Tag Archives: Assyria

Deciphering Bilaam’s End of Days Prophecy

‘Balaam and the Angel’ by John Linnell

This week’s parasha is Balak, named after the Moabite king that sought to curse Israel. Balak hired the sorcerer Bilaam to do the job, but instead of cursing Israel, Bilaam’s mouth would utter blessings and prophecies. The parasha is perhaps most famous for Bilaam’s last prophecy, concerning acharit hayamim, the “End of Days” (Numbers 24:14-25):

“I see it but not now, I behold it, but it is not soon. A star will go forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth. Edom shall be possessed, and Seir shall become the possession of his enemies, and Israel shall triumph.” When he saw Amalek, he took up his parable and said, “Amalek was the first of the nations, and his fate shall be everlasting destruction.” When he saw the keini, he took up his parable and said, “How firm is your dwelling place, and your nest is set in a cliff. For if Cain is laid waste, how far will Assyria take you captive?” He took up his parable and said, “Alas! Who can survive these things from God? Ships will come from the Kittim and afflict Assyria and afflict those on the other side, but he too will perish forever.” Bilaam arose, left, and returned home…

What is the meaning of these cryptic words? The first part seems relatively clear: in the distant future, a leader will arise for Israel who will “uproot all the sons of Seth”, meaning all of mankind, who come from Adam’s third son, Seth. Israel’s enemies will be defeated for good, as will the evil Amalek. Bilaam is, of course, speaking about Mashiach. Then it gets more complicated. Who is the “keini”? Why does he dwell in a nest? What does Cain have to do with anything, and who is Assyria taking captive?

Balak’s Bird

The parasha begins: “And Balak ben Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, and Moab became terrified of the people…” The Zohar comments on the name Balak ben Tzippor (literally “Balak, son of a bird”) by saying that Balak was a powerful sorcerer who was able to do all sorts of witchcraft using various birds. One of those birds was called Yadua, and through it he was able to see visions. What did Balak “see” that made him so terrified of Israel?

The Zohar says that Balak took the Yadua bird as usual and performed his rituals, but this time, the bird flew away. When it returned, he saw the bird engulfed in flames, and this made him fear Israel. Why did the image of a flaming bird strike fear in Balak’s heart? What does this flaming bird have to do with Israel?

The Phoenix

In almost every culture around the world there is a myth of a magical flaming bird. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Bennu, the “solar bird” which lived for 500 years before being reborn from its own egg. The Persians spoke of Simurgh, a peacock-eagle that lived 1700 years before igniting itself in flames, and had lived so long that it saw civilization destroy itself three times. The most famous version of the myth is from the Greeks, who called the flaming bird Phoenix. The name derives from the fact that the bird comes from, and sets its nest, in the land of Phoenicia.

Phoenix by FJ Bertuch (1747-1822)

Phoenicia is another name for Lebanon, whose territories once overlapped with Israel’s. The Phoenicians and Israelites had very similar cultures and used the same alphabet. The Tanakh describes the central role that the Phoenicians played in the construction of the First Temple. They sent skilled artisans and builders, as well as gold and the cedar trees that served as the Temple’s framework. King Solomon gave the Phoenician king Hiram twenty Israelite cities around the Galilee as a gift. The two merged their navies and did business together, and are even described as “brothers” (see I Kings 5).*

In the Greek account, the eternal Phoenix builds its nest in one of the cedars of Lebanon before the nest catches fire and the Phoenix is cremated into ash. From the ashes emerges an egg, and the selfsame Phoenix hatches from it. This story is very similar to one told in the Midrash.

In the Garden of Eden

The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 19:5) describes what Eve did after eating the Forbidden Fruit. She gave some to Adam, and then

… She fed [the Forbidden Fruit] to all the beasts and all the animals and all the birds. All of them listened to her, except for one bird, called Hol, as it says, “Like the hol that has many days” (Job 29:18). The School of Rabbi Yannai said: “It lives for a thousand years; and at the end of a thousand years, fire comes out of its nest and burns it and leaves the size of an egg from it, and it comes back and grows limbs and lives.”

