In the midst of the Israelites’ wilderness wandering, God lays out specific instructions regarding the tabernacle and its contents (Exodus 25-31). The first item detailed is the Ark of the Covenant, a chest that represents the Old Testament’s most holy article (Exodus 25:10-22).
Stephen J. Binz (b. 1955) acknowledges:
The ark takes first place among the elements of the Dwelling due to its central importance in the whole structure. It is the symbol and vehicle of God’s nearness with Israel, serving as both container for the symbols of the covenant and as throne for Yahweh’s presence. Its size was unimposing; a cubit [Exodus 25:10] represented the distance from one’s elbow to fingertips. The opulence of its gold plating and molding suggests its importance as the most sacred object in the Dwelling. (Binz, God of Freedom and Life: A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 99)The second half of the instructions describe the construction of the “atonement cover” (MSG, NIV, NLT) or “mercy seat” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NKJV, NSRV, RSV), the box’s top (Exodus 25:17-22). Two golden cherubim (the plural of cherub) are ordered to flank the mercy seat (Exodus 25:18).
You shall make two cherubim of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat. (Exodus 25:18 NASB)It is between these cherubim that God promises to speak to the Israelites (Exodus 25:22).
Douglas K. Stuart (b. 1943) details:
The dimensions of the atonement cover are exactly those of the lid of the ark (see Exodus 25:10) it was designed to fit over precisely. It was to be made of pure gold, not a slab of wood overlaid with gold as the rest of the major surfaces of the ark were. At its ends were two pure “hammered gold” statues of uncertain height (but probably more than a cubit high at the very most and more likely only a few inches high in light of the overall proportions of the ark) that portrayed cherubim. (Stuart, Exodus (The New American Commentary, Vol. 2), 571)Cherubim are supernatural beings often equated with angels. Aside from their name, Exodus provides no further description of the creatures.
Peter Enns (b. 1961) denotes:
The sudden reference to these creatures (in the Pentateuch cherubim also occur in Genesis 3:24 and Numbers 7:89) implies that they need no explanation for the Israelite readers. Cherubim appear not only over the cover but throughout the design of the tabernacle, a sign that the tabernacle is a symbolic representation of God’s heavenly dwelling...The presence of the cherubim also emphasizes the holiness of the ark...It is God’s location above the cover and between the cherubim that has led some scholars to regard the cover as God’s throne and the ark itself his footstool. This is not just a scholarly conjecture. A number of passages speak of God being enthroned between the cherubim (I Samuel 4:4; II Samuel 6:2; Psalm 80:1, 99:1). (Enns, Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary), 512)Cherubim become the first angels to appear in the Bible when they guard the abandoned garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24). In Exodus, they reprise their role as bodyguards, symbolically guarding the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18).
Mark S. Smith (b. 1955) catalogs:
Cherubim guard the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24), and they mark the walls of the Jerusalem temple (I Kings 6:29-32; cf. Ezekiel 41:18-10). In II Samuel 22:11 (Psalm 18:11) the Lord rides his cherub on the wind. Two cherubs make up two sides of a royal throne on a piece of ivory from Megiddo; the comparison suggests that the ark had a propitiatory function as a throne, with the Lord serving as divine king. Adding the sizes of the ark and the propitiatory heights, the seat of the throne stands five feet in height and conjures a picture of a superman-size divine king. (Smith, Exodus (New Collegeville Bible Commentary), 97)The cherubim are one of the most distinctive aspects of the Ark of the Covenant. Waldemar Janzen (b. 1932) lauds:
Its outstanding features are its two cherubim of gold...one mounted on each end of the cover and facing each other (Exodus 25:19-20). Neither their features nor their function are described, beyond the reference to faces and wings...Artists have depicted in diverse ways not only their appearance but also their position on the mercy seat and the way their wings touch each other. (Janzen, Exodus (Believers Church Bible Commentary), 340)John I. Durham (b. 1933) describes:
