Maimonides taught that the Torah only “allowed” sacrifices because the Israelites saw pagans showing love of their gods by offering them, but the Torah restricted how the offerings should be made (Guide of the Perplexed 3:32). The Cherubim is an example of how the Israelites copied pagan practices.
One of the most perplexing ancient Jewish articles is the Ark of the Covenant that tradition states contained both the shattered and whole Decalogue (Ten Commandments). The Ark had two poles that were never removed from the box. No reason is given for this practice. The cover of the Ark contained two winged figures called cherubim. No explanation was offered in the Bible for their presence, leaving us with only speculation. What is most bothersome is that the presence of two winged creatures seems to violate the biblical law prohibiting the building of such figures.
What were the cherubim?
The cherubim were two figures placed on top of the ark which was set in the holiest place in the tabernacle and later temples, the “holy of holies.” Some scholars and rabbis say that perhaps the purpose of the cherubim was to screen the ark with their wings so that the ark would not be seen. Others say that the cherubim were guards protecting the ark. A decorative representation of the cherubim was also placed on many parts of the tabernacle and temples. What were the cherubim?
The term cherubim is obscure. Some scholars think it is an inversion of letters and is derived fromrekhuv, which means “chariot.” Others suggest that it is from the Akkadian karabu, “to pray” or “to bless” and that the cherubim were beings who interceded and brought the prayers of humans to the gods. We simply do not know.
Scripture does not describe the cherubim. Based on the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 5b, Rashi relates a tradition that they had children’s faces, although when cherubim are first mentioned in Genesis 3:24, both Saadiah Gaon and Rashi described them as angels. Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, suggested that they had the form of birds.
Two biblical sources, Exodus and II Chronicles, give different descriptions of the cherubim arrangement. Exodus states that the two figures had “faces [turned] to the other.” Chronicles says instead that they “faced the house,” the temple. The Babylonian Talmud offers a homiletical explanation for the difference: when Israel did the will of God, the cherubim faced each other; but when they did not do God’s will, they faced away from each other.
This is a nice sermonic lesson; however, we know that the biblical book of Chronicles has many differences from the Five Books of Moses. It even changed names of biblical characters and spelled names differently. While the authors of the biblical books Judges, Joshua, Samuel, and Kings told about the ancient Israelites and included their faults and failures, the author of Chronicles wrote his book to show the glory of the past and omitted the ancestors’ faults. Thus he was not careful to copy what others wrote before him. It seems clear that even in the far ancient time, centuries before the Common Era, biblical writers did not know what the cherubim looked like or anything about its origin and purpose.
Josephus, writing in his book Antiquities during the first century CE, admits that we no longer have any idea what the cherubim looked like or what their function was. We know that other ancient cultures had similar if not the same structures. The Babylonians, for example, used winged bulls with human faces set at the entrance to their temples and palaces to protect them.
Did the ancient Israelites copy the Babylonian idea or an even earlier one? Are these figures a violation of the Decalogue command not to make figures? Many rabbis say that that the commandment only prohibited making idols to worship them and didn’t prohibit making other statutes and paintings.
The Egyptians had them before the time of the Torah
The ark and covering figures used by the ancient Egyptians was startlingly similar to the Israelite ark and cherubim. Pictures of the ark and its winged guardians can be found in several places in Egypt today, including on Tutankhamen’s Shrine and on top of King Tut’s Tomb. The pictures can be seen on www.thelivingmoon.com/42stargate/03files/Egyptian_Arks.html.
Egypt was the most powerful nation in the world in biblical times. Its culture was very advanced. Living in Egypt for centuries, the Israelites, which my friend Hessel Meilech called “the world’s chameleons,” probably absorbed and improved many Egyptian ideas while, at the same time, rejecting many of them, such as the Egyptian ceremonies and theology regarding the dead.
The Israelites must have seen the Egyptian ark decorated with its cherubim carried by Egyptian priests by means of the two poles that extended from its base.
Scholars have been puzzled for ages why the Israelite ark had two poles that were never removed even when the ark and its cherubim were placed in the “holy of holies,” hidden behind a curtain. Arnold Ehrlich suggested in his book Mikra Ki-Pheschuto that the poles were left in the ark because from time to time the priests or levites would carry the ark to various communities so that the people could see it and perhaps donate toward the maintenance of the temple.
Now we know that Ehrlich was right. The Egyptian ark not only had cherubim but also poles, and we have pictures of the Egyptian priests carrying their ark from place to place while holding it by its poles.
Additionally, it appears that the Israelites used their ark in another way similar to the Egyptians. Reliefs illustrating Rameses military camp at the Battle of Kadesh depict an ark with cherubim in the center of the battlefield (See here: http://www.amazon.com/The-warfare-Biblical-lands-archaeological/dp/B0007DK08C ). Likewise, Moses told the priests to lead the ark into battle against the Midianites (Numbers 31:6). In the Israelite’s conquer of Jericho, the ark went in front of the marchers around the city (Joshua 6:6-8). King Saul had the ark carried into battle (1 Samuel 14:18), as did King David (2 Samuel 11:11).
This raises an issue far more bothersome than the question of the violation of the divine prohibition against making images: adopting non-Jewish practices. Actually, this copying of the cherubim is far from unique. Judaism incorporated many non-Jewish practices and theological notions, some of which are bizarre and totally contrary to basic Jewish beliefs.
We changed the concept of when the day begins from morning to evening, when the year starts from the spring to the fall, we took the names of the “Hebrew” months from the Babylonians despite at least one being the name of a Babylonian idol, we accepted the Babylonian notion that God judges people during the fall new year (and not before?), and much more. Even many rabbis were and are convinced that St. Augustine’s view that there is an “original sin” which soiled humanity is Jewish. The idea is found in the writings of rabbis in the middle ages and we hear it in sermons today. Augustine (354-430) developed the concept to explain why Jesus had to die: “he died for our sin.” While this notion did not exist before the fourth century and is a basic Christian belief, many Jews bought into it without realizing its origin and without seeing that it is inexplicable: although Augustine said that Jesus died to save humanity by removing “original sin,” people believe they are still stained by it today.
Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed 3:32 explains the ark
Maimonides’ explained in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32 that the relatively primitive ancient Hebrews needed to be weaned from old beliefs and customs such as sacrifices. God “allowed” sacrifices to continue in a restricted manner, although God did not want or need them, because the people needed them: they saw that other nations used sacrifices to show their love of their gods. The ark is a good example of his insight.
 Biblical citations for the cherubim, for example, are Genesis 3:24; Exodus 25:18–20, 26:1, 31, 36:8, 35; I Kings6:27–29, 32, 35, 7:29, 36; I Samuel 4:4; II Samuel 6:2, 22:11; II Kings 19:15; Isaiah 37:16; Ezekiel 1ff, 10ff, 28:13ff, 37:7–9, 41:18–20, 25; Psalms 18:11, 80:2, 99:1; I Chronicles 28:18; and II Chronicles 3:13. See also the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 99a and Yoma 54a-b.
 Exodus 25:20 and 37:9.
 II Chronicles 3:13.
 Bava Batra 99a.