According to the Midrash, it wasn’t just Adam and Eve that ate the Fruit, but all living things had a taste, making them all mortal. However, there was one bird that did not listen to the humans, and flew away, escaping death. It lives one thousand years, then burns to ashes in its nest, and is reborn. Adam, too, was meant to live in segments of one thousand years, being reborn each millennium. However, after eating of the Fruit, his life was capped at a single one thousand year segment. (Of this 1000 years, he gave up 70 to King David, which is why Adam lived 930 years, and David exactly 70. See ‘How Did Adam Live 930 Years?’ for more.)

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) also speaks of this immortal bird. Here, the Phoenix is waiting patiently for Noah to give it food, so he blesses it with eternal life. In both Midrashic and Talmudic passages, the scriptural source is Job 29:18, which speaks of Hol, the Hebrew term for the Phoenix. Why was Balak terrified when he saw an image of the firebird?

The Bird’s Nest

Some of the most ancient Jewish mystical texts are collectively known as Heikhalot, “Palaces”. These texts describe the ascents of various sages to the Heavens, and their descriptions of what they see. For example, Heikhalot Zutrati describes the ascent of Rabbi Akiva while Heikhalot Rabbati describes that of Rabbi Ishmael. In their description of the Heavenly architecture, the residence of Mashiach is called kan tzippor, the “Bird’s Nest”. This moniker is used throughout later Kabbalistic texts as well. Mashiach is said to be dwelling in a bird’s nest.

Mashiach’s role can be summarized in this way: his task is to complete the various spiritual rectifications (tikkunim) and return humanity to the Garden of Eden. Central to this is restoring a world without death—the world of resurrection. Note how Jewish prayers never request for us to enter some kind of ethereal afterlife in the Heavens, but rather to merit techiyat hametim, the resurrection of the dead, here in the earthly Garden of Eden. The Sages refer to that world as Olam HaBa, the world to come; not some other world or dimension, but the coming world that is here. (See here for more on the Jewish perspective on the afterlife.)

Mashiach is the one who is supposed to defeat death and usher in that world of resurrection. The Sages actually describe two messiahs: Mashiach ben Yosef, and Mashiach ben David. The role of Mashiach ben Yosef is to fight Israel’s wars and defeat its enemies, paving the way for Mashiach ben David to re-establish God’s kingdom. However, amidst the great battles, Mashiach ben Yosef is supposed to die. This is first mentioned in the Talmud (Sukkah 52a):

What is the cause of the mourning [at the End of Days]? Rabbi Dosa and the other rabbis differ on the point. One explained: the cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef; the others explained: the cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination… Our Rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Mashiach ben David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days), “Ask of Me anything, and I will give it to thee”… When [ben David] will see that Mashiach ben Yosef is slain, he will say to Him, “Master of the Universe, I ask of Thee only the gift of life.” God answered him: “As to life, your father David has already prophesied this concerning you, as it is said, ‘He asked life of Thee, Thou gavest it him, [even length of days for ever and ever].’” (Psalms 21:5)

The Talmud links the death of Mashiach ben Yosef with the death of all evil. Mashiach ben David will then ask God to restore Mashiach ben Yosef to life, and God answers that He had already granted that request long ago to David himself, as seen from a verse in Psalms. Ben Yosef will die, then return to life, followed by the return of all the righteous dead after him.

Not surprisingly then, the symbol of Mashiach ben Yosef is a Phoenix, and he dwells in a “bird’s nest”. The Phoenix is said to take residence in the cedars of Lebanon, which is also associated with Mashiach ben Yosef, as it says in Psalms 92:13: “The righteous one will flourish like a palm tree, he shall grow like a cedar in the Lebanon”. [For those who like gematria, the term “cedar” (ארז) has the same value as “ben Yosef” (בן יוסף).]

‘Phoenix’ is one of the 88 constellations in the night’s sky. A modern map is on the left, and a 1742 depiction from Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr’s Atlas Coelestis is on the right. Every year, a meteor shower (called the Phoenicids) appears at the Phoenix constellation, from July 3 to July 18.

Warships in Syria

This is precisely what Balak feared when he saw the Phoenix. He realized that his plot to destroy Israel would fail miserably. Moreover, he saw that he would be the very ancestor of Mashiach, since he is a great-grandfather of Ruth, who is the great-grandmother of David! Unable to work his own magic, Balak summoned another sorcerer, Bilaam. It is highly appropriate that Bilaam’s final prophecy was regarding the End of Days and the coming of Mashiach.

Bilaam sees the “keini” in his nest—Mashiach—and says “… if Cain is laid waste, how far will Assyria take you captive?” What does Mashiach have to do with Cain? The Arizal explains that the tikkun associated with Cain is the most significant, for Cain is the one who actually brought death into the world. He is the first murderer, having killed his brother Abel. Abel’s was the first ever death. If Mashiach is to remove death from the world for good, he must rectify that primordial event.

And so, Mashiach ben Yosef is a reincarnation of Cain, and he must die as a measure for measure rectification for Cain’s murder of Abel. And who is Abel? Mashiach ben David, the one who brings about the resurrection of Mashiach ben Yosef! The brothers finally make peace. Cain and Abel are the two messiahs, and their mission is to restore peace to the entire world—after all, they were the ones that brought conflict into the world to begin with.

What did Bilaam say? He saw the keini, the one of Cain, in his nest. He is taken captive by Assyria—amidst a great battle that brings massive warships from the West—and “will perish”. He must perish because he is Mashiach ben Yosef, and through his demise all death and evil die with him. With these words, Bilaam fittingly ends his prophecy of the End of Days, for that event is the very end of the world as we know it, and the start of an entirely new era into which even Bilaam could not peer.

This week in the news: the USS George HW Bush, one of the largest warships in the world, docks in Haifa, Israel, on its way to a mission in Syria. Does the current Syrian conflict play into Bilaam’s prophecy?


*After the kingdoms of Phoenicia and Israel were destroyed, their outpost of Carthage in North Africa remained. This trading post had become a powerful city-state, and challenged Rome for control of the Mediterranean. The greatest Carthaginian leader was Hannibal. While many are familiar with Hannibal, few are aware of his last name, Barak (Latinized as Barca). Recall that the Biblical Barak was Deborah’s military general. He hailed from the tribe of Naphtali, and it is precisely from this region that Solomon gave Hiram twenty cities. Considering that Hiram and Solomon had combined their navies and traded together across the Mediterranean and Red Sea together, it is very possible that Carthage was one of the joint Israelite-Phoenician outposts, and Hannibal was a descendent of the Biblical Barak! Interestingly, Hannibal spent the last years of his life in Greek Syria, and helped Antiochus III conquer Judea. Unlike his son Antiochus IV (of Chanukah fame), Antiochus III was very friendly with the Jews, and supported Jerusalem’s Temple.

How Jacob Prophesied All of Jewish History

This week’s parasha, the last of the Book of Genesis, is Vayechi, which focuses on the last years and days of Jacob’s life. A large section of the parasha recounts Jacob’s final words to his sons. We read that “Jacob called for his sons and said, ‘Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the End of Days.’” (Genesis 49:1) And yet, as we read on, we seemingly see little about the End of Days. Instead, we are presented with a challenging passage that mixes blessings and prophecies, and is full of code words and puzzling metaphors. Rashi comments that Jacob “attempted to reveal the End, but the Shekhinah withdrew from him. So he began to say other things.” More mystical commentaries suggest that he did indeed say what will happen at the End of Days, but in cryptic fashion.

jacob-blessing-his-twelve-sons-dalzielOver the centuries, much meaning has been drawn from Jacob’s enigmatic words, and they have been interpreted in a wide variety of ways. A careful reading will reveal a great deal of insight from each “blessing” that Jacob gave to each child. While each blessing seems to stand on its own and have no relation to the next, a closer look suggests that the blessings are actually all part of one logical and chronological sequence. In fact, in one relatively brief passage, the Torah secretly embeds all of Jewish history!

