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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CHERUB: A HISTORY OF INTERPRETATION 33
b. B. Bat. 12a), a characteristic activity of oxen 23. They further
argued that “the face of an ox” in Ezek 10,14 takes the place of
“the face of a cherub” in the parallel Ezek 1,10, indicating that
the two have identical appearances. They understood the cheru-
bim placed by the Garden of Eden after the expulsion of the pri-
mordial humans (Gen 3,24), with their capacity to plow, as
replacing the human’s intended function of tilling and tending the
Garden (Gen 2,15).
Later scholars promoted similar views. Perhaps most notable of
these was the seventeenth-century Protestant polymath Hugo
Grotius, who defined the cherubim as “calf-like angels” memori-
alizing Joseph (who is elliptically equated with an ox in Gen 49,6)
and repeated the tosafists’ argument concerning Ezek 1,10 and
10,14 24. Grotius was mentioned in Charles Taylor’s edition of Cal-
met’s biblical dictionary, along with fellow seventeenth-century
scholars Samuel Bochart and John Spencer, who “think they were
nearly the figure of an ox” 25. Bochart introduced the idea that the
cherubim are essentially similar to the golden calves of Aaron and
Jeroboam opposed in the Bible 26.
Taylor himself envisaged the cherub as a winged bull with a
human upper body. Unlike those before him, he adduced material
evidence to support his view: the human-headed winged bull colossi
of Persepolis 27, which were known to him from a drawing and de-
scription by Dutch traveler Cornelis de Bruyn 28. Later, the publicity
received by colossal human-headed winged bulls in Assyrian palaces
H. TORCZYNER, “Ark (Ark of God)”, Encyclopedia Miqra’it I, 538-550
[Hebrew], maintained that the root brk possesses this meaning in biblical
Hebrew as well. He emended the phrase in Hos 10,11 ~yrpa bykra, “I will
have Ephraim ridden”, which is parallel to hdwhy vwrxy, “Judah will plow”,
and to bq[y wl ddvy, “Jacob will harrow”, to read ~yrpa byrka, supposedly
“I will make Ephraim plow”.
H. GROTIUS, Annotationes in Vetus & Novum Testamentum (London
1727 ) 47.
“Cherub”, Calmet’s Great Dictionary of the Holy Bible (ed. C. TAYLOR)
(London 1797) I, n.p.
S. BOCHART, Sive Bipertitum Opus de Animalibus S. Scripturae (Frankfurt
Online photograph: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Persepo-
lis_24.11.2009_13-10-19.jpg [cited 15 June 2014].
C. TAYLOR, Fragments, Illustrative of the Manners, Incidents, and Phrase-
ology, of the Holy Scriptures (London 1798) II, 119-130, 159-160; III, 184-185;