Who are the Cherubim in the Bible?
In Jewish, Christian, and Islamic tradition, a Cherub (plural Cherubim) is a divine winged entity with human, animal, or birdlike features who serves as God’s throne bearer. The accounts of the Cherubim in the Hebrew Bible highlight their superhuman mobility and cultic position as God’s throne bearers, rather than their intercessory activities. The Cherubim are one of the higher classes of angels in Christianity, and as celestial attendants of God, they constantly glorify him. The Cherub is pictured as having two pairs of wings and four faces in the Book of Ezekiel and (at least some) Christian artworks. Their legs were straight, their feet glistening like polished brass, the soles of their feet like the hooves of a bull.
Sometimes considered to be the highest form of the angelic beings, the Cherubim are occasionally scattered throughout scripture and appear to take on a varied set of roles.
The Cherubim, or in their singular form ‘Cherub’, were the angelic servants of God, those who performed divine duties upon the earth and set about to ensure his will was being carried out. But primarily, their occupation far preceded the antics of man, where they were initially thought to have been created by God to guard the gates of Eden.
We’ve all likely seen the Cherubim from western Christian artwork where they appear to be small, plump boys with wings—sometimes even babies—that hover around the clouds looking innocent.
It’s likely that this was inspired by the putto—a figure in classical artwork depicted by a chubby child and that the use of a child in this instance, in accordance with the Cherubim, was to exemplify their purity and innocence.
The putter would also become closely associated with that of the Roman and Greek god Cupid or Eros, and so, it is not uncommon for the Cherubim to be confused with these mythological deities. But this stout and chunky form of the Cherub would not be its only representation—for we would come across as far more intimidating in the descriptions from the Hebraic prophet Ezekiel.
What the Cherubim Looks Like
In the bible, Ezekiel is seen to have noticed the Cherubim transporting the throne of God across the Kebar River in Ezekiel 1:5–11 titled ‘Ezekiel’s Inaugural Vision’, where the beings are described as having the likeness of man but with the addition of four heads: that of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. We are told,
‘I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light.
The centre of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures.
In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze.
Under their wings on their four sides, they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings, and the wings of one touched the wings of another.
Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved.’
Here, we get a pretty good description of what these beings look like: that they had four wings; they were human in form, and that they had four faces made up of animals. We also see here that some of their limbs appear to be like those of animals, notably, their feet, which belong to those of a Calf.
It is understood that the four faces are representations of the four domains of God’s rule: Man, which stands for humanity; the Lion, for wild animals; the Ox, for the domesticated animals; the Eagle, for the birds.
It’s also interesting to note that they moved like flashes of light, implying that they were swift and were likely far beyond the power of a regular human man. Interestingly, Ezekiel does not refer to them as Cherubim in this part of the bible, but confirms their identity in chapter 10, telling us,
‘I looked, and I saw beside the cherubim four wheels, one beside each of the cherubim; the wheels sparkled like topaz.
As for their appearance, the four of them looked alike; each was like a wheel intersecting a wheel.
As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the cherubim faced; the wheels did not turn about as the cherubim went. The cherubim went in whatever direction the head faced, without turning as they went.
Their entire bodies, including their backs, their hands, and their wings, were completely full of eyes, as were their four wheels.
I heard the wheels being called “the whirling wheels.”
Each of the cherubim had four faces: One face was that of a cherub, the second the face of a human being, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.
Then the cherubim rose upward. These were the living creatures I had seen by the Kebar River.’ — Ezekiel 10:9–15
Now, you might have noticed that his description of them slightly changes from his account in chapter 1. You’ll notice here that the face of the Ox is replaced by the face of a Cherub. Though, the reasoning for this is ambiguous.
There is also an implication here that the Cherub face looks strikingly different from that of the human face. Though, Ezekiel does not go on to explain what these differences were.
