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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34 RAANAN EICHLER
excavated in the mid-nineteenth century, such as one found in Nim-
rud by Austen Henry Layard between 1845 and 1851 and now
housed in the British Museum 29, along with the mistaken belief that
the Akkadian words kirûbu 30 or kāribu 31 designated these beings,
boosted the view that cherubim shared the form of these colossi 32.
Doubting the association of the cherub with the human-headed
winged bull, the nineteenth-century biblicist August Dillmann pre-
ferred to connect the cherub with the griffin, or raptor-headed
winged lion. In support of his view, he noted the aforementioned
Akkadian word kurūbu, along with the fact that the function of
guarding unapproachable places is attributed in Greek legend to the
griffins, just as the cherubim possess this function in the Hebrew
Bible (Gen 3,24; Ezek 28,14-19) 33.
The phonetic similarity between bwrk and the Greek word γρύψ
(stem γρυπ-), from which English “griffin” is derived, has been
noted by scholars both before and after Dillmann 34. The griffin ap-
plates (not enumerated) “Ark of the Covenant”, “Cherubim” 1-4; C. DE BRUYN,
Travels into Muscovy, Persia, and Part of the East-Indies (London 1737) II, 11-12.
British Museum ME 118872; online: http://www.britishmuseum.org/
[cited 15 June 2014].
LENORMANT, History, 125-126; F. DELITZSCH, Wo lag das Paradies?
(Leipzig 1881) 153. Refuted by, e.g., T.C. FOOTE, “The Cherubim and the
Ark”, JAOS 25 (1904) 279-286 at 279. CAD does not list kirûbu as a word.
DHORME – VINCENT, “Chérubins”, 335-336. According to CAD, kāribu is an
adjective that can describe “a deity represented as making a gesture of adoration”.
Layard himself made this connection cautiously. See A.H. LAYARD,
Nineveh and Its Remains (London 1849) II, 464-465; ID., Discoveries in the
Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon (New York 1853) 549. See also DELITZSCH,
Paradies, 150-155 and bibl.
A. DILLMANN, Genesis: Critically and Exegetically Expounded (Eugene,
OR 2005 ) 170 (83). WOOD, Wings, 200-207, identifies the cherub with
the eagle-headed winged lion and the human-headed winged lion (winged
sphinx); see below.
J.G. EICHHORN, Einleitung in das Alte Testament (Göttingen 41823) III,
80, 160-161; W. VATKE, Die biblische Theologie (Berlin 1835) I, 325-326.
Early bibliography in LENORMANT, History, 119, n. 1; DELITZSCH, Paradies,
151; J. WELLHAUSEN, Prolegomena to the History of Israel (Edinburgh 1885)