Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Notes on Ezekiel's Cherub Part One: Introduction; Madness


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.

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