Furthermore, another difference that’s quite profound in this chapter is that the entire Cherub is covered with eyes and is either centred within or around a set of whirling wheels, that which is also covered with eyes. The wheels themselves are quite an interesting feature, for they are otherwise referred to as the ophanim in Hebraic and are sometimes thought to be the wheels of a chariot used by God.
The above/side East Orthodox art piece from the 5th or 6th century depicts Ezekiel’s vision and is referred to unofficially as the ‘Tetramorph Cherub’. In this mosaic and other pieces of Christian art, the tetramorph shows us a being with wings and the four animals as described in Ezekiel 1:4–8.
It is also believed that each of these four components represents the four evangelists with Matthew being the man, Mark being the Lion, Luke being the Ox, and John the Eagle.
The mosaic is also thought to be an amalgamation of the Seraphim that Isaiah sees in Isaiah’s Commission or the six-winged creatures found in Revelations where John sees what might have been another set of Cherubim in chapter 4.
Often in Christian mythos, the Cherubim are thought to be second to the Seraphim in the angelic hierarchy and whilst details can differ between the two classes depending on the source, the key distinction between them appears to be their closeness to God and their form, with the Seraphim appearing with up to six wings.
Yet again, even these details can be altered depending on the author where one can expect to find even the mechanics of their wings to be a point of contention. Whilst Ezekiel’s account of the Cherubim appears to be one of the most vivid, we are still left in the dark as to who the Cherubim are and what exactly their role is, other than to serve God.
The Roles of the Cherubim — The Gates of Eden
Whilst Ezekiel’s account of the Cherubim appears to be one of the most vivid, we are still left in the dark as to who the Cherubim are and what exactly their role is, other than to serve God. We see them carrying his throne across the Kebar River and we see their presence amongst the whirling wheels in Ezekiel’s vision.
But beyond this, Ezekiel does not tell us what purpose they serve in the grander scheme of things. Some ideas propose that the Cherubim are merely just another set of angels or celestial beings, like the Seraphim or that they are physical representations of God’s judgment.
This likely stems from the account in Genesis 3, after God has banished Adam from the garden. We are told,
‘So, the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden, to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and the flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.’
Here, the role of the Cherubim is to primarily guard the Gates of Eden and to prevent man from getting back in.
After Adam had taken the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, his natural progression would have been to take the fruit from the tree of life and to gain immortality. But after having betrayed God by falling for the serpent’s words, God deemed a man unworthy of immortality, and so, denied him from ever supping from the tree.
Taking no chances, we even see him here give the Cherubim, as if they weren’t strong enough already, a flaming sword to fend off man should he dare find his way back to Eden.
Yet, another idea regarding the Cherubim also relates to the fall of man, in that they are considered by some to be a symbolic representation of redeemed humanity—or humanity who had never sinned.
The Cherubim by this idea are perfect in appearance, eternally youthful, powerful and the closest to God. By this, they serve as a reminder of what could have been had Adam and Eve not given in to their temptations and remind believers that they should strive to be better.
There’s also hope in this idea, in that should one be righteous and not make the same mistakes as Adam and Eve, they might yet achieve the Cherubim status and become closer to God.
There is also an idea that the Cherubim are a symbol of God’s mercy, as in Exodus 25, we see God make a covenant with the children of Israel, as he sets out instructions for the construction of the ark—that which was a golden chest which contained the tablets of the covenant.
He tells them,
‘Make an atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover.
Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends.
The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them.
The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you.
There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.’
As you can see, God’s instructions state that two cherubs are to be fashioned out of gold and placed on the cover of the ark. This is otherwise referred to as ‘the Mercy Seat’, a term which has Hebraic meaning to cover, appease, cleanse, or make atonement for.
It was believed that once a year, a high priest would sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed animal onto the Mercy Seat to atone for his sins and the sins of the Israelites to appease God’s anger.
