say that they stand face to face, inclining towards the mercy-seat; since the two hemispheres are also exactly opposite to one another, and incline towards the earth which is the center of the whole universe, by which, also, they are kept apart from one another.

But the only one of all the parts of the world that stands firmly was most appropriately named Vesta [Hestie, as standing ('hestosa')] by the ancients, in order that there might be an excellently arranged revolution of the two hemispheres around some object firmly fixed in the middle. And the flaming sword is a symbol of the sun; for as he is a collection of an immense body of flame, he is the swiftest of all existing things, to such a degree that in one day he revolves round the whole world.

IX. I have also, on one occasion, heard a more ingenious train of reasoning from my own soul, which was accustomed frequently to be seized with a certain divine inspiration, even concerning matters which it could not explain even to itself; which now, if I am able to remember it accurately, I will relate. It told me that in the one living and true God there were two supreme and primary powers -- goodness and authority; and that by his goodness he had created every thing, and by his authority he governed all that he had created; and that the third thing which was between the two, and had the effect of bringing them together was reason, for that it was owing to reason that God was both a ruler and good.

Now, of this ruling authority and of this goodness, being two distinct powers, the cherubim were the symbols, but of reason the flaming sword was the symbol. For reason is a thing capable of rapid motion and impetuous, and especially the reason of the Creator of all things is so, inasmuch as it was before everything and passed by everything, and was conceived before everything, and appears in everything. And do thou, O my mind, receive the impression of each of these cherubims unadulterated, that thus becoming thoroughly instructed about the ruling authority of the Creator of all things and about his goodness, thou mayest receive a happy inheritance; for immediately thou shalt understand the conjunction and combination of these imperishable powers, and learn in what respects God is good, his majesty arising from his sovereign power being all the time conspicuous; and in what he is powerful, his goodness, being equally the object of attention, that in this way thou mayest attain to the virtues which are engendered by these conceptions, namely, a love and a reverential awe of God, neither being uplifted to arrogance by any prosperity which may befall thee, having regard always to the greatness of the sovereignty of thy King; nor abjectly giving up hope of better things in the hour of unexpected misfortune, having regard, then, to the mercifulness of thy great and bounteous God. And let the flaming sword teach thee that these things might be followed by a prompt and fiery reason combined with action, which never ceases being in motion with rapidity and energy to the selection of good objects, and the avoidance of all such as are evil.

X. Do you not see that even the wise Abraham, when he began to measure everything with a reference to God, and to leave nothing to the creature, took an imitation of the flaming sword, namely, “fire and a sword,” [Genesis xxii. 6] being eager to slay and to burn that mortal creature which was born of him, that so being raised on high it might soar up to God, the intellect being thus disentangled from the body.

Moses also represents Balaam, who is the symbol of a vain people, stripped of his arms, as a runaway and deserter, well knowing the war which it becomes the soul to carry on for the sake of knowledge; for he says to his ass, who is here a symbol of the irrational designs of life which every foolish man entertains, that “If I had had a sword, I should ere now have slain thee.” [Numbers xxii. 29.] And great thanks are due to the Maker of all things, because he, knowing the struggles and resistance of folly, did not give to it the power of language, which would have been like giving a sword to a madman, in order that it might have no power to work great and iniquitous destruction among all whom it should meet with. But the reproaches which Balaam utters are in some degree expressed by all those who are not purified, but are always talking foolishly, devoting themselves to the life of a merchant, or of a farmer, or to some other business, the object of which is to provide the things necessary for life. As long, indeed, as everything goes on prosperously with respect to each individual, he mounts his animal joyfully and rides on cheerfully, and holding the reins firmly he will by no means consent to let them go. And if any one advises him to dismount and to set bounds to his appetites, because of his inability to know what will befall him hereafter, he reproaches him with jealousy and envy, saying that he does not address him in this way out of good will. But when any unexpected misfortune overtakes him, he then looks upon those who have given him warning as good prophets and men able, above all others, to foresee the future, and lays the blame of his distress on what is absolutely the cause of no evil whatever, on agriculture, on commerce, or on any other pursuit which he may have thought fit to select for the purpose of making money.

XI. But these pursuits, although they are destitute of the organs of speech, will, nevertheless, through the medium of actions, utter a language clearer than any speech which proceeds from the tongue, and will say, “O you sycophant and false accuser, are not we the pursuits which you mounted upon holding your head high, as you might have mounted upon a beast of burden? And have we, by any insolence or obstinacy of ours, caused you any suffering? Behold reason armed and standing in opposition to God, by whom all good and all bad fortune is brought to its accomplishment. Do you not see it? Why, then, do you reproach us now, when you formerly had no fault to find with us, while your affairs were proceeding prosperously? For we are the same as we were before, having changed nothing of our nature, not the slightest jot. But you are now applying tests which have no soundness in them, and in consequence are unreasonably violent against us; for if you had understood from the beginning that it is not the pursuits which you follow that are the causes of your participation in good or in evil, but rather the divine reason, which is the helmsman and governor of the universe, then you would more easily have borne the events which have befallen you, ceasing to bring false accusations against us, and to attribute to us effects which we are unable to produce.

“If therefore this reason now again, putting an end to that strife, and dispersing the sad and desponding ideas which arise from it, should promise you tranquillity of life, you will then again, with cheerfulness and joy, give us your right hand though we shall be like what we are now. But we are neither puffed up by your friendly favor, nor do we think it of great importance if you are angry with us; for we know that we are not the causes of either good or evil fortune, not even if you believe that we are, unless indeed you attribute to the sea the cause of sailors making favorable voyages, or of the shipwrecks which at times befall them, and not rather to the variations of the winds, which blow at one time gently, and at another with the most violent impetuosity; for as all water is by its own nature tranquil, accordingly, when a favorable gale blows upon the stern of a ship, every rope is bent, and the ship is in full sail, conveying the mariners to the harbor; but when on a sudden the wind changes to the opposite direction, and blows against the head of the vessel, it then raises a heavy swell and great disturbance in the water, and upsets the ship; and the sea, which was in no respect the cause of what has happened is blamed for it, though it notoriously is either calm or stormy according to the gentleness or violence of the winds.”

By all these considerations I think it has been abundantly shown, that nature has made reason the most powerful coadjutor of man, and has made him, who is able to make a proper use of it, happy and truly rational; but him who has not this faculty, she has rendered irrational and unhappy.

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