Reuben and the Exodus

The first blessing was given to Jacob’s firstborn, Reuben:

Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first-fruits of my might. Superior in rank and superior in power, [but] restless like water; [therefore] you shall not have superiority, for you ascended upon your father’s couch; then you profaned Him Who ascended upon my bed.

Jacob calls Reuben his reshit and bekhori. In his commentary on the first words of Genesis, Rashi proves that the word reshit always refers to the Jewish people. Similarly, God often calls Israel his “firstborn” nation. In fact, we first see this in the narrative of the Exodus (4:22), where God instructs Moses to relate to Pharaoh: “Thus says Hashem: Israel is My son, My firstborn [bekhori].” The first verse of Jacob’s blessing suggests that his words will describe the future of the Jewish people.

The next verse states that “you ascended upon your father’s couch” and profaned Hashem. While the simple meaning refers to Reuben’s sin in “mounting his father’s bed” (Genesis 35:22), the deeper reference is to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, who profaned Hashem by worshipping the Golden Calf. Following the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai, God had given Israel complete superiority and the highest rank among the nations, all of which they lost (at least temporarily) when they sinned with the Calf – as Jacob quite clearly alludes.

Shimon, Levi, and the Era of Judges

Following Sinai, the Israelites travelled to the borders of the Holy Land. Instead of eagerly conquering and settling it, the nation sent a group of spies who returned with a negative report, convincing the nation to stay put. Because of this, God decreed forty years of wandering in the wilderness, after which the people were ready to enter the land of Israel.

The Borders of the Twelve Tribes and Locations of Some Major Judges

The Borders of the Twelve Tribes and Locations of Some Major Judges

When they did, they were unsuccessful in settling the land as God had directed, and failed to rid the Holy Land of idolatry and immorality. This brought about perhaps the most difficult period of Jewish history – the era of Shoftim, Judges – where Israel was constantly under the tyrannical rule of some warlord, and where the Israelites tribes often fought bitterly amongst themselves. As the Tanakh often repeats in describing this time period (see for example, Judges 17:6 and 21:25): “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”

All of the above is prophesized by Jacob’s next blessing, to Shimon and Levi:

Shimon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence is their kinship. Let my soul not come into their council; unto their assembly let my glory not be united; for in their anger they slew men, and in their will they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

Jacob clearly references this period when the nation will divide up the Holy Land and settle across it. He reprimands them for the anger and brotherly hatred they will show one another, and rebukes them for their violence and civil war. Not surprisingly, Jacob wants nothing to do with this difficult period of Jewish history.

Judah’s Dynasty

The cruel period of Judges finally ended with the establishment of the monarchy. After a very brief period of rule by King Saul, David took over and established a new, everlasting dynasty. God promised to David – who is from the tribe of Judah – that his descendants will forever be the rightful kings of Israel, until the time of Mashiach, who himself will be a descendent of David. This is precisely what Jacob prophesies in his next blessing:

Judah: you, your brothers will acknowledge. Your hand will be at the nape of your enemies; your father’s sons will prostrate themselves to you… The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the scholar from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him will be a gathering of peoples…

Jacob makes clear that Judah is destined for royalty, and to him the other tribes will prostrate. This will be an eternal dynasty – from whom the scepter shall not depart. “Shiloh” is one of the titles of Mashiach. Rashi explains the term comes from shelo, “his”, since the renewed kingdom will belong to him, following the “gathering of peoples”, ie. kibbutz galuyot, the end of the exile and return of all Jews to Israel.

The Kingdom of Israel

Map of Israel in the 9th Century BCE, showing the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel

Map of Israel in the 9th Century BCE, showing the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel

Unfortunately, David’s dynasty didn’t hold onto its rule as planned. After King Solomon, the nation divided once again, this time into two kingdoms. In the south was the Kingdom of Judah, ruled by the Davidic dynasty, while in the north was the Kingdom of Israel, ruled by leaders from the tribe of Ephraim. This is described by Jacob in the next blessing:

Zebulun will dwell on the coast of the seas; he [will be] at the harbor of the ships, and his boundary will be at Zidon.

