April 6, 2008

Ancient Cherubim

The reason this post is titled “Ancient Cherubim” is because the topic of the cherubim spans centuries, well into the medieval ages, but I prefer to home in on the cherubim of the biblical age; what were they, and how the Jews viewed them. There is no way I can do this topic justice. I am by no means a scholar on ancient mythologies and archeology, but it fascinates me so I will share with you some of my own insights.

Lets first discuss the etymology of the word cherub. Wikipedia mentions it’s a cognate of the Assyrian/Akkadian karabu or kuribu meaning great and mighty or blessed. Raphael Patai’s book The Hebrew Goddess takes the Akkadian karibu theory but says it means an intermediary between man and the Gods (ie. The one that brings the prayers of man to the Gods). For the heck of it, I decided to see what Shadal thinks of the word. In his commentary to Genesis, he says the word cherub is metathesized from the rakhuv [“that which is ridden’]. His source for this is in 2 Samuel 22:11. “He mounted a cherub and flew, He appeared on the wings of the wind.

I believe the only way to understand, or at least, to attempt to understand how the Israelites viewed the Cherubim is not only looking at our own scripture, but looking at outside sources and seeing how they overlap. For anyone that has only read our commentaries on this subject matter and not looked at the outside sources, a great deal is being missed. Much to my surprise, this is a much layered subject with many ANE sources helping explain other sources. It is quite interlocked in some aspects and in others, not so. I shall attempt to talk about the cherubs of the kapporet, the cherubs of Solomon’s Temple as well as Ezekiels vision.

Reading the Torah only, you are left with more questions as the identity and purpose of the cherubim than you are with answers. All you are told is one Cherub is left to guard Eden, and another pair is to be fashioned on top of the ark as the place where God communicates with Moses. It is these pair of cherubs that I would like to begin with. The Torah gives no description of what these cherubs are to look like. It is almost as if they knew or had their own vision of what cherubs looked like and God simply let artistic vision flow. No problem here, right? Well, I will let you know, that the Ark of the Covenant was the first thing that led me to skepticism. Doing my own little research, I saw pictures of ancient Egyptian artificacts and drawings that showed basically the same concept. I had thought our idea was somehow unique. But I saw an ark, being carried by slaves with a Pharaoh (God) seating on a throne with cherub like creatures with wings spread out on the sides of his throne. Here is an example of King Tut’s throne, with a winged Horus God on the side:

And here is an artifact showing King Hiram of Byblos seated atop of a throne, with a cherub on the side.

Cherubs and thrones for a God seem to go hand in hand in the ancient near east (ANE). It is not unique to the Israelites. You see this in Egypt all the way to the Phoenicians. One could argue that God, for his throne, was merely utilizing a method of expression that was incredibly common in those days. But this still does not tell us anything about what the Cherubim were and what significance they were to ancient people including the Israelites. Let us now move forward to the cherubs of Solomon.

After constructing his temple, he has two large cherubs placed over the Ark, and, has the entire wall in the inside engraved with cherubim and palm trees and blossoming flowers. Like I said above, anyone that has not looked at other sources other than our own would be baffled for this strange need to engrave cherubs and palm trees into the inner walls. What was the purpose? Weren’t Egyptians the ones that had engraved hieroglyphics inside their temples? How was Solomon constructing a temple with such obvious ‘outside’ influences? I have to admit, it does bother me somewhat. But I think it bothers me, because a) I live in the 21st century, and b) I received a pretty pathetic summary of Jewish history. In order for us to perhaps understand Solomon, we need to try to picture ourselves in those days. We will find, to all of our surprise that Solomon was merely utilizing what every other culture back then was doing. To a lesser degree it is probably not so much different than Jewish synagogues looking like mosques and churches. Architecture and the art that goes inside is always influenced by the time and place in which one lives. Solomon’s Temple was no different. As you can see in these examples, there were other nations that used cherubs with palm trees in their design. IMO, one can argue the merits of documentary hypothesis, but to argue that the Jewish expression of worship of their God is NOT influenced by outside influences is by now pointless. Also, lets not forget the Melachim mentions craftsmen of Chiram were also responsible for sculpting the stones. 

