Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the New Testament
How to Insult a Cherub
There are so many historical questions about the Scriptures that remain unanswered, that it is sad when interpreters ignore good evidence when they have it. I have in mind the issue of the cherubim. These beings are mentioned several times in Scripture, all the way from Genesis (3:24) to Revelation (19:4). In Revelation the cherubim are called the “four living creatures,” but we have known since the time of Ezekiel that the cherubim were also called by the name “living creatures” (Eek. 10:20, “These were the living creatures I had seen beneath the God of Israel (Ezek. 1) by the Kebar River, and I realized that they were cherubim”).
The specific issue about the cherubim concerns their appearance. What exactly (or even approximately) do they look like? A puzzling aspect of the cherubim issue is that long before the discoveries of archaeology in the region of ancient Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, the Scriptures themselves gave detailed descriptions about their shape and physical features. Since the writings of Scripture are straightforward on this issue, why have so many Christian artists and Bible interpreters failed to get it right?
|Giusto de’ Menabuoi, (1320-1391)
“Cherub” at the Garden of Eden. A very
human looking cherub.
Even a cursory look at Ezekiel chapter one or Revelation chapter 4 makes it patently clear that cherubim did not have a human shape with wings attached. And one certainly did not have to be a visionary like Ezekiel or John to know about the cherubim. Representations of the cherubim were placed on top of the ark of the covenant (Exod. 25) and were woven into the curtains of the Tabernacle (Exod. 26; 36). Furthermore, images of these cherubim were carved “On the walls all around the temple, in both the inner and outer rooms” (1 Kgs. 6:29) and “on the two olive wood doors” (1 Kgs 6:32).
|“Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle”
James J. J. Tissot 19th century. Notice
the human shape of the cherubim on the
ark of the covenant.
Earlier Christian artists have clearly missed the point about the shape of the cherubim based upon what is recorded in Scripture. To make matters worse, archaeological discoveries in the past one and one-half centuries have produced artifacts that give us some insight into the general features of these cherubim, yet this information is also ignored. What these material remains have demonstrated is that the basic idea about the living creatures, namely that they have features and size that are mythic in nature was also well known in the artwork of Israel’s neighbors.
The difficulty that many modern Christians have with accepting a realistic notion about the cherubim is evident in the fact that some contemporary Christian study materials which are otherwise very scholarly (e.g., NIV Study Notes) continue to depict the cherubim is ways that obviously contradict the clear teaching of Scripture. Far too many current study guides still portray the cherubim over the ark of the covenant or standing at the east of the garden of Eden as humanoid forms with wings, that is, as angels.
The sense of awe, wonder, majesty, and fear that the original message of the cherubim was intended to convey is diluted when a relatively puny “angelic” form is substituted. All civilizations of the Ancient Middle East knew that these monstrous, composite, animal forms (theriomorphic beings) were intend to communicate the power and might associated with gods and divine kings in their cultures.
|Notice the size of this composite
form, animal/human-faced being.
|This being has the front feet of one
animal, the rear feet of another, and
the horn of a dragon. Gate of Ishtar,
Berlin, Pergamon Museum.
The modern readers of Scripture would do well to let the Bible speak for itself and not substitute less awe inspiring “angels” for the cherubim of Scripture. No self-respecting cherub would ever want to be depicted in mere humanoid form!
3 thoughts on “How to Insult a Cherub”
Your first sentence is right on track. There is so much info available today that it is easy to miss the plain meaning of a text out of fear that we may not have looked at all the evidence. Grammatical/exegetical/theological/ hermeneutical overload!!! Yikes! Thanks for the "warning."
Hello! I’ve been following your web site for a while now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from
Austin Texas! Just wanted to mention keep up the great work!