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    Why did the cherubim turn around? – T’rumah

    An important feature of the sanctuary is the cherubim. In popular culture, they have round childlike faces, sweet dispositions and beaming smiles.

    The Bible does not define the cherubim. Do they have bird or animal features? Or human characteristics? Are they a form of griffin? Are they real or just imaginary?

    What we find in the Bible is not so much what they are but what they do. Outside the sanctuary they are guards or sentinels. In Genesis they keep watch at the entrance to the Garden of Eden. They are the mainstay of God’s throne. They serve God by protecting Him and helping Him to protect His world.

    Nowhere is their shape clearly defined. In Ezekiel ch. 1 they have four faces – an ox, lion, man and eagle – representing four domains of Creation: domestic animals (symbolised by the ox), wild animals (the lion), the birds (the eagle) and human beings. Ezekiel later changes the ox to a cherub: maybe to counter the image of the Golden Calf.

    In Psalm 18:11, God “rides upon a cherub”, which suggests wings and speed, so maybe the cherubim are birds. A common view is that they are humans in embrace, a male and a female.

    Rabbinic etymology explains cherub (k’ruv) as k’ravia, “childlike”. There is an Akkadian verb karabu, “pray or bless”. They might be a genus of angelic protectors. In Gen. 3:24, they stand outside Eden as a distinct group with a specific task.

    To Maimonides, they represent the functioning of nature, including physical/intellectual/spiritual activity. There are two cherubim on the Ark cover; if there were only one, people might think it was the image of the One God. They stretch their wings aloft and look down whilst turning to one another. Abravanel says the wings represent thoughts that soar; turning their faces to one another represents love for everyone.

    In Exodus 25 the cherubim face each other. In II Chron. 3 they “face the (walls of) the house”. Rabbi Yochanan says, “The cherubim face one another when Israel obey the will of God, but not when they disobey it”. Rashbam thinks the cherubim miraculously change position depending on how people behave.

    Maybe the cherubim were ashamed of the later generations and they turned away from each other because of the lack of brotherliness amongst the people.

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