Ezekiel describes the Cherub as having four faces and four wings. What exactly these four aspects represent is never stated clearly, but the subject offers a bountiful source of meditation. Here is one idea: each of the four faces may correspond to a different realm of nature—lion (wild), ox (domestic), eagle (air), man (man). And in fact, each of these four animals is lord over its realm—the lion is king of beasts, the ox is the mightiest of the domestic creatures, the eagle is king of the air, and man has dominion over them all by virtue of his intellect. What is important, beyond any specific ideas attached to each of the animal faces, is the fact that there are four of them, each unique, and each presumably facing in one of the four cardinal directions (as in Genesis).
In the divine Man, these four natures, at variance with one another, work together in unity. Like the energy produced from the opposing winds in the whirlwind, these four spirits whirl about one another to create a massive energy of coordinated opposition. No one of the four natures is supreme—rather, it is the space between them that renders spiritual vitality possible. If the lion, for example, were to gain ascendancy over the other three, the balance would be thrown off, and the creature would dissolve itself into chaos. All four are necessary and must be kept whirling against one another within their limits, creating a spinning order like a gyroscope. The four wings emphasize this motion, and the importance of their unity (they are “joined one to another”) is also pointed out. Further, Ezekiel describes wheels covered with eyes which roll along with the Cherubim, stating that “the spirit of the cherubim was in the wheels.” The wheel is elaborated as having a “wheel in the middle of a wheel.” This suggests, once more, the idea of coordinated opposition as the wheels spin, one within the other. Together, the faces, wings and wheels suggest a whirlwind motion, echoing the previous verses. This is the nature of spirituality—a constantly striving, opposing, changing, twirling nature, never at rest and never off balance. The life of the flying spirit can never hold still—to stop moving would be death and spiritual entropy. Ceaseless mobility is required—the root of repentance is to change, and we must continually transform and keep in motion for our spirits to live. This is why the LORD issues the ultimatum: repent or die. That is simply how our spirits are structured—the LORD is not threatening to kill us; rather, he is pleading with us to save ourselves by protean metamorphoses from the relentless decay of the cold, entropic, universe.
The feet of the Cherub are straight and hooved, offering a balancing vision to the frenetic energy of the four faces/wings. The feet sparkle like “burnished brass” and when the Cherubim move, they go “straight forward.” The whirling spiritual energies are channeled into disciplined, purposeful, controlled movements.
The appearance of the Cherubim is described as “like burning coals of fire,” and like “lamps.” The fire goes up and down in the midst of the creatures, rather like the purifying fire infolding itself, which I previously touched on. And again, it is in between the creatures that we find the fire. The Cherubim are filled with bright spiritual fire, which burns against the ashes of the universe of death. Victor Hugo, who later published a volume of poetry entitled The Four Winds of the Spirit, partook of some of Ezekiel's prophetic spirit when he expressed this concept with passionate clarity:
Well have I filled my drinking cup; you dash Your wings at it, yet none of it is gone. My spirit has more fire than you have ash And more love than you have oblivion!
Ezekiel’s vision is of a being in perpetual motion, animated by coordinated opposition, seething with inner fire, and governed by brazen discipline. Ezekiel’s fourfold Cherub is his image of the Human Form Divine.
Inside the cloud, or whirlwind, Ezekiel perceives a “fire infolding itself,” along with a “brightness” in th midst of the fire “as the color of amber.” The fire, like the opposing ruah of the whirlwind, create sin itself an energetic vortex of circular inward motion. The fire also reinforces the purifying aspect of the Presence of the LORD. The Psalmist sang, as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God (Psalm 68:2).” The dross is burned away, and only the strongest portions remain—Ezekiel looks to the LORD with his own answering flame.
The brightness Ezekiel witnesses is also indicative of the power of the Presence of God, but it is not God, whose appearance has yet to come. The brightness is the color of amber, fossilized resin of ancient time. Amber is a distillation of life, marrow of a tree, perhaps also old life to be supplanted by new life. The brightness will soon be replaced by diviner presences, and then the actual appearance of God Himself. The brightness actually makes it difficult to perceive God at first. I am reminded of Blake’s memorable quatrain:
God appears and God is light To those poor souls who dwell in night; But does a human form display To those who dwell in realms of day.
Ezekiel, as a visionary of the highest order, certainly dwelt in realms of day, if anyone ever has.
And indeed, when the cherubim appear, they do display a “human form.” Ezekiel writes: “out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.” Ezekiel’s Cherub is in the form of a man. In interpreting Ezekiel’s Cherub, then, we are interpreting Ezekiel’s vision of what Man is. Divine Man is God’s Throne.
