1902 Encyclopedia > Cherubim


CHERUBIM (plural of cherub) were " celestial genii,'' and, in M. de Saulcy's opinion, little else can be positively affirmed (Histoire de l'art judaique, p. 24). Fresh light has, however, recently been thrown upon them from the cuneiform inscriptions, and we are no longer reduced to admit that " le vaste champ des hypotheses restera toujours ouvert." According to the Old Testament, the cherub united the functions of bearer and guardian of deity; or rather, perhaps, there was a divergence in the popular beliefs on this subject. In Ps. xviii. 10, 2 Sam. xxii. 11 Yahweh (the so called Jehovah) is described as " riding upon a cherub," and in the parallel line as " swooping," the word applied in Deut. xxviii. 49 and elsewhere to the flight of the eagle. Putting the two phrases together, we may conclude that, according to one version of the myth— whether fully believed in or not by the Psalmist need not here be discussed—the cherub was either an eagle or a quadruped with eagle's wings. This result would seem to justify connecting the word with the Assyrian kurubu, a synonym of kuruklcu or karakku, the "circling" bird, i.e., according to Friedrich Delitzsch, the vulture. On the other hand, the prophet Ezekiel (xxviii. 13-16), though agreeing with the Psalmist in mentioning but one cherub, describes him as " walking in the midst of stones of fire " (i.e., thunderbolts), and as extending his wings over " the holy mountain of Elohim," in other words, as the attendant and guard rather than as the bearer of deity. And in the fuller account of Paradise in Genesis " the cherubim " (i.e., the entire band of cherubs) are stationed " with (or near) the blade of the turning sword" (this, like the " tree of life, " has a Babylonian analogue, and is a mythic phrase meaning the lightning,—see references below) " to guard the way to the tree of life" (Gen. iii. 24). Now, according to a talismanic inscription copied by Lenormant, kirubu is a synonym for the steer-god, whose winged image filled the place of guardian at the entrance of the Assyrian palaces. And in the fantastic description of Ezekiel penned by the Biver Chebar, one of the four faces of a cherub was that of an ox (Ezek. i. 10, after which the corrupt passage in x. 14, must, in spite of Lenormant, be corrected). We should, therefore, connect the word cherub primarily with the Assyrian kirubu, but also, as proposed above, with kurubu. The two forms seem to be co-ordinate and expressive of some quality common to the king of birds and the colossal steer. Their etymology is altogether uncertain, and possibly to be sought for (as Mr Sayce has suggested) outside the sphere of Semitism. Partial parallels to the cherubim in non-Semitic mythologies are not uncommon, but are mostly deceptive. The most complete one is that of the winged ypvires (a secondary form of kerubim), who not only watched over the treasures of the gods (cf. Herod, iv. 13, 116), but were also the bearers of deity, if at least Plutarch and Enstathius may be followed in identifying the Terpao-KcAr/s OKDVO? of iEsch. Prom. 395 with the griffin (see Hermann, ad loc.) Probably the griffin was imagined under more than one form. This was certainly the case with the Hebrew cherub, as appears not only from the passages referred to above, but from the inconsistencies of the single prophet Ezekiel (cf. i. 6, xli. 18). The significance of the mythical cherubim has been well pointed out by C. P. Tiele.' They are probably the masses of clouds, which seem to guard the portals of the sky, and on which the sun-god appears to issue forth at break of day. This will account for the expressions used of the cherubim both of the heavenly and of the earthly " habitation" of Yahweh, expressions taken up by the Biblical writers from the folklore of their times.

For the Assyrian authorities, see Schräder, Jenaer Litteratur-zeitung, 1874, p. 218; Delitzsch (the younger), Assyrische Studien, pp. 107, 108 ; and for the Babylonian lightning-myth, Lenormant, Berose, p. 138 ; Records of the Past, vol. iii. pp. 127-129. Compare also Herder, Werke, vol. xxxiii. (Geist der Ebraischen Poesie), pp. 168-180; Ewald, Antiquities of Israel, Eng. transl., p. 123; Kiehm, in Theologischc Studien und Kritiken, 1871; Tiele, Vergelijkende geschiedeuis der oude godsdiensten, vol. i. p. 366; and F. W, Farrar in Kitto's Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature, art. "Cherubim."' (T. K. C.)

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