(This is the last of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms. Next week I will begin revisiting some sparks in the ancient priestly religion described in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.)
Skilled artisans among the Israelites make all the items for the portable tent that is to be a dwelling-place1 for God in the Torah portion Vayakheil. Moses then assembles the new Tent of Meeting, the divine fiery cloud covers it, and the glory of God fills the inside in the next Torah portion, Pekudei. The golden calf was a mistake, but this time the Israelites got it right! The success in this week’s double portion, Vayakheil-Pekudei, completes the book of Exodus/Shemot.
The focal point for God’s presence is the empty space above the ark inside the inner chamber of the tent. The ark is a gold-plated wooden box holding the second pair of tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. The master-artisan Betzaleil hammers out a solid gold lid for the ark—not just a slab of gold but a sculpture, with two winged creatures rising from the lid in one continuous piece of gold.
And he made two keruvim; of gold hammered work he made them, from two edges of the lid: one keruv from this edges and one keruv from that edges. From the lid he made the keruvim, from its edges. And the keruvim were spreading out wings above, shielding the lid with their wings. And each one faced its brother, and the faces of the keruvim were toward the lid. (Exodus/Shemot 37:76-9)
keruv (כּרוּב) = a hybrid creature with wings and a human face. Plural: keruvim (כְּרוֻבִים or כְּרוּוִים). (The English word “cherub” is derived from the Hebrew keruv, but a keruv in the Bible does not look like a chubby baby with stubby white wings.)
When King Solomon builds the first temple in Jerusalem, its back room, the Holy of Holies, contains two free-standing gold-plated sculptures representing keruvim. Each is 10 cubits tall (15 to 20 feet) and has a 10-cubit wingspan. Solomon has the ark carried in and placed under their wings. (See my post Pekudei & 1 Kings: A Throne for the Divine.)
The Hebrew word keruv may come from the Akkadian word kuribu, “blessed ones”, their name for the colossal statues of hybrid winged beasts guarding doorways and gates. Commentators have speculated that keruvim might have the bodies of bulls (like Assyrian shedu) or lions (like Egyptian sphinxes or Phoenician lammasu) or humans. Raanan Eichler has made a good argument that the keruvim spreading their wings over the ark must have stood upright on two legs, and therefore probably had human bodies.
Hybrid beings with wings and human faces appear in many Ancient Near Eastern sculptures. When they are not demons battling heroes, they are either guardians of gates, or servants transporting a god. Keruvim in the Hebrew Bible are never demons, but they do appear as both guardians and transportation.
Assyrians placed sculptures of shedu, winged bulls, as guardians at either side of a gateway into a city or palace. Another guardian figure, called Gud-alim by Sumerians and Kusarikku by later Mesopotamians, represented a door-keeper who protected a house from intruders. He stood upright and looked fairly human, except that he often had wings, horns, or a bull’s legs. In some depictions he carries a bucket.
Phoenician artworks from coastal cities west of ancient Israel and Judah also feature a pair of hybrid winged creatures on either side of a tree of life. Their tree of life is a composite of a lotus and a papyrus (borrowed from Egyptian art) and sometimes a palm tree.
Similarly, the decorations carved in the walls of King Solomon’s temple—by artisans from the Phoenician city-state of Tyre—featured keruvim and palm trees.2
In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, two keruvim serve as guardians of the way back into the Garden of Eden, where the Tree of Life remains untasted.3
One of Ezekiel’s prophesies compares the king of Tyre with a keruv that is supposed to protect its city.4 In an earlier post, Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day, I suggested that since God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the ark,5 the two keruvim are also guardians of an entrance: a portal to the invisible God.
The gods of other religions in the ancient Near East rarely rode on the backs of winged creatures; instead they used these creatures to pull their chariots. Tarhunz, the high god of the Luwian people living north of Canaan, was in charge of weather and war. He used lightning as a weapon, and rode in a chariot pulled by winged horses. South of the Luwians and north of Israel, the Canaanites of Ugarit worshiped Baal Hadad (“Master of Thunder”), a weather and war god who also wielded lightning. The Ugarit writings call this Baal “Rider of Clouds”.
The God of Israel also seems to have a chariot of clouds, in the poetry of Jeremiah and Psalm 104.6
God’s cloud chariot is pulled by keruvim in a poem that appears twice in the Bible, once as chapter 22 in the second book of Samuel, and later (with only slight changes) as Psalm 18. The speaker, King David, faces death at the hands of an enemy army, and calls on God for help. God descends from the heavens.
