The Pre-Biblical Origins of

(And The Mercy Seat Atop the Ark of the Covenant) 10 Nov. 2001

Not generally known to the public at large is that Cherubim have been determined not to be angels with human forms and wings. Nor is the public aware of the pre-biblical origins of Cherubim. This brief article attempts to address these issues.

Many today envision Cherubs to be naked little children with halos and wings, frequently seen on Valentine's Day cards. These representations arose in Renaissance times, and are based on still earlier representations found in Roman art forms.

The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, writing during the 1st century CE, stated that in his day no one knew what a Cherub looked like. This is a remarkable statement on his part, he claimed to be of a priestly lineage, well-educated in Jewish Torah and traditions, and if anybody would have known what a Cherub would look like, it ought to have been Josephus !

Josephus on the cherubim-

"He also dedicated for the most secret place, whose breadth was twenty cubits, and length the same, two cherubims of solid gold...but nobody can tell, or even conjecture, what was the shape of these cherubims." (Antiquities 8.3.3. William Whiston, translator. The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus. New York. Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Ca. 1970)

This is a most remarkable admission on Josephus' part in light of Ezekiel's very detailed description of a Cherub (Ez 1:1-25). Josephus makes mention of Ezekiel (Antiquities 10.5.1), so he should have been aware of Ezekiel's description of the Cherubim, yet he avers that no one knows their shape or form ! Ezekiel portrayed the Cherub as having a human-like body, with four arms, hands, and legs, but with some remarkable non-human features- that is, the head had four faces, a calf, an eagle, a lion and a human. It possessed two legs whose feet were cloven like a bull's. It had four wings and was accompanied by a spinning wheel capable of flight. Four Cherubim, each with its wheel were under a firmanent supporting the throne of God and evidently provided locomotion for the throne.

I have been unsuccessful in finding "an exact" representation of Ezekiel's Cherubim in any Ancient Near Eastern art form, be it a painting, statue, seal, jewelry or bas-relief. There are however some forms that can be said to "somewhat" reflect Ezekiel's imagery. Mesopotamian art knows of gods or genii with human forms, with four wings, multiheaded, and with cloven bull's feet. Evidently Ezekiel's vision of the Cherubim is unique to him.

The Renaissance Italian artist, Masaccio (ca. 1424-26) rendered a flying Cherub in human form with two wings and bearing a sword, driving a naked Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden in a wall mural on one of Florence's churches.

In the 19th century CE it was quite common for artists to render the Mercy Seat atop of the Ark of the Covenant as consisting of two angels with human features, bowing towards each other with extended wings, God being envisioned by the artists as seated above the wings of his angels. One can still see this artistic rendering today in many books on the Bible.

A related spin-off to the 19th century artist renderings of the Mercy Seat on the Ark of the Covenant, is that of some 20th century artists, who have transformed the two bowing angels into two Egyptian goddesses or genii, who in a kneeling position, extend their wings toward each other; God being envisioned as sitting within the coverlet of their extended wings. This is no doubt influenced by representations of Pharaoh, "a Living God," who is sometimes portrayed as embraced by the covering wings of said goddesses/genii.

Contrary to all of the above representations of Cherubim is modern Secular Humanist scholarship's understanding that these beings are not human-like angels or Egyptian genii at all, but four-legged beasts.

Archaeologists have unearthed objects in Phoenicia and Canaan from the period of the Late Bronze Age (1540-1200 BCE) showing kings and rulers seated on thrones whose side arms consist of winged four-legged beasts, possessing a lion's body and a human head. They are known in Egyptian art as Sphinxes. Today's scholars thus understand that the Mercy Seat was a winged Sphinx throne modeled after Late Bronze Age thrones found in Phoenicia and Canaan.

The Bible noted that the Cherubim's wings were "extended," and this is a feature of the Late Bronze Age thrones. The winged sphinxes' wings extend to become side arms, so that the god seated on the throne, can be said to be enveloped by the Cherubim's wings- perhaps this feature explains the statement made of the King of Tyre in Phoenica, and the allusion to a "covering Cherub" ? Phoenician Cherubim thrones exist in stone as bas-reliefs and as three-dimensional thrones as late as the 3rd century BCE. Phoenician art portrays gods and goddesses seated in these thrones in bas-reliefs, seals, and three-dimensional forms.

The origins of the winged Sphinx has been identified as Egypt, and the period of the 4th Dynasty. The most famous sphinx is that of Giza, which guards the pyramids. Egyptian, Phoenician and Canaanite art rendered sphinxes/cherubim in male and female forms. Males bore a beard, females were beardless and at times with a row of breasts on the underside of their body (like a female lion). The Egyptians almost always rendered "winged" Sphinxes as having their wings lying flat against the back, whereas the Phoenician and Canaanite versions have the wings extended and fully open.

For the Late Bronze Age period we have representations of Pharaohs on winged sphinx thrones. These creatures tended to represent "The Living God" -Pharaoh- annihilating Egypt's enemies, trampling upon fallen warriors in battle scenes made in bas-relief. I note that Israel carried the Ark of the Covenant into battle as a palladium to insure victory against the Philistines. On other occasions the winged sphinxes are shown in a three-dimensional form, striding at the side of Pharaoh's throne, some times with a striding three-dimensional lion below them.

