Do We Have Reminders of Cherubim From the Ancient World?

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Do We Have Reminders of Cherubim From the Ancient World?

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Do We Have Reminders of Cherubim From the Ancient World?

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These terms, it’s maintained, were applied to mythological protective beings associated with the stars called lamassu or shedu, which had composite form, with human head, ox or lion body, and eagle’s wings—thus, sphinxes or winged bulls. It’s especially striking how similar these mythological creatures are to the biblical descriptions of cherubim, which also have parts that appear like human beings, lions, oxen and eagles.

Some contend that the Hebrew krub or a related Near Eastern term is the origin of the similar sounding Greek gryps, whence derives the term gryphon or griffin —an eagle-headed lion. It’s been pointed out that “the human-bodied Hittite griffin … unlike other griffins, appear[s] almost always not as a fierce bird of prey, but seated in calm dignity, like an irresistible guardian of holy things” (Wikipedia, “Cherub”).

The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes parallels between the biblical cherubim and “the gigantic composite creatures well known in Assyrian and Babylonian iconographic and glyptic art. These hybrid creatures protected the entrance into temples or palaces. The colossal Assyrian composite creatures unearthed during archaeological excavations provide a fitting example. They have been excavated at the site of ancient Nimrud, where they guarded the doorways to the palace of Ashurbanipal II (883-859 BC). One of these is a winged bull with a human head; another has the body of a lion” (note on Ezekiel 1:5 Ezekiel 1:5Also out of the middle thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.
American King James Version×
).

The same study Bible noted on the cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant in Exodus 25: “These sculpted creatures are most likely winged sphinxes known from a number of other sites throughout the ancient Near East … Such composite creatures have been found in temples and shrines and are often arranged as if guarding the entrance. Their purpose seems to have been protective—to prevent, perhaps only symbolically, unauthorized individuals from entering space where they were not allowed.

“In the Exodus tabernacle, the creatures seem to function as protectors of Yahweh’s presence. They are the last barrier between any possible human entrant and the divine presence. It is not out in front of them but ‘between’ them, says Yahweh, that ‘I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites’ (Exodus 25:22 Exodus 25:22And there I will meet with you, and I will commune with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel.
American King James Version×
). It is therefore also significant that winged composite creatures are found flanking the thrones of kings in the ancient world” (note on Exodus 25:18 Exodus 25:18And you shall make two cherubim of gold, of beaten work shall you make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat.
American King James Version×
).

As to actual appearance, it’s further pointed out that “Ezekiel consistently repeats the expression ‘looked like’ (e.g., vv. 4,5,10,22,26,27), indicating his unwillingness to commit himself to the substantial identity of the seen with the compared. It looked ‘like’ fire, living creatures, a human being, but these buffer terms indicate that this is only a ‘vision.’ This is the sort of language regularly used in reports of dreams and visions” (note on Ezekiel 1:5 Ezekiel 1:5Also out of the middle thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.
American King James Version×
).

How do we account for such remarkable similarities between these mythological creatures from throughout the ancient Near East and the biblical cherubim? A simple answer is that these various popular depictions probably came from dim recollections of the cherubim God had placed at the entrance to the Garden of Eden to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:24 Genesis 3:24So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
American King James Version×
)—angelic creatures that may have been visible to human beings until the Garden of Eden was later destroyed in the Flood of Noah’s day.