Child-like faces and out-stretched wings, heavenly chariots and fiery angels – all come to mind when the word “cherub” is used. Cherubim figure in the Bible and the literature and art of many peoples, but nowhere is there any clear evidence as to what a cherub really looks like or what it represents.
All we can say for certain is that cherubim were winged figures of some kind, associated in some way with the Deity, playing a crucial role in the structure and symbolism of the Temple, and paralleled in the winged figures found in the insignia of many ancient cultures.
In the Bible they are found in three major contexts.
We meet them first standing at the entrance to the Garden of Eden protecting the gateway to Paradise. Adam and Eve have sinned and must be banished from the Garden and leave behind their pristine innocence. “Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So He drove out the man, and He placed at the east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim, and the flaming sword which turned everyway, to keep the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:23-24).
The passage speaks not simply of cherubim but of the cherubim. It does not describe their form or number, but implies that they were beings or figures well known to the ancients. Rabbinic commentary on this passage considers them as destroying angels (see Rashi on verse 24). Some modern scholars regard them as personifications of the forces of nature:
“Imagination has added many particulars that do not appear in the narrative, such as a gate at which were posted beings of a human form, armed with drawn swords to resist any attempt at entrance. The scenery is, in reality, of a different character altogether. The garden is not conceived as a shut-in enclosure, surrounded by impenetrable fences, but as an open paradise with luxuriant growth thinning off into less fertile country. There is no gateway at which the guard can be concentrated; and ‘the flame of a sword which turned every way’ is an evident allusion to lightning, not wielded by the cherubim, but as additional and associated defence. And if in the cherubim a feature must be sought akin to that of the lightning, the picture is one of a bank of heavy thunder-clouds, lining the east of the garden, and assuming threatening shapes to the conscience-smitten onlooker” (Hastings’ Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 3, p.510).
The protective role of the cherubim at the gateway to Eden is illustrated by a parable in the Book of Ezekiel. Culminating three chapters of warning directed to ancient Tyre, the prophet declares that the paradisaical bliss which the kingdom has enjoyed is about to be forfeited. The king of Tyre who, once cherub-like, protected his kingdom, is told that he and his people have sinned, and he is to be cast out and the kingdom destroyed: “Thou wast in Eden, the garden of God;. . . thou wast the far-covering cherub; and I set thee, so that thou wast upon the holy mountain of God; … by the multitude of the traffic have they filled the midst of thee with violence, and thou hast sinned; therefore have I cast thee as pro¬fane out of the mountain of God, and I have destroyed thee, O covering cherub” (28:13-16).
The parallel is not exact, since here it is the cherub himself who has proved unworthy of his responsibility and must be cast out of the garden, but both passages, in Genesis and in Ezekiel, agree that cherubim have a protecting role.The second major context in which we meet the cherubim is that of the Sanctuary. The Scriptural instructions for the building of the Tabernacle in the wilderness include the following: ‘And thou shalt make an ark-cover of pure gold… And thou shalt make two cherubim of gold; of beaten work shalt thou make them, at the two ends of the ark-cover. Make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other end; of one piece with the ark-cover shall you make the cherubim of the two ends thereof. And the cherubim shall spread out their wings on high, screening the ark-cover with their wings, with their faces one to another; toward the ark-cover shall the faces of the cherubim be … And there I will meet with thee, and I will speak with thee from above the ark-cover, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony” (Exodus 25:17-22).
The chest-shaped ark thus had a golden lid or cover surmounted by cherubim. The cover is called in Hebrew kapporet, often translated “mercy-seat” because it figured in the Yom Kippur ritual (Lev. 16:14). The term “seat” is suggested both by this passage and by verses elsewhere (e.g. I Samuel 4:4) which speak of God enthroned upon (or between) the cherubim.
This material does not explain for certain the form or nature of the cherubim, except that they have faces and wings; they are turned toward each other with their outstretched wings spread over and screening the kapporet. There are two of them, arising out of the kapporet at each end, and made from the same slab of pure gold. Their dimensions are small; the kapporet, like the ark itself, measures only two and a half by one and a half cubits (a cubit may be taken as approximately eighteen inches).
