1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cherubim
CHERUBIM, the Hebrew plural of “cherub” (kěrūb), imaginary winged animal figures of a sacred character, referred to in the description of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings vi. 23-35, vii. 29, viii. 6, 7), and also in that of the ark of the tabernacle (Ex. xxv. 18-22, xxvi. 1, 31, xxxvii. 7-9). The cherub-images, where such occur, represent to the imagination the supernatural bearers of Yahweh’s throne or chariot, or the guardians of His abode; the cherub-carvings at least symbolize His presence, and communicate some degree of His sanctity. In Gen. iii. 24 the cherubim are the guards of Paradise; Ezek. xxviii. 14, 16 cannot be mentioned here, the text being corrupt. We also find (1 Sam. iv. 4; 2 Sam. vi. 2) as a divine title “that sitteth upon the cherubim”; here it is doubted whether the cherubim are the material ones in the temple, or those which faith assumes and the artist tries to represent—the supernatural steeds upon which Yahweh issues forth to interfere in human affairs. In a poetic theophany (Ps. xviii. 10) we find “upon a cherub” parallel to “upon the wings of the wind” (cp. Isa. xix. 1; Ps. civ. 3). One naturally infers from this that the “cherub” was sometimes viewed as a bird. For the clouds, mythologically, are birds. “The Algonkins say that birds always make the winds, that they create the waterspouts, and that the clouds are the spreading and agitation of their wings.” “The Sioux say that the thunder is the sound of the cloud-bird flapping his wings.” If so, Ps. xviii. 10 is a solitary trace of the archaic view of the cherub. The bird, however, was probably a mythic, extra-natural bird. At any rate the cherub was suggested by and represents the storm-cloud, just as the sword in Gen. iii. 24 corresponds to the lightning. In Ezek. i. the four visionary creatures are expressly connected with a storm-wind, and a bright cloud (ver. 4). Elsewhere (xli. 18) the cherub has two faces (a man’s and a bird’s), but in i. 10 and x. 14 each cherub has four faces, a view tastefully simplified in the Johannine Apocalypse (Rev. iv. 7).
It is best, however, to separate Ezekiel from other writers, since he belongs to what may be called a great mythological revival. Probably his cherubim are a modification of older ones, which may well have been of a more sober type. His own accounts, as we have seen, vary. Probably the cherub has passed through several phases. There was a mythic bird-cherub, and then perhaps a winged animal-form, analogous to the winged figures of bulls and lions with human faces which guarded Babylonian and Assyrian temples and palaces. Another analogy is furnished by the winged genii represented as fertilizing the sacred tree—the date-palm (Tylor); here the body is human, though the face is sometimes that of an eagle. It is perhaps even more noteworthy that figures thought to be cherubs have been found at Zenjirli, within the ancient North Syrian kingdom of Ya’di (see Jeremias, Das Alte Testament im Lichte des Alten Orients, pp. 350 f.); we may combine this with the fact that one of the great gods of this kingdom was called Rakab’el or Rekūb’el (also perhaps Rakab or Rekūb). A Sabaean (S. Arabian) name Karab’el also exists. The kerūbim might perhaps be symbolic representatives of the god Rakab’el or Rekūb’el, probably equivalent to Hadad, whose sacred animal was the bull. That the figures symbolic of Rakab or Hadad were compounded or amalgamated by the Israelites with those symbolic of Nergal (the lion-god) and Ninib (the eagle-god), is not surprising.
See further “Cherubim,” in Ency. Bib. and Hast. D. B.; Cheyne, Genesis; Tylor, Proc. Soc. Bibl. Arch. xii. 383 ff.; Zimmern, Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament, pp. 529 f., 631 f.; Dibelius, Die Lade Jahves (1906), pp. 72-86. (T. K. C.)