As Ezekiel stands at this border between present captivity and nostalgia for former freedom, the heavens are opened. This is significant—Israel is closed in, hedged up, locked away, and bound up in exile. The heavens open to release the captive from their chains and offer a new kind of freedom. It is then that the vision begins, with a whirlwind coming out of the North, the traditional direction of God’s realm (Psalm 48:2). Whirlwinds also act as heralds announcing the imminent approach of the LORD in Elijah’s theophany on the mountaintop, and later carries him to the presence of God in a heavenly chariot. It is the impassive whirlwind which delivers God’s message of the nothingness of man to a terrified Job (and it is also a “great wind from the wilderness” that kills his children). Isaiah also describes a whirlwind, in terms that bear a marked resemblance to Ezekiel’s vision: "For behold, the Eternal will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind" (Isaiah 46:15). The whirlwind coming from the north is the terrible and majestic power of God flowing from the source of His Presence. Whirlwinds are employed as images of awesome and destructive force throughout the Bible, often utilized to destroy the wicked in an overwhelming force of shattering divinity. The fact that Ezekiel remains standing at this point without being dissolved says much about his toughness of character. An encounter with God strips a man of his superficialities and communicates directly and awfully with his center. If there is nothing at his center, he is destroyed. The power of God, like a whirlwind, blasts away and dismantles anything merely ostensible or unstable. The whirlwind strips away Ezekiel’s external husks so that his central seed is exposed to the full power of the LORD directly. The heavens were opened, and now Ezekiel himself has been opened. The doors to his "little sanctuary" have been blasted off their hinges.
The whirlwind is further described as “a great cloud,” a phrase surely meant to remind readers of the “pillar of cloud” described in Exodus (13:21-22). This pillar of cloud served as a guide to the Israelites on their forty-year journey through the wilderness between the captivity of Egypt and the freedom of the Promised Land. The “great cloud” of Ezekiel’s vision also appears as a guide between the realms of captivity and freedom. The captives in Chaldea were sorely in need of a guiding presence as they wandered through the wilderness of exile and captivity. The cloud also serves to cover the terrible presence of the LORD, in order to protect mortal eyes. Direct contact with God would mean an instant melting away for anyone unprepared for such an encounter. God hides Himself within symbolic forms as a boundary, protecting our own frail frames from disintegration (cf. Exodus 19:24).
Whirlwinds often arise in desert areas and indeed take the form of a pillar of cloud. Such a whirlwind is created when local winds start to spin on the ground. This causes a "funnel" to form, which moves over the ground, pushed by the winds that first formed it. The funnel picks up debris as it moves over the ground, becoming a visible whirlwind, with a vortex at its center. A vortex is a spiraling flow with a circular motion. Interestingly, there is also a type of galaxy called a “spiral galaxy,” which is characterized by a thin, rotating disk, and created by a similar phenomenon, albeit on a cosmic scale. Since the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, the galaxy in which we live is essentially a gigantic whirlwind. So, the whirlwind may be seen as a microcosm of the entire universe, or, conversely, a macrocosm of the individual man. If we study the formation process of whirlwinds in biblical terms, we begin to understand more of what this powerful image suggests. In Hebrew, the same word (ruah) is used to describe Spirit, breath, and wind. Because a whirlwind occurs when opposing winds (ruah) meet, we learn that the opposition of mighty spirits creates a circular, invisible form of incredible power. The powerful metaphor of the whirlwind emphasizes the nature of coordinated oppositions which we will discover in the fourfold Cherubim—opposing forces creating spiritual energy. Nahum tells us that “the LORD hath his way in the whirlwind (Nahum 1:3).” In the form of these spirits whirling in a divine counterpoint of opposition is inscribed the pattern of the universe, of God Himself, and of the godly man.
Ezekiel stands on the banks of the river Chebar. The river flows as a watery border between freedom and captivity. Babylon lies on one side, along with captivity and chains, while somewhere on the other side of the line shines the memory of Israel, the beloved holy land. Ezekiel will constantly find himself not on one side or the other of anything, but always between. Later, Ezekiel will be lifted up by a lock of his hair, again by God’s own hand, “between the earth and the heaven” in his terrifying visionary tour of sinful Jerusalem. The space between the wheels of the divine chariot will also prove important. Indeed, the word between is used more often in the Book of Ezekiel than in any other book in the Bible, appearing on practically every other page. Visionary experience occurs between heaven and earth, because it is not the same as literal quantifiable experience, nor is it a wholly transcendent "spiritual" otherness, completely foreign to our worldly existence. It is a unification, finding a connection between the mundane and the sublime, breaking a wall and replacing it with a bridge. The ability to flit back and forth between realities like a hummingbird is the special gift of angels, children, and prophets. The spaces between things are as vital a part of reality as the things themselves, and in the connections formed thereby, the most vital expressions of life may be found. As long as things remain unconnected, they remain broken. The dualism between literal experience and spiritual experience is a false dilemma in many ways, perpetuated by the discrete-ism of Enlightenment science. For science and history turn hard literal nuggets called facts into fetishes. A literalist, mechanical view rejects unquantified spiritual experience as subjective and unverifiable. They would contend that Ezekiel’s visions all took place inside his head, and diagnose him with bipolar disorder or some manner of schizophrenia. An equally distorted view would be to reject the literal, ignore contradictory evidence, and only follow whatever one deems as purely “spiritual feelings”, regardless of anything outside oneself. The literal is outside, the spiritual inside.