These cherubs were to be made with their wings spread and stretched out over the Ark-Cover, their bodies turned toward each other, their faces bowed towards the Ark-Cover. The cherubs have usually been connected with Yahweh’s throne, both as guardians and bearers. (Durham, Exodus (Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 3), 359)Richard A. Gabriel (b. 1942) sees a strong parallel between the Ark’s winged cherubim and the Egyptian throne room:
The relief at Abu Simbel...shows Ramses’ cartouche, the Egyptian symbol of the presence of the god that Ramses was regarded to be, flanked on either side by a representation of the falcon god, Horus. The wings of Horus cover pharaoh’s garden throne in a symbol of divine protection. The relief is starkly similar to the description of the wings of the two cherubim that cover and protect Yahweh’s golden throne in the Tabernacle. (Gabriel, The Military History of Ancient Israel, 96)J. Gerald Janzen (b. 1932) adds:
The cherubim resemble figures in Assyrian and Canaanite art that can flank a throne. In the tabernacle, they serve as the throne or throne-flank above which the LORD is invisibly seated. Their symbolism receives added dimension from the reference to cherubim in Genesis 3:24. There, the cherubim guard a sacred garden with its tree of life, intended for human habitation but now guarded from further profanation by those who have violated the life-serving law of that garden. (Janzen, Exodus (Westminster Bible Companion), 195)The ornamentation would have been quite expensive. Gayle A. McCoy estimates:
Made of hammered pure gold, these cherubim, according to Exodus 25:18...were “graven in gold.”...The Bible does not give us an exact size of the cherubim, but we can estimate the approximate size because the cherubim were large enough that their wings touched over the mercy seat (Exodus 25:20). The cherubim could have been cast or molded on an armature making the figures hollow. As we see in...Exodus 25:12, casting was a known Egyptian skill at this time. If sculpture-forming by use of an armature was knot known at that time, the molding could have been on average about half-inch thick...On the other hand, if they were solid gold figures, they would weigh much, much more than hollow figures. Let us assume that they used hollow figures and covered them with approximately 904 lbs. of gold. “Graven,” meaning to carve (Exodus 25:18), is as close as the Bible tells us how the cherubim were formed. Of course, carving is essentially what a sculptor does, whether in wood, stone or clay. (McCoy, God’s Golden Box: The Ark of the Covenant, 83)Exactly what cherubim look like is subject to debate. H.L. Ellison (1903-1983) recognizes:
The cherubim are variously depicted. Here they are not described, but there are variants between Ezekiel 1:5-12, 41:18-10; Revelation 4:6-7. They are apparently the guardian spirits of this earthly creation: the description is symbolic, and so variation is unimportant. (Ellison, Exodus (Old Testament Daily Study Bible Series), 142)James K. Bruckner (b. 1957) adds:
The text does not describe the features of the cherubim in further detail, but it is certain they were not the chubby winged boys of European art. Ezekiel pictures them with four faces each (man, lion, ox, eagle; Ezekiel 10:14) and also with two faces (man and lion; Ezekiel 41:18-19). Tradition describes them as having the face of a man and the body of a bill or lion (like a sphinx). Their functions are to guard holy things and attend the Lord. In Genesis 3:24, cherubim guarded the entrance to the garden of Eden, in order to protect the tree of life. The cherubim are the Lord’s chariot in Psalm 18:10, and also in Ezekiel 10. (Bruckner, Exodus (New International Biblical Commentary), 240-241)Though most likely inaccurate, cherubim have long been associated with childish features. Joel M. Hoffman (b. 1968) traces this fallacy back to the great Jewish rabbi, Rashi (1040-1105):
Rashi [1040-1105] points out that the cherubs have “the image of a child’s face.” His reasoning? The Hebrew word for cherubs is kruvim, a word that happens to sound like the Aramaic word k’ravya. (The similarity is more pronounced in Hebrew than in English transliterations here, because in Hebrew vowels are generally less important than they are in English.) The Aramaic prefix k’ravya means “like child” in Aramaic. Rashi, basing his decision on the mid-first-millennium Babylonian Talmud, concludes that the kruvim must be k’ravya—that is, the cherubs must be “like a child.” (Hoffman, And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning, 29-30)There is one constant in the depiction of cherubim. Jennie R. Ebeling (b. 1972) relays:
