Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

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Are cherubs just palace guardians?

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4 minutes to read Steve Hays argues that my view of Eden as the divine council meeting-place trades on ignoring the role of cherubs as defensive rather than administrative beings. I reply with a three-pronged rebuttal.

In response to my thesis that Eden was the original meeting-place of the divine council, Steve Hays voices the following critique:

One problem is that you and [Michael] Heiser seem to be mixing categories. The role of cherubim/seraphim isn’t administrative, but defensive. They don’t rule districts and provinces. They aren’t territorial spirits. Rather, they function like the palace guard. They block intruders from trespassing into sacred space. So they don’t fit into the Divine Council paradigm. But in that event, Adam wouldn’t have occasion to encounter them. Shall we gather at the river?

I think this objection is mistaken on at least three levels:

Unjustified disjunction between administrative and defensive roles

In the ancient Near East, administrative roles were often based on defensive ones; equally, defensive roles often entailed administration. This is part and parcel of the tribal/monarchical model which Israel, along with its neighbors, operated under. Rulers were generally warriors; the top-level bureaucrats of the day—both humans and gods—typically attained and maintained their rank by force of arms. Yahweh himself is most frequently depicted in the Bible as a warrior king; the epithet Lord of Hosts, Yahweh Tsabaowt, refers to his being the commander-in-chief of the armies of heaven. Thus, to draw a division between administrative and defensive functions is not only logically unwarranted, but positively contradicted by the nature of those functions in an ancient Near Eastern context. Indeed, in Daniel 10 we see that the archangels in charge of Greece, Persia and Israel are engaged in battle.

Argument from ignorance/silence

Even if the former point were not the case, the Bible never sets out an “angelic taxonomy” where cherubs are placed into the single category of palace guards. It never indicates that this is their sole function. The fact that cherubs are often seen in that role does not imply that the term cherub describes exclusively this function.

Now, I believe there is good warrant for thinking that some cherubs in Scripture are conceptually parallel to the sphinx, thus having a guarding role; this would also connect them with the seraphs, which I think were comparable to the Egyptian uraeus. But even if we were sure of that mythological connection, the Bible frequently corrects or redefines pagan mythology—so there’s absolutely no presumption that cherubs/seraphs are only palace guards; nor that the role of palace guards didn’t involve more than keeping people out of sacred space for their own protection.

Is there any positive evidence for the “exclusive palace guard” view? If not, it is just an argument from ignorance or silence; an over-generalization of the little we see of cherubs in the Bible.

Biblical counterevidence

While the exclusive palace guard view trades on an argument from silence, there is in fact positive evidence against it. The Bible links cherubs to other roles:

  • In Solomon’s temple, the cherubs arguably are the throne; certainly in Ezekiel 1; 9-10 and Psalm 18:10, they are a curious admixture of throne and throne-carriers. Their role is not restricted to guarding the throne, but at best loosely attending it. Needless to say, attendants to the throne are often not mere soldiers, but high-ranking members of the royal court.
  • There is also the poetic description of cherubs as “the wings of the wind” in Psalm 18:10 and 2 Samuel 22:11, forming a conceptual parallel with Psalm 104:3-4, where both God’s chariot and his messengers (LXX; Hebrews 1:7: angels) are winds, and his ministers are flames of fire. Comparing this to 2 Kings 2:11, where we see chariots of fire, and Zechariah 6:1-8, where we see four chariots which are the “four winds of heaven,” makes the exclusive palace guardian view look implausibly wooden by committing the word-concept fallacy. Scripture seems to freely mix and match cherubic and other angelic imagery in ways that point to multiple roles.
  • In addition to the Old Testament evidence, there is a clear connection made in Revelation 4 between the cherubs and the 24 elders. Here the cherubs are described as “living creatures,” and combine much of the imagery of Ezekiel with Isaiah’s seraphs, as I’ve noted. But their role in Revelation is not to guard the throne—there is no one in danger of trespassing into sacred space—but rather to praise God continually. Yet if we take this as strictly normative and literal, describing their entire role and existence, we would have to suppose that the same is true of the 24 elders, since they praise God “whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks”—which is without ceasing. Indeed, the elders seem to perform the same function as the cherubs, following their lead; they are their human equivalent. But are we really to think that their entire existence is consumed in throwing their crowns down and praising God? Surely not: the very fact that they are wearing crowns is a reference back to Revelation 2:26-27; 3:21, indicating that they share in God’s rule. If this is true of the elders, why suppose—in light of the parallel between them and the cherubs here, and the other biblical connections I’ve drawn elsewhere—that the same is not true of the cherubs?

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