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Locked in an Eternal Embrace

In this week’s Torah reading (Exod. 25:18-12), we find a precept instructing Moses to make two cherubim of gold:

“You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other; of one piece with the mercy seat you shall make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat  with their wings. They shall face one to another; the faces of the cherubim shall be turned toward the mercy seat. You shall put the mercy seat  on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.”

Western art since the time of the Renaissance traditionally depicts the cherubim as chubby-faced angel-children with wings, but such a description hardly seems to fit the contextual meaning of the of the earlier Genesis reference  (Gen. 3:24) which indicates they appeared to Adam and Eve as frightening creatures![1]

Where did this notion come from? Actually, it derives from the Babylonian Talmud. The Sages ask, “What is the derivation of a cherub? “R. Abbahu construes כְּרוּב, as כְּרָבְיָא, a contraction of כּ “like” and רוֹבֶה, “like a child,” for in Babylon they call a child רָבְיָא, rabia, i.e., thus, a cherub is an angelic being that had a face resembling a child (Rashi).[2] This rabbinic conjecture gave rise to the medieval imagery of chubby little angels, which appealed to Christian artists.

The actual origin of the cherubim remains controversial. It has been proposed that the cherubim may possibly be related to the Akkadian kurabu, denoting celestial interceding beings. Later in Israelite history, the cherubim guard the sacred objects housed in the Ark of the Covenant. A representation of the cherubim was fastened to the mercy seat of the ark[3] in the Holy of Holies[4] and functioned as the bearers of God’s heavenly throne.[5]

During the time of The First  Temple, Solomon placed two enormous and elaborately carved images of winged  cherubim, inside the innermost sanctuary of the Temple.[6] When placed together, they covered one entire wall; their outstretched wings providing a visible pedestal for the invisible throne, serving as a heavenly chariot from which the Divine ascends.

However, the cherubim imagery of Genesis probably resembled the mythic creatures portrayed in the art and literature of the various peoples living in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world. They have often been likened to the winged bulls and lions of Babylonia and Assyria: colossal figures with human faces standing guard at the entrances of temples and palaces, or to the sphinxes of Egypt, whose task was to guard the sacred sanctuaries against encroaching evil spirits or other undesirable beings.[7] Some scholars believe the cherubim may have been wind-demons similar to the harpies of Greek mythology, while others think that the cherubim may have resembled the mythical griffins of Scythia that zealously kept watch over the country’s gold. Similar conceptions are found in the Hittite culture as well.

Lastly, it has been sometimes conjectured that the cherubim were depicted as man and woman in an erotic embrace, thus representing the union of the masculine and feminine aspects of the Divine .In rabbinic and in subsequent  kabbalistic writings the Divine feminine aspect later became identified as the Shekhinah. In the Wisdom literature, the Shekhinah is characterized as Wisdom, while  and at other times She  identified as the Holy Spirit.

Jungian psychology often speaks about the male and female archetypes as the “anima” and “animus.” Just as a human being is physically made up of male and female chromosomes, the same principle applies on a psychic and spiritual level as well.  Jung identifies the archetypal union of the masculine and feminine energies by the term  “syzygy,”  without the loss of either identity.[8]

In classical Judaic symbolism, the syzygy represents the sacred marriage of God and Israel, as is archetypally depicted in the famous biblical book known as “Song of Songs.”  According to the Early Church Fathers midrashically applied the same symbolism to the  Christ and the Church. In both faith traditions, each religion affirmed the principle of the spiritual marriage. Nowadays, historians and anthropologists of religion refer to this sacred union of God and humankind as the  hieros gamos (from the Greek ιερός γάμος) or “the sacred marriage.”

The origins of the hieros gamos has its roots in the mythical and ritual union between a god and a goddess. Originally, this was a fertility rite that was often carried out by the priestess and the king  throughout the ancient Mesopotamian and Mediterranean world. We should not be surprised that the biblical writers unconsciously incorporated, redefined, and refined its imagery to fit a more monotheistic context.


Notes:

[1] In contrast to his interpretation on Exodus 25:18, here, Rashi interprets cherubim here as “destructive angels” (cf. BT Sanhedrin 82a).

[2] Philo gives a different exposition, and suggests they represent God’s creative and kingly power, but in Greek, Χερουβίν means “vast knowledge and science” (Life of Moses 2:97).

[3] Exod. 25:18 ff.

[4] 2 Chron. 3:7–14.

[5] Cf. 1 Sam 4:4; cf. 2 Sam 6:2; Isa 37:16; Eze. 10:20.

[6] 1 Kgs. 6:23–28.

[7] At Calah in the palace of Ashurnasirpal II, images of two-winged goddesses stand on either side of a sacred tree  The Ancient Near East in Pictures (anep), Princeton 1954 (second ed. 1969), 656.

[8] The term syzygy derives from the Late Latin noun syzygia, “conjunction,” from the Greek σύζυγος (syzygos). The Mishnaic word זוּג (zuge = “couple”) comes from the original Greek term.



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