After Adam was expelled from the garden, God placed — " made to dwell," implying permanence — at the east of the garden, Cherubim "to keep the way of the tree of life." (Gen. iii. 24.) How long the Cherubim remained there is not said; many have thought until the Deluge. But, whether the period was longer or shorter, so long as they remained their presence indicated that the garden was still a sacred place. And it is not improbable that in their immediate vicinity the altars of Abel and Cain were built, and that thither, as to a consecrated spot, during the antediluvian period, God's worshippers came to offer their sacrifices and homage.
But, however this may have been, it is plain that there must have been many revelations of Himself, and declarations of His will, to the early Patriarchs. The institutions of the Sabbath and of marriage had been given in Eden. The work of redemption began from the day of the fall of man; and all the subsequent Divine appointments were to the end that men might be convinced of sin, and, being taught their relations to a holy God, might through repentance and faith have assurance of forgiveness. He gave them the rite of animal sacrifice as an element in all pre-Christian worship, thus setting forth the truth that death is the penalty of sin, and prophetically pointing forward to "the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world." Not a few of these early commandments, handed down by tradition, we may believe, were afterwards incorporated into the Mosaic code.
The patriarchal history it is not necessary to trace in detail. The line of distinction between the families obedient to God, and those disobedient, must have been very early drawn. In the first family the separation began, and it widened more and more. The heads of these two lines of development were Cain and Seth. We can see in the children of Seth a sense of sin and a hope of redemption, but these are not seen in the children of Cain. The record that in the days of Enos, the son of Seth, " men began to call upon the name of the Lord," seems to indicate some new and solemn development at that time of the rites of worship among the worshippers of Jehovah. (Gen. iv. 26.) There is no mention of idolatry among the Cainites; and if there was during this period a visible Symbol of Jehovah's presence east of Eden, thus keeping Him in the remembrance of men as the one God, this may be in part an explanation. The especial characteristic of this time was its fleshliness, the indulgence of fleshly lusts. God seems to have left them free to do their own will, and to walk in their own ways. It was a condition of society in which there was little of external authority to restrain human passions. Corruption of manners, and violence, filled the earth. Even to slay a man was counted a light thing. The spirit of the time is well set forth in the song of Lamech, the song of the sword. A man's best defence is not in the protection of God, but in the sharpness of his weapon and the strength of his arm. Against this spirit of violence the peaceful Sethitea had little defence. The wickedness of the Cainites increased continually: as some think, even the boundaries between the realms of men and of evil spirits were passed over. (Gen. vi. 1, etc.) And at last so general was the corruption of the race, that God sent the Flood upon the earth. Only Noah, the tenth in the line of Seth, and his family were delivered.
To what degree during this period the promise of God respecting "the Seed of the woman that should bruise the serpent's head," was known and understood, it is impossible to say. But we can scarcely doubt, that under its figurative terms the early patriarchs saw the promise of a future redemption, — a victory of good over evil to be ultimately obtained by mankind; and this through the mediation of a personal Redeemer. That there was during this period a growing apprehension of the Divine purpose in redemption among the obedient, appears plain from what is told us of Enoch and of Noah, — that they "walked with God," or in His ways; and of the preaching and translation of Enoch, and the preaching of Noah. (Jude 14; Heb. xi. 7; 2 Pet. ii. 5.) The statement in the Epistle to the Hebrews, in which the antediluvian patriarchs are included,— that "these all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them," — can only mean that they had such knowledge of God's purpose in redemption, so far as then revealed, as to be workers together with Him through faith, (xi. 13.)
We may rightly conclude, that, down to the time of the Deluge, God continued to stand in immediate personal relations with the families faithful to Him, making known to them His will, giving them new commandments according to changing circumstances, and using them as His messengers to warn the rebellious of His judgments. The sin of the antediluvians was not, so far as we know, the worship of false gods, but the indulgence of fleshly lusts, the ignoring of His authority, and rejection of His witnesses, ending in the general dissolution of all moral and social bonds. (Gen. vi. 11-13.)
To trace the origin of idolatry after the Flood, to distinguish its forms, and to follow its progress, is no part of our present purpose. We are concerned only with the fact that idolatry, taking different forms in different lands, but essentially nature worship, early became very prevalent. A considerable time anterior to Abraham, we find proofs that polytheism prevailed in Egypt. A multitude of deities of different orders were objects of worship, and polytheism became general in all the region of Chaldsea and Mesopotamia. God was, indeed, not left without witnesses to His unity and supremacy. Such a witness was Melchizedek, who is called a "priest of the Most High God," and who in His name as the "possessor of heaven and earth" blesses Abraham. (Gen. xiv. 18, 19.) And such a witness was Abraham. But scattered individuals or families could not effectually resist the strong tendencies to idolatry everywhere prevailing. The time had come for a new step in the work of redemption, a new manifestation of God to men, an assertion of Himself before all the world as the One Supreme God in opposition to all idols. There is "a fullness of time" in all His actings; and we can see here two elements of this fullness, — the spread of idolatry, and the existence of distinct nations.
So long as the constitution of society had not advanced beyond the patriarchal stage, and the family continued to be the chief element, God's rule over men could be but very imperfectly set forth. His authority could find fit expression only in a nation, whose citizens He could bind together under visible institutions of His own immediate appointment, and to whose laws all must render obedience. He could be best made known to the nations as the Supreme Ruler, at the head of a people; and as the One God, in the unity of their worship. It is probable that there was in the single families at this time a considerable uniformity in religious rites — a residuum of antediluvian tradition; but many scattered family altars could not bear an adequate witness to His unity against the increasing multitude of polytheistic worshippers.
The first step taken by God in this new form of His actings, was the call of Abraham to be the founder of a nation. Already were there nations of high civilization existing; but none of these did He choose, for all were deeply infected with idolatry. It is to be noted, that, with the growth of peoples and the development of national life, the spirit of pride seems to have increased, chiefly, perhaps, because through the unity of many, and consequent consciousness of strength, larger scope was given to human activity, and the will of the ruler became controlling and absolute with the enlargement of the sphere of his rule. In patriarchal times the bonds of union were so few among the several families, there was so little of social order and public law, that individual lawlessness found little to restrain it. But when later, through increase of population, families grew into tribes, and tribes into peoples, and all had one law and one speech, although individual lawlessness on the one hand was restrained, yet, on the other, the scope for personal and despotic rule was enlarged. A great, or perhaps universal, monarchy was now a possibility to the bold and ambitious. The building of the city and tower of Babel was apparently an attempt to unite all the dwellers in that region under one government, perhaps to establish an universal monarchy; and a protest against the Divine purpose of dispersing men in order to "replenish the earth." That the spirit of the movement was evil, is shown by the result: the presumptuous attempt was checked by Divine interposition through the confusion of tongues. (Gen. xi.)
Though Abraham had several children, yet one only was in the elect line of descent; and in the family of Isaac the same was true. But Jacob had twelve sons, and in them was laid the foundation of the nation to which God's purpose from the beginning had looked forward.