The only uniformity among the many examples known from ancient Near Eastern art is that cherubim were winged creatures. Statues and reliefs depicting various types of cherubim have been found at many Near Eastern sites, including Aleppo, Carchemish, and Byblos; carved ivory depictions of cherubim have been found at Samaria and Nimrud. Many examples of colossal winged bulls and other beasts are known from Babylonian and Assyrian palaces and temples. (David Noel Freedman [1922-2008], Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 233)The reason for the winged creatures’ presence atop the mercy seat is not specified. Nahum M. Sarna (1923-2005) concludes:
Whatever the original inspiration, the cherubim of the Tabernacle certainly communicate some concepts of God that are fundamental to the religion of Israel. As bearers of the celestial throne, they evoke belief in divine, transcendent sovereignty. Their permanent place above the Ark expresses God’s immanence—His enduring presence in the covenanated community of Israel. Their outstretched wings represent the idea of consummate mobility, that is, of God’s omnipresence. (Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, 161)What sensation is the imagery of the Ark of the Covenant designed to evoke? What does the architecture of the Ark communicate about God? Why are cherubs perched atop Israel’s holiest artifact? How do you visualize cherubs? Do these cherubim violate the second commandment’s prohibition against graven images?
Some have seen a contradiction between the mandate to adorn the ark with golden cherubim (Exodus 25:18-20) and the disallowance of creating “graven images” issued just five chapters earlier (Exodus 20:4-5; Deuteronomy 4:15- 16). The forbidden graven images are those that would be worshiped as false gods. In contrast, others have used this passage to support the veneration of images, seeing the passage as irrefutable evidence that iconography has an approved place in authorized worship.
Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944) deciphers:
In the Old Testament, alongside the prohibition of humanlike images, it was commanded that sculptural gold images of angels be made. What meaning can we attach to this apparent contradiction, which for some proves that human images were prohibited while for others is proves just the opposite? The portrayal of angels — and this is the crux of the matter — contained human images, in virtue of the cohumanity of angels. Of course they differed from human images in some of their particular traits, that expressed their specifically angelic nature (wings, the absence of gender, a youthful appearance), but these traits did not change the human character of the image itself (just as in general the Old Testament angelophanies were in the human image). Thus, even though the religious reproduction of the human image, the icon of humanity, was prohibited directly, it was prescribed indirectly, in the icons of angels. Why? The reason is obvious: in the portrayals of angels the human image was not darkened by sin. (Bulgakov, Icons and the Name of God, 59-60)Jon E. Roeckelein (b.1937) chronicles:
Curiously, F.L. Cross [1900-1968] and E.A. Livingstone...state that “there is no mention of imagery in the New Testament, as at least from the time of the Maccabees the Palestinian Jews had observed the second commandment religiously” (cf. W.E. Vine [1873-1949] , and a literal distinction between the terms image and imagery; while the term image actually is used in the New Testament [e.g., II Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3], the derivative term imagery as referring to idols, statues, and images–as objects of worship or veneration and as employed in the Old Testament—does not appear in the New Testament.) However, Cross and Livingstone..also state that “[i]t was only when the theological significance of the Incarnation came to be more fully grasped, and what was involved in the fact that God had become visible by making human nature better understood, that, to many, there seemed to be no further obstacle to the use of images and other products of artistic gifts of mankind in the service of the true religion.” (Roeckelein, Imagery in Psychology: A Reference Guide, 135)How does your church visually promote worship? How important is aesthetics to a place of worship? Why? Do visual representations of spiritual ideas help your faith?
“The image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy.” - Ezra Pound (1885-1972), “Affirmations IV: As for Imagisme”. New Age 16.13 (January 28, 1915), pages 349-350