Hebrew singular and plural for hybrid supernatural creatures associated with the presence of God, and in postbiblical tradition identified as one of the choirs of angels. Among the nearly one hundred occurrences of the word in the Bible, the usual image is that of a huge eagle‐winged, human‐faced bull‐lion, iconographic features familiar in Assyrian and Canaanite sources. Four interrelated roles for the cherubim can be identified.
Guardians of Paradise.
As guardians of the entrance to Eden (Gen 3.24; Ezek. 28.14–16) they are the functional counterparts of the colossal, human‐faced winged bulls used in Mesopotamian architecture to guard the entrance to temples and palaces.
Protective Bearers of God's Throne.
In descriptions of the ark, a three‐dimensional cherub stands at either side with wings protectively outstretched over its cover (e.g., Exod. 25.18–20). Before the Temple was built, when the ark was still a portable shrine and housed in the tent of meeting (See Tabernacle), the Lord spoke to Moses “from between the two cherubim” (Exod. 25.22; Num. 7.89), where he was understood to sit invisibly enthroned (1 Sam 4.4; 2 Sam 6.2; Isa. 37.16; Pss. 80.1; 99.1). Portable shrines similar to Israel's ark are known from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Arabia, and some also feature cherubim as a decorative motif. In Solomon's Temple the ark became a permanent fixture (1 Kings 8.4–8), and the size of the cherubim increased dramatically (1 Kings 6.23–28). Notable Canaanite parallels are the Megiddo ivory reliefs (ca. 1200 BCE) and the Ahiram sarcophagus from Phoenicia (ca. 1000), both of which depict winged cherubim supporting the throne of the local king.
The walls and doors of the Temple were carved with cherubim and palm trees (1 Kings 6.29–35). In many ways the art and symbolism of the Temple replicated the garden of Eden, where the cherubim guarded the tree of life, widely depicted as the date palm.
Means of Yahweh's Mobility.
In the theophanic visions of Ezekiel 1 and 10, the cherubim become the power by which God's chariot‐throne is able to fly. In 2 Samuel 22.11 (= Ps. 18.10) the Lord is said to ride on a cherub, equated in poetic parallelism with flying on the wings of the wind.
The etymology of the Hebrew word kĕrûb is uncertain, but some connection with Akkadian kāribu, the intercessor guardian creature, seems probable. The cherubim of the Bible have no relationship with the winged infants or putti often featured in Renaissance art.
David G. Burke