Terumah – the riddle of the cherubim

“Make two cherubim of gold—make them of hammered work—at the two ends of the cover.  Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end; of one piece with the cover shall you make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositing inside the Ark the Testimony that I will give you. There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Testimony—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.” (Exodus 25:16-22)

וְעָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב מִקְשָׁה֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה אֹתָ֔ם מִשְּׁנֵ֖י קְצ֥וֹת הַכַּפֹּֽרֶת׃ וַ֠עֲשֵׂה כְּר֨וּב אֶחָ֤ד מִקָּצָה֙ מִזֶּ֔ה וּכְרוּב־אֶחָ֥ד מִקָּצָ֖ה מִזֶּ֑ה מִן־הַכַּפֹּ֛רֶת תַּעֲשׂ֥וּ אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֖ים עַל־שְׁנֵ֥י קְצוֹתָֽיו׃ וְהָי֣וּ הַכְּרֻבִים֩ פֹּרְשֵׂ֨י כְנָפַ֜יִם לְמַ֗עְלָה סֹכְכִ֤ים בְּכַנְפֵיהֶם֙ עַל־הַכַּפֹּ֔רֶת וּפְנֵיהֶ֖ם אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֑יו אֶל־הַכַּפֹּ֔רֶת יִהְי֖וּ פְּנֵ֥י הַכְּרֻבִֽים׃ וְנָתַתָּ֧ אֶת־הַכַּפֹּ֛רֶת עַל־הָאָרֹ֖ן מִלְמָ֑עְלָה וְאֶל־הָ֣אָרֹ֔ן תִּתֵּן֙ אֶת־הָ֣עֵדֻ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶתֵּ֖ן אֵלֶֽיךָ וְנוֹעַדְתִּ֣י לְךָ֮ שָׁם֒ וְדִבַּרְתִּ֨י אִתְּךָ֜ מֵעַ֣ל הַכַּפֹּ֗רֶת מִבֵּין֙ שְׁנֵ֣י הַכְּרֻבִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־אֲרֹ֣ן הָעֵדֻ֑ת אֵ֣ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֧ר אֲצַוֶּ֛ה אוֹתְךָ֖ אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

I have always loved cherubs. It is a love I inherited from my grandmother who had several decorating her homes.  And I too occasionally add to my own collection of sweet faced plump winged babies.

But the cherubim of bible should not be viewed as these somewhat kitsch figures – we do a great disservice to the text to fall into this cosy view.

We first meet the cherubim in the book of Genesis at the denouement of the second creation story: “God drove the human out, and stationed east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life. (Gen 3:24 )

וַיְגָ֖רֶשׁ אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּשְׁכֵּן֩ מִקֶּ֨דֶם לְגַן־עֵ֜דֶן אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֗ים וְאֵ֨ת לַ֤הַט הַחֶ֙רֶב֙ הַמִּתְהַפֶּ֔כֶת לִשְׁמֹ֕ר אֶת־דֶּ֖רֶךְ עֵ֥ץ הַֽחַיִּֽים׃ (ס)

Their purpose is to prevent the human beings gaining access back into the garden and eating from the tree of life, something that we know will mean humanity acquiring  eternity, a characteristic of the divine that is denied to mortals.

Wherever the cherubim appear we are in sacred space. While the word appears almost a hundred times in the Hebrew bible, we know very little about them except for the fact they were winged. How many wings seems to be unclear – it varies in different descriptions. Sometimes they are clearly representational figures such as in Solomon’s Temple, at other times God flies in the skies, carried by the cherubim.

“In the Shrine he [Solomon]  made two cherubim of olive wood, each 10 cubits high. [One] had a wing measuring 5 cubits and another wing measuring 5 cubits, so that the spread from wingtip to wingtip was 10 cubits;  and the wingspread of the other cherub was also 10 cubits. The two cherubim had the same measurements and proportions:  the height of the one cherub was 10 cubits, and so was that of the other cherub.  He placed the cherubim inside the inner chamber. Since the wings of the cherubim were extended, a wing of the one touched one wall and a wing of the other touched the other wall, while their wings in the centre of the chamber touched each other.  He overlaid the cherubim with gold.”   These are huge figures, over twenty feet high, with matching enormous wingspans, dominating the inner chamber. Yet we know them to be olive wood, representations – but of what? And to what purpose? Will God speak to the people from above them?

The most famous depiction of the cherubim is that of Ezekiel, who was among those sent into exile with the king in 597BCE (see 2K 24:14-16) At a body of water he calls the Nehar Kevar, (the Kevar canal) he has a vision. This canal appears to be the area in Babylonia where the exiled Jews were settled and is separately documented in Akkadian literature. He documents part of his vision thus:

“The cherubs ascended; those were the creatures that I had seen by the Kevar Canal. Whenever the cherubs went, the wheels went beside them; and when the cherubs lifted their wings to ascend from the earth, the wheels did not roll away from their side. When those stood still, these stood still; and when those ascended, these ascended with them, for the spirit of the creature was in them. Then the Presence of the Eternal left the platform of the House and stopped above the cherubs.  And I saw the cherubs lift their wings and rise from the earth, with the wheels beside them as they departed; and they stopped at the entrance of the eastern gate of the House of the Eternal, with the Presence of the God of Israel above them.  They were the same creatures that I had seen below the God of Israel at the Kevar Canal; so now I knew that they were cherubs.” Ezekiel 10:15-20

