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Cherubim were heavenly beings depicted in the Old Testament as guardians of sacred places and supporters of the throne of God. Biblical scholars have suggested many etymologies for the word cherub but have reached no consensus. It is possible that the word shares a derivation similar to that of the Akkadian kūribu, which is associated with certain kinds of protective spirits in Mesopotamian religion. Cherubim is the Hebrew form of the plural—the equivalent of the English cherubs. Cherubim are described in Ezekiel 1 as composite beings with features of humans, eagles, lions, and bulls. In appearance and function, cherubim were likely similar to the sphinxes from Egyptian iconography.
In the Old Testament, cherubim are closely associated with the temple and with the division of sacred space. For example, they guard the way to the tree of life in the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis (Genesis 3:24). Images of cherubim were depicted on the walls of both the tabernacle and the temple and were embroidered on the temple veil itself, symbolically showing the beings’ guardian status (see Exodus 26:1, 31). God is often depicted as sitting or riding on a cherub, and cherubim formed the basis of His heavenly throne on the cover of the ark of the covenant (called the mercy seat in the King James Version). One of God’s titles that is especially associated with the ark of the covenant in 1 and 2 Samuel is the “Lord [Jehovah] of hosts that dwells [or sits] between the cherubim” (1 Samuel 4:4; author’s own translation). When the glory of the Lord departed from the Jerusalem temple in Ezekiel, it did so on the back of cherubim (see Ezekiel 11:22–23).
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