The Ark and the Cherubim: Cultic Practice and Ancient Near Eastern Iconography

Raanan Eichler, an Israeli scholar who was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University this year, delivered a guest lecture at Revel that took the audience on a journey through time to uncover the secrets of the Ark of the Covenant. Adducing examples of art and cultic objects throughout the Ancient Near East to situate the Ark in its original cultural context, Dr Eichler explored how it looked, the nature of its iconography, and its cultural and cultic functions.


The basic construction of the Ark has been subject to debate over the centuries, but illuminated in modern times by archaeology. For example, medieval Jewish commentators took the expression “its four pa‘amot” (Exod 25:1) to refer to the four corners of the Ark, even though the word pa‘am usually connotes a foot. But when looking at examples from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Levant, it quickly becomes obvious that most chests were indeed raised off the ground with four feet, one at each corner. Even the hieroglyph for “box” or “chest” shows a box raised off the ground on feet!


Scholars have argued that the Ark and the Kaporet – its lid – served as a throne for G-d, much as how other chests around the Near East and Mediterranean depicted deities seated on chests or thrones of similar construction. But the Ark depicted in the Torah has no image enthroned upon it—a symbolic way of indicating that the God of Israel has no physical form.


The cherubim on the Kaporet are of particular interest. In the Torah, they are described as pure gold figures atop the Kaporet, and we see similar size cultic figures on other arks in the Near East. Eichler pointed to a golden ark from Egypt with an Anubis figurine atop it as an example. In I Kings, the cherubim in the Temple are described as olive wood gilded with a golden overlay, and ten cubits high, with their wings outspread ten cubits so that their inner wing tips touched each other and their outer wings touched the walls of the Inner Sanctuary, the Holy of Holies. This too is not unusual. We see similar outsize sculpture of divine and mythical creatures in Mesopotamia and Assyria, as well as liberal use of gilding.


Commentators have debated for millenia what the cherubim looked like. Some say they were birds, others that they were winged children, and yet others say they were winged adults. The notion that they were winged children, first appearing in the Talmud, seems to be influences from Herodian-era Roman iconography (which was actually much later than the Ark as depicted in Exodus). The eighteenth-century discovery of Ancient Near Eastern winged oxen statues led some to posit that the cherubim resembled their form. Similar creatures are depicted in Assyria in the palace of Nimrud, guardian creatures called lamassu, revealed in archaeological excavations in the nineteenth century. Others said they were griffins, a different mythical winged creature attested in Near Eastern and Mediterranean iconography, based on the theory that the root K-R-V is akin to Greek G-R-P, from which the word “griffin” originates. Yet others suggested a winged sphinx, citing the various deities in Egypt and Mesopotamia pictures sitting upon such creatures as a living throne.


Eichler favors the theory that cherubim were winged adults, based on depictions of such creatures on cylinder seals both from ancient Israel and elsewhere in the Near East. In Egypt such winged figures shelter images of the gods. For example, on one war chest there are winged figures sheltering the name of the pharaoh Ramses. But the cherubim on the Kaporet are sheltering an empty space, symbolically sheltering the Presence of a Divine being that is incorporeal. The Ark is thus like an empty divine throne. It is uniquely and purposefully abstract to deliberately prevent physical representations of divinity so common to the region at the time, to point to this empty space and say “this is where you don’t see G-d.”


Written by B. Lana Guggenheim.

B. Lana Guggenheim studied archaeology and political science at Hunter College CUNY and international conflict at LSE.


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