Now it is well known in ancient near eastern mythologies – and even in later western ones –  that the divine being rides some kind of chariot pulled by some types of mythic beasts, and I am certain that the cherubim of the bible must have their origin within even older mythologies.   But that doesn’t really explain their presence in our sacred space, using their wings in some kind of protective way, guarding the area between God and us – for God is often depicted as being seated above the cherubim (for example Hezekiah’s prayer recorded in the book of Isaiah speaks of God “enthroned above the Cherubim”

There is no sense of the cherubim being in any way angelic or quasi divine in the Hebrew bible, they fulfil no role in bridging the space between us and God. They simply are there, figures beyond which we cannot see or go.  The idea of their being in some way angelic comes in later commentaries , so while both Rashi and Ibn Ezra see nothing angelic in the cherubim, the midrash in Genesis Rabbah 21 suggests that they were beings who were created on the third day, with no definite shape or form, while the Tanna d’bei Eliyahu (10th century) believes them to have been part of the group created before the beginning of our world., Bachya ben Asher  in 14th century Spain also believes they are angels but intriguingly he has a reason – it is important to believe in angels because prophecy can only happen through the mediation of an angel, and given that the God speaks to Moses from above the cherubim, these must logically be angels. There are two of them above the ark, to make clear that they are not the image of the one God.

So while there is much speculation about what the Cherubim might be, their connection to the mythic beasts of other traditions – gryphons or sphinxes, centaurs or Assyrian Lamassu, or the way they may have segued into Judaism from the Akkadian winged bulls the kirubu or the shedim that guarded palaces– the reality is, as is often the case, hidden in the past. So by the time of the Talmud it is clear that no one knew much about the cherubim.  There are several discussions recorded including the one found in Chagigah 13b

“What is the meaning of “cherub”? Rabbi Abbahu said: Like a baby [keravya], for in Babylonia they call a baby ravya. Rav Pappa said to Abaye: However, if that is so, what is the meaning of that which is written: “The first face was the face of the cherub, and the second face was the face of a man, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle”? The face of a cherub is the same as the face of a man; what is the difference between them? He replied: The difference is that the face of a man is referring to a large face, whereas the face of a cherub means the small face of a baby.”

It is from this and other passages that the elision from guardian of the divine mystery to cupid-like plump baby boy has occurred, and we have stopped really asking ourselves about the purpose of the cherubim in the Hebrew bible.

Clearly the cherubim serve God, and clearly too they provide a barrier or boundary between the sacred and the mundane; they prevent us from coming to close to the mystery.

But what do they represent to us? What function do they have? We assume that God does not need the protection the cherubim provide, so are they there to protect us?

There is a wonderful, almost transgressive piece in Talmud about the cherubim and what they were doing.

“Rav Ketina said: When the Jewish people would ascend for one of the pilgrimage Festivals, the priests would roll up the curtain for them and show them the cherubs, which were clinging to one another, and say to them: See how you are beloved before God, like the love of a male and female. The two cherubs symbolize the Holy One, Blessed be God, and the Jewish people.” (Yoma 54a)

Throughout the tradition there is a thread which asks – what do the cherubim say to us, what are they symbolising?

Rav Ketina stretches the point of the almost to breaking in order to teach that the two figures which are touching at the wingtips, (and whose spreading wings as described in the Exodus passage above, uses a phrase also used as a euphemism for sex elsewhere in bible).  So he posits that the two figures looking at each other, touching each other, are symbolic of God and Israel, entwined in a relationship of love. (Even more unusual of course is the idea that the people got to see the cherubim but that is for another day.)

Later commentators take up the male-female balance of the cherubim explicated by Rav Ketina and suggest that this is not symbolising God and Israel, but reminding us of the imperative to have children and create the next generation.

There are other suggestions as to what the cherubim might symbolise – different attributes of God, mercy and justice, the importance of contact with the other, teacher and pupil, study partners, the mystical world and the world we can know, the bringing close and the keeping of boundaries…..

The text tells us that the cherubim are shielding the cover of the ark with their outstretched wings and they are facing each other and also looking slightly downwards at the cover. To me it is an image of a partnership of protection and support. There is something enveloping about those wings creating a space within them as they touch each other, rather as an adult holds a baby, or a comforter holds the comforted, or lovers hold each other close. The fact that they are both gazing towards the thing they are holding, and their faces are turned towards each other adds to the sense of intention. These are no guards to keep away the people seeking God, no fearsome bouncers keeping us out of sacred space, but protective and nurturing figures, taking care of a precious object. Rather like their parallel the Sphinx, they pose a riddle for the traveller, a riddle whose answer is firmly human focused.

They are not angels, but they prefigure what will be as religion becomes institutionalised, and we have to ask ourselves how will we nurture the word of God in our time and space? How will we show love? How will we communicate? How will we see the other who is just like us but who is not us? How will we protect the sacred and yet allow the word of God to come into the world?

The questions implied and threaded through the appearance of the cherubim almost one hundred times in our bible are questions that challenge us. They ask how God is brought into our world, and each one of us is part of the answer.




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