“And they shall make me a holy place, and I shall dwell among them.” (Exodus/Shemot 25:8)
With this promise, God begins telling Moses how to make the portable tent-sanctuary. In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donation”), God begins by describing the ark to be placed inside the Holy of Holies, the innermost room of the sanctuary. The ark will be a box or coffer made of gold-plated wood, with gold rings for permanent carrying-poles. Inside the ark will be the testimony, e.g. the stone tablets with the commandments. The lid of the ark will be made out of pure gold. The Torah calls this lid the kaporet (כַּפֹּרֱת) = atonement-cover; reconciliation, atonement.
And you will make two keruvim of gold; you will make them hammered out of the two ends of the atonement-cover. You will make one keruv at one end, and one keruv at the other end; from the atonement-cover you will make the keruvim, on both of its ends. And the keruvim will be spreading their wings upward, sheltering the atonement-cover with their wings; and their faces will be turned one another; the faces of the keruvim will be turned toward the atonement-cover. (Exodus/Shemot 25:18-20)
keruv (כְרוּב), plural keruvim (כְרוּבִים) = a winged hybrid beast, usually with a human head and an animal body. (Cherub in English.)
Two stone lions crouch on either side of the main entrance to a library, a civic building, or a mansion. Usually they face the person who approaches, looking stern and regal, but sometimes they face one another. Architects have used flanking statues for centuries, the world over, to make entrances more impressive.
In ancient Mesopotamia, the colossal statues on either side of an entrance were hybrid winged beasts with human heads, called lamassu in Sumerian and shedu or kuribu in Akkadian. Scholars say the word kuribu is related both to the Akkadian word karabu, “to pronounce formulas of blessing”, and to the Hebrew word keruv.
Now imagine two winged beasts facing one another, guarding neither a city gate nor a door into a building, but a portal into another world, another reality. Science fiction? No, Torah.
The Torah portion Terumah explains that when the sanctuary is finished, God will speak to Moses from the empty space between the two keruvim.
“And I will speak to you from above the atonement-cover, from between the two keruvim that are upon the Ark of the Testimony, everything that I am commanding you and the Israelites.” (Exodus 22)
This is neither the first nor the last place where the Torah mentions winged figures called keruvim. The first reference is when the first two human beings are banished from the Garden of Eden.
And [God] drove out the human, and stationed at the east of the garden of Eden the keruvim and the flame of the sword of the continually-transforming, to guard the way to the Tree of Life.(Genesis/Bereishit 3:24)
An image of keruvim flanking a tree of life is not unusual in the Ancient Near East. But in the Torah, the keruvim are also guarding the entrance to a world called the garden of Eden.
When the ark is carried into battle against the Philistines, it is referred to as: “the ark of the covenant of the God of Armies Sitting on the Keruvim.” (I Samuel 4:4) Here the keruvim are not guarding an entrance, but are flanking an invisible God. The army hopes, in vain, that the ark with its keruvim will guard the soldiers from their enemies.
When King Solomon builds a permanent temple, he places two colossal gilded keruvim in the innermost chamber. Their anatomy is not described, but their wings touch in the center of the room. (I Kings 6:23-27) Keruvim are also used as a decorative motif in the temple walls, as they are in the woven curtains around the inner chamber of the portable sanctuary.
The four mysterious hybrid creatures in vision of the prophet Ezekiel are also called keruvim. Ezekiel’s keruvim have four wings each, human hands, calves’ hoofs, and four faces each (human, lion, ox, and eagle). The throne where God’s glory appears hovers above them. (Ezekiel 1:4-12 and 10:1-21)
Psalm 18 paints a metaphorical picture of God descending from the heavens to rescue King David from his enemies, and borrows a Canaanite image of the sky god riding on a winged steed.
And [God] rode on a keruv and flew,
And swooped on the wings of the wind. (Psalm 18:11).
What do these references to keruvim mean? If we look behind the descriptive details borrowed from neighboring cultures, keruvim seem to define a location for the appearance of God’s glory or presence. The location might be between the keruvim, as in this week’s Torah portion, or above them, as in Ezekiel and Psalm 18, or behind them, as in Genesis.
Keruvim combine the traits of many animals, including humans. Yet they are supernatural, existing somewhere between our reality and the transcendence of God. Therefore they mark the dividing line between our world and a divine world we can neither enter nor understand.
Yet in Torah this dividing line is not a wall, but a gateway. As long as we live in this world we cannot pass through the gate. But we can imagine the entrance to the Garden of Eden. And we can imagine God speaking to Moshe through the empty space between the keruvim above the ark, even if we can never enter the Holy of Holies ourselves.
One effect of this invisible portal to another reality, this gap in our universe, is that human beings feel a yearning that can never be satisfied by the things of this world. The yearning keeps us searching—for love, for beauty, for the good, for the divine. That is what it means to be human.
Maybe Adam and his counterpart Eve are not really human until they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. Only then can they feel yearning.
Today we human beings still yearn for the ineffable. And we are still responsible for using the passion of our yearning to fix the world we live in and make it more like the world we yearn for.
(This blog was first posted on February 7, 2010.)