What are “cherubim” in biblical literature?


“Cherubim” is a metaphor for either of two classes of human beings; both classes:

  1. Understand the word of God.
  2. Live (uncompromisingly) by the word of God (i.e. “the way” or “the ideal”)
  3. And in embodying this ideal they cultivate it wherever they dwell.
  4. Both classes profess the word of God, however, one does so mainly by modeling “the way”, while in addition, the other more actively professes it — teaching and facilitating understanding (the elders in God i.e. the priestly class).
  5. Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5, KJV) The “meek” (i.e. the cherubims) indeed inherited the earth (i.e. the garden of Eden) in Genesis 3:24 (KJV).

All four faces cherubim are described as having, are representative of features characteristic of cherubim (the meek [hu]man). Their physical description gives some insight into how these characteristics play out when engaged and what characteristics are predominant in the meek person.

Genesis 1 describes the creation of the cherubim (mindset) — the stages or “days” of development of the “faces” or “heads”: the fowl e.g. eagle (fourth face), the beasts e.g. the lion (third face), the livestock e.g. ox (first face), man (second face) and even the serpent which may be better mapped to cherubim by another name by which cherubim seem to be called i.e. seraphim (not described here) but which are described as winged serpents and are popularly referred to as “burning” or “fiery”.

Genesis 2 describes, in more colourful terms, the character traits that relate to each “face” of the cherubim. This can be found Genesis 2:10-14 and is described in the original text as rivers parting into four heads.
(See What does Genesis 2 convey? for translation)

Perhaps two of the most important things we can take from how cherubim are described, are:

  1. The ideal individual is one who chooses (with intention) to be as he is, not one who is as he is because he does not have all the described elements and
  2. Considering these representations are first and foremost descriptive of the thinking (and way of being) of an individual, it challenges the popular idea of an unquestioning mind as characteristic of faith and of what God asks of us.

Cherubim in the Bible include:

  1. Abel (Cain’s brother)
  2. Hophni and Phineas (Eli’s Sons)
  3. Esau (Jacob’s brother)
  4. Jesus

… but this is just my opinion. ~ Ervin Welsh


Examining Definitions & Etymology

The word “cherubim” first appears in the Bible in the following passage:

“So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”

(Genesis 3:24, KJV)

In this verse, little is said about the purpose cherubim serve and nothing is said of their appearance. While visions in other books of the Bible offer insights into both, there’s some discrepancy when considering rabbinical tradition as compared with the Hebrew word “kerub” from which we get “cherub” and its plural “cherubim”. While definitions range from ambiguous to starkly contrasting, I believe they represent the same idea; that of the meek-man.


Biblical Representation:

“And every one had four faces: the first face was the face of a cherub, and the second face was the face of a man, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.”

(Ezekiel 10:14, KJV)

Concordance Entry:

Cherub, (Hebrew) Kerub:

“probably an order of angelic beings”

(Strong’s Concordance)

Dictionary Definitions:

“A winged angelic being described in biblical tradition as attending on God, represented in ancient Middle Eastern art as a lion or bull with eagles’ wings and a human face and regarded in traditional Christian angelology as an angel of the second highest order of the ninefold celestial hierarchy.” (Def. 1)

“… depicted as a chubby, healthy-looking child with wings.” (Def. 1.1)

“A beautiful or innocent-looking child.” (Def. 1.2)

(Oxford Dictionary)


Old English cherubin, ultimately (via Latin and Greek) from Hebrew kĕrūḇ, plural kĕrūḇīm. A rabbinic folk etymology, which explains the Hebrew singular form as representing Aramaic kĕ-raḇyā ‘like a child’, led to the representation of the cherub as a child.

(Oxford Dictionary, Emphasis added)

My Hypothetical Etymology:

Taking the biblical text as metaphorical and assuming from this vantage point all representations (above) can accord, what’s left is to reconcile them. Considering the key things mentioned in the passage, namely the “cherubim” and “sword”, and investigating the origin of both words in the original Hebrew script, I propose the following etymology for the word cherubim:

A rabbinic folk etymology, explains the Hebrew singular form [kerub] as representing Aramaic kĕ-raḇyā ‘like a child’. + Hebrew chereb “sword; swordsmen”. + Hebrew kerub “winged angel”. What results is cherub (plural cherubim) “meek-man” i.e. a ‘swordsman’ who exercises restraint.

