Sunday 8 January 2023

412) Can Targumim clarify a Torah text?


Targum Yonatan fragment in the Cairo Geniza.


This article, based extensively on the research by Dr Raanan Eichler, explores whether the study of Targumic texts (=Torah translations into Aramaic) can sometimes lead us closer to the original intent of the Torah text.[1] 

Genesis 3:24

Genesis 3:24 is the last verse dealing with the story of the Garden of Eden:

וַיְגָ֖רֶשׁ אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּשְׁכֵּן֩ מִקֶּ֨דֶם לְגַן־עֵ֜דֶן אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֗ים וְאֵ֨ת לַ֤הַט הַחֶ֙רֶב֙ הַמִּתְהַפֶּ֔כֶת לִשְׁמֹ֕ר אֶת־דֶּ֖רֶךְ עֵ֥ץ הַֽחַיִּֽים׃

“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 guard the way of the tree of life. 

The Aramaic Targum Onkelos, renders this verse as follows:

וְתָרִךְ יָת אָדָם וְאַשְׁרֵי מִלְּקַדְמִין לְגִינְתָא דְעֵדֶן יָת כְּרוּבַיָּא וְיָת שְׁנַן חַרְבָּא דְּמִתְהַפְּכָא לְמִיטַר יָת אוֹרַח אִילַן חַיָּיא

This translation corresponds exactly according to the English translation above.

Based on this reading, after G-d expelled the humans from the Garden of Eden, He placed “the Keruvim (Cherubims) and the spinning-sword-flame” east of the Garden of Eden, to guard the way to the tree of life. This is typically how we explain and understand this narrative. 

However, Eichler notices that four other Targumim, seem to have had a different vocalization of the verse’s fourth word וַיַשְׁכֵּן  – “and He placed.” They may have read it as וָיִּשְׁכֹּן – “and He dwelt.”   Eichler explains: 

“While this reading differs from the Masoretic Text only in the vocalization of a single word, it is theologically significant, changing the meaning of the verse and, indeed, of the entire Eden Narrative. I will further argue that this reading may be closest to the original authorial intent.” 

The four Targumim follow. The bold font simply represents the slight differences between the four versions, which are otherwise predominantly similar to each other:


1) Targum Neofiti[2]

וטרד ית אדם ואשרי יקר שכינתיה מן מלקדמין מן מדנ׳ /חה/ לגנתה /גנ׳/ דעדן מן בני תרין כרוביה

And He drove Man out, and He caused the glory of His Shechina to dwell of old to the east of the garden of Eden between the two cherubim…


2) Fragmentary Targum V

וטרד ית אדם ואשרי איקר שכינתיה מן לקדמין מן מדנח לגינתא דעדן מעילוי תרין כרובייא

And He drove Man out, and He caused the glory of His Shechina to dwell of old to the east of the garden of Eden above the two cherubim…


3)  Fragmentary Targum P

וטרד ית אדם ואשרי יקר שכינתיה מן לקדמין מעלוי גינתא דעדן מן ביני תרין כרוביא

And He drove Man out, and He caused the glory of His Shechina to dwell of old above (?) the garden of Eden between the two cherubim…


4) Targum Yonatan

וטרד ית אדם מן דאשרי יקר שכינתיה מן לקדמין בין תרין כרוביא

And He drove Man out from the place where He caused the glory of His Shechina to dwell of old between the two cherubim . . . (“to the east of the garden of Eden” is absent).    

Eichler observes that in all four Targumim, the subject of the Aramaic verb אשרי which means “He caused to dwell is not the Keruvim (as per the Torah or Masoretic Text) but rather [א]יקר שכינתיהthe glory of His Shechina.” 

Put simply, all these four Targumim seem to unanimously have had a fundamentally different understanding of who was left behind to guard the Garden. It was not the Keruvim, as we generally understand it, but rather G-d Himself (or “the glory of His Shechina”) who remained behind together with the Keruvim!

Targumim generally do not use anthropomorphic language (describing G-d in human terms) when speaking about G-d. This means that while the Torah text may say that ושכנתי בתוכם - “that I may dwell in their midst” (Ex. 25:8), the Targumim (more respectfully) rather say ואשרי [איקר] שכינתי ביניהון – “that I may cause [the glory of] my Shechina to dwell among them.” (There are more examples of this non-anthropomorphic Targumic style of referring to G-d similarly in other sections of the Torah as well).

Leaving the actual literary story and its details aside for a moment, and looking solely at the text and the possibility of a variant tradition, we have here a very interesting set of circumstances. Four Targumim consistently imply the same notion: G-d remained behind with the Keruvim. He did not just leave the Keruvim to guard the Garden. This is different from the way we generally understand this narrative. At first glance, it might seem that the four Targumim were working from a different source text than the one we have.

But Eichler shows that we have no need for such speculation because, in his reading, the text remains exactly the same and it is only the vocalisation or pronounciation that shifts from וַיַשְׁכֵּן - and He placed (the Keruvim in the Garden) to  וָיִּשְׁכֹּן – and He caused the glory of His Shechina to dwell with (above or between) the Keruvim. The letters remain exactly the same, only the vocalisation is different in that it goes from a grammatical kal form to a hifil form. In one vocalisation G-d stations or places the Keruvim in the garden and in the other G-d dwells or settles in the Garden (together with the Keruvim).

According to Eichler, the verse thus reads: “Having driven Man out, He settled east of the garden of Eden with the cherubim and with the spinning-sword-flame to guard the way to the tree of life,” and there is no change to the text itself.

Fascinatingly, Eichler mentions that subsequent to his interpretation of these Targumim:

“Prof. Simcha Kogut has brought to my attention that the vocalization וָיִּשְׁכֹּן in our verse seems to be employed in an elaborate homily in Sefer Habahir 67, excerpted in the Zohar 2:271a…”…G. Scholem (ed.), Annotated Zohar (Jerusalem, 1992), vol. 4, p. 542. 

And even more fascinatingly, the well-known expression “ישב הכרבים“ where G-d is referred to as the one who “dwells amongst the Keruvim (Cherubs)” is found seven times in the Tanach.[3] 

Taking all this into consideration, is it feasible that the early Targumim may have had a traditional reading of Genesis 3:24 based on the same consonants וישכן but the slightly different vocalisation of וָיִּשְׁכֹּן (dwelt) instead of וַיַשְׁכֵּן (placed)?

Further reading on Targumim

[1] Eichler, R., 2015, ‘When God Abandoned the Garden of Eden: A Forgotten Reading of Genesis 3:24’, VetusTestamentum, 65, Brill, 1-13. 

[2] Targum Neofiti is a Palestinian Targum, originating in Eretz Yisrael between the 1st and the 4th centuries CE. It is longer than Targum Onkelos and contains its own expanded explanations, but not as lengthy as Targum Yonatan (also known as Targum Pseudo-Jonathan). However, it does contain some anti-Halachic material. Targum Neofiti was housed in the Vatican for many centuries and was only rediscovered in the 1960s. For our purposes, we are just comparing how it translated our verse into Aramaic (which is very similar to the other Targumim). 

[3] 1 Sam 4:4, 2 Sam 6:2 = 1 Chr 13:6; 2 Kgs 19:15 = Isa 37:16; Ps 80:2, 99:1.


  1. Would really enjoy an explanation of where Shnayim Mikra came from. Who and when was it enacted?
    Also if Targum Unkelus was originally in Greek or always was Aramaic?

    1. There is a nice article, if you haven't seen it yet, on Seforim Blog here: