And they shall make a chest of shittim (acacia) wood: two cubits and a half its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height; and you shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and out shall you overlay it, and shall make on it a zer (traditionally 'crown'; most modern translations 'molding') of gold all around. And you shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, even two rings on one side of it and two rings on the second side. And you shall make poles of shittim wood and overlay them with gold, and you shall put these poles into the rings on the sides of the chest, to carry the ark with them. In the rings of the chest shall be the poles; they shall not be removed from it. And you shall put in the chest the testimony which I will give you.The text then goes on to describe an item usually thought of as the Ark's lid, called in Hebrew kapporet, traditionally called the mercy-seat (Exodus 25:17-20):
And you shall make a kapporet of pure gold: two cubits and a half its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth; and you shall make two kheruvim of gold, of beaten work you shall make them at the two ends of the kapporet; and make one kheruv at the end on this side, and one kheruv at the end on that; from the kapporet you shall make the keruvim on its two ends. And the kheruvim shall stretch out their wings upward, overshadowing (sokhekhim; other possible renderings are 'covering', 'screening', 'hedging') the kapporet with their wings, and their faces a man to his brother - towards the kapporet the faces of the kheruvim shall be.
Before we go further, let's look at the Hebrew word kapporet first. Traditionally, English translators have loosely rendered it as "mercy-seat", a tradition which begun with Miles Coverdale's 1535 English translation of the Bible and before that, Martin Luther's German translation. Coverdale was in fact not proficient in Hebrew or Greek; instead, he used 'five soundry interpreters' in Latin, English and German as his source texts - including Luther’s Bible and the Swiss-German version (Zürich Bible) of Huldrych Zwingli and Leo Jud. Luther has rendered the word kapporet as gnadenstuhl/gnadenstuel ("seat of grace") in his translation, which Coverdale turned into Mercyseate in English. The rest, then, is history.
Admittedly, what kapporet precisely means and its etymology is a matter of debate. Despite traditional English usage, there is really nothing in the Hebrew to suggest 'mercy' or even 'seat' here. Various attempts are made to link it with the Egyptian kp n rdwj ("sole of the feet"), the Hebrew kaphar (literally "to cover", figuratively "to wipe out" or "to atone;" note cognate Arabic term kaffarat, used in modern legal contexts to refer to any mechanism of rectifying illegality), or even the Akkadian kapāru ("to purify cultically"). The Greek Septuagint seems to have followed the 'atonement' interpretation with its rendering of the term as ilasterion, "propitiatory" or "[place of] atonement". St. Jerome meanwhile renders kapporet both as propitiatorium and oraculum in the Latin Vulgate.
Let's now review the purpose of the Ark. It is, of course, obvious at first glance that the chest serves as a receptacle for the tablets of the law, as well as some other items. However, the Ark also has one other use, something that is quite obscured by its traditional depiction in art: it serves as both a throne and a footstool for God. It is a seat of sorts for the shekinah (Exodus 25:21-22):
And you shall put the kapporet on the chest above, and in the chest you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. And I will meet with you there, and I will speak with you from above the kapporet, from between the two kheruvim that are on the chest of the testimony, all that I will command you for the sons of Israel.The Old Testament has quite a number of references to the Lord riding/sitting enthroned upon cherubs:
So the people sent to Shiloh, and brought from there the chest of the covenant of YHWH Tzevaot, sitter of the kheruvim; and the two sons of Eli were there with the chest of the covenant of Elohim, Hophni and Phinehas. (1 Sam. 4:4)
And He rode a kheruv and flew, and glided on the wings of the wind. (Ps. 18:10; cf. 2 Sam. 22:11)
O YHWH Tzevaot, God of Israel, sitter of the kheruvim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made the heavens and the earth. (Is. 37:16)
Traditional Christian art has almost quite uniformly depicted the cherubs on the kapporet either as something that looks like stereotypical depictions of angels or as looking like Ezekiel's living creatures - if they depict them at all, a form which has stuck into the popular mind as the well-known diorama in Indiana Jones shows. But many scholars today, following the idea of well-known archeologist Prof. William Albright (1891-1971), opine that to discern how the cherubim of the Ark looked like, we must first need to investigate the art and culture of the neighbors of the Israelites. Albright wrote an article once about the cherubim, and here is an excerpt:
Since the veil of the Tabernacle was decorated with embroidered cherubim, and the walls and the religious objects of Solomon’s temple lavishly adorned with them, we ought to be able to identify them in contemporary Syro-Palestinian art. The account of the Ark of the Covenant shows that only a creature with wings can be considered. If, therefore, we study all known representations of animals and hybrid creatures, partly animal, we find one which is much more common than any other winged creature, so much so that its identification with the cherub is certain: that is the winged sphinx or winged lion with human head. In Egypt the wingless sphinx and the griffin appear; in Babylonia and Assyria the winged bull with a human head prevails; but in Syria and Palestine it is the winged sphinx which is dominant in art and religious symbolism.Note that these human-animal hybrids are considered as protectors and representative/intercessors in ancient Semitic cultures. They were the guardians of sacred precincts, persons and objects from intruders and the bringers of the petitions of man to the gods (some connect the word kheruv with the Akkadian word karubu or kuribu, 'an intercessor').
