Puzzling over the overlapping images of the faces of the cherubim and the tabernacle furnishings, with the help of James Jordan’s essay on orientation in Revelation. The east-west orientation, lion-bull, is fairly clear. East is the place of the altar, therefore the origin of the bull, who ascends to the inner sanctuary so that his face appears to the west. West is the place of the ark-throne, therefore the origin of the lion, who descends from the inner sanctuary so that his face appears to the east.
North and south has been more difficult. Here’s my best shot.
The Eagle face/creature is to the north, but that is where the table of showbread is, and the table of showbread is set with twelve loaves of bread that represent the twelve tribes. We would thus expect the man face on the north side, but we see the eagle instead. The lampstand is perhaps associated with man, but it is light and fire, called in Revelation 4:5 the “seven Spirits of God,” and the Spirit is a hovering eagle or a fluttering dove. The lampstand of fire, elevated above the golden table and shedding its light on the table, seems more appropriate to the eagle, but the eagle is on the north.
As with East and West, we should think of these faces as the faces of the creature that has come to be in each position. The bull face is to the West not because the Bull starts west, but because he is moving west, as a sacrifice moving toward the throne of God. The Bull face is toward the West because that’s the way the Bull is looking. The lion face is toward the East not because the Lion starts there, but because he moves from the throne toward the land beyond Eden. East is the direction the Lion looks. Bull moves up the mountain from garden to throne; Lion looks down the mountain from throne through garden and into world. Since the cherub faces are fixed in a particular direction, this makes sense. When a cherub moves from west to east, the lion face takes the lead; west-to-east movement is leonine. When a cherub moves from east to west, the bull face is in front; thus, east-to-west motion is ovine.
Now, let’s think about how this might work with the other two faces. The Eagle face is toward the North because that is the direction the Eagle goes. And the Man face is toward the South because that’s the direction that the man is advancing. Before we speculate a bit on what this might mean, we can pause to think about north/south orientations in the Bible. What are the associations of this coordinate? This is more difficult than East-West, because East-West is a natural axis by which we keep time, the cycle of day and night; but North and South don’t have the same natural temporal associations. We need to think a bit differently about them. Let’s begin by thinking about them separately.
In a handful of passages, north is the place of Yahweh’s throne, and that includes Yahweh’s throne in the temple on Zion. Zion is on the “sides of the north” according to Psalm 48:2, and in Isaiah 14, a prophecy about the king of Babylon, the king wants to ascend to heaven, to the sides of the north – the same phrase as in Psalm 48:2 (v. 13). So, the north is the Lord’s throne. And that suggests, secondly, that the north is associated with heaven. On our maps, north is “up,” and it seems that something like that association, without our cartography, was at work in ancient Israel. Isaiah 14 already hints at this: The king wants to ascend to heaven and sit on the mount of assembly in the far north. Those are not two different places that he aspires to be. To ascend to the Lord’s throne in heaven is to ascend to the far north. Psalm 89:11-12 also implies this. Heaven and earth are founded by God, and the parallel is that the Lord has also created “north and south.” Heaven and earth seem to correspond to up and down.
One of the most common associations of North is with nations and empires that invade the land. Coming ultimately from the throne of God in the far north/heaven, these nations are pictured coming down from the north (Isaiah 14:31; 41:25; Jeremiah 1:13-15). Now, perhaps we can draw this conclusion. North is the direction of God’s throne, and north-to-south movement is movement downward from God’s throne. This is the direction that the man-face goes, the direction of man. Man is associated with the table of showbread, the twelve loaves of Israel, as the bull is associated with the altar. But in each case the face appears at the opposite side. The bull is moving from the East so that his face appears on the west; the man is moving from the north, so that his face appears in the south. The man face is the face of downward movement, of man coming from God’s throne. In a sense, it is parallel to the Lion’s movement from West to East: As the Lion moves from throne to altar, so the man moves from table to burning lampstand.
If north is up and associated with the Lord’s throne, South would seem to be away from the Lord’s throne, down. And in the early uses of the word “south,” this is what we find. South is the direction Abram goes twice out of the land into a kind of proto-Egyptian sojourn (Genesis 12:9; 20:1). Coming up from south to north is described as an “ascent” (Genesis 13:1; cf. Numbers 13:22). The association of the South is with exile, distance from God, and oppression. Going south is going down, and movement from south to north is ascent. In terms of history, the movement from south to north is the movement of liberation and exodus. Invaders are typically depicted coming from the north, while Israel marches north in coming out of Egypt. They move from a low place and ascend toward the Lord’s throne. In a sense, South-to-North movement parallels East-to-West movement: As the bull begins on the altar and ascends in smoke toward the Lord’s throne to the West, so Israel begins in the South and ascends to the Mount of the Lord, where they make covenant with Him. Egypt to Sinai is low to high, and also resembles the movement of east to west.
Now, can we fit this with the face of the Eagle, which, if the paradigm works, is the face of the creature that moves from South to North, from low to high, from Egypt to Yahweh’s throne and mountain? I think we can. The main eagle imagery of the Bible is associated with the exodus. Yahweh bore Israel on eagle’s wings out of Egypt (Exodus 19:4), and the Lord hovered over the people of God like an eagle stirring up its next (Deuteronomy 32:11).
Now, we can perhaps reintroduce the furnishings of the tabernacle here. The furnishings of the tabernacle are the origin, and the face of the cherub is, as it were, the destination. The eagle is facing north, which means it is the lead face when a cherub comes from the South, and thus the eagle is associated with the lampstand as its origin. And that makes sense, since the hovering eagle of Deuteronomy 32 is the Spirit-cloud that hovered over Israel, forming them in the wilderness into a new creation. The lampstand has lamps whose light “ascends” continually (Leviticus 24:2; the verb is ‘alah). The eagle lampstand thus ascends to the table of bread and hovers over the twelve loaves, the twelve tribes. The arrangement recapitulates the exodus.
The movement from north to south is trickier. The man is associated with the bread and the frankincense on the table; the man is associated with food from the north, the food of the high recesses of the north, the bread of heaven. He moves south so that his face appears to the south. But as he moves to the south, his face merges with the seven lampstands, and so we have a man with seven fiery eyes, like the fiery eyes of the Lamb in Revelation 5. The bread and incense also move down south toward the light in order to ascend again The movement of the man from north to south, up to down, followed by a re-ascent, is the movement of incarnation and ascension.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Saturday, September 24, 2011 at 11:27 am
Permission is given to use material on this site, provided the source is cited, blog entries are republished in full, and the author is notified in advance.