cher'-u-bim, cher'-oo-bim (kerubhim, plural of cherub, kerubh): Through the influence of the Septuagint, "cherubim" was used in the earlier English versions, also as a singular, hence, the plural was made to sound "cherubims." The etymology of the word cannot be ascertained.
1. As Guardians of Paradise:
In Ge 3:24 the cherubim are placed by God, after the expulsion of Adam from the garden of Eden, at the east thereof, together with the flaming sword "to keep the way of the tree of life." In their function as guardians of Paradise the cherubim bear an analogy to the winged bulls and lions of Babylonia and Assyria, colossal figures with human faces standing guard at the entrance of temples (and palaces), just as in Egypt the approaches to the sanctuaries are guarded by sphinxes. But the Babylonian colossi go by the name of lamassu, or shedu; no designation at all approaching the Hebrew kerubh has so far been found in the Assyrian language. Nor are thus named the winged figures, half human and half animal, which in Babylonian and Persian art are found on both sides of the "sacred tree." Thus, a Babylonian origin of the Hebrew cherubim is neither proved nor disproved. If we look for further analogies which, of course, do not indicate a borrowing on the part of the Hebrews, we may mention the fabulous griffins (grupes), usually represented as having the heads and wings of an eagle and the body and hind quarters of a lion; they were believed by the Greeks to inhabit Scythia, and to keep jealous watch over the gold of that country.
2. The Garden as the Abode of the Gods:
If we read between the lines of the Paradise account in Gen (compare 3:8), the garden of Eden, the primeval abode of man, reveals itself as more than that: it was apparently the dwelling-place of God. In the polytheistic story of the creation of the world and early life of man, which, while in several respects analogous (compare 3:22), is devoid of the more spiritual notions of Hebraism, the garden was the abode of the gods who alone had access to the tree of life from the fruit of which they derived their immortality. Adam, before the fall, is conceived as a superhuman being; for while he is forbidden to taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the way to immortality is open to him; for it is only after transgressing the Divine command that he merits death and becomes mortal. The choice of immortal innocence and mortal knowledge lay before him; he elected death with knowledge.
3. The Cherubim as Attendants of the Deity:
The mythical elements of the Paradise story are still more patent in Eze 28:13 ff, where the fall of the king of Tyre is likened to that of primeval man. The garden is situated on a holy mountain of Elohim(= God to Ezekiel, but gods in the primitive source), the `mountain of assembly' of Isa 14:13, high above the stars in the recesses of the North. It is a wonderful place, adorned with all manner of precious stones. There man, perfect from the day he was created, resplendent with beauty, excelling in wisdom, walks among the fiery stones, like a cherub with outstretched wings. The cherubs are apparently the attendants of the Deity, beauteous angels, of whom man was to be one: but he fell from glory and was hurled from the sanctuary which he had polluted. Some of the angelic attendants of the Deity within are placed in Genesis without, to do service as guardians of the unapproachable holy garden.
4. As Bearers of the Throne:
As attendants of God, they bear the throne upon which He descends from His high abode. Thus in the description of a theophany in Ps 18:1-50, we read:
"He bowed the heavens also, and came down;
And thick darkness was under his feet.
And he rode upon a cherub and did fly;
Yea, he soared upon the wings of the wind."
Hence, the Lord, or, as the fuller title goes, the Lord of Hosts, is repeatedly styled "He that sitteth (throned) above the cherubim" (Ps 80:1; 99:1; 1Sa 4:4, and elsewhere). There is certainly no trace here of bull figures: bulls do not fly. The underlying conception is, it seems, rather that of the storm cloud. Compare Ps 104:3:
"Who maketh the clouds his chariot;
Who walketh upon the wings of the wind."
The Hebrew for "chariot" is rekhubh, a sort of inverted kerubh.