Solomon’s Temple followed the formal plan of the Tabernacle, though its length and breadth were exactly double. Over the Temple ark there were cherubim with faces and wings, but they are not identical with the cherubim in the Tabernacle: ‘And in the Sanctuary he made two cherubim of olive-wood, each ten cubits high. And five cubits was the one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the other wing of the cherub; from the uttermost part of the one wing unto the uttermost part of the other were ten cubits. And the other cherub was ten cubits; both the cherubim were of one measure and one form. The height of the one cherub was ten cubits, and so it was of the other cherub. And he set the cherubim within the inner house; and the wings of the cherubim stretched forth, so that the wing of the one touched the one wall, and the wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; and their wings touched one another in the midst of the house. And he overlaid the cherubim with gold” (I Kings 6:23-28; cf. the parallel passage in II Chronicles, chs. 3 and 5).
These cherubim, unlike those in the Tabernacle, were not part of and arising out of the ark-cover but stood independently; the Chronicler is explicit that “they stood upon their feet” (II Chronicles 3:13); they were of massive proportions, ten (according to Josephus, five) cubits high. Their wings extended from wall to wall, meeting in the middle to provide, as it were, a canopy for the ark (cf. Bava Batra 99a). Their posture, comments the International Critical Commentary (Kings, p. 156), “is in contrast to the drooping, protective wings of the ancient Oriental art, and the independence of the Solomonic cherubs from those visualised in the later literature is to be insisted upon”. Note that again their precise form is not described, but once more there are two of them and they are guardians of the ark.
What had happened to the original ark with its cherubim at each end of the kapporet? We know that though most of the Temple equipment was new, the original ark was retained. Yet there is no suggestion anywhere that the new cherubim were supplementary to the first set; hence something must have befallen the first set in the meantime. It would therefore appear that some time during the reign of Solomon and prior to the erection of the Temple, or, more probably, at some stage during the long period in which the ark wandered from place to place, the original cherubim had been broken off or otherwise removed, and subsequently lost.
In time, the Temple of Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians and then eventually rebuilt. But in the Second Temple there were neither ark nor cherubim (Yoma 21b). What had happened to the ark is not certain. Some believe that it was taken to Babylon with the exiles and never restored, others that it was buried in the Temple precincts (in the chamber where wood was stored) to avoid it being captured by the enemy (Yoma 52b-53b; Shekalim 6:1). Presumably the cherubim were the victims of the same fate as befell the ark, though there is a rabbinic tradition that heathens entered the Temple and carried off the cherubim, accusing Israel, for all its professed hatred of idols, of having worshipped these cherubim and therefore being no better than any of their idolatrous neighbours (Pesikta de R. Kahana 19:1; Yoma 54a-b; Lamentations Rabba, proem 9; Yalkut Shim’oni, sec. 474).
Jewish worship was able to continue despite the absence of the ark. Jeremiah clearly states that the ark is not indispensable; there would come a time when “They shall say no more, ‘the ark of the covenant of the Lord’, neither shall it come to mind, neither shall they make mention of it, neither shall they miss it, neither shall it be made any more. At that time they shall call Jerusalem ‘the throne of the Lord’, and all the nations shall be gathered unto it” (Jeremiah 3:16-17).
In a Jerusalem which is full of holiness and is itself “the throne of the Lord”, the ark would thus lose its significance as a visible symbol of God’s presence and be no longer necessary.
At this point, before leaving the subject of the cherubim in Tabernacle and Temple, it should be mentioned that cherubim were a common decorative feature in the Tabernacle, figuring on the veil between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies (Exodus 26:31 and 36:25), and on the hangings (Ex. 26:1 and 36:8); in the Temple they were seen on the walls, doors and panels (I Kings 6:29-35) and the bases of the “molten sea”, which was a huge laver (I Kings 9:29). They also occur in Ezekiel’s visions of the Temple of the future (Ezekiel 41:18-25). Nevertheless, as before, the Biblical records give no details as to the form and nature which the cherubim possessed.
The third major context in which cherubim figure is as attendants upon the Almighty himself, His throne or chariot. He manifests His presence and communicates with the people from between the cherubim (Exodus 25:22; Numbers 7:89). (According to rabbinic legend, when Jerusalem was destroyed the Divine presence departed in stages, moving first from the ark-cover to one cherub and then to the other: Rosh Hashanah 31a). Cherubim form or support the Almighty’s throne; God “sits upon the cherubim” (I Samuel 4:4; II Kings 19:15; Isaiah 37:16; Psalm 80:2; Psalm 99:1). God “rides upon the cherubim” (II Samuel 22:11; Psalm 18:11), as well as upon the wind and the cloud (Psalm 104:3). According to Chronicles the cherubim are “the pattern of the chariot” (I Chronicles 28:18). (This became a well-loved artistic theme, seen for instance in Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel, which shows God, borne aloft by cherubim, reaching out to touch the limp hand of newly created man to give him life.)
