Cherubim and Sacred Trees, North Syrian Prototypes of the Garden of Eden?

Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de  la Torre, M.A. Ed.

22 June 2004. Revisons through 02 September 2010


Below is a poorly preserved mural from the palace of king Zimri-Lim circa 1778-1758 B.C. (a contemporary of the Babylonian king Hammurabi) at ancient Mari on the Euphrates. Of interest are several winged creatures guarding two trees one of which which appears to be in bloom with blossoms. To the degree that blossoms on trees frequently presage the development of fruits, and to the degree that the beasts are facing this tree -which has no men accessing it- could this unknown species of tree be what is behind Eden's "tree of life" guarded by the Cherubim? To the viewer's far right a goddess stands with upraised hands, before her two men (possibly naked?) are climbing a tall date palm. Two of the winged creatures appear to have lion-like bodies, the third on the bottom register, possesses a hump-backed bull's body without wings. In the Bible we are told Israel's ancestors were Arameans (Syrians) from across the Euphrates. Could Genesis' motif of Cherubim guarding either one or two sacred trees be drawing from this North Syrian exemplar? We are told that flowers, cherubim and palmtrees decorated the walls of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem (2 Chron 3:7) and a date palm appears in the Mari mural, accompanied by winged creatures (later Jewish traditions understood the "Tree of Life" was a date palm). In Genesis a river leaves Eden and divides into four streams, the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates, in the below mural, to the viewer's lower left, two individuals with striped robes each hold a pot of freshwater which has four streams gushing forth from them, are these motifs behind Genesis' Garden of Eden ? (for the photo cf. p. 29. William Culican. The First Merchant Venturers, The Ancient Levant in History and Commerce. London. Thames & Hudson. 1966)

Please click here for a map showing Mari and Beth-Eden on the Euphrates. I have also argued that Eden is derived from Sumerian edin (Akkadian seru) meaning "plain" or "steppe" and refers to the plains of both Upper and Lower Mesopotamia, from Haran in the west (Syria) to Eridu in the east (Sumer). Please click here for the article titled "Eden's Four Rivers" for maps showing the river of Eden leaving Mari and subdividing into four streams.

Below, a line-drawing showing the above mural in its badly preserved present form. Could the TWO trees which appear flanking the central panel be the source of Eden's TWO trees? The tree being climbed by two men appears to be a Date Palm, however the adjacent flowering tree does not appear to be a Date Palm as its trunk is very different and it lacks palm branches (I'm not sure what species it is intended to be). The archives at Mari mention nomadic shepherds called Amorites or Amurru, one tribe is called the banu-yamina "sons of the right [hand]" which also means "of the south" and the other are called banu-sim'al, "sons of the left [hand]" or "north. Some scholars have suggested that perhaps the Israelite tribe of Benjamin is recalling the banu-yamina (For the below drawing cf. p. 23. fig. 16. "Zimri-Lim of Mari." Jeremy Black and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, An Illustrated Dictionary. London. The British Museum Press. 1992)

Note: The uppermost register shows Ishtar, one foot on a lion's back, bestowing symbols of rulership on Mari's king, so this is an investiture scene. Mesopotamian myths have kings being made to supervise mankind in the providing of life's necessities for the gods: food, shelter and clothing. Man will also maintain irrigation canals to provide water for the gods' city-gardens which possess fruit trees, vegetables and grain. Akkadian Ishtar is the Sumerian Inanna, and one of her Sumerian epithets was nin edin "the lady of edin." Her husband Dumuzi was mulu edin "the lord of edin." In one myth she descends to the earth with her brother Utu the sun-god to eat of various trees to acquire knowledge, sexual knowledge, in order to fulfill her conjugal duties with her husband Dumuzi. I understand that Inanna "the lady of edin" who ate of cedar trees on the earth to acquire knowledge was later morphed by the Hebrews into Eve, a lady of eden who ate of a tree to acquire knowledge, who then later has sex with Adam (Adam "knowing" Eve, having "sex" with her after eating of a fruit tree). The below scene is showing Inanna's city-garden at Mari and men caring for her garden, harvesting its produce (dates) to feed the gods. That is to say I understand that this mural captures several motifs which later reappear in Genesis as God's Garden in Eden.
Hoffmeier noted that Hyatt (1971) had argued Yahweh was _originally_ an Amorite or "Syrian" name, yahwi, found in the 18th century B.C. annals of the Amorite city-state of Mari on the Euphrates (whose above mural "may be" a source of fabulous winged beasts guarding the tree of life and of good and evil):

"...J. P. Hyatt, for example, advocated this view, believing that the name Yahweh was originally Amorite and is attested in personal names in the early 2d millennium BC by the element Yahwi. Indeed, there are names at Mari, an Amorite kingdom, that apparently utilized the root from which the divine name Yahweh came (i.e., haya), that may offer clues to the process for the development of new divine names. According to those who see a Syro-Mesopotamian connection, the name came via Mesopotamia and was "the god of one of the ancestors of Moses." 