The God of Israel was often designated as "He who sitteth (on) the cherubim" (I Sam. 4:4, etc.). The conception underlying this designation is well illustrated by representations of a king seated on a throne supported on each side by cherubim, which have been found at Byblus, Hamath, and Megiddo, all dating between 1200 and 800 B.C. One shows King Hiram of Byblus (period of the Judges) seated upon his cherub throne [see picture on left]. Pottery incense altars found at Taanach and Megiddo are archaeological parallels to the wheeled lavers ("bases") of Solomon’s temple, which were decorated with lions and cherubs, according to I Kings 7:36.
In the Bible, the cherubim are also sometimes associated with guarding or protecting. For example, Genesis 3:24 relates that God "placed the kheruvim at the east of the garden of Eden, and the flaming sword (kherev) turning every way to keep the way to the tree of life." And here, in the Ark of the Covenant, the golden cherubs, the "cherubim of the Glory" (Hebrews 9:5), are overshadowing or screening (sokhekh) the lid with their wings in the act of guarding something - and/or Someone.
Such creatures also functioned as the throne or the vehicle for deities and kings in Ancient Near Eastern iconography. For example, in the image to the right (one of the so-called Megiddo Ivories, dating ca. 13th-12th century BC), the king or prince on the left sits upon a throne flanked by a winged sphinx, which is looking forward.
The king of the ancient Amorite city of Alalakh, Idrimi (16th-15th century BC) was apparently also depicted with such a chair.
Also, from the Beth Shan temple (Stratum VII) dating from the Late Bronze Age is a miniature basalt throne depicting winged creatures engraved on its sides. Something similar can be found in the Phoenician temple to Eshmun near Sidon in modern-day Lebanon, which has a (life-size) throne to the goddess Astarte within its precincts (similar model thrones found here and here).
Finally, there are also quite a number of Phoenician-manufactured gems (dating 6th-4th centuries BC) depicting such creatures, either alone or functioning as throne chairs. The Bible also mentions one such example of a seat: according to 1 Kings 10:20, King Solomon's throne had "armrests [literally hands] on this side and on that of the place of the seat, and two lions standing beside the armrests."
We now go over to Egyptian art. As the Israelites were under Egyptian bondage for three to four centuries, we should expect that there would have been some influences. Firstly, we can observe that a number of Egyptian chairs usually have depictions of lion feet as the legs; say, in Tutankhamun's throne (also note the winged serpents on the sidearms of King Tut's throne as well as the Egyptian griffins on the other examples).
Secondly, there is one more thing that is functionally and visually quite similar to the Ark: box-shaped portable thrones, designed to serve as the Pharaoh's or a god's processional chair, as on the picture at left (more examples here, here, here and here). Note some or all of the following flanking this box-chair: (1) a winged figure that enfolds the occupier within its wings, (2) a human-headed griffin with wings tucked-in and flat against their backs, as is common in Egyptian art - with a few exceptions, and (3) a lion.
In many ways, God's (empty) earthly throne is like all of the above, and yet unlike. One of the noticeable differences is that the cherubim are to be looking at each other, towards the kapporet. By itself of course, this is also not without parallel (sphinxes with their heads turned to the side are attested), but its usage in a throne seems to be quite unique. Instead of having their faces forward, the ones on the kapporet seem to be turned towards Him who is seated.