Sunday, May 17, 2015

Revelation 4:6-9

Lamassu statues in the Louvre in Paris, France.
In the book of Revelation there is a curious portion of John's revelation wherein he sees God on his throne in the heavenly temple. Surrounding God's throne are four strange beasts similar to those described in the visions of Ezekiel and Isaiah. John describes his beasts in Revelation 4:7 as follows:

"7 And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle" 

What are we to make of these strange creatures and how can we better understand what John is referring to?

Regarding this verse the Harper Collins Study Bible (HCSB) has this to say:

"The four living creatures (a designation drawn from Ezek 1.5-25) are cherubim, angelic beings that guard and support the throne of God (Ex 25.17-22; 1 Kings 6.23-28; Ps 18.10; Isa 6:2; Ezek 10). They are full of eyes (an allusion to Ezek 1.18; 10.12), symbolizing unceasing watchfulness." (The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books (eds. Wayne A. Meeks et al.; New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 2315.)

These creatures are most likely the heavenly archetypes of the cherub statues found in Solomon's temple in Jerusalem. These cherub statues are mentioned in reference to the construction of Solomon's temple in 1 Kings 6:23-29:

"23 ¶And within the oracle he made two cherubims of olive tree, each ten cubits high.

"24 And five cubits was the one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the other wing of the cherub: from the uttermost part of the one wing unto the uttermost part of the other were ten cubits.

"25 And the other cherub was ten cubits: both the cherubims were of one measure and one size.

"26 The height of the one cherub was ten cubits, and so was it of the other cherub.

"27 And he set the cherubims within the inner house: and they stretched forth the wings of the cherubims, so that the wing of the one touched the one wall, and the wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; and their wings touched one another in the midst of the house.

"28 And he overlaid the cherubims with gold.

"29 And he carved all the walls of the house round about with carved figures of cherubims and palm trees and open flowers, within and without.

The Israelites were heavily influenced by their neighbors in the construction of their temple. It has been shown how the Ain Dara Temple in particular is remarkably similar to the description of Solomon's temple found in the Bible and was its likely pattern.

This is a photo of me at the British Museum in London,
during a p-day excursion while on my mission (ca. 1997).
Notice the lamassu on the left has a bovine body while
the one on the right features a leonine body.
Evidently the Israelites were influenced by other Mesopotamian iconography as well. The creatures described by John and the cherubim mentioned in 1 Kings are very similar to Assyrian lamassu statues. Assyria was Israel's neighbor to the north and was responsible for the destruction of the Northern Kingdom during the 8th century BC. Lamassu statues were a common feature of Assyrian monumental architecture and have been found at several sites in lands that were once Assyrian.

Lamassu imagery predates the Assyrian empire and is found in literature as early as the Old Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh which dates to the late third millennium BC. The lamassu were Mesopotamian deities charged with the task of frightening away the forces of chaos. Chaos was personified in the Bible by the dragon Rahab and was the primeval state of creation prior to its subdual by God. Psalms 89:8-10 praises God for subduing chaos and maintaining order in the cosmos.  

Furthermore, 1 Enoch 71:7 (1 Enoch is an ancient Jewish and Christian extra-biblical sacred text) describes the cherubim/lamassu as those surrounding God's throne who: "sleep not and guard the throne of his glory."

Assyrian lamassu statues feature the head and face of a man, the wings of an eagle and a bovine or leonine body. John mentions his creatures as having eagle, bovine and leonine features very similar to the lamassu statues. In addition, lamassu, like the creatures in John's vision, were seen as heavenly sentinels and placed in pairs at entry ways to palaces and temples.

It seems likely, therefore, that the architects of Solomon's temple borrowed this element from the culture of the Near East, of which they were a part, and incorporated it into their sacred structure. Undoubtedly this was done because these symbols were already meaningful for the Israelites. These elements were then incorporated into the visions of Isaiah, Ezekiel and John in a way that their contemporaries could understand. 

In our own day a similar thing was done by Joseph Smith when, by inspiration, he incorporated certain elements of the Masonic ritual into LDS temple ceremonies because they were already meaningful for the people of his day. Their incorporation facilitated early Mormons' understanding of temple rituals and helped them find meaning in them.

No comments:

Post a Comment