It is common knowledge that angelic beings play a significant role in mythology and religion across the world. They are particularly renowned in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) as the creatures who serve God and execute His will. However, researchers note that there is a tradition of dividing angels into the ranks or choirs with distinct depictions and purposes (Miller 9). Cherubim belong to one of these ranks, and they are one of the most frequently addressed angels in the sacred texts. Due to the complexity of their images, one must divide cherubim into the categories of their functions – either the incarnations of God’s guard or incarnations of God’s presence. This way, it will be possible to understand the spiritual and cultural importance of cherubim angels for religious societies.
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Due to their nature as heavenly beings, angels always act on behalf of God, and cherubim are almost no exception to the rule. Their courses of action are quite specific throughout all the religious sources. Not only do they help God in achieving His wishes but they mainly serve as guardians. This function has influenced significant characters of the Abrahamic mythology throughout all its history.
First, one should mention that several significant angel figures belong to the category of cherubim, including Gabriel (or Jibril in Islam), and, possibly, the Satan himself (who is described either as a former cherub or seraph). These mythological personalities are so well-known that there is no need to explain their impact – Gabriel acts as God’s messenger, even in Islam (as the messenger of Allah), as an angel who appears before prophets. In turn, Satan became the opposite of God’s guard after staging a revolt. Also, one of the cherubim guards the entrance to the Garden of Eden and drives away Adam and Eve from.the Paradise after the original sin (The Bible: Authorized King James Version, Gen. 3.24). When cherubim emerge, they cause something akin to a natural disaster by emitting “coals of fire” from the wheels and a powerful sound from their wings (Ezek. 10.1-21). Thus, this is a further representation of their guardian self, as well as the fact that they usually carry flaming swords (Gen. 3.24).
It is essential to emphasize the appearance of cherubim to comprehend their function as symbols. The most detailed description of cherubim’s appearance can be found in the Book of Ezekiel, where the prophet witnesses angels directly within his vision. According to Hartenstein, “seraphim and cherubim both belong to the so-called “Michtwesen”, hybrid creatures” (qtd. in Heiser 21). In other words, they are both animalistic and anthropomorphic, combining different traits from beasts and humans in their outer shape.
According to Ezekiel’s description, cherubim possess four faces – of a human, a lion, an ox, and an eagle (Ezek. 10.1-21). They have two sets of wings, one of which is used as clothing, and four sets of human hands. Their legs are also humanoid, but their feet end with hooves akin to a calf. Also, their entire body is covered with many eyes, including back, hands, wings, and other objects. Among these objects, one can find wheels used to carry God. The depiction in iconography and monuments, though initially faithful to the source, has changed throughout the ages. Artists tend to omit animal features, and researchers state that cherubim can be shown in the image of men only with several sets of wings remaining (Webster 20).
As in these depictions, cherubim possess a certain degree of symbolic meaning. Their statues and pictures are placed within the Temple of Solomon. Moreover, God orders to create two golden figures of cherubim so they would decorate the Arc of the Covenant. One should consider that the sense of cherubim name itself is a way to express their role in the spiritual field. The exact translation remains debatable, but most researchers agree that the term originates from the Hebrew word kerub. It can be interpreted differently – according to Webster, “the term means “fullness of knowledge” (21), while Heiser theorizes on the possible Akkadian origin from the word “pray” (22). In any event, both explanations offer a chance to comprehend the value of cherubim. They are deemed as the personification of knowledge and truth since they know God and appear as His retinue.
There is one more view of cherubim symbolism that should be considered. Cherubim tend to show themselves in the presence of God who is riding on them, as they are shown to Ezekiel. Thus, they ought to become an extension of God and His blessing, a symbol of His presence even when He is not there. According to Volli, the cherubim term refers not just to angels themselves but to their depictions too (38). In other words, such representation allows signifying the presence of God’s rule on Earth and obedience of the believers to Him.
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Cherubim are deemed one of the angelic ranks and have an essential role for the Abrahamic religions. One of their functions includes serving as God’s guardians, which is why Archangel Gabriel and the former angel Satan are placed within their ranks. The second function is more symbolic since cherubim represent God’s presence and will. Cherubim directly reflect their role as an extension of God himself, even if through depictions.
Heiser, Michael S. Angels: What the Bible Really Says About God’s Heavenly Host. Lexham Press, 2018.
Miller, Stephen. The Book of Angels: Seen and Unseen. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019.
The Bible: Authorized King James Version. OUP Oxford, 2008.
Volli, Ugo. “Cherubim: (Re)presenting Transcendence.” Signs and Society, vol. 2, no. 1, 2014, 23-48.
Webster, Richard. Angels for Beginners: Understand & Connect with Divine Guides & Guardians. Llewellyn Worldwide, 2017.