in our e-book Cherubwheels by H. Peter Aleff
The northern night sky on an ivory cherub
and the spirit in its wheels
The biblical prophet Ezekiel repeated again and again that “the spirit of the creatures was in the wheels” when he described the cherubim that supported the throne of God in his visions. His enigmatic words have led to much mystical speculation about cherubim as divine “chariots”, including, for instance, a fragment from the Qumran sect that speaks of the angels praising “the pattern of the throne of the chariot”1.
A plain and simple explanation can now be added to those esoteric interpretations and shed some light on what Ezekiel meant. His seemingly strange imagery of wheels on those winged creatures becomes straightforward reporting when you compare the cherubim in his account with a splendid ivory carving of a cherub- like winged creature that predates him by a couple of centuries and that reveals some of the spirit behind it through the patterns formed by the circles or “wheels” in its design.
This carving is one of the finest surviving examples from the height of the highly developed Phoenician / South Syrian ivory sculpting schools. It is now one of the core treasures at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem and was first published in the July/August 1995 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review2 .
The beauty and order in this design are striking and, as you will see, more than skin deep. The harmony of its composition, the measured strength of the creature’s stride, and the sovereign serenity of its inscrutable Mona Lisa smile still impress modern minds millennia after its making, yet these eye- feasting features are only the outermost and first visible level of this many- layered masterpiece.
The carver of said ivory image constructed much of that heavenly creature’s shape with precisely planned circles and incorporated in these, through the relative positions of their centers or “eyes”, a wealth of surprisingly advanced astronomical and mathematical information about the heavens of that time.
Moreover, the details of the construction reveal a sophisticated geometrical tradition that can be found in this carving as well as in some other ancient designs we will examine in later chapters. Few, if any, other mentions of this specialized tradition seem to have survived in written documents, but Ezekiel clearly refers to it with his allusions to the cherubim’s wheels and their hubs.
Ezekiel was active from 593 to 571 BCE3. He was a man of wide learning, a “Renaissance man” from before the cultures the Renaissance sought to revive. According to the modern scholar, theologian, and Egyptologist Manfred Görg:
“Ezekiel was a priest and member of Jerusalem’s upper class and so participated in the learning that the clergy and the scholarly elite were able to acquire. The texts of the Book of Ezekiel are a treasure trove for the study of the knowledge available in his time, much of which derived from the Egyptian inspiration of Judah during the Nubian and Saite dynasties.”4
As a priest, Ezekiel would have been particularly aware of what was then known about the heavens and their sciences. He knew therefore probably also the principles and iconic conventions that the leading religious artists of his period used for representing cherubim, the only heavenly creatures his otherwise image- forbidding religion allowed to be depicted.
Cherubim were important religious symbols. Their name shares its root with the Akkadian word “karibu” which designated an intermediary who presented the prayers of humans to the gods5. In the Hebrew tradition, cherubim formed the throne of God, they guarded the Ark of the Covenant, and they appeared prominently in the decoration of Solomon’s Temple as well as in many other Old Testament passages.
Like the winged sphinxes that adorned thrones in New Kingdom Egypt6 and in 12th-century BCE Megiddo7, the winged griffins that flanked the royal seat in Knossos and pulled the chariot of the goddess on the Hagia Triada sarcophagus8, and the winged bull- man colossi that protected many Mesopotamian kings, winged cherubim were local variations on a cross- denominational and multi- faceted symbol that people recognized in many cultures throughout the ancient Near East and beyond9.
Such composite (and therefore supernatural) creatures indicated the presence and power of the deity they carried as its steed or throne or served in other ways, and they guarded access to its sacred realm. They stood at the gates of paradise and heaven, and their images on earth secured the approaches to temples, palaces, and thrones as symbols of divine as well as royal power.
Designing the finest images of these vital religious symbols took the talents of artists who were “filled with divine spirit”, “skillful and ingenious, expert in every craft, and master of design”, like the craftsmen assigned in Exodus 31:1-6 and 35:30-34 to fashion the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant surmounted by its two cherubim (Exodus 25:18).
The manual talents of these masters were inseparable from the mental skills of scribes and scholars. For instance, the Akkadian and Hebrew terms for such crafters meant “skillful in technical work” as well as “wise”, “crafty, cunning”, “prudent”, and the same words equally designated “learned and shrewd men, including astrologers, magicians, and the like”10.
Similarly, we shall see that the artist who made the carving shown above was also a scholar and a sage. S/he11 had a polymath mind not unlike Ezekiel himself, and was immersed in the same body of learning.
Ezekiel never saw this particular carving, but his description of the cherubim in his vision fits many traits of the creature in it so well that he seems to have studied a similar design and its wheel- based geometry, then visualized it the way it was meant to be seen: projected onto the celestial background from which it had been derived.
Like the precise origins of the mysterious beast carved into it, the provenance of that ivory plaque is unknown. However, just as the family tree of sphinxes and griffins and their younger siblings the cherubim can be puzzled together in a fairly coherent manner, despite the many gaps in the record12, the circumstantial evidence for the history of this carving has led to a probable time and place for its birth, and the present analysis of its internal clues supplies the quasi- equivalent of a DNA test which confirms those deductions.
These internal clues from the object itself perfectly match its conjectured past, and they further identify the creature depicted as a close relative of Ezekiel’s cherubim. To distinguish this individual carving from the many others of its type found in its time and region, and also from the creatures they represent, I will call it the Cherub.
The time of said Cherub’s birth is no riddle: its well known general style dates it to the eighth or ninth century BCE, a period when such plaques were fashionable as inlays into elegant furniture.
As to the place, Elie Borowski, founder of the Bible Lands Museum and re- finder of the carving, said that he tracked this Cherub down as one of the pieces which had disappeared from the Louvre Museum’s share in the ivory hoard of Arslan Tash, and that his familiarity with the rest of that hoard left no doubt in his mind it belonged to the same group13.
Arslan Tash in northern Syria, on the present border with Turkey, was the ancient city of Hadatu; the ivories were found in an Assyrian- style building next to an eighth- century BCE Assyrian palace, a residence of king Tiglath-Pileser III14 (744 to 727 BCE) that a French expedition excavated in 1928.
Borowski reasoned that Hadatu was probably not the original home of said hoard. The cherub carvings in it depict the heads of their winged subjects in profile, in the Egyptian- influenced Phoenician and South Syrian style, whereas Assyrian artists from northern Syria to Mesopotamia preferred to show those faces frontally, looking right at you15.
Also, one of the other pieces in that hoard was inscribed with a dedication or property tag “to our lord Hazael”. Hazael was king of Aram- Damascus from about 848 to about 805 BCE. This was the time of an artistic renaissance throughout the Levant that refined this region’s by then centuries- old tradition of excellence in ivory carving to its fullest flourish -- and that also helped to hasten the extinction of the so- called “Syrian” or “Western Asian” elephant, a subspecies which succumbed around that time to increased Assyrian elephant hunting as well as to deforestation116.
Borowski believes the Assyrians may have conquered Hazael’s capital and brought the ivories 200 miles north to Hadatu as part of their booty. One of their accounts of a campaign against Damascus in or around 796 BCE mentions an “ivory bed and couch” as part of the tribute they extorted for not destroying the city17, just as Hazael himself had earlier collected the palace and temple treasures of Jerusalem for not attacking that city (2 Kings 12: 17 and 18).
“Ivory” meant in that context “inlaid with ivory”, so the proper paperwork is in place for the possibility of the postulated export.
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