CHERUB (Heb. bBri, keruv, pl. MybBri, keruvim), a winged celestial being which appears in the Bible in several different guises:
(1) In the story of the Garden of Eden after the expulsion of Adam and Eve, God stationed cherubim at the entrance of the garden to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen. 3:24).
(2) The prophet Ezekiel relates a parable about a cherub, referring to the downfall of the king of Tyre (28:13ff.). The cherub who dwelt in Eden, the garden—or mountain—of God, sinned in his overwhelming pride against God and, as a punishment for his transgression, was hurled down from the mountain of God. In the Genesis version, the story of the Garden of Eden was demythologized, and the sin and punishment of man were substituted for that of the cherub.
(3) Two wooden images of cherubim overlaid with gold, facing one another on the two ends of the covering above the Ark in the Tabernacle, form the throne of God with their outstretched wings (Ex. 25:18–20; 37:7–9). They are the counterparts of the two huge cherubim (10 cubits high and 10 cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other) found in the Holy of Holies (devir) of Solomon's Temple. This role of the cherubim is alluded to in several biblical passages where God is spoken of as "He who sits [enthroned] upon the cherubim" (I Sam. 4:4; II Sam. 6:2; II Kings 19:15; Isa. 37:16; Ps. 80:2; 99:1). See also Merkabah Mysticism.
(4) In II Samuel 22:11 and Psalms 18:11 a cherub, perhaps a personified wind, serves the Lord as a Pegasus: "He mounted a cherub and flew." In Ezekiel's vision of the chariot throne (ch. 1), the expanse on which the throne reposes appears to be supported by four strange composite creatures which chapter 10 identifies as cherubim (cf. I Chron. 28:18).
(5) The figures of the cherubim were also appropriated for cultic symbolism. They were used for decorative purposes:
(a) embroidered on the veil separating the "holy place" from the "most Holy" (Ex. 26:31; 36:35) and on the curtains of the Tabernacle (Ex. 26:1; 36:8);
(b) carved on all the inner and outer walls (I Kings 6:29), the doors of the inner and outer sanctuary (I Kings 6:32, 35), and the panels of Solomon's Temple (I Kings 7:29, 36); and
(c) carved on the walls and doors of the Temple envisioned by Ezekiel (41:18–20, 25). Description
The Bible itself contains variant descriptions of the cherubim. The two cherubim in the Tabernacle and in Solomon's Temple have two wings apiece (Ex. 25:20; I Kings 6:24, 27) and one face (Ex. 25:20). However, in the chariot vision of Ezekiel the symmetry of four predominates: Each of the four cherubim has four wings and four faces (1:6). Two of their wings, spread out above, touch one another, and the other two cover their bodies (cf. the description of the seraphim in Isa. 6:2: "Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet [i.e., lower extremities] and with two he flew."). Their four faces included one of a man, probably in front, a lion on the right side, an ox on the left side, and an eagle (Ezek. 1:10).
Later, however, Ezekiel includes the face of a cherub among the four faces and omits that of the ox (10:14). The cherubim, moreover, have legs and "each one's feet were like a calf's foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands" (Ezek. 1:7–8). In the Temple vision of Ezekiel, the cherubim engraved on the walls and doors are said to have only two faces, a man's face and a lion's face (41:18–19). This apparent contradiction may be explained as a result of Ezekiel's borrowing the motif of a "two-faced" cherub from the paradigm of the Tabernacle in Exodus or from Solomon's Temple, or it may be the result of his describing a two-dimensional picture on a flat surface rather than the three-dimensional one of his chariot vision.
Etymology and Ancient Near Eastern Prototypes
The etymology of the Hebrew word for cherub, keruv, has been subject to several different explanations, e.g., as a metathesis, or inversion of letters, of rekhuv, "chariot" (cf. Ps. 104:3 with II Sam. 22:11 and Ps. 18:11); or as a derivation from the Aramaic karov, "to plow," which is based on Ezekiel's substitution of the face of a cherub (10:14) for that of an ox (1:10), whose main function is to plow (Tur-Sinai).
The most plausible derivation is from the Akkadian karibu/kuribu (from Akk. karabu; "to pray," "to bless"), an intercessor who brings the prayers of humans to the gods. Figures of winged creatures are well-known from the art and religious symbolism of the ancient Near East. Two winged beings flank the throne of Hiram, king of Byblos, and winged bulls were placed at the entrance of Babylonian and Assyrian palaces and temples.
They appear on the pottery incense altars from Taanach and Megiddo. Winged sphinxes, griffins, and human creatures are represented in the art and iconography of Carchemish, Calah, Nimrud, the Samarian ivories, Aleppo, and Tell Halaf.