Cherubim figure integrally in Ezekiel’s mystical visions of the Divine chariot, the merkavah (cf. Encyclopaedia Judaica, s.v. Merkabah Mysticism). For the first time, we find in Ezekiel an attempt to describe them. According to him their number is four and they are composite creatures, each having four faces: those of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle (Ezekiel 1:10). In chapter 10 the prophet amends his list and instead of the ox mentions a cherub. According to the Talmud, Ezekiel implored God to remove the face of the ox because this recalled the Golden Calf, symbol of sin; the Almighty thereupon replaced it by a cherub (Chagigah 13b).
This leaves unanswered the question of what is meant in this context by “the face of a cherub” and how a cherub can be one of the four faces of a cherub. The Talmud makes a distinction between the face of a man and the face of a cherub, the latter being much smaller (Sukkah 5b). WF Lofthouse, in the Century Bible, suggests that Ezekiel is identifying, as it were, a “leading cherub” within the four faces, this being the one he noticed most clearly as the chariot moved. From what we know of where he was standing, it would seem that he would see most clearly the form to the left of the human face, which was that of the ox.
As to why the four “living creatures” (ch. 1), later spoken of as cherubim (chs. 9 and 10), had four faces, Lofthouse advances the view that possibly everything connected with the glory of God must face all sides and be visible from every direction (p. 56). The choice of man, lion, ox and eagle may be taken as reflecting a Babylonian influence, since in the prophet’s Babylonian environment these motifs figured frequently.
Lions and oxen were already associated with cherubim; the brass laver in the Temple had its base decorated with lions, oxen and cherubim (I Kings 7:29; 10:20; etc.). The lion is one of the most frequently mentioned animals in the Bible, and is more or less the only living being consistently represented in the decoration of the Temple and, later, the synagogue. The lion was the emblem of strength and majesty, and Jerusalem itself was called Ariel, which may mean “lion of God” or “great lion” (Isaiah 29:1-2, 7).
In Ezekiel’s vision of the future Temple, there were decorations “made with cherubim and palm-trees; and a palm-tree was between cherub and cherub, and every cherub had two faces; so that there was the face of a man toward the palm-tree on the one side, and the face of a young lion toward the palm-tree on the other side” (Ezekiel 41:18-19). These cherubs are different from those described earlier on in Ezekiel in that they have only two faces, those of a man and a lion.
None of these passages, however, sheds much light on the nature of the cherubim above the ark-cover. Josephus bluntly tells us that “nobody can tell, or even conjecture, what was the shape of these cherubims” (Antiquities, Book 8, 3:3). Possibly only the high priest, who entered the Holy of Holies each Day of Atonement to plead on behalf of himself, his household, his colleagues and the people, knew the secret, though as we shall see there is a Talmudic view that once a year the people gained a glimpse of what was behind the curtain.
There is a theory that the cherubim looked like birds (Rashbam to Exodus 25:17-22); this is presumably based on the fact that wings, and in some passages flying, are characteristic of the cherubim.
The more common Jewish views see them as having human form, either a male and female in marital embrace or a male and a female child. The “marital embrace” theory takes the cherubim as symbolic of the union between God and Israel, frequently represented as it is in terms of betrothal and marriage. Rabbi Kattina is quoted in the Talmud as asserting, “Whenever Israel came up to the festival (presumably any of the three pilgrim festivals) the curtain would be removed from them and the cherubim shown to them with bodies intertwined one with another, and they would be thus addressed: ‘Look! You are beloved before God as the love between man and woman!'” (Yoma 54a). Other sages, however, objected to the notion that the masses would be permitted to gaze at the Holy of Holies.
The “two children” theory is based on rabbinic etymology of the word k’ruv (cherub) as deriving from the Aramaic ravia, “a child”. K’ruv would then be k’ravia, “like a child”, or “child-like” (Sukkah 5b; Chagigah 13b). Abarbanel explains the symbolism of the two children surmounting the ark as designed “to visualise the lesson that every Jewish man or woman is bidden from childhood on to spend his days and nights unremittingly over the Torah, either in study or in practice of its laws” (Commentary to Ex. 25).