(p. 236. "The Origins of Israel's God." James K. Hoffmeier. Ancient Israel in Sinai, The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition. Oxford & New York. Oxford University Press. 2005. ISBN 0-19-515546-7. Citing J.  Philip Hyatt. Exodus. London. Marshall, Morgan & Scott. 1971. p. 79)

Gordon and Rendsburg suggested Yahweh was honored in Syria not just Israel the brackets [ ] are mine:

"It is of interest to add here a few words about Syrian rulers of this period [1st millennium B.C.] with Yahwistic names. The annals of Tiglathpileser III refer to a king named Azriyau, and while the exact locale of his rule cannot be determined, it is clear that he was a local king in Syria. Similarly, later, during the reign of Sargon II, Assyrian records refer to a ruler of Hamath named Yaubidi...If we go further back in history, to the 2d millennium B.C.E., it will be recalled that Yahwistic forms also appear among the Amorite personal names from Syria. The picture that emerges is that Yahwe was worshipped not only in Israel, but to some extent in Syria as well. Probably the Syrian version of Yahwism differed from the Israelite version of a monolatry focused on Yahwe, but it still needs to be recognized that the worship of Yahwe persisted in areas of the Near East outside of Israel." 

(pp. 250-251. "From Israel's Largest Empire to the Fall of Samaria. Cyrus H. Gordon & Gary A. Rendsburg. The Bible and the Ancient Near East. New York & London. W. W. Norton & Company. 1997. [4th edition, 1965, 1958, 1953])

The 2d millennium B.C. (ca. the 18th century B.C.) Mari archives on the Euphrates give names of people that some scholars have suggested are Yahweh names: Yahwi-ilumYahwi-ilaYahwi-AdduYahwi-Dagan; a text often cited for these names is Herbert B. Huffmon. Amorite Personal Names in the Mari Texts: A Structural and Lexical Study. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press. 1965. cf. also Herbert B. Huffmon. "Yahweh and Mari." pp. 283-289, in Hans Goedicke. Editor. Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William Foxwell Albright. Baltimore, Maryland. Johns Hopkins Press. 1971.

As regards the meaning of yahwi in Amorite names, suggestions have been: "to manifest [oneself]" or "to be present"; ilum means "god" as also so does ilu. Thus some have suggested  yahwi-ilum means "the god manifests [himself]" or "El manifests [himself]."

Mari fell to Hammurabi of Babylon who destroyed the site with its archives possessing yawi names. Of interest here is that some scholars have suggested Abraham may have been a contemporary of Hammurabi.If so, the yawi names at Mari bear witness to this god's existence in the days of Hammurabi (biblical Amraphel?) and Abraham. Professor Jastrow (1914) on Abraham migrating from Ur of the Chaldees in Lower Mesopotamia to Haran in Upper Mesopotamia in Hammurabi's days (the "Terahites" being Terah, Nahor and Abraham):

"It is about the time of Hammurapi that we may with probability fix the migration of the Terahites, first from Ur to Haran..."

(p. 13. Morris Jastrow Jr. The Hebrew and Babylonian Traditions. The Haskell Lectures at Oberlin. Charles Scribner and Sons. 1914)

It is of interest that Abraham was later of Upper or northern Mesopotamia (Haran) and Yahweh appeared to him in this region telling him to migrate to the land of Canaan, and Mari lies in this same general region. Mari was an Amorite city-state. Haran was famed for its worship of the moon god Sin, and Abraham was of Ur of the Chaldees (tell el Muqqayar according to some) which honored the moon god under the name of Nanna or Nannar. A Sumerian stele shows a seated and bearded Nanna being served liquid refreshment by a naked man (priest?). The god Enki, called Ea by 2500 B.C. had a temple or shrine at Ur. In the Ur myths Ea, pronounced aya or ayya was credited with supervising the creation of man to work in his fruit-tree garden at Eridu as well as Enlil's garden at Nippur. In later myths Ea (Aya) confounds the one language of the world into a babel of languages to spite Enlil. In yet another myth, Ea/Aya spites Enlil again when he warns the Mesopotamian Noah, Utnapishtim (also called Atrahasis or Ziusudra) to build a boat and save heimself, family and animals from a flood intending to destroy all mankind at Enlil's instigation. Did the Aramaic "ear" at Haran hear Aya (Ea) as ehyeh or haya? Yahweh/Ehyeh, like Ea/Aya is credited with making man to work in his garden and he warned one man of a flood to destroy mankind.

