Saturday, October 25, 2008

Ezekiel’s Vision 5: The Characteristics of the Cherubim

In the previous section we noted that in Ezekiel’s first vision he sees four strange ḥayyôt. In a later vision he explicitly equates the ḥayyôt with cherubim (kĕrubîm) (10:15, 20). In Hebrew cherub is singular, while cherubim is plural (the “–im” suffix indicates masculine plural in Hebrew; the occasional English “cherubims” is an anglicized plurization of a transliteration of an already plural Hebrew word.).

Later Christian tradition sees cherubs as a class of angels, as systematized in the angelic hierarchies found in Pseudo-Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchies (c. AD 500). However, as far as I am aware, cherubs are never explicitly said to be angels in the Hebrew Bible, where they were probably understood to be part of the “sons of God” (bĕnê ĕlōhîm), or council of God (ĕlōhîm, ĕlîm). (See, for example, Ps 8:5 (6), which says that Man is “a little lower” than the ĕlōhîm, which the LXX translates as angelous/angels, as it also appears in the KJV. The Vulgate keeps to the Hebrew better: “paulo minus a Deo,” “a little less than God.” Furthermore, biblical cherubs should not be confused with the small winged children that appear frequently in late Renaissance and Baroque art, which are technically putti, Italian for “children.”)

In the Hebrew Bible cherubs usually play the role of guardians of the presence/throne of God. Indeed, they are never mentioned apart from the presence/throne of God, the Garden, or the Temple. In the Garden of Eden they guard the way to the Tree of Life (Gen 3:24). In Ezek 28:14-16 they are guardians of the “mountain of God.” God is “enthroned” upon cherubim (1 Sam 4:4; Isa 37:16; Ps 80:1, 99:1; 1 Chr 13:6, etc.), and “rides” upon them (Ps 18:10; 2 Kg 19:15; 2 Sam 22:11), exactly as described by Ezekiel. Images of cherubs are found on the curtains and walls of the Tabernacle and Temple (Ex 25:18-20; 1 Kgs 6:23-28), but no description of them are given in these texts, other than that they have wings. Most importantly, four cherubs are found in the Holy of Holies of the Temple; two on the ark of the covenant (Ex 25:20, 37:9), and another two large cherubs overarching the ark (1 Kgs 6:27, 8:6-7; 2 Chr 3:11-13, 5:7-8). Most importantly for an interpretation of Ezek 1 and 10, it is quite likely that the four cherubs Ezekiel saw are intended to be the four cherubs of the Holy of Holies of the Temple. Reinforcing this interpretation is the fact that only in the Holy of Holies and in Ezekiel’s vision are the wings of cherubs said to be touching each other (1 Kgs 6:27; 2 Chr 3:11; Ezek 1:9, 11). Thus, when Ezekiel enters the cloud and sees the cherubs, he is entering the Holy of Holies.

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