Scientific attempts at explaining the etymology of k’ruv are less picturesque. The probability is that the word is from an Akkadian root meaning “to adore” (cf. International Critical Commentary on Kings, p. 155). The root appears also in Ethiopic, mekrab, “Sanctuary”. We have quoted the Talmudic account of the heathens taking the cherubim and using them to mock Israel for alleged idolatry. Abarbanel also asks, naturally in milder terms, “With regard to the cherubim which He, blessed be He, commanded to be made upon the ark-cover, it does appear that one would be transgressing thereby the injunction in the Ten Commandments, ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness of anything that is in the heaven above or that is on the earth beneath’ (Exodus 20:4). How did He command them to do that which He had warned them about?” (loc. cit.)
In dealing with this challenge Judah HaLevi, the philosopher, argues (Kuzari 1:97) that the Golden Calf was a clear case of defiance of the Ten Commandments because it was made without authority by people who had abandoned hope in God and sought an idolatrous alternative. The cherubim, however, were not a substitute for God, but merely a visual aid for those who needed concrete orientation in worship. This was merely a temporary problem and in time the cherubim would become unnecessary just as (in the passage from Jeremiah which we have quoted) the prophet declares that there would come a time when the ark itself would become redundant.
Abarbanel’s view we have already seen. He stresses that the cherubim were not objects of worship but poetical symbols standing for the duty to spend one’s life poring over the Torah.
He adds that the command that the cherubim “shall spread out their wings on high” teaches that “every Jew should let his thoughts soar up ‘on wings on high'”; the command that their faces “shall be one to another” teaches “brotherly love for each other, in considerate service of mankind” (loc. cit.; cf. Sukkah 5b).
The rabbis noticed a discrepancy between the commands concerning the Tabernacle, where the cherubim faced one another (Exodus 25:20), and the Temple, where they faced the building – i.e. away from each other (II Chronicles 3:13). They explained, “When Israel fulfilled the will of God, the faces of the cherubim were turned towards each other to indicate that God loves Israel. But when they did not fulfill the will of God, the cherubim turned their faces away from each other towards the walls” (Bava Batra 99a).
Without insisting upon one or other shape or form for the cherubim, many scholars see them as representing Divine attributes, their wings, for instance, suggesting glory and speed. These attributes are not God, just as the cherubim are not God; they are simply instruments through which He works.
Many interpretations seize upon the duality of the cherubim as standing for things that come in twos, e.g. two Divine names, E-lo-him and Y-H-W-H (see refs. in Patai, Man and Temple, p.133, note 21); two Divine attributes, justice and mercy (Midrash Tadshe, ed. Epstein, 15); or two worlds, heaven and earth (Philo, Life of Moses, 3:8; cf. Numbers Rabba 4:13).
Moses Maimonides, who sees the cherubim as representing angels, explains that there are two of them and not one, because only God is “One” and the angels have no divinity: “If there had been only one figure of a cherub, the people would have been misled and would have mistaken it for God’s image which was to be worshipped, in the fashion of the heathen; or they might have assumed that the angel (represented by the figure) was also a deity, and would thus have adopted a dualism. By making two cherubim and distinctly declaring ‘The Lord is our God, the Lord is One’, Moses clearly proclaimed the theory of the existence of a number of angels; he left no room for the error of considering those figures as deities, since (he declared that) God is one, and that He is the Creator of the angels, who are more than one” (Guide to the Perplexed, 3:45).
In post-Biblical literature the notion of the cherubim undergoes a radical change. Led by the Books of Enoch, it transposes the scene of their activity from earth to heaven where they are angels guarding the celestial throne. Enoch is raised, after an earthly life of piety, to the rank of first of the angels: “God took me,” he states, “from the midst of the race of the flood and carried me on the stormy wings of the Shechinah (Divine Presence) to the highest heaven and brought me into the great palaces on the heights of the seventh heaven Araboth, where there are the throne of the Shechinah and the Merkavah (chariot), the legions of anger and hosts of wrath, the shinanim of the fire, the cherubim of the flaming torches, the ofannim of the fiery coals, the servants of the flames, and the seraphim of the lightning, and He stood me there daily to serve the throne of glory” (III Enoch, ed. Odeberg, ch. 7).