5. In the Vision of Ezekiel:
But the function of the cherubim as bearers and movers of the Divine throne is brought out most clearly in the vision of Ezekiel (chapter 1, with which compare chapter 10). In chapter 1 the prophet designates them as "living creatures" (chayyoth); but upon hearing God's words addressed to the "man clothed in linen" (10:2) he perceives that the living creatures which he saw in the first vision were cherubim (10:20); hence, in 9:3 the chariot or throne, from which the glory of God went up, is spoken of as a cherub. The following is a description in detail of the cherubim as seen by Ezekiel. They are represented as four living creatures, each with four faces, man, lion, ox (replaced in the parallel chapter by cherub), and eagle (1:10; 10:14), having the figure and hands of men (1:5,8), and the feet of calves (1:7). Each has four wings, two of which are stretched upward (1:11), meeting above and sustaining the "firmament," that is, the bottom of the Divine throne (1:22; 10:1), while two are stretched downward, conformable the one to the other, so as to cover their bodies (1:11,23). In appearance, the living creatures resemble coals of fire (compare 10:2,6 f, where the "man clothed in linen" is bidden fill both his hands with coals of fire from between the cherubim), burning like torches, the fire flashing up and down among the creatures, a bright fire out of which lightning goes forth (1:13). Thus the creatures run and vanish as the appearance of a flash of lightning (1:14). The cherubim do not turn as they change direction, but always go straight forward (1:9,17; 10:11), as do the wheels of the cherubic chariot with rings full of eyes round about (1:18; 10:12). The cherubim represent the spirit, or will, in the wheels: at the direction of the spirit, the wheels are lifted up from the bottom and the chariot moves upward (1:19 f; 10:16 f). The cherubim are thus the moving force of the vehicle.
6. Relation to Seraphim and Other Angels:
Ezekiel's cherubim are clearly related to the seraphim in Isaiah's inaugural vision (Isa 6:1-13). Like the cherubim, the seraphim are the attendants on God as He is seated upon a throne high and exalted; they are also winged creatures: with twain they cover their faces, and with twain they cover their feet, and with twain they fly. Like the Levites in the sanctuary below, they sing a hymn of adoration: "Holy, holy, holy, is Yahweh of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory." In the Book of Enoch, the cherubim, seraphim, and ophannim (wheels), and all the angels of power constitute the "host of God," the guardians of His throne, the singers of praise ascribing blessedness to "the Lord of Spirits," with the archangel Gabriel at their head (see 20:7; 40; 61:10 f; 71:7). And so in the Jewish daily liturgy the seraphim, ophannim, and "living creatures" constitute the heavenly choir who, the elect ministers of the Living God, ready to do the will of their maker with trembling, intone in sweet harmony the Thrice-holy. In the Talmud, the cherubim are represented as having the likeness of youths (with a fanciful etymology, ke plus rubh, "like a youth"; Cukk 5b; Chag 13b), while, according to the Midrash, they have no definite shape, but appear indifferently as men or women, or as spirits and angelic beings (Gen rabba' 21).
7. In Revelation 4:
The "four living creatures" of Re 4:6 ff are clearly modeled upon Ezekiel, with supplementary touches from Isaiah. Full of eyes before and behind, they are in the midst of the throne, and round about it. One resembles a lion, the other a calf, and the third a man, and the fourth a flying eagle. Each of the creatures has six wings. "They have no rest day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come."
8. Ornamental Cherubim in the Temple of Solomon:
In the temple of Solomon, two gigantic cherubic images of olive-wood plated with gold, ten cubits high, stood in the innermost sanctuary (the debhir) facing the door, whose wings, five cubits each, extended, two of them meeting in the middle of the room to constitute the throne, while two extended to the walls (1Ki 6:23-28; 8:6-7; 2Ch 3:10-13; 5:7-8). The Chronicler represents them as the chariot of the Lord (1Ch 28:18). There were also images of the cherubim carved on the gold-plated cedar planks which constituted the inner walls of the temple, and upon the olive-wood doors (1Ki 6:29,35; 2Ch 3:7); also on the bases of the portable lavers, interchanging with lions and oxen (1Ki 7:29-36). According to the Chronicler, they were also woven in the veil of the Holy of Holies (2Ch 3:14).
9. In the Temple of Ezekiel:
Ezekiel represents the inner walls of the temple as carved with alternating palm trees and cherubim, each with two faces, the lion looking on one side, the man on the other (Eze 41:18-25).
10. In the Tabernacle:
In the Tabernacle, there were two cherubim of solid gold upon the golden slab of the "lid," or "mercy-seat," facing each other, with wings outstretched above, so as to constitute a throne on which the glory of the Lord appeared, and from which He spake (Ex 25:18-22; 37:7-9; Nu 7:89; Heb 9:5). There were also cherubim woven into the texture of the inner curtain of the Tabernacle and the veil (Ex 26:1,31; 36:8,35). There were no cherubim in the temple of Herod, but the walls were painted with figures of them (see Talmud Yoma' 54a). In the times of Josephus no one knew what the Scriptural cherubim looked like (Ant., VIII, iii, 3).
Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, under the word; KAT3, 529 f, and references; commentaries on Genesis and Ezekiel.
Max L. Margolis