Encounters with the divine take place between the inside and the outside, on the border between the literal and spiritual, the border between Babylon and Jerusalem, between earth and heaven. It is on this border that true living occurs, all creativity and all acts of Imagination. Ezekiel’s vision was not literal—the other captives on the bank saw nothing—nor was it entirely spiritual—Ezekiel did not have a “feeling” that he should do something. Rather, he had an encounter with divinity. His vision occurred in the realm of Creative Imagination—beyond body or mind or spirit but just as pragmatically real and solid as any or all of them. The visionary realm is located precisely between the literal and spiritual, and contains aspects of both.
At this point we must engage with Ezekiel’s gigantic cherubinic vision by the river Chebar, and grimly say, with Esther, “If I perish, I perish.” Ezekiel begins his vision (and his book) with a very brief prologue. He starts out by specifying the precise moment in time and exact location in which he received his prophetic call: “in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar.” This precision emphasizes not only the importance of the call to Ezekiel, but also the essential "nowness" of its nature—he was prophesying to his particular people on this particular day. Ezekiel addressed himself not to the past or even the future so much as the present. In verse two, Ezekiel goes over the time again, emphasizing the length of the drudgery and misery of the captivity. The captives have been waiting moment by moment, day by day, month after month, for deliverance. Ezekiel was already a priest at this time, and so was a kind of representative of the Israelite people as an aggregate. He had been brought, with many others of his people, to Babylon as captives following the destruction of Jerusalem. This exile, an event the prophets of the time (such as Jeremiah) had been discussing for decades, created an enormous shift in worship practices. Previously, the Israelites had gathered to the temple on the holy days to offer sacrifice and participate in ritual purification. Now, with the temple destroyed and the holy city occupied, a new, more internal form of spirituality was required. Ezekiel addresses the problem thus:
“Thus saith the Lord GOD; Although I have cast them far off among the heathen, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they shall come.”
In spite of the fact that the absence of a temple, or sanctuary, nullified many aspects of their religion, Yahweh would become a “little sanctuary,” or temple, within each of His scattered children. Rather than being cast out from spiritual experience, Israel had merely to adjust it’s spiritual expectations. No longer would the sacrificial order of temple ritual be necessary—instead religion had migrated inward as Israel had migrated outward. Ezekiel further clarifies the new concept:
“I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh.”
The stony heart of communal temple ritual (the temple was constructed of stone) was replaced by the fleshy heart of internal, individual religious experience. The exiled Israelites, cast out of their beloved and holy land, each carried within them a piece of God, and in Him could find their “sanctuary.” Like all of us, exiled from the presence of God, the Israelites have been granted an inner light with which they may commune with the distant divinity.
The hand of the LORD lights upon Ezekiel and opens the heavens to reveal the magnificent vision that is to come. The hand of the LORD acts in many different ways throughout the Bible. In this case, is it ordaining him to his prophetic call? Smiting him with the fury of vision? Pressing him down with it’s extraordinary power? Lifting him up, nearer to the presence of God? Embracing him with divine love? The hand, as a symbol, generally refers to the possibility of action. The hand of the LORD is upon Ezekiel to impart to him the powers of godlike action—the ability to prophesy, or proclaim, the grandeur of God’s vision.
The term "cherub" comes up in the Bible almost from the outset, with the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. After Yahweh creates the universe by organizing it from primordial chaos, He plants a Garden called Eden. This garden is a paradise of blurry innocence. There is no aggression, no death, and no sexuality. There are no hard edges to identity, and indeed Adam and Eve are originally created together as a sort of hermaphroditic man-woman creature (cf. Aristophanes' delightful riff in Plato's Symposium), before Yahweh separates them into a two distinct individuals. Adam and Eve live in an infantile state, like blissful babies who are not aware of any selfhood or otherness, having no needs beyond the giant, engulfing warmth of the mother’s breast.
In addition to the many pleasant trees and plants in the garden of Eden, there are two trees which possess supernatural powers—the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” In partaking of it’s fruit and opening their eyes to knowledge, Adam and Eve lose their innocence and transform their idyllic world into a harsh kingdom ruled by the bloody tyranny of nature. When they are cast out of Eden and into this bleak world, and Yahweh reasons thusly: “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:” and elects to place at the east of the garden of Eden “Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way to keep the way of the tree of life.” The “Cherubims” turn every way, presumably in the four cardinal directions, as did the four rivers which sprang from the center of Eden. The design of this creature, or creatures, is to block Adam and Eve from sneaking back into Eden, eat from the Tree of Life, and become immortal in their sinful state. Boundaries are created around the once free and open garden, and mankind is blocked access to his original innocence and to eternal life. The only thing standing between mankind and immortality is the terrifying Cherub, who faces us no matter which way we turn. Cherubim are frequently mentioned in relation to the ornamentation of the temple, particularly with the Ark of the Covenant, the holy repository of the Tablets of the Law. In Chronicles, the inspired David instructs his son and successor, Solomon, to fashion “the pattern of the chariot of the cherubims, that spread out their wings, and covered the ark of the covenant of the LORD.” Two cherubim were to be fashioned of gold to adorn each side of the “mercy seat,” which sat atop the ark. The word used in the text to designate this piece of divine furniture is kaporet, or “atonement piece.” The word probably descends from kaphar, meaning “to cover.” The Ark, complete with kaporet, resided in the center of the Temple, the holy of holies, which Yahweh had filled with a divine cloud of light as He entered in to accept its dedication. This kaporet, then essentially constituted the throne Yahweh’s divine chariot, with the cherubim acting as exalted steed to draw it forward. It is upon such a throne, in visionary form, that we must suppose Ezekiel beholds Yahweh above the Chebar. The Cherubim, then, may be considered a synecdoche for the Chariot/Throne of the Presence of Yahweh.
Ezekiel was a monumentally powerful and undeniably bizarre personality. He must have left his contemporaries, in and out of Israel, absolutely bewildered and frankly disturbed. His closest analogue in today’s world seems to me to be the idiosyncratic and iconoclastic “performance artists,” who perform such hijinks as climbing up walls and defecating on spectators. Yet Ezekiel proclaimed some of the most shattering truths and envisioned some of the most supreme images to be found in the entire Hebrew Bible. For centuries, the rabbinical schools have forbidden the study of his book to anyone under the age of thirty—the age of Ezekiel himself when he experienced the spectacular vision by the river of Chebar. Even after age thirty, there remain passages which are singled out as being inappropriate to interpret at any age—Ezekiel’s visionary force is apparently deemed strong enough to shove the unprepared over the brink into an abyss of madness. I recognize that I , perhaps rashly, disregard this counsel with the present outline of my thoughts at the tender age of 25. Be that as it may, I have found Ezekiel’s splendors too fascinating not to be tempted into responding to them, and in particular to the captivating figure of the “covering Cherub.”
To establish what a cherub is, is a task that could easily fill volumes and stretch over lifetimes, but which I will endeavor to sketch in very roughly. Yahweh is referred to throughout the Tanakh as dwelling “between the cherubim,” and indeed this description becomes something of a divine moniker. But what precisely is the Cherub and what does it represent? The imagery of the Cherub appears to have evolved from Assyrian and Babylonian origins. The term cherub (pronounced kay-roob) is cognate with the term karabu meaning 'great, mighty' in Assyrian, and 'propitious, blessed' in Babylonian. In some regions this Assyro-Babylonian term came to refer in particular to spirits which served the gods, in particular to the shedu (human-headed winged bulls). A number of scholars have proposed that cherubim were originally a version of the shedu, protective deities sometimes found as pairs of colossal statues either side of objects to be protected, such as doorways. In the 1930's, a wonderful ivory carving was discovered at Megiddo (which later became an important Israelite city) depicting a creature very much like Ezekiel’s Cherub, strolling through a garden of palms. The carving dates from the 8th or 9th century BCE, about two or three centuries before Israelite habitation. I like to speculate that artists trained in these Megiddan workshops were later employed in the construction of the ornaments of Solomon’s temple. Shedu and karabu eventually evolved into cherubim. These apparently sphinx-like creatures appear to have been representations of power, might and majesty, inspiring awe and even fear in lowly beholders. Millennia later, artists of the Italian Renaissance transformed these fearsome beings into diminutive putti— the winged, rosy-cheeked babies which now adorn countless greeting cards, in what was surely one of the oddest transmutations in Western civilization. Most importantly to the task at hand, cherubim appear throughout the Hebrew Bible, and are usually associated with the presence of Yahweh. Ezekiel certainly offers the fullest and most complex view of these divine beings, and I will return to him more fully after having made a preliminary perusal of some other biblical passages of relevance.