Origins and Symbolism of the Cherubim

The Cherubim
Provided by the Oklahoma Chapter and Council Education E-Newsletter (
Extracted from the According to Mackey Column in the January 2022 Issue

Ark of the Covenant
Ark of the Covenant
(Public Domain)

The following entry appears on pp. 145-147 of the 1912 edition of “An Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences” by Albert G. Mackey.

The second order of the angelic hierarchy, the first being the seraphim. The two cherubim that overtopped the merey-seat or covering of the ark, in the holy of holies, were placed there by Moses, in obedience to the orders of God: “And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercyseat. And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy-seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; towards the mercy-seat shall the faces of the cherubims be.” (see Exodus xxv, 18, 20). It was between these cherubim that the Shekinah or Divine Presence rested, and from which issued the Bathkol or Voice of God. Of the form of these cherubim we are ignorant. Josephus says that they resembled no known creature, but that Moses made them in the form in which he saw them about the throne of God; others, deriving their ideas from what is said of them by Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Saint John, describe them as having the face and breast of a man, the wings of an eagle, the belly of a lion, and the legs and feet of an ox, which three animals, with man, are the symbols of strength and wisdom. But all agree in this, that they had wings, and that these wings were extended. The cherubim were purely symbolic. But although there is great diversity of opinion as to their exact signification, yet there is a very general agreement that they allude to and symbolize the protecting and overshadowing power of the Deity. Reference is made to the extended wings of the cherubim in the Degree of Royal Master.

Much light has been thrown upon the plastic form of these symbols, says Brother C. T. MeClenachan, not only as to the Cherubim of the Ark of the Covenant spoken of in Exodus, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, but those of Chaldeo-Assyrian art which beautified the gates of the palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh, and other structures.

The Kirubi of the Assyrian type, in the shape of bulls with extended wings, in nowise meet the description given above. The figures which can be found in various places upon Egyptian monuments, placed face to face on either side of the Naos of the gods, and stretching out their arms, furnished with great wings, as though to envelop them (Wilkinson, Manners and Custom of Ancient Egyptians, 1878, vol. iii.), more fully meet the idea―in fact, it is convincing, when we remember the period, and note that all else about the sacred furnishings of the Tabernacle, or Ohel-mo’ed, are exclusively Egyptian in form, as well as the sacerdotal costumes (see L’Egypte et Moïse, by Abbé Ancessi, Paris, 1875.) Furthermore, this was most natural, since the period was immediately after the exodus. The Kerubim of the Ark were remodeled by Solomon after designs furnished by his father, David. (I Chron. xxviii. 18.)

At this epoch, says François Lenormant, Professor of Archeology at the National Library of France, in his Beginnings of History, 1882, the Egyptian influence was no longer supreme in its sway over the Hebrews; that the Assyro-Babylonian influence balanced it; that the new Cherubim, then executed, may have been different from the ancient ones as described in Exodus; in fact, Kirubi after the Assyrian type, which formed a Merkábáh, meaning a chariot (I Chron. xxviii. 18), upon which Yahveh was seated. In the Egyptian monuments the gods are often represented between the forward-stretching wings of sparrow-hawks or vultures. placed face to face, and birds of this kind often enfold with their wings the divine Naos.

The adornment of the Tabernacle, as mentioned in Exodus, excluded every figure susceptible of an idolatrous character, which is far from being the case in what we know of the Temple of Solomon. In the matter of plastic images, none was admitted save only the Cherubim, which were not only placed upon the Ark, but whose representations are woven into the hangings of the Mishkan and the veil which separates the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. It is therefore most probable that the Cherubim of Exodus were great eagles or birds―Kurubi―while under the remodeling by Solomon these were changed to Kirubi with human faces.

The prophet Ezekiel describes four hay-yoth or Kerubim, two and two, back to back, and going “each one straight forward” toward the four quarters. The Kerubim of the Merkábáh of Ezekiel have four wings―two lifted up and two covering their back and four human faces set in pairs, to the right and to the left, one of a man, one of a bull, one of a lion, and one of an eagle―the faces of creatures which combine all the emblems of strength depicted by the Chaldeo-Assyrian bull. Ezekiel (Yehezqel) thus describes the Cherubim with several faces which, alternately with the palm-trees, decorated the frieze around the interior of the temple at Jerusalem: “Each Kerub had two faces, a man’s face turned one way toward the palm-tree, and a lion’s face turned the other way toward the other palm-tree; and it was in this wise all around the house.”

The following information, furnished by Prof. Lenormant, on the subject of Cherubim, is important: “Deductions were formerly made from the Aryan theory to support primitive tradition as to origin and form, but these have been overthrown, and the Semitic interpretation made manifest through finding the name of the Kerubim in the cuneiform inscriptions; that in place of referring the Hebrew word kerub to the Aryan root grabh, meaning ‘to seize,’ the word is more properly of Semitic origin, from the root karab, signifying ‘bull,’ or a creature strong and powerful. Referring to the prophet Ezekiel i. 10 and x. 14, the two parallel passages use the word kerub interchangeably with shor, ‘bull,’ the ‘face of a bull’ and ‘face of a cherub,’ which are synonymous expressions. Since we have come to know those colossal images of winged bulls with human faces, crowned with the lofty cidaris, decorated with several pairs of horns, which flanked the gateways of the Assyrian palaces, a number of scholars, intimately acquainted with antique sculpture, have been zealous in associating them with the Kerubim of the Bible. The winged bull with a human head figures in a bas-relief in the palace of Khorsabad as a favoring and protecting genius, which watches over the safe navigation of the transports that carry the wood of Lebanon by sea. The bulls whose images are placed at the gateways of the palaces and temples, as described in the above ideographic group, are the guardian genii, who are looked upon as living beings. As the result of a veritable magical operation, the supernatural creature is supposed to reside within these bodies of stone.”

In a bilingual document, Akkadian with an Assyrian version, we read invocations to the two bulls who flanked the gate of the infernal abode, which were no longer simulacra of stone, but living beings, like the bulls at the gates of the celestial palaces of the gods. The following is one of the unique expressions made in the ears of the bull which stands to the right of the bronze enclosure:

“Great Bull, most great Bull, stamping before the holy gates, he opens the interior; director of Abundance, who supports the god Nirba, he who gives their glory to the cultivated fields, my pure hands sacrifice toward thee.”

Similar expressions were then made in the bull’s left ear.

These genii, in the form of winged bulls with human countenances, were stationed as guardians at the portals of the edifices of Babylonia and Assyria, and were given the name of Kirubi; thus, Kirubu damqu lippaqid, meaning “May the propitious Kirub guard.” Numerous authorities may be given to show that the Chaldeo-Assyrians’ Kirub, from the tenth to the fifth century before our era, whose name is identical with the Hebrew Kerub, was the winged bull with a human head. The Israelites, during the times of the Kings and the Prophets, pictured to themselves the Kerubim under this form.

The full text of the 1912 edition of Mackey’s “An Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences” may be found at:

Mackey’s Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry: Volume I

Mackey’s Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry: Volume II