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The Bible talks about “cherubs”, Hebrew keruwbim. Many have wondered what they looked like. Really what kind of beings were they?
Catholic and Jewish myths might mention cherubs, but those things do not come from the Bible, and so, they will be left aside here. Instead, it will be considered what the Scriptures have to say about cherubs.
Many people have been caused to think that the cherubs were angels, but a closer study of the relevant bible-passages indicates that they were large flying creatures of some kind. The prophet Ezekiel said, regarding certain winged beings which he saw in a vision, “and I knew they were cherubs”. In another vision, he saw both cherubs as well as a man who was clothed with linen. The context shows that that man was an angel. [a] So, what were those cherubs? This article takes a closer look at that matter.
a Regarding angels (God’s superhuman agents and messengers): In the Bible, they are always described as having the form and size of a man. No wings. The article nda070.htm has some notes on this and also on the word and concept “archangel”.
In the Greek Septuagint (LXX) version, the Hebrew word keruwb is left untranslated, in the transliterated form cheroub, plural cheroubim. We find that word even in the Greek text of the New Testament, in Hebrews 9:5, spelled cheroubim.
Genesis 3:24 is the first passage where the Hebrew text contains the word keruwb. That verse with its context records that the Lord placed beings called keruwbim, to keep man away from the garden of Eden and the tree of life there. But, that passage does not explain what those keruwbim really were. It is obvious that they were effective as guards. But, were they “angels”? The Bible does not say that.
In short: Genesis 3 does not make it clear what those keruwbim really were. What is clear, is that one must study what the Scriptures actually say and do not say, instead of reading things into the Bible.
(“Tabernacle” = the tent-like portable sanctuary which is described in Exodus 25 and later in the Old Testament.)
Exodus 25:17 Then you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its width. 18 You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy seat. 19 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. 20 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. 21 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. (NRSV)
It is obvious that Moses, who then arranged the making of those cherub-statues, knew what cherubs were and what they looked like. We do not.
What can we learn from that passage? Only that those two statues pictured large winged beings. Those verses do not make it clear what cherubs really were or looked like.
A note: The words “they shall face one to another” in verse 20 do not have to mean that those creatures would have had human-like faces.
Another note: The slightly different cherubs of the vision of Ezekiel 10, and the symbolic mention of a cherub in Ezekiel 28, are considered later in this article.
In the days of king Solomon, the portable sanctuary (“tabernacle”) was replaced with a more permanent construction, a temple. Even there, images of cherubs were used as decorations. We read:
1 Kings 6:21 Solomon overlaid the inside of the house with pure gold, then he drew chains of gold across, in front of the inner sanctuary, and overlaid it with gold. 22 Next he overlaid the whole house with gold, in order that the whole house might be perfect; even the whole altar that belonged to the inner sanctuary he overlaid with gold. 23 In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. 24 Five cubits was the length of one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the length of the other wing of the cherub; it was ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other. 25 The other cherub also measured ten cubits; both cherubim had the same measure and the same form. 26 The height of one cherub was ten cubits, and so was that of the other cherub. 27 He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house; the wings of the cherubim were spread out so that a wing of one was touching the one wall, and a wing of the other cherub was touching the other wall; their other wings toward the center of the house were touching wing to wing. 28 He also overlaid the cherubim with gold. (NRSV)
What does this tell us? Only that the cherub-statues in the temple portrayed winged creatures, in height 10 cubits, circa 5 metres.
Even 2 Chronicles 3 shows that the winged beings which were called cherubs, were large in size.
2 Chronicles 3:10 And in the most holy place he made images of two winged beings, covering them with gold. 11 Their outstretched wings were twenty cubits across; one wing, five cubits long, touching the wall of the house, and the other, of the same size, meeting the wing of the other winged one. 12 And in the same way, the wings of the other, five cubits long, were stretched out, one touching the wall and the other meeting the wing of the first winged one. 13 Their outstretched wings were twenty cubits across; they were placed upright on their feet, facing the inner part of the house. (BBE)
So, the cherubs were winged creatures of huge size. 10 cubits = circa 5 metres.
In contrast to that, angels are in the Bible always described as having the size and form of a man. No wings.
A question to consider, in regard to the above-quoted Exodus 25, 1 Kings 6 and 2 Chronicles 3: Should one expect that the Lord would have told Moses, and David (who then relayed the instructions to his son Solomon), to put pictures and statues of angels, in the portable sanctuary and then in the temple? No, one should not expect that, because that could have easily led to idolatry. In other words: Had there been images of angels in the tabernacle and in the temple, people might have begun to worship them.
