Cherubim in the Bible – Part 1

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, it seems fitting to spend some time discussing cherubim. However, I am not referring to the little winged babies that appear in many Renaissance painting, such as Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (see picture), or on the cards you may give and receive this Valentine’s Day. Instead, I want to talk about the cherubim of the Bible and ancient Near East. What exactly are these figures?

Raffaels_Angels

Beginning with the word itself, many scholars claim the Hebrew word cherub (כרב) comes from the Akkadian word karibu or karābu and thus reflects Mesopotamian influences. However, biblical scholar Andrew Steinmann thinks this is a very unlikely etymology. According to Steinmann, karibu or karābu means bless or praise and one does not find cherubim praising God in the Bible.[1] While this claim may be accurate regarding the OT narratives, it does not hold true for the NT. If one understands the four living creatures in Revelation 4 to be cherubim in light of their close association with the imagery of Ezekiel 1 and 10, then this would indeed provide a solid biblical example of cherubim praising God (see Rev 4:8). Therefore, I think one can proceed to view cherubim in light of their Mesopotamian counterparts with less skepticism than Steinmann.

So if we are not talking about winged babies, what do cherubim look like? Unfortunately, the Pentateuch does not provide us with many specific descriptions. Gen 3:24 simply mentions the presence of the cherubim guarding the tree of life without any other details. Perhaps this is because the readers were already familiar with them and didn’t need a description. Exodus is a little more helpful for this question when it describes the Tabernacle construction, but it only provides vague descriptions. For example, Ex 25:20 tells us that the cherubim on the ark of the covenant had wings and faces (presumably human?). That is all the information we receive about their appearance! Not much to work with, is it?

Thankfully we have other books such as Ezekiel and Revelation that provide us with more descriptive, albeit quite eccentric, information regarding their appearance. Ezek 1:5-14 records the prophet’s vision of four living creatures, that is, cherubim (cf. Ezek 10:15). While Ezekiel says they have the form of men (bipedal with calf hooves – Ezek 1:7), he also describes each one having four faces: the likeness of a man on the front, a lion on the right side, an ox on the left side and an eagle on the back. They also have a wing on each of their four sides, two of which cover their bodies and the other two extend out to touch the wings of one another. Finally, the cherubim have human hands underneath their four wings. Revelation 4 uses this imagery and adapts it to describe four living creatures before the throne of God. Instead of the cherubim having four faces, the author of Revelation describes each cherub having separate appearances. The first looks like a lion, the second like an ox, the third like a man and the fourth like a flying eagle. These living creatures have eyes covering their entire bodies and instead of having only four wings, they each have six (Rev 4:8).

So how do these descriptions of cherubim compare with the ancient Near Eastern karibu figures? Umberto Cassuto briefly describes the karibu and other related creatures when he writes,

[Karibu were] depicted as a composite creature, with wings, a human head and the body of an ox, or in other forms combining elements of the body of man or an ox or a lion or an eagle. In Egypt the form of the sphinx was prevalent, which had the body of a lion with a human head; similarly the representation of a winged lion with a human head was a widespread feature of the art of Syria and the land of Canaan.[2]

The imagery of winged, composite creatures was prevalent throughout the ancient Near East, especially in relation to holy sites, temples and palaces. However, different cultures portrayed these figures with differing aspects and features. The fact that there was no clear consensus regarding their appearance, even on a biblical level, is apparent just by comparing the above imagery of Ezekiel and Revelation. The imagery between the biblical descriptions and ancient Near Eastern depictions is similar enough, though, to draw connections and suggest influences.

Unfortunately, this still leaves us with many questions. For example, if the authors of Genesis and Exodus did not describe the cherubim in detail because they assumed their readers were familiar with them, which tradition and imagery did the audience have in mind? Why would the cherubim of Revelation appear different than those in Ezekiel, especially when the author of Revelation relied heavily on Ezekiel? Did the cherubim on the ark of the covenant resemble the bipedal, four faced creatures of Ezekiel or were they winged quadrupeds like their karibu counterparts? I am not sure there are clear answers to these questions. Perhaps the fluidity of their appearance in the ancient Near East was an intentional effort to capture a sense of majesty and awe within the viewer/reader.

With so many other topics to cover regarding the cherubim, such as what their role/purpose is, I may pick this conversation up again in another post. In the meantime, feel free to share your thoughts!

 

 

[1] Andrew Steinmann. s.v. “Cherubim” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003).

[2] Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magis Press, 1967), 333.

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