Etymological References:

  1. Cherubim (Hebrew “kerubim”) is plural of cherub (Hebrew “kerub”).
    (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance)
  2. Hebrew kerub, means:
    1. “Winged angel” (Etymology Online)
    2. ‘Like a child’. (Oxford Dictionary, see origin according to rabbinic folk etymology)
  3. Hebrew chereb, is translated into English as:
    1. Sword, also: axes, knives,
    2. Swordsmen
      (NAS Exhaustive Concordance)
  4. “Meek”:
    1. Meek (Greek “praus”): “This difficult-to-translate root (pra-) means more than “meek.” Biblical meekness is not weakness but rather refers to exercising God’s strength under His control – i.e. demonstrating power without undue harshness.” (HELPS Word-studies)
    2. Meek: “gentle or mild of temper; forbearing under injury or annoyance; humble, unassuming;” (Etymology Online)

Examining the Four Faces

Translating (Ezekiel 10:14, KJV)

The bible verse reads:

“And every one had four faces: the first face was the face of a cherub, and the second face was the face of a man, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.”

(Ezekiel 10:14, KJV)

Defining Key Words:

  1. “Every”:
    1. Each
  2. “One”:
    1. Unit; single; whole; integrated; being.
      (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance)
  3. “Faces”
    1. The surface
      1. That which is presented
    2. The part that turns
      1. The countenance
        1. i.e. the part that changes among the four personas.
          (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance)

Face Order:

  1. “First”:
    1. United; one; integrated (being)
      (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance)
  2. “Second”:
    1. Again, either of them, another, second time
      (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance)
      1. From (Hebrew) “shanah”, which means “disguise”
        1. To disguise here is to mask sameness and therefore to be as the first face, though not seemingly so.
          (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance)
  3. “Third”:
    1. Third part (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance)
      1. From the same as (Hebrew) “shalosh” which means “three”, “triad”
        1. That is, forming part of (the triad — i.e. numbers one through three) (Strong’s Concordance)
  4. “Fourth”:
    1. “Fourth”, Hebrew “rebii”: Four-sided, fourth, one-fourth, square
      1. Used only as denominative of (Hebrew) “reba’ ”
        (Strong’s Exhausitve Concordance)
        1. To become squared i.e. to complete the form (of a Cherubim)
          (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance)

Face Representations

  1. “Cherub”:
    1. Representative of meekness as the predominant characteristic of the cherubim (the ideal person).
  2. “Man”:
    1. Representative of the male essence.
      1. That is, the unconscious; also the physical reality i.e. [hu]man
        1. “Human nature” would be expected of a [hu]man but this physical reality disguises the predominant cherubim characteristic of “meekness” (a mental/spiritual reality) the [hu]man has.

          The cherubim are not simply responsive to environmental factors and therefore aren’t the negative way of being we call “human nature”. They are guided by a different standard.
  3. “Lion”:
    1. Female, i.e. from Hebrew “naqab” which means:
      1. boring, piercing (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance)
    2. Lion (as used in the verse), Hebrew “ari” which means:
      1. boring, inquisitive, strong (cognitively). (Strong’s Concordance)
  4. “Eagle”:
    1. Transcendent:
      1. As with the first face (the cherub), this face represents a united being. Being united, it is now able to see all sides. Unlike the cherub metaphor which represents the choice to be childlike, the eagle represents clarity and consequently effective defense, lacerating i.e. plucking apart (arguments).

        In some sense, the eagle represents the turning (whirling) sword (i.e. the word). The lion represents the sword as well but whereas the lion is an offensive characteristic, the eagle is a defensive one.
        (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance)

Other bible verses have the man, the lion and the eagle but an ox, not a cherub, e.g. Ezekiel 1:10, (BSB).

  1. “Ox”:
    1. When investigating this or a similar animal previously, I came across the meaning that it chews its cud and it utterly destroys. In reference to the verse in question, I found Hebrew “shor”, defined as “a head of cattle (bullock, ox, etc.)” via Strong’s Concordance and “bullock, cow, ox” via Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance.
      1. From Hebrew “shuwr” which means, “Travel about. A primitive root; properly, to turn, i.e. Travel about (as a harlot or a merchant) — go, singular See also shiyr.”
      2. Hebrew “shir” means, “to sing — behold (by mistake for [another] shuwr).
        1. This other Hebrew word “shuwr” means, “behold, lay wait, look, observe, perceive, regard, see”. (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance)

          All ideas point to a capacity for destruction but the exercise of restraint.
  • Additionally, there was among definitions, the idea of “turning” or “going round for inspection”. This is interesting, suggesting:
    • Turning to inspect and thus to see whether it is necessary that the other character traits be accessed.
    • The ability to turn into the other personalities and
    • It may even be read into as the starting point (default mode/first face) that does the turning since the other characters do not emphasize turning as a trait.

Worthy of note is, as mentioned previously, Esau (Jacob’s brother) is among cherubim. He was a capable, cunning hunter but longed for plant food as does the ox.

Further Reading