A note: Some have claimed that one of the cherubs in the temple’s innermost part pictured Satan. In other words: They have claimed that there were cherubs in the house of God in Heaven, and that Satan was one of them. But, the Bible does not say anything of that kind. (This has to do with the word “cherub” in Ezekiel 28. That passage and its translation and meaning is considered later in this article.)
Chapter 22 in the second book of Samuel records a song that king David wrote. There, we find this poetic wording:
2 Samuel 22:11 He rode on a cherub, and flew; he was seen upon the wings of the wind. (NRSV)
Consider this: Would the Lord seat himself on the back of one of his angels, and ride on him? No, that does not sound likely, does it. And again, in the Scriptures, God’s angels are described as having the size and form of a man. No wings. The cherubs were something different.
By the way – did the Lord ever literally fly on a cherub’s back? Well, the poetic words of that song – see 2 Samuel 22:11 and Psalms 18:10 and their context – do not have to mean that. But, several Old Testament passages make it clear that the cherubs were winged creatures of huge size. So, it could eventually be that it would have been possible for them to carry a human-size person.
Here is a record of a part of a vision where the prophet Ezekiel saw the Lord speaking to a man in linen clothes (obviously an angel), while winged creatures called cherubim stood by:
Ezekiel 10:1 And I looked, and there in the firmament that was above the head of the cherubim, there appeared something like a sapphire stone, having the appearance of the likeness of a throne. 2 Then He spoke [b] to the man clothed with linen, and said, “Go in among the wheels, under the cherub, fill your hands with coals of fire from among the cherubim, and scatter them over the city.” And he went in as I watched. 3 Now the cherubim were standing on the south side of the temple when the man went in, and the cloud filled the inner court. 4 Then the glory of the Lord went up from the cherub, and paused over the threshold of the temple; and the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was full of the brightness of the Lord’s glory. 5 And the sound of the wings of the cherubim was heard even in the outer court, like the voice of Almighty God when He speaks. 6 Then it happened, when He commanded [b] the man clothed in linen, saying, “Take fire from among the wheels, from among the cherubim,” that he went in and stood beside the wheels. 7 And the cherub stretched out his hand from among the cherubim to the fire that was among the cherubim, and took some of it and put it into the hands of the man clothed with linen, who took it and went out. 8 The cherubim appeared to have the form of a man’s hand [c] under their wings. (NKJV, note signs added)
b Verses 2 and 6 – by the capital letter H in the word “He”, the translators noted that it was the Lord who was speaking. Point: The cherubs did not speak; the Lord did.
c Verse 8, “the cherubim appeared to have the form of a man’s hand” – in connection with their wings, the cherubs of that vision had grip-organs which looked like a hand. Please note that that refers to something that was similar to a human hand, somehow connected to the wing. No arm is mentioned. (Regarding the word “under” in that verse – there are some notes on that word and matter, later in this article.)
Again, verses 2, 6 and 7 show that in that vision, Ezekiel saw beings of three different kinds: The Lord, a man whom the Lord spoke to, and cherubs. It is obvious that the man clothed with linen was an angel. The cherubs were something different. Verse 20 records that the prophet called them “living creatures”.
Ezekiel 10:20 This is the living creature I saw under the God of Israel by the River Chebar, and I knew they were cherubim. (NKJV)
In a certain vision, the prophet Ezekiel saw special cherubs which had, the way many translations have it, four wings and four faces.
But, when it comes to the cherubs by the Mercy Seat in the temple – which must have been images of actual, real cherubs – they had only two wings. This can be seen by careful reading of for instance this passage:
1 Kings 6:23 In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. 24 Five cubits was the length of one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the length of the other wing of the cherub; it was ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other. (NRSV)
So, it appears that actual, real cherubs had only two wings.
When Moses arranged the decoration of the portable sanctuary with two cherub-statues as well as with pictures of cherubs, he obviously knew what cherubs looked like. This indicates that in Moses’ day, those creatures were still in existence, or at least in memory. (It is reasonable to assume that the cherub-images of Exodus 25, 36 and 37, 1 Kings 6 and 2 Chronicles 3, were representations of flying creatures which did exist on this planet, at some time.)
