Raanan Eichler, «Cherub: A History of Interpretation», Vol. 96 (2015) 26-38
The cherub is a type of creature mentioned some 90 times in the Hebrew Bible, where it is portrayed as a predominant motif in Israelite iconography. This paper surveys the attempts to determine the form of the cherub, in both textual and iconographic sources, from the fourth century to the twentyfirst. The cherub has been interpreted as a winged human (child or adult), a bird, a winged bovine, a griffin, a winged sphinx, and a composite creature in general. The last two identifications, which prevail in contemporary scholarship, are rejected, and a path to a correct identification is proposed.
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32 RAANAN EICHLER
Eleazar Sukenik, the excavator of the mosaic, acknowledged that
“[t]he self-evident explanation of this detail is that they symbolize
the cherubim in the Tabernacle and the Temple”, but he neverthe-
less argued against such an explanation. More recently, Elisabeth
Revel-Neher writes that the bird theme is to be compared with the
tabernacle cherubim, whether those of the ark or of the veil (Exod
26,31 = 36,35) 18.
In the modern era, François Lenormant expressed the same idea re-
garding the tabernacle ark cherubim, writing that they were probably
birds fashioned in the Egyptian artistic style. In support of this identi-
fication he noted that kurūbu is the name of a large species of bird of
prey in Akkadian 19; that in Egyptian monuments gods and naoi are
represented between the forward-stretching wings of birds (as the kap-
poreth, i.e. the lid of the ark, is sheltered by the cherubim’s wings:
Exod 25,20 = 37,9); and that the description of the tabernacle in Exo-
dus is characterized by efforts to avoid the danger of idolatry, a purpose
for which, he argued, simple animal figures would be more suited 20.
An intermediate position between this view and the preceding one
was taken by Abraham b. Moses Maimonides (1186-1237), who sug-
gested that the ark cherubim in the tabernacle had human heads and
faces and avian wings, bodies and feet. He admitted the speculative
nature of the suggestion and adduced no arguments in its favor 21.
IV. Winged Bovine
Samuel b. Meir’s student Joseph Bekhor Shor (second half of
the twelfth century), along with Isaac of Vienna and other tosafists,
proffered the view that typical cherubim are “angels in the image
of oxen” 22. They argued that Aramaic brk means “to plow” (after
SUKENIK, Synagogue, 22-26; REVEL-NEHER, Arche, 128-129, fig. 53.
Cf. GOODENOUGH, Method, 134.
Citing F. DELITZSCH, Assyrische Studien (Leipzig 1874) 107-108. See
also the entry in CAD.
F. LENORMANT, The Beginnings of History. According to the Bible and
the Traditions of Oriental Peoples (New York 1882) 135-136.
S.D. SASSOON (ed.), Commentary of Rabbenu Abraham ben HaRambam
on Genesis and Exodus (London 1959) [Arabic/Hebrew] 390-392.
J. GELLIS (ed.), Sefer Tosafot hashalem. Commentary on the Bible
(Jerusalem 1993) [Hebrew] I, 148.