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A cherub, also pl. cherubim, (Hebrew כְּרוּב, pl. כְּרוּבִים, English trans kərūv, pl. kərūvîm, dual kərūvāyim Latin cherub[us], pl. cherubi[m], Syriac ܟܪܘܒܐ) is a winged angelic being who is considered to attend on the Abrahamic God in biblical tradition. The concept is represented in ancient Middle Eastern art as a lion or bull with eagles' wings and a human face, and regarded in traditional Christian angelology as an angel of the second highest order of the ninefold celestial hierarchy. Cherubim are mentioned throughout the Hebrew Bible and once in the New Testament in reference to the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant (Hebrews 9:5).
The Hebrew term cherubim is cognate with the Assyrian term karabu, Akkadian term kuribu, and Babylonian term karabu; the Assyrian term means 'great, mighty', but the Akkadian and Babylonian cognates mean 'propitious, blessed'. In some regions the Assyro-Babylonian term came to refer in particular to spirits which served the gods, in particular to the shedu (human-headed winged bulls); the Assyrians sometimes referred to these as kirubu, a term grammatically related to karabu. They were originally a version of the shedu, protective deities sometimes found as pairs of colossal statues either side of objects to be protected, such as doorways. However, while the shedu were popular in Mesopotamia, archaeological remains from the Levant suggest that they were quite rare in the immediate vicinity of the Israelites. The related Lammasu (human-headed winged lions—to which the sphinx is similar in appearance), on the other hand, were the most popular winged-creature in Phoenician art, and so scholars suspect that cherubim were originally a form of Lammasu. In particular, in a scene reminiscent of Ezekiel's dream, the Megiddo Ivories—ivory carvings found at Megiddo (which became a major Israelite city)—depict an unknown king being carried on his throne by hybrid winged-creatures.
The Lammasu was originally depicted as having a king's head, a bull's body, and an eagle's wings, but because of the artistic beauty of the wings, these rapidly became the most prominent part in imagery; wings later came to be bestowed on men, thus forming the stereotypical image of an angel. The griffin—a similar creature but with an eagle's head rather than that of a king—has also been proposed as an origin, arising in Israelite culture as a result of Hittite usage of griffins (rather than being depicted as aggressive beasts, Hittite depictions show them seated calmly, as if guarding), and some have proposed that griffin may be cognate to cherubim, but Lammasu were significantly more important in Levantine culture, and thus more likely to be the origin.
Early Semitic tradition conceived the cherubim as guardians devoid of human feelings whose duty was to represent the gods and guard sanctuaries from intruders. This conception is similar to an account found on Tablet 9 of the inscriptions found at Nimrud, in which the cherubim, like the shedu, depicted storm deities, particularly the storm winds. It has been suggested that the image of cherubim as storm winds explains why they are described as being the chariot of the LORD in Ezekiel's visions, the Books of Samuel, the parallel passages in the later Book of Chronicles, and passages in the early Psalms: "and he rode upon a cherub and did fly: and he was seen upon the wings of the wind".
Cherubim feature at some length in the Book of Ezekiel. When they first appear in chapter one, when Ezekiel was "by the river Chebar", they are not called cherubim until chapter 10, but he saw "the likeness of four living creatures". (Ezekiel 1:5) Each of them had four faces and four wings, with straight feet with a sole like the sole of a calf's foot, and "hands of a man" under their wings. Each had four faces: the face of a man, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle. (Ezekiel 1:6-10)
In Ezekiel chapter ten, another full description of the Cherubim appears with slight differences in details. Three of the four faces are the same – man, lion and eagle – but where chapter one has the face of an ox, Ezekiel 10:14 says "face of a cherub". Ezekiel equates the Cherubim of chapter ten with the living creature of chapter one by saying: "This is the living creature (חיה) that I saw by the river of Chebar", in Ezekiel 10:15, and in Ezekiel 10:20 he says: "This is the living creature that I saw under the God of Israel by the river of Chebar; and I knew that they were the cherubim."
