What Were the Cherubim?
By W. F. Albright
Today we think of a cherub as a tiny winged boy, following the tradition of Renaissance artists. This conception was directly borrowed from pictures of Graeco-Roman “loves” or Erotes, familiar to us from the excavations of Pompeii. The actual appearance of the cherubim of the Old Testament was already forgotten before the time of Christ, and Josephus (first century A.D.) says that “no one can tell what they were like.”
Since the veil of the Tabernacle was decorated with embroidered cherubim, and the walls and the religious objects of Solomon’s temple lavishly adorned with them. we ought to be able to identify them in contemporary Syro-Palestinian art. The account of the Ark of the Covenant shows that only a creature with wings can be considered. If, therefore, we study all known representations of animals and hybrid creatures, partly animal, we find one which is much more common than any other winged creature, so much so that its identification with the cherub is certain: that is the winged sphinx or winged lion with human head. In Egypt the wingless sphinx and the griffin appear; in Babylonia and Assyria the winged bull with a human head prevails; but in Syria and Palestine it is the winged sphinx which is dominant in art and religious symbolism.
The God of Israel was often designated as “He who sitteth (on) the cherubim” (I Sam. 4:4, etc.). The conception underlying this designation is well illustrated by representations of a king seated on a throne supported on each side by cherubim, which have been found at Byblus [Byblos], Hamath, and Megiddo, all dating between 1200 and 800 B.C. One shows King Hiram of Byblus (period of the Judges) seated upon his cherub throne. Pottery incense altars found at Taanach and Megiddo are archaeological parallels to the wheeled lavers (“bases”) of Solomon’s temple, which were decorated with lions and cherubs, according to I Kings 7:36.
The primary function of the cherub in Israelite religious symbolism is illustrated by two biblical passages. A very ancient hymn, found twice in the Bible, has the words, “And He rode upon a cherub and did fly” (I Sam. 22:11 [2 Sam. 22:11], Ps. 18:11 [English, Ps. 18:10]); the second is Ezek. 10:20. The conception of the deity as standing or as enthroned on an animal or hybrid creature was exceedingly common in the ancient Near East, but it was most common in Syria and Northern Mesopotamia between 2000 and 700 B.C. In Babylonia the figure of a deity is replaced in certain cases by a winged shrine and later by a thunderbolt. So in Israelite symbolism between 1300 and 900 B.C., the invisible Glory (Jehovah) was conceived as enthroned upon the golden cherubim or standing on a golden bull.
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This article was published in The Biblical Archaeologist, Feb., 1938, and is included in the Biblical Archaeologist Reader I: 95-97. A few corrections and notes have been added in brackets.
The drawing by A.H. Detweiler shows King Hiram of Byblus [Byblos] seated on his cherub-throne, tenth century B.C.
I plan to follow this article with some photographs to help illustrate the subject.