This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Cherub's Sword and the Wrath of Zeus *

Where is Paradise?

I expect that many of my readers, if confronted by this question, would reply simply: Between Saskatchewan and the Rockies. Alternatively, they might begin to describe some sort of heavenly abode inhabited by harp-strumming angels.

For Jews, the matter involves some further complications. The Hebrew equivalent of "Paradise" is "Gan Eden," the Garden of Eden which is where the souls of the righteous are privileged to enjoy Eternity--at least until the time of the Resurrection.

Now where is this wonderful garden? The Torah provides us with specific geographical coordinates, identifying it as the source of four important rivers. Although we have not yet succeeded in identifying the location, the story in Genesis presumes that it lies somewhere in our terrestrial world--for otherwise it would be difficult to account for the stationing of a cherubic guard at its entrance to fend off intruders.

Although Jewish legend has dwelled lovingly on the wonders of an other-worldly Garden of Eden, some of our sages have insisted that it is still to be found in its earthly location. A powerful case for this position was made by the medieval Talmudist, exegete and mystic Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides). In his treatise on the afterlife, he claimed support not only from the plain sense of Genesis, but also from the testimonies of non-Jewish travellers who claimed to have seen the Garden somewhere below the Equator.

One of the tales that he cites involves a team of medical researchers led by an ancient Macedonian scholar named Aesculapius who entered Gan Eden while touring the Orient in search of medicinal plants. Unfortunately, their discovery of the Tree of Life tripped off an alarm--the angelic flaming sword that ignited the entire delegation.

Nahmanides cited this story in the name of the the 6th-century medical treatise of "Asaph the Physician," where it can indeed be found. In Asaph's story, the tale is adduced in order to resolve a difficulty in medieval medical historiography: How was it that the legendary wise men of primordial times, especially the Egyptians, were in possession of remarkable healing treatments, but their successors in the classical age were forced to resort to experimental research? The solution lies in the tragedy that befell the over-ambitious party of Aesculapius and his companions whose sudden deaths brought about an immediate interruption in the transmission of ancient medical lore, compelling later doctors to resort to the less efficient methods of clinical experimentation.

But the story's origins predate even Asaph the Physician. Readers familiar with classical literature will recognize its roots in Greek and Roman mythology. Aesculapius (or Asclepius) son of Apollo was the Greek god of healing. In the Greek version of the story Asclepius discovered the secret of reviving the dead [Warning: Don't try this at home. It requires quantities of Medusa's blood]. When he used his skill too liberally, Zeus himself struck him down with a thunderbolt.

When Jews retold the story they demoted Asclepius from a deity to a human physician and replaced Zeus' thunderbolt with the Biblical sabre. It followed naturally that the most suitable setting for the events was the unapproachable Garden of Eden.

Thus, Nahmanides inadvertantly used a pagan myth to prove the existence of the earthly Gan Eden.

Subsequent authors expanded the significance of the story, making it serve as an explanation of how the original wisdom of the ancient Greeks--which the medievals believed to have been derived from Hebrew sources--had come to a sudden end, to be replaced by the misguided rationalism that typified later philosphical thinking.

The 13th-century mystical classic, the Zohar, gave a different twist to the tradition, claiming that the victims of the fiery sword were the disciples of Plato and Aristotle in the time of Alexander the Great. This was the reason why later Greek philosophy was inferior to the thought of earlier generations (which were closer to their Jewish origins).

Yet another variation on the legend located the entrance to Paradise in the Makhpelah cave in Hebron, the tomb of the Patriarchs. Since the burial cave itself houses the gateway to Gan Eden, it is believed that all those who attempt to enter it will be smitten by the Cherub's sword--even as Aesculapius fell victim to the lightning of Zeus' wrath.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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First Publication: Jewish Free Press, October 19 1995, p. 6.


  • Moshe Idel, "The Journey to Paradise: The Jewish Transformations of a Greek Mythological Motif," Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Folklore 2 (1982), 7-16.