God's "Mercy Seat" atop the Ark of the Covenant
Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, M.A. Ed.

(Mattfeld's Proposal and Rendering, 17 Dec. 2000)

Major Revision of 10 September 2010

The late Bible scholar Professor William Foxwell Albright understood that the biblical Cherubim were Winged Sphinxes found in association with Canaanite and Phoenician thrones of the Late Bronze (1520-1200 BC) and Iron Ages (1200-600 BC):

"...the cherub...is the winged sphinx or winged lion with human head...in Syria and Palestine it is the winged sphinx which is dominant in art and religious symbolism." (p. 95. W. F. Albright. "What Were The Cherubim?"  G. Ernest Wright & David Noel Freedman, editors. The Biblical Archaeologist Reader. Chicago, Illinois. Quadrangle Books. 1961)

I understand that Professor Albright is correct and I have accordingly devised _my own rendering_ of God's Mercy Seat atop the Ark of the Covenant "modeling it" after the Winged Sphinx Thrones of Late Bronze Age and Iron Age Palestine and Phoenicia. Note: "the two ends" of the Mercy Seat suggest for me that the arms of the throne are the Cherubim.

Exodus 25:18-21 RSV

"And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.  And you shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you." 

I understand that Phoenician "Winged Sphinx" thrones are the model in use for God's Mercy Seat. Similar thrones have been found depicted on an ivory from Late Bronze Age Meggido. I have added a "footstool" to the Mercy Seat, cf. Psalm 99:1,5 " "He sits enthroned upon the cherubim...Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool! Holy is He." 

The flowers which I have added to sides of the Ark of the Covenant are Lotus blossoms. They appear on the stone coffin or sarchopagus of the Phoenican king Hiram of Byblos (ca. 13/12th century BC), he being shown seated on a Winged Sphinx Thone. For the Egyptians the Blue Lotus symbolized a "rebirth" after death, assuring the righteous dead of immortality via never-ending daily rebirths. At sunrise the Lotus which has spent the night beneath the water's surface, arises above the surface of the water and opens to recieve the sun's light. In Egyptian myth the sun-god arose each day from a giant Blue Lotus. In Egyptian tomb murals the deceased is often shown seated holding the Lotus near his nose breathing-in its life-giving boquet, symbolizing he too will be live again, rising with the sun-god each day from the watery depths of the underworld. The Egyptians also understood that the Winged Sphinx was "an aspect" of the sun-god. Thus the reason for the Winged Sphinx's association with Lotus and Papyrus blossoms. As an aspect of the sun, the Winged Sphinx is called Hor-em-akhet "Horus of the Horizon" alluding to the sun's rebirth at Sunrise. I understand that the Phoenicians, Canaanites and Hebrews have modified and reinterpreted Egyptian solar iconic associations. I suspect that the boquet stalks of lotuses and papyrus tied together into column-like bundles and presented the dead as symbols of life after death in Egyptian tomb scenes have become reworked and transformed into a mythical "Tree of Life" or "Sacred Tree" in Phoenician art forms. I understand that the Phoenician and Canaanite Winged Sphinx Thrones are reinterpretations of Late Bronze Age Egyptian Winged Sphinx Thrones. Egypt ruled over Phoenicia, Syria and Canaan for almost 400 years (ca. 1540-1140 BC) and she influenced these nations, who desired to "ape" her by portraying their petty rulers, gods and goddesses with the "royal trappings" of Egyptian Royal Solar imagery (Pharaoh who sits on the Winged Sphinx Throne being portrayed as the "son of the Sun").

In my below drawing or picture of the Mercy Seat please note that the Winged Sphinx's face is not visible, you are looking at the back of its head. Why this rendering on my part ? The examples of Winged Sphinx Thrones which have survived in archaeological contexts do NOT show the faces turned aside, they look straight forward. The Bible states that the Cherubim faces were "towards each other", the only way this can be for me, is to "turn" the Cherub's head. Winged Sphinxes DO APPEAR WITH TURNED ASIDE FACES in other ancient art forms. So, utilizing this attested concept, I have portrayed the Cherubim with faces turned towards each other.