Looking at a map of ancient Israel, one sees how the northern Kingdom of Israel was situated right along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, all around the coasts of the Sea of Galilee, and by the shores of the Jordan. Its territories stretched as far north as Zidon (or Sidon) in Phoenicia. This is precisely the description given by Jacob.

Assyria and Babylon

Ultimately, both kingdoms would collapse: the northern at the hands of the Assyrians, and the southern at the hands of the Babylonians shortly after. The nation was dispersed all across Assyrian and Babylonian lands. In the latter case, they were taken in chains, as indentured servants. Again, Jacob prophesies this in perfect detail in his next blessing:

Issachar is a large-boned donkey, lying between the boundaries. He saw a resting place, that it was good, and the land, that it was pleasant, and he bent his shoulder to bear [burdens], and he became an indentured labourer.

Jacob says how Issachar is “between the boundaries” – no longer in his own land, and exiled from place to place. He has become a mas oved, an “indentured labourer”. Unfortunately, most of the exiled Israelites eventually grew accustomed to their new lands, which they saw as “good” and “pleasant”. For this reason, when the door to return to the Holy Land was reopened, most chose to stay abroad, and only small numbers returned to rebuild Israel.

Returning to Israel & the Second Temple

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great

It was the Persian King Cyrus that brought down the Babylonian Empire and allowed the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. For his role in the salvation of the nation, the Tanakh (Isaiah 45:1) calls him “Mashiach”! This salvation is what Jacob hopes for in his next blessing:

Dan will avenge his people; like one, the tribes of Israel. Dan will be a serpent on the road, a viper on the path, which bites the horse’s heels, so its rider falls backwards. For Your salvation, I hope, O Lord!

Jacob states how Dan will be k’echad shivtei Israel. This literally means that the tribes of Israel will become one. This is precisely what happened in the Second Temple era, when tribal affiliation was lost and forgotten, and all Israel simply became “Jewish” (because of the dominant tribe – Judah). In this era, the Jews no longer enjoyed independence, and were subject to a sequence of powerful empires: the Persian, then the Greek, and finally the Roman. To avoid destruction at the hands of these empires, the underdog Israel had to become like a “serpent”, deceptively “biting the horse’s heel” to make its rider fall back.

Purim & Chanukah

Two monumental events happened during this time period, each of which we commemorate with its own holiday. Purim recalls how Haman prepared a genocide against the Jews, yet in miraculous fashion, lost all of his power and prestige. His forces fell into disarray, and the Jews were able to fight them off quickly. Jacob’s next blessing says the same:

Gad: a troop shall troop upon him; but he shall troop upon their heel.

A troop marches against Gad, but he is ultimately able to overpower them, making them retreat on their heels. Interestingly, the word gad means “luck” or “fortune”. This is related to Purim, which means “lotteries” and deals with the theme of luck, since Haman picked the date of the genocide by casting lots, and the Jews were seemingly “lucky” in their salvation. God is never explicitly mentioned in the Purim story; everything seems to happen by chance. Yet, each part of the story screams out God’s miraculous presence.

A few centuries later, it is the Syrian-Greeks who are trying to extinguish Judaism, but the Jews miraculously fight off their oppressors yet again. The Maccabees recapture the Holy Temple, and relight the Menorah with just one cruse of oil that ends up lasting eight days. The Maccabees go on to re-establish a semi-independent Jewish kingdom, controversially appointing themselves the new kings under the banner of the Hasmonean dynasty. This is described by Jacob precisely:

As for Asher, his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal delicacies.

Jacob says shmenah lachmo, which literally means “his bread will be oily”, but can also mean “his warriors will be oily”! (The word for bread – lechem – and the word for warrior – lochem – share a root and are nearly identical.) This is a clear reference to the Maccabee warriors and their miracle of oil. The second part of the blessing says that Asher will give ma’adanei melekh, “royal delicacies”, a reference to Hasmonean royalty.