It was also believed that the presence of the ark was the only place where forgiveness from God could be truly achieved. With that, the inclusion of the Cherubim atop the Mercy Seat certainly makes them seem like advocates for God’s mercy and figures that represent god’s compassion towards mankind.
God also tells the Israelites that, ‘…there above the cover between the two Cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.’ By this, it might be said that the Cherubim are something of a bridge towards God or perhaps as close as one can ever get on the mortal realm.
By promising the Israelites that he will meet them there before the Cherubim, the Cherubim automatically become halo tokens or characters—those who are still held today in high regard—as they signpost the way to God.
Other Appearances of the Cherubim in the Bible
It isn’t the first time that God instructs something to be built with the inclusion of Cherub symbolism, for when it comes to building the tabernacle in Exodus 26—otherwise known as the tent of the congregation—God instructs the Israelites to fill the tent with ten curtains. He says,
‘Make the tabernacle with ten curtains of finely twisted linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, with Cherubim woven into them by a skilled worker.’
By including the Cherubim upon the curtains of the tabernacle, they serve as a constant reminder of how important they are to God, and perhaps like in the aforementioned example with the fall of man, they serve to remind men of what they could have been and what they still might be in terms of their closeness to God.
You’ll notice that it requires a skilled worker to complete this task, and not just anyone, suggesting—yet again—the importance of these winged creatures.
As if that wasn’t enough, we later understand in the First Book of Kings that the ark was placed inside Solomon’s temple, which furthermore cemented them as paramount figures and that Solomon built two large Cherubim statues that were made from olive wood.
We also see the Cherubim described in more practical use for the Lord, in that he uses them to fly. In a song of praise by David, we are told, ‘He mounted the Cherubim and flew. He sawed on the wings of the wind.’—through this, it might be said that the Cherubim maintain yet another role, and that is to serve in transporting God from heaven to earth.
Cherubim in the Jewish Traditions
Meanwhile, in Jewish beliefs, the Cherubim also have some paramount importance despite being the ninth rank in the angelic hierarchy, according to various editions of the Torah.
In some kabbalistic works, however, the Cherubim are considered to be amongst the Seraphim in authority and appear to rank much higher.
Rabbinical literature also points to there being a total of two Cherubim, one who is a girl and one who is a boy, and that the two take the seat of either end of the Mercy Seat.
Of course, within Judaism, there is a wider range of beliefs when it comes to the role and nature of angels and there is much debate within communities as to how biblical passages that speak of angels should be interpreted. The Cherubim are no exception, with some beliefs painting them as more metaphoric or even illusionary figures to others interpreting them as mystical entities.
In the various midrash, the Cherubim are sometimes two-fold and are often seen as aforementioned, guarding the gates at the entrance to paradise. However, their physical appearance is often debated with some believing they are more human or others believing they take a more ambiguous form.
According to Titus Flavius Josephus however, a first-century Roman Jewish historian, he states in his book Antiquities of the Jews that no one can tell or even conjecture what the shape was of these Cherubim.
Another Jewish belief is that the Cherubim exists not as Gods for paradise but instead something of a divine courier, who acquires information from the spirit of a person. It is believed that the spirit reveals to the Cherub every good and bad thing that a person has done, which the Cherub then takes to the Seraph who will bring it before God for judgment.
Cherubim in the Islamic Traditions
Meanwhile, in some Islamic beliefs, the Cherubim are the closest of all the angels to God and can sometimes be seen as sevenfold, much like the archangels. These angels are often thought to be found floating around the throne of God, where they constantly shower him with praise, often with the phrase ‘Glory to Allah.’
There’s also an idea according to some Islamic exegesis that the Cherubim shines so brightly that no one can see what they look like.
With these, it’s evident then that the Cherubim are unanimous amongst all three of the major faiths, and whilst there are some differences, they all appear to subscribe to the same idea—that they are very close to God; that they are exemplary figures, and that they are by far superior, perhaps, far beyond our comprehension.
Art Sources: Iro Pagis, jw.org, Douglas Deri.