In a psalm of David that appears in 2 Samuel 22:11 and Psalms 18:10, David says that the LORD "rode upon a cherub, and did fly: and he was seen upon the wings of the wind".
The words Cherub and Cherubim appear many other times in the holy scriptures, referring to the Cherubim of beaten gold on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant, and images on the curtains of the tabernacle, and in Solomon's temple, including two Cherubim made of olive wood overlaid with gold that were ten cubits high.
Worth noting also is the fact that within the Hebrew Bible the cherubim do not have the status of angels. It is only in later sources like De Coelesti Hierarchia (see below) that they are considered to be a division of the divine messengers.
Many forms of Judaism teach a belief in the existence of angels, including cherubim within the Jewish angelic hierarchy. The existence of angels is generally accepted within traditional rabbinic Judaism. There is, however, a wide range of beliefs about what angels actually are and how literally one should interpret biblical passages associated with them.
In Kabbalah there has long been a strong belief in cherubim, with the cherubim and other angels regarded as having mystical roles. The Zohar, a highly significant collection of books in Jewish mysticism, states that the cherubim were led by one of their number named Kerubiel.
On the other end of the philosophical spectrum is Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides, who had a neo-Aristotelian interpretation of the Bible. Maimonides writes that to the wise man, one sees that what the Bible and Talmud refer to as "angels" are actually allusions to the various laws of nature; they are the principles by which the physical universe operates. Guide for the Perplexed II:4 and II:6.
Maimonides says (Guide for the Perplexed III:45) that the figures of the cherubim were placed in the sanctuary only to preserve among the people the belief in angels, there being two in order that the people might not be led to believe that they were the image of God.
Cherubs are discussed within the midrash literature. The two cherubim placed by God at the entrance of paradise (Gen. iii. 24) were angels created on the third day, and therefore they had no definite shape; appearing either as men or women, or as spirits or angelic beings (Genesis Rabbah xxi., end). The cherubim were the first objects created in the universe (Tanna debe Eliyahu R., i. beginning). The following sentence of the Midrash is characteristic: "When a man sleeps, the body tells to the neshamah (soul) what it has done during the day; the neshamah then reports it to the nefesh (spirit), the nefesh to the angel, the angel to the cherub, and the cherub to the seraph, who then brings it before God (Leviticus Rabbah xxii.; Eccl. Rabbah x. 20).
A midrash states that when Pharaoh pursued Israel at the Red Sea, God took a cherub from the wheels of His throne and flew to the spot, for God inspects the heavenly worlds while sitting on a cherub. The cherub, however, is "something not material", and is carried by God, not vice versa (Midr. Teh. xviii. 15; Canticles Rabbah i. 9).
In the passages of the Talmud that describe the heavens and their inhabitants, the seraphim, ofannim, and ḥayyot are mentioned, but not the cherubim (Ḥag. 12b); and the ancient liturgy also mentions only these three classes.
In the Talmud, Yose ha-Gelili holds that when the Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) is recited by at least ten thousand seated at one meal, a special blessing, "Blessed is Ha-Shem our God, the God of Israel, who dwells between the Cherubim", is added to the regular liturgy.
In Medieval theology, following the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, the cherubim are the second highest rank in the angelic hierarchy, following the Seraphim. In western art, Putti are sometimes mistaken for Cherubim, although they look in no way alike.
There were no cherubim in Herodian reconstruction of the Temple, but according to some authorities, its walls were painted with figures of cherubim. In Christian art they are often represented with the faces of a lion, ox, eagle, and man peering out from the center of an array of four wings (Ezekiel 1:5-11, 10:12,21 Revelation 4:8); (seraphim have six); the most frequently encountered descriptor applied to cherubim in Christianity is many-eyed, and in depictions the wings are often shown covered with a multitude of eyes (showing them to be all-seeing beings). In Western Christianity, cherubim have since the Renaissance been confused with putti—innocent souls, looking like winged children, who sing praises to God daily—that can be seen in innumerable church frescoes and in the work of painters such as Raphael.
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