Jewish and Christian thinking now came to see the cherubim as among God’s hosts in heaven rather than on earth. Both traditions accord them a high place in the angelic hierarchy, though opinions differ as to their exact rank. Maimonides lists ten ranks of angels, from the chayyot (“holy beasts”, a term taken from Ezekiel, ch. 1), which are directly beneath the Throne of Glory as the highest of all created beings, to the ishim (“men”) who are the nearest to human beings; they converse with the prophets and convey messages to and from the angels on the higher rungs (Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 2:7). In this list the cherubim come ninth out of ten, though other enumerations place them higher.
It should be explained that Jewish literature contains numerous references to angels and clearly accepts that they exist, though the Mishnah, the first rabbinic code, contains not one single reference to them, which may indicate that they are not indispensable to Judaism. The theory behind Jewish angelology argues that the omnipotent and omniscient God makes use of all the forces of the universe as His servants; the angels are called in Hebrew malachim or messengers (the Greek term angelos has the same meaning). The angels are not divine; indeed without God they are nothing and they have no independent existence.
Kaufman Kohler in his “Jewish Theology” remarks that “the belief in angels served two functions in the development of monotheism. On the one hand, it was a stage in the concentration of the divine forces, beginning with polytheism, continuing through belief in angels, and culminating in the one and only God of heaven and earth. On the other hand, certain sensuous elements in the vision of God by the seers had to be removed in the spiritualisation of God, and it was found easiest to transform these into separate beings, related to Deity himself. Thus the fiery appearance of God to the eye or the voice which was manifested to the ear was often personified as angels of God” (p. 183).
By the time of Maimonides in the twelfth century there was a general tendency to rationalise the subject of the angels and to see them as disembodied Intelligences doing God’s will. In connection with wings such as those of the cherubim, Maimonides comments:
“No organ of the brute creation was attributed to the angels, except wings… The motion of flying has been chosen as a symbol to represent that angels possess life, because it is the most perfect and most sublime movement of the brute creation.
“Men… themselves wish to be able to fly… to obtain quickly what is useful, though it be at a distance… You must not be misled by the passage, ‘And He rode upon a cherub, and did fly’ (Psalm 18:11), for it is the cherub that did fly, and the simile only serves to denote the rapid arrival of that which is referred to in the passage” (Guide, 1:49).
Though the references to angels persist in the Jewish liturgy to this day, most Jewish thinkers would probably regard them as merely a pleasant poetic notion, recalling Francis Thompson’s verse:
“O world invisible, we view thee, O world intangible, we touch thee, O world unknowable, we know thee, Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!” (“The Kingdom of God.”)
The literatures of many European nations mention cherubim (the spelling of the word assumes many weird and wonderful variations), especially in reference to their role as guardians of the entrance to Paradise. John Lydgate refers to “Cherubyn, my dere brother, to whom is commited the naked swerde for to kepe the entre of Paradys”; Milton, to “the helmed Cherubim, the sworded Seraphim”; Poe, to the notion that “five or six of the ‘innumerable’ angels would have sufficed to keep the devil (or is it Adam?) outside of the gate – which, after all, he might not have been able to discover, on account of the clouds” – and Mark Twain says, “They drove us from the Garden with their swords of flame, the fierce cherubim”.
Various writers enumerate categories of angels including cherubim. In the “Spectator”, Addison and Steele remark, “Some of the Rabbins tell us, that the Gherubims are a set of Angels who know most, and the Seraphims a Set of Angels who love most”.
From other literatures let me only quote Goethe who makes this comment, which may or may not have its implications: “We want to encamp with our brothers before the boundaries of the Reich against the wolves, like Cherubim with flaming swords.”
In art, the ancient cultures frequently featured representations of winged beings, taking the form of sphinxes, griffins, etc., but later it is in the form of winged angels that the cherubim almost always appear. Frequently cherubim are painted blue (representing the sky) and seraphim red (representing fire; seraph derives from a root meaning “to burn”). Representations of cherubim (and sera¬phim) are common in medieval churches, cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts. From the time of the Renaissance, the seraphim generally appear as adult angels and the cherubim as beautiful winged child-angels, sometimes without bodies.
So this is the story of the cherubim. There are many aspects still unclear, many problems still perplexing: but I have enjoyed the investigation, and I hope readers have shared some of my enjoyment.
This article originally appeared in booklet form, published by the Women’s Auxiliary of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, in 1995.