Cherubim and the Nativity?
The Christmas season gives rise to varied depictions of angelic beings. Unfortunately, none can adequately convey the awesome power of these magnificent creatures.
When the Bible pulls back the curtain allowing us to see into the spiritual dimension, we get a glimpse of the beings we glibly call angels. One group of mighty angels not specifically mentioned in the Christmas story are cherubim, which is the plural of cherub.
As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches going back and forth among the living creatures. The fire was bright, and out of the fire went lightning. And the living creatures ran back and forth, in appearance like a flash of lightning (Ezek. 1:13-14).
Ezekiel describes cherubim as formidable beings radiating intense brightness, moving and generating what appear to be flashes of lightening. Their movements are instantaneous; darting with incomprehensible speed in their service to Almighty God (vv. 15-21).
Their appearance is not what we typically envision.
Each one had four faces: the first face was the face of a cherub, the second face the face of a man, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle” (10:14).
Their bodies are described as similar to man, but with four faces oriented in opposing directions. With two sets of wings, hands and calf-like feet, how is it cherubim came to be recognized as baby-like creatures sporting dimply bodies and stubby wings? (1:5-13).
The first mention of cherubim occurs shortly after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden when God stationed them to secure the entrance.
. . . the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken.
So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen. 3:22-24).
While perhaps not apparent in a casual reading, the cherubim’s role in the Nativity becomes obvious when we take time to ponder the passage. There is nothing to infer or read between the lines, however. The text is plain.
God explains His reasoning for stationing cherubim guards and positioning a flaming laser-like weapon at the entrance. These were preventative measures so that intruders could not access the Tree of Life.
Why? Fallen man’s eviction from the environment of the garden made the Tree of life inaccessible. Had man been allowed to eat from the Tree of Life, death would have eluded human beings. Redemption would have been impossible because the primeval prophecy would have been negated.
Not only would the Lord’s sacrificial death for our sins been impossible, people would have lived in a grotesque and painful state of decay—forever.
Cherubim were charged with guarding the entrance to the Garden of Eden to ensure God’s plan for man’s redemption would occur, as promised to Adam and Eve (v. 15). Had the cherubim not been successful in fulfilling their duties as assigned, our redemption could never have happened.
Based on the veracity of God’s own word, cherubim were most assuredly involved in the progression of events leading to the Nativity.
In early Christian art, cherubim were often portrayed as bodiless heads with wings. Their spiritual nature reflected the incorporeal absence of a body. With heads representing their intellect and ability to communicate with God, their wings identified them with the divine or celestial.
Italian artists of the Quattrocento (14th century) are primarily responsible for visual depictions we commonly associate with angels. Raphael borrowed and adapted a motif from Greek and Roman mythos applying it to the sacred in his widely-known rendition of cherubs in “The Sistine Madonna.”
Starting with the early Renaissance through the Baroque period and up to the present, artistic depictions of cherubs are erroneously interchanged with this motif known as putto. Taken from the Latin meaning little man, putti (pl.) are mischievous baby-like winged creatures associated with profane activities or erotic love in classical themes. This motif became so entrenched, that by the Baroque era, the only way to differentiate between cherubim and putti was the context of the art.
Hence, though universally accepted as a medium for creative expression, art—no matter how beautifully rendered—is not the best way to discover biblical truth. As finite creatures, our ability to conceptualize angels is limited. Christians can and should rely on the veracity of the Bible for the foundation for our understanding!
In Scripture, cherubim are the immensely powerful beings who protected the entrance of the Garden of Eden so that God’s will would not be thwarted in the outworking of His plan for man’s redemption.
Don’t allow cultural dictates to undermine your understanding of cherubim and their vital role in safeguarding the Tree of Life. Use God’s Word to build your faith. And then, share the truth about angels with everyone!
1) Cherub. (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: Pixabay/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
2) Putto on building in Ptuj, Slovenia. (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: By David Jones/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
3) The Guardian of Paradise (c. 1889). (Image used for illustrative purposes.) (Photo credit: By Franz von Stuck/[PD-US, PD-Art]/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
4) Cherubic Heads. (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: Pixabay)
5) Cherubim. (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: By Unknown engraver/(Google Books)/[Public domain]/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
6) Contemplative Putti (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Detail: The Sistine Madonna. By Rafael Sanzio de Urbino/[PD-US, PD-Art]/Wikimedia/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
7) Bodiless Cherub Heads (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: Pixabay)
8) Bodiless Cherub Head with Wings. (Image used for illustrative purposes) (Photo credit: Pixabay/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
Copyright © 2016 Charles E. McCracken (revised 2021), devotional comments only. Repost/Reprint with permission from the author. Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.