Is the naked man serving a drink to Nanna at Ur, recalling the Mesopotamian myth (cf. the so-called "Eridu Genesis Myth") of man at first being a savage, knowing nothing of the arts of civilization, wandering the steppe with wild animals and in a naked state? Later the gods civilize man, take him to work their gardens and serve them food and build their cities. Man is taught it is wrong to be naked, for the gods wear clothes and nakedness is an offense to them. Thus naked savage man at first wandered with animals for companions in a naked state because the knowledge of good and evil was denied him (it is wrong to be naked) by the gods in the beginning, only later does man acquire this knowledge, and becomes "like a god," knowing good and evil (to cover his nakedness). That is to say the Sumerian depictions of naked men serving the gods may be what is behind the biblical portrayal of Adam's nakedness as Yahweh's agricultural servant?

Professor Parrot (1967) who excavated Mari remarks on its mural which he found and its suggestion to him of themes associated with Genesis' Garden of Eden:

"In the palace, dating from the second millennium B.C., there was a large mural painting; it provides a particularly relevant illustration to the Old Testament. This painting, which we named 'The Investiture', was found in situ in courtyard 106; it was taken down and brought to the Louvre, where it is now on view. In the centre stands the king of Mari, to whom the godess Ishtar is giving the emblems of power in the presence of the gods. This scene is surrounded by trees, animals, and goddesses. Some of the details remind one of the Old Testament story of Eden (Gen ii-iii), which relates, among other things, that the garden of Eden was watered by a river with four tributaries (Gen ii.10), that two trees were there, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (ii.17) and the tree of life (iii.22), and that, after the fall of man, Yahweh placed cherubim to guard the way to the tree of life (iii.24). It is rather surprising that the picture from Mari seems to retain the same memory. Beneath the investiture, two goddesses hold a vase each, out of which pours a flow of water in four streams. On both sides of the central scene two different trees are represented; one is a palm-tree bearing bunches of dates to which men are climbing. The other, which has very stylized branches, cannot be definitely identified, but it is noteworthy that it is obviously guarded by three cherubim who are keeping watch. It must be admitted that this garden, which has been planted, watered, and guarded, does not lack features which relate it to the garden of Eden in Genesis.

The palace of Mari was destroyed by the soldiers of Hammurabi, who reigned at Babylon in the eighteenth century B.C. This is exactly the period in which many Old Testament scholars date the patriarchs, particularly Abraham, the first patriarch."

(p.139. Andre Parrot. "Mari." pp. 136-144, in D. Winton Thomas, editor. Archaeology and Old Testament Study. Oxford, England. Oxford University. The Clarendon Press. 1967)

Gates, an Assistant Professor of Archaeology at the University of Bilkent in Ankara, Turkey, thought that Parrot's unidentified tree might be a "papyrus-tree" (I note that this rather fabulous make-believe tree appears in Phoenician art guarded by human headed, lion-bodied sphinxes which some have identified as being cherubim).

Gates describing the Mari wall mural:

"These two panels are framed by a fantastic landscape created by two papyrus-like trees and two date palms..."

(p. 64. Charles Gates. Ancient Cities: The Archaeology of Urban Life in the Ancient Near East and Egypt, Greece and Rome. London. Routledge. 2003)


Mari has not only preserved 2d millennium B.C. personal names possessing yahwi as a theophoric element ca. the 18th century B.C., but also a mural showing "what may be" the pre-biblical origins of the Cherubim who guard either one or two sacred trees in a god's garden, (one tree being accessed by man in the Mari mural). Also in the scene are waterpots held by two demi-gods (?). These pots with streams of water flowing from them frequently are "iconographic symbols"  _for springs_ as "sources" of rivers, and these two pots show four streams from each pot, recalling Eden's river which arose from a spring and divided into four streams. Abraham in tradition settled for a time at Haran in Northern Mesopotamia and his descendants were called Arameans or "Syrians" (De 26:5). Is it just possible that Yahweh as a name -yahwi- is indeed traceable in its "pre-biblical origins" to Northern Syria and the Haran-Mari area, confirming the biblical traditions that Israel's patriarchs were originally of this region, so too, some of the motifs about Cherubim guarding sacred trees in a God's earthly garden?

My research indicates that motifs from several different Mesopotamian myths about man's lost chance for immortality, being placed in a god's garden to tend it, and his expulsion, have been combined and reinterpreted at a later date by the Hebrews. 

Ezekiel did not envision the Cherubim as winged sphinxes, he described them as possessing a human form, a human face, arms, hands and wings (Ez 1:5-11). They also had non-human features, three other faces consisting of an eagle, calf and lion, with cloven feet and were accompanies by a flying wheel (Ez 1:15-18). Mesopotamian Art forms _alternately_ show a "sacred tree" not only guarded by winged sphinxes but also by winged genii who possess human features, sometimes they are bull-men (without wings), other times winged humans with an animal's head (Griffin heads and Lion heads). It is probably these _alternate_ renderings that Ezekiel is drawing from and transforming. I suspect that a single god, demi-god or genii could assume in "the imagination of the priests" a number of alternate forms (1) Human; (2) Human with animal features; (3) Animal, (4) Animal with human features; (5) a non-human and non-animal form, such as a tree, a pole, a pillar, water, a lightning bolt, a crown, a shovel; (6) Invisibility like air or wind.