I suspect with other scholars that the winged sphinx thrones of "the Living God" (Pharaoh) were introduced to Phoenicia, Canaan and Syria via Egypt's having made this area part of her Asiatic Empire under the New Kingdom (ca. 1560-1140 BCE). Perhaps the Phoenicians took the lead in transforming the Egyptian winged sphinx thrones into cherubim thrones by portraying the wings as extended rather than flat against the back (the Bible appears to be quite emphatic on this point, that the wings of the cherubim are "extended").

The Bible describes the Mercy Seat atop the Ark of the Covenant as possessing two cherubs who "face each other" with their wings extended. This statement has led to some confusion in modern artistic attempts to render the Mercy Seat. I recall one rendering that had two winged sphinxes facing each other. This of course appears to contradict the biblical description of the cherubim as being the sides of the seat. This rendering has God envisioned as hovering in the space between the two winged sphinxes.

My investigations into winged sphinx thrones of the Phoenicians and Canaanites has failed to find an example of the faces of the sphinxes "facing each other" as described in the Bible. Yet, in Ancient Near Eastern art forms, winged sphinxes with wings extended are frequently encountered with their heads "turned to one side", instead of looking straight ahead. In my rendering of God's Mercy Seat atop the Ark of the Covenant, I have employed this observation of heads turned to one side and have attempted to reconcile Holy Writ's description with the archaeological evidence.

We learn from the Bible that with the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE and the destruction of the Temple, that the last notice is made of the Ark of the Covenant. We are informed that the Babylonians took all the treasure with them. The Ark was not among the items returned to the Jews upon their return by Cyrus ca. 538 BCE. Evidently it was never remade and with the passage of time, the forms of the Cherubim came to be forgotten.

What is most distressing is Ezekiel's description of the Cherubim- it is not supported by the archaeological evidence of the winged sphinx thrones of the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. Being a prophet, he should have known the true form of these creatures. I have posited elsewhere that Ezekiel may possess redactions as late as 164 BCE or even 80 CE (he knows Daniel which is dated ca. 164 BCE), and that the description of the Cherubim is of these later periods, written up for an audience curious to know what a cherub looked like- as noted by Josephus who said no one knew their form in his days.

In the Garden of Eden story Cherubim are described as guarding or barring the way to the the Tree of Life. Two winged sphinxes appear frequently in Phoenician art forms in association with a sacred tree, flanking either side of it. They also appear in Assyrian art forms with a sacred tree- in one case a winged sphinx attacks a sword-wielding winged genii approaching the tree. A bas-relief from South Arabia, the Yemen, where some Jewish traditions place the Garden of Eden, shows two winged sphinxes flanking the sacred tree with palm-trees in the background (Palm-trees and Cherubim being portrayed in the Temple of Solomon).

The word Cherub is believed to be derived from karibu, meaning "intercessor" in Mesopotamian texts, who is commonly portrayed in art as a sphinx, griffin, or winged human creature (Vol.1, p.131, "Cherubim and Seraphim" T. H. Gaster. IDB. 1962)

2 Samuel 22:11 and Psalm 18:10 portray God riding upon a cherub, and an allusion is made that the Cherub's moving wings are the source of the earth's winds.

God is described as riding upon a Cherub (2 Samuel 22:11 RSV) :

"He flew on the back of a Cherub; he swooped down on the wings of the wind."

The ancients understood that wind was caused by the beating wings of mythical beasts. In a Mesopotamian myth Adapa uttered a curse breaking the wing of the South Wind, stopping sea breezes reaching Lower Mesopotamia (from the Persian Gulf).

A cylinder seal ca. 8/7th century BCE shows gods or genii riding upon the backs of Cherubim who in turn are associated with a Sacred Tree.

King David drew up plans for a golden chariot to be drawn by the Cherubim for the Temple of Solomon (1 Chron 28:18). Such a motif appears in Phoenician art of the 8th century BCE.

Ancient Near Eastern art forms do not show gods or goddesses riding on mythical beasts as a rider would be astride a horse's back. Instead they are either in a throne which is borne by a striding beast, or they stand upon the striding beast's back. So Yahweh-Elohim probably was envisioned as either sitting in a throne which was upon the back of a winged sphinx or else he was standing upon a winged sphinx's back.

Bibliography :

Heinz Demisch. Die Sphinx, Geschichte ihrer Darstellung von den Anfangen bis zur Gegenwart. Stuttgart. Verlag Urachhaus Johannes M. Mayer. 1977 (ISBN 3-8738-219-7). In my opinion this is the finest book on the origins of the Sphinx and the many ways it was represented in art in the Ancient Near East as well as the Greek and Roman eras. Also covered are artistic representations of later periods, Renaissance through the 20th century CE.

"Cherubim," Carol Meyers. Vol. 1 pp.899-900. David Noel Freedman. Editor. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York. Doubleday. 1992. 6 Vols.

"3. Cherubim and Seraphim," under "Angel." Vol. 1, pp.131-132. T. H. Gaster. George A. Buttrick. Editor. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville. Abingdon Press. 1962. ISBN 0-687-19270-6. 4 Vols plus supplement.