cherubim (kerubim) In the Pseudo-Dionysian hierarchy of angels, the second highest angels to God. The etymology of the name “cherub” (cherubim in plural) is uncertain. The Hebrew term “kerub,” which means either “fullness of knowledge” or “one who intercedes,” is thought to be derived from the Akkadian term KARABU, a winged guardian being of Assyria. Karabu had the bodies of sphinxes or bulls and the heads of humans, and they guarded entrances to buildings.
The cherubim of the Israelites corresponds to the sphinxes of the ancient Near East, serving as both guardian and throne. Cherubim are mentioned 91 times in the Hebrew Bible. They also are described in REVELATION in the New Testament. The cherubim are not speciﬁcally called angels. They make their ﬁrst appearance in the Bible in Genesis 3:22. God places them at the east entrance to the Garden of Eden, guarding it with ﬂaming sword. In Exodus 25:10–22, God gives MOSES instructions for building the ARK OF THE COVENANT, a gilded wooden chest that shall bear the mercy seat of God with cherubim made of hammered gold on its two ends:
The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. (25:20)
The mercy seat, from which God speaks to Israel, is to be placed on the top of the ark.
1 Kings 6:23–35 describes the cherubim King SOLOMON placed in his temple. Two gilded olivewood cherubim 10 cubits high are placed in the inner sanctuary. Each wing spans ﬁve cubits, and they are spaced so that their wing tips touch the walls on each side and each other in the middle. The inner wings form the throne seat for the invisible deity. Carved and gilded ﬁgures of cherubim are placed in the inner and outer rooms. The doorposts to the entrance of the nave are carved with cherubim, palm trees, and open ﬂowers, all of which are gilded. The Ark of the Covenant is placed beneath the wings of the two large cherubim.
According to 2 Chronicles 3:13–14, the Solomonic cherubim stand on their feet facing the nave, giving the impression that they are sphinxlike in form and are on their two back legs instead of on all fours; there is no throne formed by them.
In EZEKIEL 1:4–28, the cherubim as carriers of the throne God appear as living creatures having four faces and four wings. Ezekiel is by the river Chebar when he has a vision of a great cloud ﬂashing ﬁre, and a ﬁre gleaming like bronze in the middle. The four living creatures each have the faces of a man, an ox, a lion, and an eagle. They have four wings, two of which touch the other creatures and two of which cover the body. They stand on straight legs that end in calf’s feet. They are like burnished bronze. They have beside them four wheels with spokes that seem like wheels within wheels and gleam like chrysolite.
The creatures and wheels move in any direction simultaneously without turning, and with ﬂashes of lightning and sounds of thunder. Over their heads is a ﬁrmament shinning like crystal. Above that is a throne like sapphire bearing the likeness of a human form like gleaming bronze and enclosed by ﬁre: This is the glory of the Lord, who speaks to Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 10:1–22, Ezekiel sees the cherubim again on a journey to heaven, and he gives the same description of them. They seem to have human hands under their wings.
The cherubim appear before he is lifted up to the east gate of HEAVEN. Revelation 4:6–8 describes the four living creatures seen by Ezekiel, but with six wings instead of four. They are “full of eyes all around and within,” and they ceaselessly sing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is to come!” They are not named as cherubim, however, but only as “four living creatures.” In Hebrew lore, the cherubim are sometimes equated with the HAYYOTH. In the KABBALAH, the cherubim govern Yesod (Foundation), the ninth sephirah of the TREE OF LIFE, where they are under the rule of Gabriel.
In 3 ENOCH the cherubim are under the rule of Kerubiel, who beautiﬁes them and sings their praises. The cherubim stand beside the hayyoth with their wings raised up to the tops of their heads. The SHEKINAH rests upon their backs and illuminates their faces. Their hands are under their wings and their feet are covered by their wings; they have horns of glory upon their heads. They are surrounded by pillars of ﬁre and sapphire stones. They enfold each other in their wings and sing constantly songs of praise and glory to God.
In other lore, the cherubim are the voice of divine wisdom, possessing a deep insight into God’ secrets. They enlighten the lower levels of angels. They emanate holiness through the universe in order to ensure the success of universal truths. They personify the winds. The Testament of ADAM includes them in the hierarchy of angels, making them second in rank. They stand before God and reverence his throne, keep the seals, and sing the hourly “holy, holy, holy.” (See QEDUSSAH.)
Chiefs of the cherubim are Ophaniel, Rikbiel, Cherubiel, Raphael, Gabriel, Zophiel, and Satan before his fall. AGRIPPA says that the cherubim are associated with the earth element. They assist humans in the contemplation of the divine, by enabling “light of mind, power of wisdom, very high fantasies and ﬁgures.” According to the Koran, the tears Michael cries over the sins of the faithful form the cherubim. See ST. TERESA OF AVILA.
- van der Toorn, Karel, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, eds. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1999.
- Kaplan, Aryeh. Sepher Yetzirah: The Book of Creation. Rev. ed. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1997.
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