Abstract or metaphysical thinking was alien to the world of the ancient Near East. Philosophy as we know it was introduced by the Greeks in an unprecedented flowering in the fifth century B.C.E. Although ancient man understood concepts like omnipotence and omniscience, he did not express them in philosophical terms. Instead, he did so concretely. Man’s earliest attempts to express abstract, metaphysical concepts took a physical form.
One such form, I believe, is the composite mythical creature known as the cherub. The cherub symbolized not only omnipotence and omniscience but, as we shall see, a kind of completeness that included all else.
We can understand this from the Bible, but obviously it helps enormously to have physical evidence. We will focus here on one superb example of a cherub from the collection of the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem that is being published here for the first time.
The Bible frequently refers to cherubim—to be distinguished from cherubs, those adorable chubby winged infants with rosy cheeks that fly around in Western art.a Cherubim, for example, guarded the garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were expelled: “To the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim” (Genesis 3:24).
In the desert Tabernacle, hammered golden cherubim faced each other on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18–22; 37:7–9). Cherubim were worked into the woven tapestry of the inner curtain and veil in front of the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple (Exodus 26:1, 31; 36:8, 35).
In the Jerusalem Temple, great olivewood cherubim overlaid with gold nearly filled the Holy of Holies:
He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house; the wings of the cherubim were spread out so that a wing of one was touching the one wall, and a wing of the other cherub was touching the other wall; 037their other wings toward the center of the house were touching wing to wing.
1 Kings 6:27
Underneath these cherubim was the Ark of the Covenant (1 Kings 8:6): “[T]he cherubim spread out their wings over the place of the ark, so that the cherubim made a covering above the ark and its poles” (1 Kings 8:7). Cherubim also decorated the walls and the doors separating the internal chambers of the Temple (1 Kings 6:29, 7:32, 35; see also 7:28, 36).b
In addition to being guardians, cherubim served as a throne or resting place for God’s invisible presence. The psalmist sang of “You who are enthroned on the cherubim” (Psalm 80:2). When King Hezekiah prayed, he addressed the “Lord of Hosts, enthroned on the cherubim” (2 Kings 19:15; Isaiah 37:16; see also 1 Samuel 4:4 and 2 Samuel 6:2).
Despite the more than 90 references to cherubim, the Bible does not give a very precise description of them. Clearly they have wings. But what else? The Biblical text seems to assume we would know. The most detailed description of cherubim is found in Ezekiel’s Vision of the Chariot. (Ezekiel 1; cf. Ezekiel 10). The prophet describes beings with four wheels and four faces—one a human face, the second a lion’s face, the third a bull’s face and the fourth an eagle’s face (Ezekiel 1:10). These creatures also had hands below their wings, and hooves (like a bull’s) instead of feet or claws or paws. We may assume that not all cherubim had exactly the same features; but Ezekiel clearly implies that they combined elements of humans, lions, bulls and eagles.
Later, each of these elements became a holy symbol in its own right; each was identified with one of the four Evangelists—the lion stood for Mark, the man for Matthew, the bull for Luke and the eagle for John. Together, they represented the completeness, as well as the omnipotence and omniscience, of the Gospels.
One mysterious characteristic of these composite creatures is described in Ezekiel 1:12: “Each could move in the direction of any of its faces; they went wherever the spirit impelled them to go, without turning when they moved.” Turning implies limitations on direction and presence; that they could move in any direction without turning implies the omnipresence of the Almighty.
In short, the cherubim, having four of God’s attributes, stand for omnipotence and omniscience. They had the strength of the lion, king of beasts; the swiftness and soaring ability of the eagle; the procreative power of the bull; and the wisdom and reason of man. Without the abstract tools of philosophical theory, ancient man expressed concepts like omnipotence and omniscience, as well as the Divine Presence, in concrete forms and symbols. One of these was the cherub, combining strength, procreative power, swiftness and wisdom.
Ancient man expressed himself not only in words, as in the Biblical text, but also in works of art, a surprising number of which have survived, including cherubim. They do not all have the same characteristics, but their intent is often the same—to express something that transcends human limitations.
One of the most beautiful of these ancient works of art is in our collection at the Bible Lands Museum—an extremely rare and exquisite ivory carved in openwork technique; that is, in places the ivory is cut all the way through. This artifact is about 5.5 inches high and slightly less than 4 inches wide. It is a new addition to our collection; it dates, as I will argue, to the ninth century B.C.E. and probably comes from Arslan Tash, near the Syria-Turkish border. The figure represents, I believe, what the Bible calls a cherub.
Clearly, it is a composite figure posed in a garden of palms, which are partially visible between the figure’s head and wing; this calls to mind the verse from Ezekiel where the prophet describes his visionary Temple as having cherubim and palm trees carved on the wall (Ezekiel 41:20).
Our ivory effectively combines the four elements mentioned above—a human face, the wings of an eagle, the forepart of a lion and the hind-part of an ox, although most of the hind legs are missing.