Finally, let it be noted: Ezekiel's very detailed description of the Cherubim (Ez 1:5-12) does _NOT_ agree with the "common" Christian representation of Cherubim Angels modeled after Greco-Roman winged Nikes and Victories; NOR does his description agree with the winged sphinxes suggested by Archaeology's findings of winged sphinx thrones of the Late Bronze Age (1540-1200 B.C.) or Iron Age (1200-560 B.C.) found in Phoenica and Canaan. For a picture of Ezekiel's cherub and its possible Ancient Near Eastern "prototypes" please click here.

The Sumerian goddess and "Queen of Heaven" Inanna (Akkadian Ishtar) seen in the above wall mural from Mari was at Nippur called nin edin-na "the lady of edin" and Inanna edin "Inanna of edin,"  edin being Sumerian for uncultivated land abutting the god's city-gardens or irrigated and cultivated land, a desert-like or semiarid steppe or plain (Mari is situated on such a plain on the southside of the Euphrates). Inanna's (Ishtar's) husband Dumuzi (biblical Tammuz) in Sumerian was called mulu edin "the lord of edin." In other myths Inanna accompanies her brother the sun-god Sumerian Utu, in a descent to the earth to EAT various plants INCUDING CEDAR TREES (consuming the cedar nuts or "pine nuts") in order to acquire KNOWLEDGE about sexual matters to discharge her conjugal duties. I understand that Inanna, "the lady of edin" who ATE OF TREES TO ACQUIRE SEXUAL KNOWLEDGE  for her husband the "lord of edin," has been _recast_ into Eve who ate of a tree's fruit to acquire knowledge. For the details please click here and for even yet more details click here and here. That is to say, Mari's wall mural shows Ishtar (Inanna), "the lady of edin" bestowing rulership on Mari's kings in this painting. 

In Mesopotamian belief the king is appointed by the gods to direct or oversee mankind in the provisioning of food, clothing and housing for the gods. He does this by directing his people on how to care for the gods' gardens (made before man's creation by the gods to provide food for themselves). Later, when the gods tire of caring for their own gardens they create man to care for their gardens giving them eternal rest from agricultural toil. 

I understand that what you are beholding here dear reader, is "the lady of edin" (Inanna/Ishtar) bestowing on man  whom she has created (Ishtar declares in the Epic of Gilgamesh' flood account she "gave birth" to mankind), kingship and caretaker duties over "her" godly garden in order to provide her with food. The fabulous beasts that guard the TWO trees in her garden may be what was later morphed into the Cherubim by the Hebrews in Genesis' account of the Garden in Eden.

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Below, a closeup of a drawing showing a deity holding a pot from which arises a seedling palm tree (?) and four streams of water. Perhaps these motifs became Genesis' tree of life and Eden's four rivers? ( for the drawing cf. p. 316. figure 9.18. Peter M. M. G. Akkermans & Glenn M. Schwartz. The Archaeology of Syria, From Complex Hunter-Gatherers to Early Urban Societies (c. 16,000-300 BC). Cambridge, United Kingdom & New York. Cambridge University Press. 2003. ISBN 0-521-79666-0 paperback) 

Note: Mari's city-garden is watered by ONE stream like the Garden in Eden. Archaeological and paleohydrological surveys of Lower Mesopotamia's flood plain east of Mari and Sippar reveal that in antiquity the Euphrates was transformed from one stream into four streams in the course of the 6th through early 2nd millenniums B.C. One of these streams was the Tigris (Genesis' Hiddekel) which merged with the Euphrates near Sippar (just southwest of modern Baghdad). Perhaps Genesis' notion of Eden's river being one then subdividing into four streams is recalling this archaeoloically attested phenonemon? Please click here for my article, with maps, showing the Euphrates' four streams. My research suggests that Genesis' notion of a Garden in Eden is a recasting of several locations appearing in Mesopotamian myths. Mari's mural captures _one_ of those locations! So Mari's city-garden is but one of several other gods' gardens that became Eden's garden.
Below, a modern artist's (Balage of Hungary) interpretation of the Mari wall mural fully restored. White doves were associated with the goddess Ishtar. The bull's horns are on of their helmets or crowns. Apparently the king of Mari is conversing with a priestess of Ishtar about an oracle while she feeds Ishtar's doves, a court harpist looks on and a blind (?) beggar calls out for alms.