Raanan Eichler, «Cherub: A History of Interpretation», Vol. 96 (2015) 26-38
The cherub is a type of creature mentioned some 90 times in the Hebrew Bible, where it is portrayed as a predominant motif in Israelite iconography. This paper surveys the attempts to determine the form of the cherub, in both textual and iconographic sources, from the fourth century to the twentyfirst. The cherub has been interpreted as a winged human (child or adult), a bird, a winged bovine, a griffin, a winged sphinx, and a composite creature in general. The last two identifications, which prevail in contemporary scholarship, are rejected, and a path to a correct identification is proposed.
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Cherub: A History of Interpretation
I. Introduction: The Cherub in the Hebrew Bible
The word bWrK., traditionally transliterated in English as
“cherub”, is attested some 90 times in the Hebrew Bible, mostly in
the plural form ~ybiWrK. / ~ybirK
u ,. which is transliterated as “cherubim”.
The overall impression created by these attestations is that the
cherub is a marvelous winged being that was associated with YHWH
and whose depictions served as the main motif in Israelite temple
iconography. What, specifically, is a cherub? In other words, what
form or forms of creatures does the word bwrk designate? In the present
study, the rich history of interpretation regarding this question will
be surveyed, using both textual and iconographic sources.
The biblical contexts in which cherubim appear can be briefly out-
lined as follows. First, actual, living cherubim are associated with the
Garden of Eden (Gen 3,24; Ezek 28,14.16) or directly with YHWH (2
Sam 22,11 = Ps 18,11; Ezek 9,3; 10,1-17; 11,22). Second, sculpted
cherubim are positioned over the sacred ark in the tabernacle (Exod
25,18 – 20.22 = 37,7-9 + Num 7,89) and the temple (1 Kgs 6,23-28 ≈
2 Chr 3,10-13; 1 Kgs 8,6-7 = 2 Chr 5,7-8; 1 Chr 28,18). Third, two-
dimensional representations of cherubim decorate surfaces of the tab-
ernacle (Exod 26,1 = 36,8; 26,31 = 36,35), the temple (1 Kgs
6,29.32.35; Ezek 41,18.20.25; 2 Chr 3,7.14) and laver stands in the
temple’s courtyard (1 Kgs 7,29.36). Finally, cherubim constitute a com-
ponent in an epithet of YHWH, ~yb(w)rkh bv(w)y / ~ybwrk bvy (1 Sam 4,4;
2 Sam 6,2 = 1 Chr 13,6; 2 Kgs 19,15 = Isa 37,16; Pss 80,2; 99,1).
While Ezekiel’s vision of the destruction of Jerusalem (Ezekiel
8–11) includes a detailed description of creatures dubbed “cherubim”,
most interpreters have not regarded this description as applicable
to cherubim generally. There are three likely reasons for this. First,
the very need to describe these creatures in particular suggests that
they are atypical in form. Second, the description contradicts details
concerning cherubim revealed in passing in other passages.
Ezekiel’s creatures each have four faces (10,14.21; as 1,6.10), four
wings (10,21; as 1,6.11.23), arms under their wings (10,7.8.21; as
1,8) and accompanying wheels (10,9-14.16-17.19; as 1,15-22;
BIBLICA 96.1 (2015) 26-38