We do not know what the cherubs exactly were, but we know that archaeologists have found fossil skeletons of large winged creatures that fit the biblical description of the cherubs, in regard to their size as well as in regard to the earlier mentioned “hand” matter. Those fossils are remains of creatures (pterosaurs) that were several metres from wing-tip to wing-tip – compare with 1 Kings 6:23, “ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other”. (Ten cubits is around 5 metres.) Those fossils have hand-like grip-organs at the middle of the front-part of their foldable wings; compare this with the earlier discussed verse in Ezekiel 10 which shows that the cherubs had something that looked like a hand, connected to their wings. (Not arms, but some hand-like grip-organs.)
Apparently, certain pterosaurs had a wing-span of up to nine metres. They have been extinct for a long time, but it could be that some of them were still in existence in Moses’ day. Their huge size and wing-span would even fit in with the (eventually poetical) mention of the Lord “flying on a cherub”, 2 Samuel 22:11 and Psalms 18:10.
The page nda010b.htm contains an on fossil skeletons based illustration of how certain pterosaurs and their wings may have looked like.
A note: Some might wonder about the word “below” or “under” in Ezekiel 10:8 which records how the prophet noted that the cherubs appeared to have something like a hand under or below their wings. (Please note that it was not an arm but something that looked like a hand.) What did that word “under”, Hebrew tachath, really mean and refer to? Well, the meaning could be that when the cherubs stood on the ground, those grip-organs were literally “under” the wings, that is, closer to the ground than the rest of the wings. Clarification:
Today, it is thought that some pterosaurs could stand “on all four”, by using the bend of their wings as “front feet”. Those beings folded their wings by their middle part. That is also where they had the hand-like grip-organs. It is even said that fossil trackways show that some pterosaurs were quadrupeds – that is, when they were on the ground. In that position, their hand-like grip-organs were “under” or “below” their wings.
Ezekiel 28 contains a prophecy concerning what was to happen to a certain man, a ruler of Tyre. But, some have produced dogmas which claim that that chapter talks about Satan. Some have then connected those dogmas to the cherub which is mentioned in the poetic words of the mocking song which is recorded in that chapter. Further: Many bible-translators have put into Ezekiel 28 wordings which fit that dogma and concept.
First, let us consider verse 12 which makes it clear who the mocking words of that railing song referred to:
Ezekiel 28:12 “Son of man, raise a lamentation over the king of Tyre, and say to him, Thus says the Lord God: “You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. (RSV)
So, whom does that passage refer to? Satan? No, but a man, the ruler of the city-state Tyre. Ezekiel 28:1 states that that ruler was a man, Hebrew adam.
A note: The words “full of wisdom” and so on belong to a mocking “lamentation” regarding the fate of that proud king. Apparently, he was an extremely proud fool, but perhaps he had in his pride felt that he was wise.
Also: Let us keep in mind that 1 Kings 6:24 and 2 Chronicles 3:12 describe the cherubs as huge flying creatures. In contrast to that, the prophecy of Ezekiel 28 refers to the ruler of Tyre who was a man, Hebrew adam, verse 2. Please also note that the book of Ezekiel does not contain such names or words as Satan, Devil or the like.
All parts of Ezekiel 28 will not be analysed here. The article nda050.htm has more on that chapter, including the words “pipes” and “stones of fire” that appear in that passage. However, here are examples of how some translators have interpreted the ancient Hebrew and Greek texts:
Ezekiel 28:1 The word of the Lord came to me again, saying, 2 Son of man, say to the ruler of Tyre […] 14 I gave you your place with the winged one […] 16 […] the winged one put an end to you from among the stones of fire. (BBE, highlighting added)
Ezekiel 28:1 And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, 2 And thou, son of man, say to the prince of Tyrus […] 14 From the day that thou wast created thou wast with the cherub […] 16 […] the cherub has brought thee out of the midst of the stones of fire. (LXXE, highlighting added)
(The article nda050.htm has more on that chapter.)