Smoke went up from His nostrils
And fire from His mouth devours.
Embers blazed from Him.
He tilted the heavens and descended,
And a thundercloud was beneath His feet.
And He drove a keruv and flew,
And He soared on the wings of the wind. (Psalm 18:9-11)
I use the pronoun “He” in this translation because God is presented as if “He” were Baal Hadad from the Canaanite pantheon of male and female gods. Psalm 18 continues with imagery of dark clouds, hail, thunder, and arrows of lightning. God then stages a dramatic rescue, and David wins the battle.
A Chariot Throne
The ark with its two keruvim is often considered God’s throne in the Bible—the authoritative location where God sits like a king. But sometimes this throne is movable, like a chariot.
Before David conquers Jerusalem, when the ark is housed in a temple at Shiloh, the Israelite army decides to carry it with them into battle against the Philistines, hoping that God will fight for them.
And they took away from there the ark of the covenant of God of Armies Sitting on the Keruvim … (1 Samuel 4:4)
Although the Israelite forces carry God’s throne, they lose the battle. The Philistines capture the ark, then later abandon it in Israelite territory. When King David retrieves it for his new capital in Jerusalem, it is called
… the ark of the god whose name was invoked, the name of God of Armies Sitting upon the Keruvim. (2 Samuel 6:2)
The title is also used in psalms 80 and 99.
Listen, Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock!
Sitter on the keruvim, shine forth! (Psalm 80:2-3)
God, King, the peoples will tremble!
Sitter on the keruvim, You will shake the earth! (Psalm 99:1)
The Babylonian army razed the first temple in Jerusalem in 579 B.C.E., burning it to the ground. The army carried off some of its gold items as booty, but the ark and its keruvim disappeared from history. When some of the Israelites returned to Jerusalem under Persian rule and built a second temple, they left the Holy of Holies empty.
Ever since the destruction of the first temple with its ark and gold keruvim, God’s throne could only be an abstraction or a vision. The prophet Ezekiel reports two mystical visions of hybrid winged creatures during the exile in Babylon (Ezekiel 1:4-28; Ezekiel 10:1-22 and 11:22-23). In his second vision he identifies these creatures as keruvim.
In both visions, the glory of God (not God Itself) appears as a fiery figure on a throne that looks like sapphire, suspended above four keruvim, each of which is accompanied by an interlocking wheel covered with eyes. Each keruv has a single leg ending in a calf’s hoof, a human body, four wings, a human hand below each wing, and a head with four faces: one human, one lion, one eagle, and one that is called the face of an ox in the first vision and the face of a keruv in the second vision.
The keruvim and their wheels move up and down as well as in all four directions, and the throne suspended above them moves along with them. Although Ezekiel does not call this arrangement a chariot, subsequent Jewish writers developed a school of mysticism based on the merkavah (מֶרְכָּבָה = chariot) in the book of Ezekiel.
Even without a temple, even without keruvim, the human mind needs poetic images to think about God. Today many of us no longer need to assign God a face, a hand, or a body in robes; we can handle the paradox of God as both invisible and manifest in everything we see. Yet poetic images still well up around the notion of God: clouds, beams of light, opalescent radiance, perhaps even wings. They are not God, yet God is in the imagery.
When God Itself seems too abstract, perhaps we can think of something like a keruv, a creation that pulls the presence of God toward us when we need rescue, and that stands at our gateways when we need a guardian.
1 (See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.)
2 In the first (Israelite) temple in Jerusalem, keruvim and palms are carved in relief on the wooden walls and two sets of double doors (1 Kings 6:29, 32, 34). Keruvim, palms, and lions are engraved on the stands for ten bronze wash-basins (1 Kings 7:36).
3 Genesis 3:24.
4 Ezekiel 28:14, 16.
5 Exodus 25:22, Numbers 7:89.
6 Hey! Like clouds it ascends;
Like a whirlwind is [God’s] chariot;
Lighter than eagles are His horses. (Jeremiah 4:13)
In Psalm 104, God’s cloud chariot is pulled by the wind:
Setting beams for [God’s] roof chambers in the waters [above the sky],
Making the clouds His chariot,
He goes on the wings of the wind. (Psalm 104:3)
One thought on “Vaykheil & Psalm 18: Wings for Chariots”
Well done. Just yesterday my Rabbi asked me to lead services this Saturday–an late request that he apologized for and was very grateful that I could, and I was just reading over the double portion last night. I really like the imagery of both portal and guardian. Love, Judith