The entire pre-Flood era in the Torah is described as one disaster after another. From the expulsion from the Garden to Cain killing Abel, from Lamech’s murders to the generation of the Flood, rooted as they were in “Might Makes Right” ethics, the Torah describes what happens when G-d leaves mankind alone and then observes what men, given unfettered freedom, decide to do. The answer is simple enough: in a state of nature, man is nothing more than a clever animal, doing all the things animals do, but, thanks to our mental capability and some physical advantages, we manage to outdo any other animal when it comes to our capacity for domination, hatred, and evil.
That experiment ends with the Flood. It is clear that G-d must be involved with the world in order for it to not slide back into the old ways. And so G-d talks to Avram, and tries building the world up from one person, one family. This, too, falls short. The forefathers were close to G-d, but their overall impact on the rest of creation was far too limited to make significant headway against the pagan, nature-worshipping peoples in every other civilization of the age.
Then, the Avrahamic family became an Israel tribe, and then a Jewish nation in the Exodus. At Sinai, the Torah, a set of laws and guides for mankind to use to learn to grow healthy and productive relationships with each other, and with G-d, is given. And at the center of the Torah, G-d instructs us to build and use the tabernacle, the mishkan, as a means for us to find G-d in our midst, to have constant symbolic reminders of who we are, and how we can seek holiness with the choices that we make.
All of the post-Exodus interaction between G-d and man can be seen in a very simple light: the commandments are here to help show us how to avoid all the mistakes that we made when G-d was not in our life, helping us to see the difference between right and wrong. The Torah and Tabernacle are a gift to keep us from reverting to pre-Flood animalistic humanity.
We can trace the vast majority of commandments back to the actions of our forefathers, of Noach, or even of Adam and Eve. The text provides all the signposts. But the commandments are not all simple, or as obvious as, “thou shall not kill.” Many of them are symbolic in nature, and so need to be understood in terms of their symbolic meaning. We can do this by seeing how the Torah links different elements together subtly, using shared language across the text, such as how a word may only be found in a few different cases. The word then is connective tissue, explaining how one episode much later in the Torah can be explained by an earlier one.
In the past, I have pointed out how the word for “thought” is contrasted between the Flood generation and the making of the tabernacle – here. The word for “heart” and “full” are similarly contrasted between the people of the flood and those who made the tabernacle – discussed here.
But I now believe that the parallels are so strong that it seems that the design of the tabernacle is more than a mere contrast to the past. It is instead meant to be a correction to the errors of humanity before we had a proper relationship with G-d. Here are some of the parallels that, to me, make this a strong case.
The Angels – the cherubim:
Make two cherubim of gold—make them of hammered work—at the two ends of the cover. Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end; of one piece with the cover shall you make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover …There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Covenant—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.
Questions abound. One obvious one: what do cherubim look like? This is a common question, but I believe it is a distraction from the right ones! While there is considerable speculation and opinion about what the appearance of the cherubim was (opinions range from man and woman, to two children, to creatures with animal faces, etc.), the text does not tell us. By itself, that tells us what we need to know: it does not matter. The cherubim are symbolic characters, and they serve no function beyond simply being there, facing each other, with their wings covering the cover of the ark. So the real meaning of the cherubim is about the relationship between them, the fact that they are facing and reaching for each other. Our sages have spoken of the cherubim as representing man and G-d, as well as man and woman, suggesting that there are strong parallels between terrestrial marriage and a relationship with the divine. I have no argument with any of that. Indeed, the ambiguous appearance of the cherubim may well be a way to tell us that it refers to all relationships, writ large. And if so, then the message applies whether we are talking of marriage, friendship or our relationship to G-d.
But another way to try to better understand the cherubim is to use the words in the Torah itself. The text does NOT say that the cherubim are male and female, or children, or animals. Instead, the text itself says each “man is facing his brother.” Why is this important? Because these words are first found in Genesis, and in two adjacent verses referring to the very first relationship that went wrong!
Now Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived and bore Cain. And she said, ‘I have acquired a man as did G-d.’ She then bore his brother Abel. (Gen 4:1-2).
The second time in the Torah where “man” and “his brother” is found is right after the Flood, where G-d reminds Noach of the prohibition against murder:
I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for his brother!
