Winged creatures associated with the Ark puzzled Jewish scholars.

Cherubim are the winged creatures mentioned frequently in the Bible (in Hebrew keruvim). The etymology of the word is uncertain. In a Midrashic source the folk etymology is given according to which the singular form keruv means ke-ravya, “like a young child,” hence the depiction in art and literature of the cherubim as baby angels.

In the Bible God sets the cherubim at the entrance of the Garden of Eden after the expulsion of Adam and Eve, to guard the way to the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:24). Two cherubim overlaid with gold with outstretched wings were placed facing one another on the cover of the Ark in the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:18-20) and figures of cherubim were embroidered on the veil and the curtains of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:1, 31). In Solomon’s Temple the two gilded cherubim were not attached to the Ark, as in the Tabernacle, but were placed as figures each 10 cubits high in front of the Ark (I Kings 6:27-8).

A curious Talmudic legend has it that the cherubim in Solomon’s Temple were in the form of male and female. When the Israelites came to the Temple on pilgrimage, the curtain in front of the Ark was drawn aside and the cherubim were seen interlocked as if in sexual congress. This was said to be a miraculous indication that God’s love for Israel resembles the love of man and woman.

Elsewhere in the Bible (II Samuel 22:11; Psalms 18:11) God is described very anthropomorphically as riding on a cherub. The resemblance of the cherubim to the winged creatures depicted in the religious art of the ancient Near East has often been noted.

The whole matter of the cherubim was a source of puzzlement and embarrassment to the Jewish teachers. In another Talmudic legend, when the Ammonites and Moabites entered the Temple at its destruction they pulled out the cherubim and attempted to expose the hypocrisy of the Israelites who pretended to worship the invisible God and yet had figures of a man and a woman having sex in the very holy of holies.

The Jewish philosophers, in particular, tried to rationalize the subject. In Philo’s discourse on the cherubim these represent two aspects of God, His goodness and His authority. For Maimonides the cherubim represent a species of the angelic hosts. In Maimonides’ scheme there are ten grades of angels, and the cherubim belong to the ninth degree. Angels are seen by Maimonides as the various spiritual forces God uses for the control of the universe. The angels adjacent to the Ark represent the operation of these spiritual forces in the revelation of the Torah and are a symbolic representation of the dogma that the Torah is from heaven. There were two cherubim on the Ark because had there been only one it might have been confused with a representation of the One God (Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, 3.45)·

Except in the kabbalah, there is not much interest in the cherubim in Jewish thought. It is perhaps significant in this connection that while the liturgy contains references to other forms of angels, the ophanim and seraphim, for example, there is no reference to the cherubim anywhere in the liturgy.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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