Keruvim in the Most Inaccessible Place on the Earth

Posted by on Mar 8, 2024

If the Second Commandment of the Covenant has explicitly forbidden the making of anything that is like a creature on earth or in heaven, why is the making of the keruvim that are on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant exempt from this? This question becomes even stronger when we bear in mind that King Shlomoh made huge keruvim in the Temple he built for the Eternal. These issues call aloud for an explanation, for it is incomprehensible that the Eternal has forbidden the making of idols in one place, and in another, commanded such. Let it not be! For the last thing we would expect the Torah to create is controversy. The present study therefore will deal with a subject of the presence of the golden keruvim in the Sanctuary of the Eternal. At the core of this study is the principle that even though the creating of idols is expressly forbidden in the Torah, the keruvim in the Tabernacle and in the Temple do not represent idolatry. We will now remove all the difficulties, as we will explain the matter in the following vein. For the purpose of this study, we will focus on the verses in Exodus 25 and Exodus 37 regarding the making of the Ark of the Covenant.

A replica of the Ark of the Covenant with the two keruvim on the top of the lid. Courtesy of The Temple Institute, Jerusalem.

A replica of the Ark of the Covenant with the two keruvim on the top of the lid. Courtesy of The Temple Institute, Jerusalem.

After mankind sinned in the Garden of Eden and gained knowledge of good and evil, Elohim said to His messengers, “Look, the man[kind] has become apart from us”, and for this reason He drove the humans out of the garden.

And He placed keruvim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life. (Gen 3:24)

The more literal translation of this verse however reads thusly,

And He resided east of the Garden of Eden with the keruvim and with the flaming sword which turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

When read carefully, it will become evident that the difference between these two translations above highlights what is implied in the text: The Eternal dwells with His keruvim outside [east] of the Garden of Eden. Who were these keruvim, who dwelled with the Eternal? According to this brief description in Genesis, they were creatures whose very appearance was frightening on account of their dreadful appearance, as they carried flaming swords in their hands. Their swords were emitting flashes of lightning from either side of the blade; a horifying picture to look at. When did the expulsion from the perfect world the first humans lived in happen? According to the Book of Jubilees, the sin at the tree of good and evil and expulsion happened after the completion of the seventh year of Creation. We read from the Book of Jubilees,

And after the completion of the seven years, which he had completed there, seven years exactly, and in the second month, on the seventeenth day (of the month), the serpent came and approached the woman, and the serpent said to the woman, “Hath God commanded you, saying, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” (Jubilees 3:17). Translated from the Ethiopic text by R. H. Charles, D.LITT., D.D., Canon of Westminster; British Academy, 1917.

After seven years in the Garden of Eden, the first humans sinned and Elohim sent the man out of the garden and placed keruvim at the gate to guard the way to the tree of life, for the man[kind] has become apart from the Eternal. These keruvim had “frightening images”, as Ezekiel would describe them later, suggesting that the Eternal stationed them outside Eden to serve as heavenly guards and prevent anyone from entering the garden.

What is a keruv (plural, keruvim), and what kind of a creature does the word keruv designate? The etymology of the word כְּרוּב keruv is obscure, and the main difficulty is found in the ambiguity of the word keruv employed in Genesis, Exodus, and Ezekiel. For this reason, this Hebrew word is transliterated rather than translated. But if we take into consideration that, when Ezekiel saw them, he called them חַיֹּות chayot, “living beings” (Eze 10:20), we understand that the keruvim were living creatures. They are called by Ezekiel chayot, “living” as creatures which or who, among all the heavenly creatures, possess life in the fullest sense of the word. Or at least this is how the prophet perceived them in the vision. These living creatures the Eternal commanded to guard the way to the tree of life. In the Tabernacle and later in the Temple, we find that the keruvim had the form of men, who had wings which marked them as super-terrestrial beings. We should note here that the messengers (angels) of Elohim also assume human forms when they appear visibly on earth, because they too were created in the image of Elohim, as men were. Yet their (the messengers) bodily form is not a body of flesh and blood, of which we have any knowledge, for they are totally spiritual beings, and the assumed bodies they appear in is the most appropriate garment for their visible presentation here on the earth.

However, the keruvim Ezekiel saw in heaven had the figure of a human body with the face of a man, the face of the lion, of the ox, and of the eagle, and they had four wings, with a face on each of their four sides enabling them to go in any direction without turning. These keruvim in Ezekiel’s vision will not be a subject of our study here.