As you can see, a cherub or a cherub like creature next to a palm tree or, a sacred tree is quite common. Something interesting to notice in the last picture is that even though there is no palm tree, the cherub’s in Ahab’s “Ivory House” looks almost Egyptian. Odd, is it not? (update: I forgot to add the image of Ahab's "Ivory House" from The Hebrew Goddess previously)

Let us now move to one of the most famous portrayals of the cherubs. Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot with the four cherubs is probably one of the main focuses of mysticism. In it, he describes the cherub as a four winged, four faced human formed creature with eyes all over and a wheel attached to it. Where did this vision come from? What does it mean? Is there anything comparable to it in the ANE? I believe the only thing that comes close to Ezekiel’s cherubs are the Babylonian Genii pictured above (with the trees) and this one here:

Nothing else seems to come close to what Ezekiel describes. But what exactly was he describing? I think when looking at ANE one seems to come to the conclusion that one need not go to Jewish mysticism for an answer. Ezekiel was describing a chariot. More importantly he was describing a chariot inside a cloud. The cloud is God’s manifestation on earth and the cherubs and wheels and chariot are, “kivyachol" the clouds inner workings. Where else do we see this cloud? Well, we see this directly related to the mishkan and the Ark of The Covenant. God would manifest himself by a cloud descending into the mishkan and communicate through the Ark of the Covenant (his throne). We can perhaps now understand the pasuk in 2 Samuel 22:11

“He mounted a cherub and flew, He appeared on the wings of the wind.”

This is describing God’s means of locomotion and I am guessing, the the Israelites then mean't a cloud; since that is how it was believed God presented himself to his nation. David is more or less giving us a less detailed version of Ezekiels vision, and, it matches to how other ANE nations described some of their own God’s traveling by means of cherubs or other winged creatures. Here you have an image of a God traveling on the back of a cherub, or as composite animal.

As a quick side note, a rabbi I know had a theory that OUR cherubs might actually be ox. He gets this from another pasuk in Ezekiel’s description of the four faces of the cherubim. The text instead of saying Ox, it said had the face of a cherub. Hence a cherub is an ox. Ezekiel 10: 14

Each one had the four faces; the one face, the face of the cherub, the second face, the face of a man, the third face, the face of a lion, and the fourth, the face of an eagle.

After giving this some thought, I don’t think it works. It may be that the word ‘cherub’ can be used instead of an ox, since many cherubim had bodies of oxes like this image.

It’s not that a cherub IS an ox, but simply that they both share some characteristics and the words can be swiped and the available audience in that time were able to understand. Also, our cherub’s can’t actually mean an ox because the very same text is telling you that the actual cherub with four wings had a human form to it.

So in the end, do we make out of all of our findings. It looks like different cultures expressed the cherubim a bit differently, but maintained certain characteristics. It was the direct carrier of God and the closest to Him. It was the way He manifested himself in this world and communicated with man. I have to admit, I am still not sure what the palm tree in Solomon’s temple means, but I am sure with a bit more reading as to what it mean’t to other cultures, we can find out. The idea of cherubim was as international to them as a regular angel is to mankind in our times. Every culture utilized the cherubim for their specific belief. It could be that Hashem, to the Jews, does not go around and change all cultural aspects to a society. He simply uses it for his benefit. It is obviously very hard for us to relate to something like this which, for me, highlights even more Shadal’s insistence that we take ourselves out of our present time and into the days when our texts were written. There is obviously much more to discuss, and I am no scholar, but hopefully, this will give all of us a bit of push to do some further reading. It is something that can only help us better our understanding of the Israelite interest in cherubim that are found throughout our scriptures.