Sunday, September 30, 2007

Cherubim

Rule #5 of Bible interpretation and translation insists that we first attempt to understand the pantheon of Biblical supernatural beings in a natural sense. The cherubim are a good place to start. The first mention of cherubim (plural of cherub) in the Bible are the mention in Genesis 3 of cherubim being placed, by God, "before" the gan edin ("garden steppe,") to block the return of mankind. However, the cherubim are better understood as the symbolic representation of throne bearers of Yahweh. Psalm 99:1 says:

"Yehweh reigns, let the nations tremble; he sits enthroned between the cherubim, let the earth shake."

"The word cherub is a word borrowed from the Assyrian kirubu, from karĂ£bu, 'to be near', hence it means near ones, familiars, personal servants in a sense. It was commonly used to represent the idea of heavenly spirits, who closely surrounded God and served him. Psalm 18:10 poetically equates the cherub with the God's flying chariot:

He rode upon a cherub and flew; And He sped upon the wings of the wind.

In addition, Psalm 104:3 connects the cherubim with the storm clouds:

He lays the beams of His upper chambers in the waters; He makes the clouds His chariot; He walks upon the wings of the wind.

Horsemen and chariots usually are images of a strong army, prepared for battle (Deuteronomy 11:4; Judges 4:7; 1st Samuel 8:12, 13:5; 1st Kings 9:12; Ezekiel 39:20). Also, the Bible often refers to God with "strength of battle" imagery to illustrate that he is the warrior that goes forth conquering. In fact, Yahweh is referred to as "the Lord (Yahweh) of the armies (tsaba)" at least two hundred and thirty-five times.

The cherubim is similar to, and probably derived from, the shedu or "storm winds." To protect houses in ancient Assyria, the shedu, which were depicted as winged lions, were engraved in clay tablets, which were buried under the threshold. At the entrance of palaces often placed as a pair. At the entrance of cities, they were sculpted in colossal size, and placed as a pair, one at each side of the door of the city, each one looking towards one of the cardinal points.

It is this mixed understanding of the cherubim/shedu as the attendants of a warrior-god and simultaneously as the protector of cities, which appears symbolically in the Genesis story guarding the entrance to the Garden of Eden and the way to the Tree of Life.

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