Exile and Mashiach

The Hasmonean period came to a close with the arrival of the Romans. At first living in relative harmony, the Romans would eventually destroy the Second Temple, and exile the Jews from the Holy Land. This would usher in the last and longest exile of Israel.

sanhedrinHowever, it also led to the necessity of the Sages to record the Oral Tradition, thus producing the Mishnah. This Mishnah was then discussed, analyzed, and debated by the following generations, which brought the Talmud. Of course, it is the Talmud that makes up the major corpus of Judaism, and preserves the authentic interpretation of the Torah. It was also in this period that the texts of Jewish prayers and blessings were finalized, and in this period that the Tanakh was formally sealed. In lieu of a Temple, synagogues and study halls began popping up in all Jewish communities. It was therefore in this time period – following the Temple’s destruction by Rome – that Judaism as we know it was born. Jacob says:

Naphtali is a hind let loose, who gives beautiful words.

Naphtali is described as an ayalah sheluchah, which literally means a hind (or gazelle, or deer) that has been sent forth, like the Jews who were sent out of their land by the Romans. The second part says Naphtali speaks imrei shafer, “beautiful” or “improved sayings”. This may well be a reference to the beautiful sayings and teachings of the Mishnah and Gemara, which resulted directly from exile.

The bitter Roman exile is one in which we still find ourselves in. Over the past two thousand years, Jews have been despised, expelled, slaughtered, and suffered every kind of atrocity. Nonetheless, we have survived and prospered, and continued to make a huge impact on the world. This is what Jacob says to Joseph:

Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine by a fountain; its branches run over the wall. The archers have dealt bitterly with him, and shot at him, and hated him. But his bow remained firm, and the arms of his hands were made supple, by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob, from there, from the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel. The God of your father will help you, and the Almighty shall bless you, with blessings of Heaven above…

While ben porat Yosef, ben porat alei ayin is often translated as “Joseph is a charming son; a charming son to the eye,” it has also been translated in the above way, as Joseph being a fruitful vine (which makes more sense when the whole verse is taken together). We see Jacob describing the bitter exile, with all of the hate and suffering heaped upon Israel. But the nation survives with God’s help and blessing.

It is interesting to note how Jacob mentions a wall in the first verse. The Romans left but one relic of the Holy Temple – its western retaining wall. This is the Wall that Jews still flock to, and to which they direct their prayers.

The exile will finally end with the coming of Mashiach, who will defeat Israel’s enemies once and for all, put an end to evil, and restore the Jews to their original borders. This is Jacob’s final blessing:

Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he will devour, and in the evening he will divide the spoils.

Ben-yamin is literally the “righteous son”, Mashiach, who will cause evil “to be devoured”, and will divide Israel back along its original tribal borders. Here, Rashi quotes Onkelos as saying “the spoils” refer to the Temple and its sacred vessels. The Temple will finally be rebuilt for the Jews, who all return to their Promised Land. With this closing chapter of history, Jacob concludes his blessings.

The Zohar comments on the first word of the parasha, Vayechi, that this final prophecy of Jacob was on the very highest level, equal to the unique prophetic ability of Moses. Indeed, Jacob saw thousands of years into the future, and beheld the entirety of Jewish history, which he then poetically summarized to his children in one short, incredible monologue.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

Courtesy: Temple Institute

The Guardian Angels and Hybrid Beasts Known as Cherubs

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, relates God’s instructions to the Israelites for constructing the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle. The most important part of this elaborate structure was undoubtedly the Aron HaKodesh, the Ark of the Covenant. Throughout the centuries, this gold-plated Ark has often been depicted in art, history, and even film (perhaps most notably with Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark). However, what the Ark actually looked like is hard to discern. The Ark disappeared two and a half thousand years ago when the First Temple was destroyed. Since then, many different versions and interpretations for its appearance have been proposed, both by Jewish Sages and secular scholars.

Common Depiction of the Ark

Common Depiction of the Ark

The issue is not so much with the Ark itself, since the Torah is pretty clear on its description: a box two and a half cubits long, one and a half cubits wide, and one and a half cubits high, made of wood and plated with gold from the inside and out. (A cubit is somewhere in the area of two feet long.) What’s not so clear is the part that follows: the Ark’s cover, with its two golden Cherubs.

