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Shemot/Exodus 25:18 And you shall make two cherubim of gold - hammered work you shall make them
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There has been much speculation about the cherubim that Moshe is here instructed to make as part of the cover or lid for the Ark of the Testimony. Apart from this noun (cherub or cherubim), the root is otherwise unused in the Hebrew Bible, so its precise meaning is difficult to determine. The cherubim on the Ark cover are described again when David is discussing the work and provisions for the Temple with Solomon (1 Chronicles 28:11-19) and again when the Ark is placed in the Temple (1 Kings 8:6-9). They are touched on again when the writer to the Hebrews describes the layout of the Temple (Hebrew 9:1-5). These gold cherubim, however, are images or models of real spiritual beings that appear elsewhere in the Scriptures.
The first mention - although it actually supplies no details - of cherubim is immediately after the fall, when after Adam and Chava have been expelled from the Garden of Eden: "at the east of the garden of Eden [G-d] placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life" (B'resheet 3:24, ESV). Two verses on from our text, Moshe is told, "The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be" (Shemot 25:20, ESV), which tells us that they have wings and faces. The Psalmist adds "The L-RD reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!" (Psalm 99:1, ESV), so thatAdonai sits on a throne above the cherubim, but we are still very short on descriptive detail.
Ezekiel's book starts with a powerful vision of living beings who "had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf's foot. And they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another. Each one of them went straight forward, without turning as they went. As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. And their wings were spread out above. Each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. And each went straight forward. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning. Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl. And the four had the same likeness, their appearance and construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel" (Ezekiel 1:6-16, ESV). We know that they are cherubim because the text then tells us, "[G-d] commanded the man clothed in linen, 'Take fire from between the whirling wheels, from between the cherubim,' he went in and stood beside a wheel. And a cherub stretched out his hand from between the cherubim to the fire that was between the cherubim, and took some of it and put it into the hands of the man clothed in linen, who took it and went out. The cherubim appeared to have the form of a human hand under their wings" (10:6-8, ESV).
How can we reconcileHaShem's instructions here to Moshe with the clear command, "You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth" (Shemot 20:4, JPS). If the cherubim are not explicit images of a spiritual being in the heavens, then it is difficult to see what else they are! Yet Moshe is being told to sculpt two out of a huge piece of solid gold to be part of the Ark's cover. The Jewish world - if the commentators are fairly representative - is not overly enthusiastic about the question. Chizkuni, noting that the next verse of the commandment continues, "You shall not bow down to them or serve them" (v. 5, JPS), says, "This does not violate the prohibition about graven images, since they were not made to bow down to, but for Him to sit upon, like the cherubim on the Throne of Glory", then adding, somewhat unhelpfully, "the Torah is full of exceptions". We are left in the uncomfortable position of wondering whether idols are acceptable - perhaps as decoration for their art value, or for investment - provided there is no intention to bow down or worship them, or whether images of heavenly beings are forbidden unless HaShem specifically commands them.
The issue of compatibility between our faith in the One True G-d - the G-d of Israel - and the pagan practices of the Roman and Greek worlds obviously troubled the early believers. Making sure that the new congregations in Corinth understood this, Rav Sha'ul wrote, "Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy?" (1 Corinthians 10:18-22, ESV). Sha'ul clearly draws the line: there is no compatibility; the believers are to have nothing whatsoever to do with the pagan practices. Little green jade models of a very fat man sitting in a cross-legged position are not acceptable for whatever purpose in a believer's life or home because they are what they are and everyone knows it.
The question of discretion then follows: how we know what anything is? Rav Sha'ul replies: "Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience ... If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, 'This has been offered in sacrifice,' then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience" (vv. 25-28, ESV). Since G-d has made everything and all things belong to Him, we can eat freely of any food1 provided it is not drawn to our attention that it has been sacrificed to idols. At that point, both for the sake of the informant and our own consciences, we must not eat since that would be a deliberate sharing in the pagan religious acts.
We know that one of the main concerns behind many of the apparently smaller commandments in the book of Vayikra is that of mixtures. G-d hates mixtures and the blurring of distinctions. He says, "You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material" (Vayikra 19:19, ESV). This is about maintaining boundaries and recognising things for what they are. Rav Sha'ul addresses one of the most important life mixtures - that of marriage and partners - "Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Messiah with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?" (2 Corinthians 6:14-15, ESV). Believers simply don't marry unbelievers; they don't share their lives with someone with whom they don't share their faith in Messiah. That would be like putting an idol in our hearts. Our spouses, rightly, take up a very big part of our lives but as believers we are dedicated and set apart for G-d - "What agreement has the temple of G-d with idols? For we are the temple of the living G-d; as G-d said, 'I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their G-d, and they shall be my people'" (v. 16, ESV). We must ensure that our lives and our houses are free of idols in any shape or form!
1 - remembering that Jews and Gentiles have different parameters for what constitutes 'food' due to the specific regulations incumbent upon Jewish people in dietary matters (see Vayikra 11).
Further Study: D'varim 7:3; Ephesians 5:6-10
Application: Do you have any pagan idols or artwork in your home or your life that are blocking your relationship with G-d? If so, you need to seize the moment and remove them so that you can be free of their contaminating effect and be clean before G-d. Don't delay; get rid of them today!
© Jonathan Allen, 2012
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