Which tells us that the cherubim are meant to represent Cain and Abel – how they should have been! Brothers who loved each other, instead of rivals. Brothers who love instead of kill. Note that Cain’s loss of self-control is the first named sin in the Torah. Hatred is easy, but love is hard.
It is no accident that the cherubim are described using this very same expression, of “man facing his brother.” And since the voice of G-d comes from the empty space between the cherubim, the obvious and simple conclusion is that G-d is found where people love each other, and where people seek to correct the wrongs of the past.
The wings of the cherubim stretch out over the cover of the ark – called a kapores. This is the same root word we use for Yom Kippur, and while it is often translated as “atonement,” if we look at context for this word, a more accurate meaning is a protective or insulating layer, allowing close proximity without direct exposure. And we learn it from the way Noach builds the first ark: “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and kapar it inside and out with kapar.” The act of sealing Noach’s ark, and the sealant he used are both the same root word used for the cover of the ark of the covenant!
In which case, we can see the wings of the cherubim as representing the outside protective layer, and the cover of the ark as the inside protective layer. The goal is clearly to allow G-d’s presence to come as close to possible to the people – but without the direct exposure that no mortal flesh can survive. There is a direct parallel to the flood waters in this as well, of course. And the fact that all of the insulation layers (pitch on the inside and out of Noach’s ark, and the cover and angel wings on the ark of the covenant) are all made by mankind, for our own survival against what otherwise would kill us.
But the contrast between the flood and G-d’s presence in the ark is even more stark. The flood waters were designed to be toxic, whereas G-d’s presence in the tabernacle is meant to provide spiritual proximity, guidance and uplift. The kapar is necessary for both, but like the brothers who reach for each other in love, the kapar in the ark of the covenant may be a corrective for the Flood. After all, the Flood was the tragic death of an old era. But the tabernacle is the optimistic beginning of a promising new one.
The Torah continues the linguistic parallels. Noach’s ark had a skylight that we are told was a cubit “from the top” – and the cherubim’s wings are also “on top.” The windows of one ark and the wings of another, both being the last human interface between the physical world and the heavens.
And from this window, Noach dispatched birds to determine what was going on outside (his skylight did not, apparently, provide a view except for the sky). Birds, of course, with wings – the same word used to describe the wings of the cherubim.
Even the word used for the faces of the cherubim, u-fenayhem, is first found in the Torah in the Noach story:
Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces (u-fenayhem) were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.
These brothers, unlike Cain and Abel, were jointly engaged in a good purpose, and they used the way they turned their faces in order to shield themselves from their father’s humiliation.
Which leads us to the first time cherubim are mentioned:
And G-d sent them from the Garden of Eden to work the land from which he was taken. Man was banished, and from the east of the Garden of Eden were the cherubim with the fiery ever-turning sword to guard the way to the tree of life.
The first cherubim used a sword. But the cherubim of the tabernacle use their wings to shield. In both cases, the cherubim signify a demarcation, a change in state at the place where they are. But the cherubim in Genesis, while they succeeded in blocking the way to the tree of life, failed at a larger divine purpose, of elevating mankind, of showing us how to grow, or reminding us how we can have productive relationships with our creator.
By contrast, the cherubim over the ark of the covenant acted as did Noach’s righteous sons, by directing their faces and using their wings to shield, to protect, to bring us closer to G-d instead of farther away from Him.
In summary we can see that the angels on top of the ark existed very much as a contrast to G-d’s initial laissez-faire approach to the world, in the pre-Flood generations of man that sought violence and self-aggrandizement, and where G-d ended up killing almost everyone. The angels on top of the ark are a do-over for the failures of the Flood generation. In the tabernacle, we are reminded of G-d’s presence, of the constant need for productive and corrective relationships, of using shields instead of swords.
[an @iwe, @kidcoder @eliyahumasinter and @blessedblacksmith work]
[note: The word for “man,” ish, is found in several instances earlier than 4:1 – but that verse is the first time it is a standalone word. The earlier cases are all attached to other letters]
P.S. It is widely understood in Jewish tradition that the tabernacle is like a re-creation of the world. The essence of my addition to that understanding is that the re-creation is not merely a spiritual proxy for the physical original, but it is also an improvement, a corrective secondary creation that turns many elements of pre-Flood humanity from negatives into positives.
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[…] to the orientation of the cherubim on top of the ark. (I wrote about “each man to his brother” here, arguing that the cherubim are a corrective for the first man and the first brother in the Torah […]