What is a Cherub (kruv, in Hebrew)? The only descriptor the Torah gives is that the Cherubs had wings. Rashi, drawing from the Talmud, comments on verse 25:18 that they had the face of a child. The Torah describes the two as being set on the cover ish el echav, literally “a man facing his brother”. This suggests a human form to the Cherubs, along with their child-like face and wings. Indeed, this is how the Cherubs are generally depicted. The reality may be quite different, though. A look at the historical and Biblical evidence may shed some more light as to the true identity of the Cherubs.

Raphael's Cherubs, from his 'Sistine Madonna'

Raphael’s Cherubs, from his ‘Sistine Madonna’

The Evidence

A similar word for the Hebrew term kruv is found across the languages of the Ancient Near East: kuribu in Akkadian, karabu or kirubu in Babylonian and Assyrian. These refer to very large statues placed at entrances to important venues which served as guardians. They had the body of a bull or lion, with wings, and a human head. At times, they were worshipped as guardian deities.

Assyrian Karibu, now housed at the University of Chicago

Assyrian Kirubu, now housed at the University of Chicago

Karibu at the Louvre

Kirubu at the Louvre

This parallels the Torah’s original description of Cherubs. The very first time Cherubs appear is in Genesis 3:24. Following Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, God placed Cherubs to guard the entrance to Eden so that man could not return. Like the Mesopotamian kuribu, the Cherubs are guarding an entrance.

This could be why the Cherubs were placed atop the Ark, again as guardians of the holy vessel. When the Tanakh describes how King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings, chapter 6), it states that Solomon had two massive ten-cubit high Cherubs placed at the entrance to the Holy of Holies (the room in which the Ark of the Covenant was kept). The following chapter describes them as kruvim arayot, “Cherub-Lions” (7:36). Not only do we once again see the Cherubs as guarding an entrance, but we now have some evidence that the Cherubs had a lion-like appearance, just as the Mesopotamian kuribu often had.

All of this appears to hint to a famous passage in the Bible: Ezekiel’s Vision of the Chariot.

Ezekiel’s Chariot

In the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, we are given a detailed description of the Merkavah, the Divine Chariot:

“And I looked, and, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, a great cloud, with a fire flashing up, a brightness was all around it; and from within the appearance of electrum, out of the midst of the fire. And from within it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. And every one had four faces, and every one of them had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot… As for the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man; and all four had the face of a lion on the right side; and all four had the face of an ox on the left side; all four had also the face of an eagle.” (1:4-10)

Ezekiel describes his angelic vision, with winged figures that have attributes of a lion, an ox, an eagle, and the appearance of a man. The figures are leading the way for the Divine Chariot, again serving as sentries or guardians.

This description allows us to potentially synthesize the Torah’s description of Cherubs with the historical and Biblical evidence: human-like winged creatures with aspects of a lion and a bull or ox. Although Cherubs are not explicitly mentioned in Ezekiel’s account, the Merkava, or Chariot, is explicitly mentioned, and it shares the same root letters (k-r-v or r-k-v) as Cherubs, kruvim.

We can draw further proof from the Book of Psalms, which states that God “rode upon a Cherub, and flew, and swooped down upon the wings of the wind,” (18:11) as well as from II Samuel, which says God “rode upon a Cherub, and flew, and was seen upon the wings of the wind,” (22:11). Clearly, the Cherubs are associated with the Divine Chariot, so it isn’t hard to relate them to Ezekiel’s vision.

So, are the Cherubs innocent child-like, winged angels, as depicted in art, or are they powerful Heavenly guardians with the hybrid qualities of various majestic beasts?

Ultimately, we may never know the true appearance of the Cherubs. Perhaps they are not even concrete entities, but rather metaphorical devices or prophetic visions, like the Divine Chariot is often interpreted to be. Whatever the case, we may just have to rethink the way we commonly draw the Ark of the Covenant and its Cherubs.