Verse 16: As you can see, the BBE has, “the winged one put an end to you”; the LXXE has, “the cherub has brought thee out”. Some translations have it, that a guard cherub “drove out” that man – example: “And the guardian cherub drove you out”, RSV. (This is to be understood as referring to a guard keruwb, and not a “guardian angel”. Compare with the keruwbim which guarded the way to the garden of Eden.) So, it may be that verse contains an indirect allusion to what happened to Adam and Eve, when they were closed out from the garden of Eden. Now, we must keep in mind that what is recorded in Ezekiel 28:12–19 is a railing song of “lamentation”. We must not take the words of that song literally; it is obvious that they contain mocking hyperbole. There is no reason to believe there was a actual, real cherub which drove the king of Tyre out from some literal pleasure-garden. But yes, the words of that song of “lamentation” talk about that proud king being driven out from his “paradise”. That could refer to his luxurious situation, or his palace gardens, or something similar. Also: That extremely proud king felt that he was a “god” and that his living quarters were a “seat of god” – we read:
Ezekiel 28:2 Son of man, say to the ruler of Tyre, This is what the Lord has said: Because your heart has been lifted up, and you have said, I am a god, I am seated on the seat of God in the heart of the seas; but you are man and not God, though you have made your heart as the heart of God (BBE)
But, the mocking, hyperbolic words of that railing song of Ezekiel 28:12–19 do not make us wiser, in regard to what actual, real cherubs were or what they looked like.
(Verse 2, “in the heart of the seas” – Tyre lay on an island in the Mediterranean Sea.)
Again, the article nda050.htm has more on Ezekiel 28.
These remarks on the seraphs or saraphim are included here, because many people have been caused to believe that they were “winged angels”. And also, because the saraphim of the vision which the prophet Isaiah saw, Isaiah 6, have some similarities with the keruwbim which the prophet Ezekiel saw in his vision.
The old Hebrew noun saraphim, singular saraph, occurs in seven passages in the Old Testament. The word saraph was also used as a verb; the verb-form occurs in around 117 OT passages, in most cases in the meaning “to burn”.
It appears that the noun-form meant “fiery ones”. Five of the seven occurrences of that noun in the Hebrew text of the OT refer to snakes – let us assume, either because of their reddish colour or because of the fiery burn that their bite could cause. But, what does the noun saraph refer to, in the case of Isaiah 6:2 and 6? For, the way some English bible-translations render Isaiah 6:1–13, could easily cause casual bible-readers to think that the saraphim were angels, and even that they “spoke”.
Here, it is important to keep in mind that Isaiah 6:1–13 is a record of a vision which the prophet Isaiah saw. Things, creatures and events that are seen in visions do not always have any exact counterparts in real life. So, it could even be that the only existence that the in Isaiah 6:2 and 6 mentioned saraphim had, was as symbols in that vision.
But, it is interesting to note that the saraphim of Isaiah’s vision had a role which was similar to that of the keruwbim in Ezekiel’s vision. Both were winged creatures of some kind. Both were connected to hot coals. Both could pick up things. But again: Those were visions. Things and creatures in visions are often symbols, without any exact counterparts in the real word.
A note: Some bible-translators have put into Isaiah 14:29 and 30:6 “winged snakes”, or even “flying dragons”. Such wordings have led to much confusion. That matter is discussed in the article nda030.htm which is about the “dragons”, “satyrs”, “unicorns” and other odd creatures that appear in some bible-versions. That article has also some notes on the old Hebrew noun saraph in its meaning “snake”.
Several bible-passages show that the cherubs were huge flying creatures. A note: When the Bible talks about cherubs, Hebrew keruwbim, that always refers to winged beings here on Earth. For some reason, some have talked about “cherubs in Heaven”, but there is no scriptural mention of such things.
The “knowledge” that the religious world has regarding cherubs, is for the most part not based on what the Bible says but instead on myths and similar things.
Even bible-translations are a problem in that regard. All too often, they reflect traditions and church doctrines and the like, instead of echoing the actual meaning of the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Old and New Testaments.
The article nda030.htm has some notes on the “dragons”, “satyrs”, “unicorns”, “flying serpents” and other odd creatures which appear in many bible-translations, and also on the leviathan.
As for angels – the Bible always describes God’s angels (messengers) as having the form and size of a man. With clothes, and no wings or feathers. The article nda070.htm has more on angels, including the word “archangel” and its meaning.
See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm
An artist’s on fossil skeletons based painting of the looks of the pteranodons. → nda010b.htm
On the “dragons”, “satyrs”, “unicorns”, “flying serpents” and other odd creatures that appear in some bible-translations. → nda030.htm
What does the Bible say about angels? → nda070.htm
Are angels immortal, in the meaning that they cannot die? → nda020.htm
Do Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 refer to Satan, as some claim? → nda050.htm
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