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 37
this position do not rely on an etymological argument but on the
existence of what they see as contradictory descriptions of cheru-
bim within the Hebrew Bible 43.
No obvious pattern emerges in the interpretation history, except
that all periods share an inclination to identify the cherub with a crea-
ture that was well-known at the time. Of the views surveyed, two are
prevalent in contemporary scholarship. The first is that the word bwrk
refers to composite creatures in general. This view is challenged by
the fact that the biblical writers usually neglect to specify the form
of the cherub, even when specifying other details such as materials,
position, and dimensions (Exod 25,18-20 = 37,7-9; 1 Kgs 6,23-28 ≈
2 Chr 3,10-13). This omission indicates that there was assumed to
be a typical form with which the reader would be familiar 44.
The second view, which seems to be the more popular of the two,
identifies the cherub with the winged sphinx. The first argument
raised by its advocates, that the winged sphinx is common in ancient
Levantine iconography, is based on a reasonable principle: the pre-
dominance of the cherub in Israelite iconography as reflected in the
Hebrew Bible indeed suggests that it is a being or class of beings
that can be found in ancient Near Eastern iconography, particularly
from the Levant. However, the argument is invalid because, in fact,
several other winged creatures appear in this corpus with equal, if
not greater, frequency; these include the bird (especially the falcon),
the scarab beetle, the winged snake (uraeus) and the winged human.
The second argument in favor of this view, i.e., that both cherubim
and winged sphinxes support thrones, has been challenged as being
founded on a mistranslation of the phrase ~ybrkh bvy 45.
Furthermore, several indications found in the descriptions of the
sculpted cherubim over the ark (Exod 25,18-20 = 37,7-9; 1 Kgs
LANDSBERGER, “Angel”, 236; D.N. FREEDMAN – M.P. O’CONNOR,
“k rûḇ”, TDOT VII, 307-319 at 315-319; C. MEYERS, “Cherubim”, ABD I,
899-900; C. HOUTMAN, Exodus III (HCOT; Kampen 2000) 383; W.H.C.
PROPP, Exodus 19–40 (AB IIb; New York 2006) 386-387. See also LENOR-
MANT, History, 133-135; GRESSMANN, Lade, 47-67.
See METZGER, Königsthron, 311.
R. EICHLER, “The Meaning of ~ybrkh bvy”, ZAW 126 (2014) 358-371.