Who are the cherubim? Celestial winged beings, mentioned 90 times in the Hebrew Bible and once in the New Testament, their antecedent seems to be the exotic, composite beast known as lamassu in Assyria: partly ox, lion, eagle and human. These creatures served as mythic gatekeepers for gods and kings.
In the Bible, their description is fragmentary. Sometimes they are statues, carved reliefs, sometimes woven images and sometimes they are “living beings”. The cherubim first appear in Genesis 3, as the inhospitable, fiery guardians of the gates of Eden, in art often pictured as sword wielding agents of God unceremoniously ejecting Adam and Eve out into the world/history.
They turn up next in Exodus 25, a pair of solid gold winged statues, opposite each other on the cover (kaporet) of the Ark. Here, God speaks to Israel from above and between the facing cherubim; the tablets of the law are inside the box below. Another way of describing this complex symbolism is that the cover and the cherubim are the throne of God and the rectangular box (the Ark) is God`s footstool (hadom, Psalms 132:7; I Chronicles 28:2).
From several Ancient Near Eastern texts we learn that law codes were deposited inside the king`s footstool; similarly, the tablets of the Covenant are deposited in the ark. Since, in Israel, the Law superseded the Divine image as the focus of worship, the small footstool became the large rectangular container for the Tablets.
Reconstruction of the Ark
The Cherub Throne of the Prince of Megiddo
13- 12th century BCE
The word cherub appears in Exodus an additional 19 times, but without additional description.
The next narrative mention of the cherubim occurs in I Samuel 4, where the ark, brought to a battlefield, is described as:
אֲרוֹן בְּרִית ה` צְבָאוֹת ישֵׁב הַכְּרֻבִים
The ark of the covenant of the Lord of Hosts who sits between/above/upon the cherubs.
The static cherubim take flight in II Samuel 22, parallel to Psalms 18, dramatically transporting God on the wings of the wind.
He rode upon a cherub and flew And He glided upon the wings of the wind. He made darkness His hiding place, His canopy around Him, Darkness of waters, thick clouds of the skies.
Here the word cherub is parallel to and synonymous with cloud formations, thus imaging the celestial God riding the clouds, his vehicle personified as cherubim.
Perhaps the verbal imagery of Psalms influenced the twentieth century visual imagery of Ibram Lassaw`s Torah curtain, the wings of the cherubim have become abstracted into the fringes of a tallit/divine fingers flanking the eternal light/the Shekhina.
Next, the ark is placed in Solomon`s Temple (I Kings 6), with the small golden figures on the Ark now supplemented by two enormous wooden statues of cherubim. Because cherubim are entirely mythic, and only partially described, the artistic imagination is unfettered. Thus, for example, artists of the 13th century North French Miscellany, merged Tabernacle, Temple and prophetic imagery, endowing their cherubim with an extra pair of wings, based on Isaiah`s famous vision of six-winged seraphim that hovered in the Holy of Holies:
I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings… And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.”
Solomon also decorated the walls of the Temple with cherubim in carved relief:
29 Then he carved all the walls of the house round about with carved engravings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers, inner and outer sanctuaries.
Cherubs and Palms, Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, Nimrud
The above drawing of an ivory plaque from Assyria shows just such an alternating pattern of the mythical creatures and the date palms, which probably represented the Tree of Life. As freestanding statues and relief carvings, the cherubim not only support the divine throne and power the divine chariot, but they are now ornaments throughout the Temple, and in the Holy of Holies, they are security guards, similar to the Assyrian lamassu , restricting access to the divine. The cherubim, then, were been both hidden and viewed; in Solomon`s temple, all three forms were unseen by any but priests. Subsequently cherubim virtually disappear from the Hebrew Bible being mentioned only once more (II Kings 19:15 = Isaiah 37:16), up until the time of Ezekiel. However, from archaeology we know today that the cherubim were also found in the public domain; they were used as a decorative motif, especially in the ivory carvings found in the homes of the northern kingdom of Israel`s wealthy class.
In addition, Jeroboam, the first king of Israel, employing forbidden images in the ritual of his new kingdom, established the cult of the golden calves at his holy sites in Bethel and Dan. These statues were analogous to the cherubim, in that both were conceived as transporting the invisible God. Evidence both in the Bible and from archaeology indicates that the calves were on public display, for example at the outdoor cultic site at Dan, where Jeroboam proclaims:
These are you gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt (II Kings 12: 28)
Thus in Judah, the cherubim were sequestered in the Temple, lest the image be worshiped, while in northern Israel, the calves were open to viewing and available for adoration, evidence of controversy in ancient Israel regarding the presence of icons in worship.
The most detailed and elaborate description of the cherubim comes in the Book of Ezekiel, stemming from the period of the Babylonian Exile. In chapter 1, the prophet Ezekiel describes his vision of the Divine chariot (merkaba), a description that became one of the major bases of Jewish mysticism. While chapter 1 refers to the creatures that transport the chariot simply as “creatures”, the parallel description of the chariot in chapter 10 uses the term cherubim consistently. In chapter 1, the creatures have a partially human torso, two sets of wings, human hands and “straight legs” ending in calves` hooves.
As for the form of their faces, each had the face of a man; all four had the face of a lion on the right and the face of a bull on the left, and all four had the face of an eagle.
Where have we seen this hybrid before? Where had Ezekiel seen it? On the one hand, as a priest he had certainly been raised on tales of the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant; on the other hand, living in the Babylonian exile, he probably saw images daily such as below:
As opposed to the lamassu mentioned above, Ezekiel`s cherubim, like these griffins or genii, have two-legged human torsos; on the other hand, Ezekiel`s cherubim like the lamassu, have features of the same four animals: bird, ox, human and lion. Why these four? Joseph Campbell, a renowned historian of religions, writes as follows:
The winged lion-bull with human head combines in one body those four signs of the zodiac that in the earliest period of Mesopotamian astronomy marked the solstices and equinoxes: the Bull (spring equinox and eastern quarter), Lion (summer solstice and southern quarter), Eagle (later Scorpio: autumn equinox and western quarter), and Water carrier (winter solstice and northern quarter). These are the four “living creatures” of Ezekiel`s vision and of the apocalypse.
(The Mythic Image, p. 285)
This beast, representing human space and time, guarded the gates, access to the god-king, the Eternal One. In medieval Christian art, this composite beast comes apart into its four components, representing the four Evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
In early Jewish art, fear of the Golden Calf and reservations regarding the human image prevent the full representation of the Tetramorph. Thus, in Bet Alpha, crude lions and “eagles” flank the Holy Ark. The idea is present but the imagery is suppressed. What is eternal is the Torah, not an image of God; Human space and time are naively present with cultic objects of the Temple. In later Jewish art, the Tetramorph finally makes a modest appearance, as in this illustration from the 14th century Wroclaw Mahzor.
Five medallions are affixed to a Romanesque gate, four of which enclose the “living creatures” (hayot), represented by an eagle, a man, an eagle and an ox. The fifth medallion, placed uppermost in the arch, shows the empty throne of the Eternal One. We have followed the life of the cherubim for over 3000 years and seen their protean transformation, which was enabled by their multiple identity and their profound symbolism, the human yearning to see the divine and the concomitant fear of that mysterious encounter. One strange result of this pull in two contradictory directions is the common use of the word cherub, as round faced baby angels, as far as can be imagined from the fearsome hybrid creatures of ancient times.