The human face—male or female?—in typically Egyptian profile wears an Egyptian wig and the double crown of upper and lower Egypt. The crown is somewhat squat.
The face itself is exquisite. Many faces on surviving cherubim are less than attractive, sometimes even grotesque. But this one is beautifully proportioned, with high cheekbones, full lips, a strong, aquiline nose and deep, almond-shaped eyes—all characteristically Egyptian, but with superb artistry. A long, curved eyebrow adds grace to the visage.
The eagle wings are fully outstretched. A skirt drapes over the front legs. We are aided in identifying the body by the lion’s paws as well as the strength of the figure’s forequarters.
Although the cherub’s hind legs are mostly missing, the bottom parts of the legs are partially visible. They end in paws, rather than hooves, but I believe the artist intended to portray the hindquarter of a bull, rather than a lion. Despite the missing parts, there are telltale signs:
A bull’s tail rises slightly and then drops down. A lion’s tail, on the other hand, rises straight up and then curls in toward the body. Above the rump of this creature is a curved fragment of ivory with a small knob at its end. This knob is thicker than the curved fragment and its surface is incised with thin horizontal lines. The half ball thus resembles the end of a flower, perhaps a lotus, that protruded from a plant behind the creature.c There would thus appear to be no room for a lion’s tail above the rump. Moreover, a close examination of the top of the rump reveals not a trace of any attachment; a lion’s tail, if it once existed, would have touched the top of the rump at some point. So we may conclude that there never was a lion’s tail on this creature. On the other hand, there would be space for a slightly rising tail that then fell straight down, as does a bull’s tail.
We are also helped in identifying the hindquarters of the ivory figure by comparison with another extraordinary object from the Bible Lands Museum collection—a bronze stand from the 12th century B.C.E. Only parts of two sides of this openwork stand have survived. Originally four-sided as described in the Bible (1 Kings 7:27), the stand would have supported a basin for ablutions in the Temple. The basin would have been placed on the top of the stand (1 Kings 7:38). The similarities of our stand 040to the ten “stands of bronze” described in the Bible, which were supplied by the Phoenician artisan Hiram of Tyre (not to be confused with the king Hiram of Tyre) for Solomon’s Temple, are astounding. The four wheels on which the stand moved, the stand’s rectangular shape, and even the division of decorative elements into two main registers with decorative touches above and below—all reflect the Biblical text: “Upon the ledges there was a base above; and beneath the lions and oxen were certain additions made of thin work” (1 Kings 7:29). This bronze stand is said to have come from Cyprus. The extremely slender figures wearing long robes may reflect Cypriot influence—or Phoenician craftsmanship. Although our stand is two centuries older than Solomon’s Temple, I would venture to say that the same workshop that made our stand may well have sent craftsmen to Jerusalem to make the stands for the Jerusalem Temple.
Of special interest is the openwork winged figure in one side of the stand. Here, too, all four legs end in lion’s paws, but the hindquarters are 041clearly those of a bull. Based on iconography (independent of the Biblical description), the tail of the composite creature sculpted in the bronze stand is that of a bull, not a lion; the tail rises and then falls straight down, like a bull’s tail. The bronze figure thus combines the same four elements—man, eagle, lion and bull—as the ivory cherub, although its aesthetic qualities are far inferior to the extraordinarily delicate features of the ivory.
This ivory plaque can be dated to about the late ninth century B.C.E. The Phoenician style, incorporating Egyptian elements, is well known. Although the provenance of the piece is uncertain, I strongly suspect it was once part of the famous ivory hoard excavated by a French expedition in 1928 at the site of Arslan Tash, about 20 miles east of the upper Euphrates in modern-day Syria. The Arslan Tash ivories were inlaid in the wooden frames of beds (cf. Amos 6:4). I once owned many of the Arslan Tash ivories, so I am intimately familiar with them. (see the sidebar “An Iconographic History: Symbols of Royalty and Divinity”) There is no doubt in my mind that our ivory plaque comes from this same group.
If so, it may once have adorned the palace of Hazael, king of Aram-Damascus (848–805 B.C.E.), who was anointed king by the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:15). Among the ivories from Arslan Tash was a piece of ivory veneer bearing the name Hazael. Arslan Tash is the ancient site of Hadatu. Apparently the Assyrians conquered Hazael’s capital and brought these ivories to Hadatu as the spoils of war. Now this beautiful cherub is one of the pearls of the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.
Abstract or metaphysical thinking was alien to the world of the ancient Near East. Philosophy as we know it was introduced by the Greeks in an unprecedented flowering in the fifth century B.C.E. Although ancient man understood concepts like omnipotence and omniscience, he did not express them in philosophical terms. Instead, he did so concretely. Man’s earliest attempts to express abstract, metaphysical concepts took a physical form. One such form, I believe, is the composite mythical creature known as the cherub. The cherub symbolized not only omnipotence and omniscience but, as we shall see, a kind of completeness that […]