The keruvim we will try to explain in the following are the ones which the Eternal commanded Mosheh to have them made for the purpose of the service in the Tabernacle (see Exo 25:17-20). What was commanded in Exodus 25, concerning the design of the keruvim in the Tabernacle, was made by the craftsman in Exodus 37, as we read in the words of the Torah,

And he made a lid of atonement of clean gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And he made two keruvim of beaten gold. He made them from the two ends of the lid of atonement, one keruv at one end on this side, and the other keruv at the other end on that side. He made the keruvim from the lid of atonement, from the two ends. And the keruvim spread out their wings above, and covered the lid of atonement with their wings, with their faces toward each other, the faces of the keruvim were turned toward the lid of atonement. (Exo 37:6-9)

What exactly is being described here? This is the artistic view of how the keruvim could have looked like on the top of the Ark of the Covenant, and the design and construction of the ark itself:

The design of the Ark of the Covenant,

The design of the Ark of the Covenant,

Now, it needs to be clearly understood why Mosheh was commanded to make the keruvim, and what was their service in the Tabernacle. This will be further explained in the interpretation of the verses.

According to this description in the Torah, keruvim have faces and wings, and were made as one piece of beaten gold with the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, wherein the tablets of stone would be placed. Notice that the four faces in one keruv, which are peculiar to Ezekiel, here in Exodus the two keruvim of the Ark of the Covenant have one face each. What do these two keruvim represent? And why are they placed on top of the ark? For if the rabbis had not informed us otherwise, we may have thought that the keruvim must have had a mere ornamental role, or even worse—a mystical presence in the Sanctuary. The rabbis showed that the question of the purport of the keruvim on the ark is far from being mystical and provided their answers, which we will bring to the reader below.

While we do not know the number of the keruvim in Ezekiel’s vision, here in Exodus Mosheh was instructed to make two. Why two keruvim, and not one? This will be better understood by what the rabbis have said on the verses. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1138-1204) aka Maimonides gives a brilliant explanation in his work Guide for the Perplexed as to why there was not one keruv on the lid of the ark. It is for this reason that he says,

If there had only been one figure of a keruv, the people would have been misled and would have mistaken it for God’s image which was to be worshipped, in the fashion of the heathen; or they might have assumed that the angel [represented by the figure] was also a deity and would thus have adopted a Dualism. By making two keruvim and distinctly declaring “the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” Mosheh clearly proclaimed the theory of the existence of a number of angels. He left no room for the error of considering those figures as deities, since he declared that God is one, and that He is the Creator of the angels, who are more than one. Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3, Chapter 45

Similarly, Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah (1220-1260) aka Chizkuni in his comments on Exodus 25:20 says,

These details [of the ark’s design] all prove that these keruvim were not intended to be deities to be worshipped, else they would have faced their onlookers so that these could prostrate themselves in front of them. How is this proof? Supposing there had been only one keruv on the lid of the Holy Ark, or if the face of one of them (if there were two) had been turned toward the people, one could have perhaps understood the symbolism as meaning that their purpose was to inspire awe of them in their onlookers. Seeing, however, that they faced each other, is clear proof that they had no interest in any onlooker. Furthermore, though their wings were pointing upwards, their faces were looking down at the lid, i.e. the space from which God’s words would emanate to Mosheh, and the area in which the Torah was kept. The most important proof that they were not meant to be worshipped by anyone, is the fact that they were in a place that was inaccessible to the people on pain of death.

And these are the reasons which would answer the purpose for which the keruvim were intended: the keruvim, who were stationed at the gate of the Garden of Eden, to prevent the return of man after the expulsion and guard the way to the tree of life, and the keruvim, who were placed on the ark, to remain hidden inside in the Temple. These keruvim were not made to be worshipped, but to remain hidden inside the most inaccessible part of the Temple, the most set-apart place, where the Ark of the Covenant once stood, and in which only the High Priest was allowed to enter and only once a year, on Yom Kippurim, the Day of Atonement. They were intended to invoke a sense in the High Priest that he was in presence of the Eternal in the most set-apart place on the earth. We have a similar example of this in another inaccessible place, this time in heaven. The prophet Yeshayahu described other celestial beings in a vision of the Eternal: The Most High seated on His throne surrounded by creatures called seraphim each having six wings: with two he was covering his face so as not to look toward the Eternal, with two he was covering his feet, and with two he was flying (Isaiah 6). This is remote and concealed from our comprehension.

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