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Below, my rendering of Yahweh's Mercy Seat atop the Ark of the Covenant, showing the Cherubim "facing each other" with "turned aside" heads. I have drawn on the back of the Mercy Seat a stylized Phoenician "Sacred Tree" composed of Lotus and Papyrus blossoms and stems, said iconic images appearing in Late Bronze Age and Iron Age art forms accompanying Winged Sphinxes. To the right a Phoenician style ivory of a Winged Sphinx with a "turned aside face" found at Nimrud, ancient Calah, a capital of Assyria before Nineveh became the capital (cf. p. 375. Barthel Hrouda. Editor. Der Alte Orient, Geschichte und Kultur des alen Vorderaisien. Munchen. C. Bartelsmann Verlag. 1991)
Below, a stone sarcophagus (coffin) showing a deceased King Ahiram of Phoenican Byblos (12th century BC) sitting upon a throne whose sidearms are winged Sphinxes. Above his head is a frieze of Lotus blossoms some open, some closed in alternating fashion. In the dead king's hand is a "drooping" Lotus blossom. In Egyptian tomb art this blossom would be held near the deceased's nose to inhale its life-giving bouqet, it would not be droopping but erect, symbolizing his hope of a daily resurrection from the dead with the sun-god. Before Ahiram is an offering table for the deceased king manned by servants. Ahiram's feet rest on a footstool, which I have added to my rendering of Yahweh's Ark of the Covenant. (For the below photo cf. p. 100. John Gray. Near Eastern Mythology. London. Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd. 1969)
Below, my rendering of a Cananite Winged Sphinx Throne appearing on a slip of ivory found in Late Bronze Age Megiddo circa 1200 BC. Note that the Canaanite prince or king holds a Lotus and is drinking from a bowl. A footstool is under his feet. My rendering of Yahweh's Mercy Seat atop the Ark of the Covenant is taken principally from this Late Bronze Age Canaanite imagery. Please click here to see the full scene engraved upon the ivory)
My rendering of a Phoenician "sacred tree" on the back of Yahweh's Mercy Seat (above) is being drawn form the below bronze platter of Phoenician worksmanship found as a religious votive deposit in Greece. The Greeks admired Phoenician craftsmanship and Phoenican art appears also in Italy as well (the platter is circa 8th-7th century BC). The Winged Sphinxes appear to be "inhaling" the life-giving bouqet of the imaginary hybrid Lotus-Papyrus "Tree" (another "similar tree" appears to the left of one of the Sphinxes). (For the below drawing cf. p. 481. plate XX. Sabatino Moscati. Die Phoniker von 1200 vor Christus bis zum untergang Karthagos. Essen, Germany. Magnus Verlag. 1975. From the English: The Phoenicians. London. Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Below, Winged Sphinxes, touching with their fore-paws the "sacred tree" composed of Lotus and Papyrus blossoms. This drawing is after a stone stela from the Yemen bearing a Sabaean inscription. Flanking the Sphinxes are date palms. In the Bible Cherubim accompany "palm-trees" as part of the decorations inside the Jerusalem Temple 
(1 Kings 6:32). Some scholars have suggested the date-palm may be the Tree of Life appearing in the Garden of Eden. I understand that the Winged Sphinxes are portrayed inhaling the boquet and touching the Sacred Lotus-Papyrus Tree because in Egyptian myth they, as Hor-em-akhet, "Horus of the Horizon" are a manifestation of the Sun-god that RISES EACH DAY FROM THE GREAT BLUE LOTUS. This plant then gives them "birth" each morning in the probable (?) Phoenician recasting of the Egyptian myth. (For the below drawing cf. South Arabia bas-relief, bearing a South Arabian inscription p.400, fig. 1391. H. Th. Bossert. ALTSYRIEN- Kunst und Handwerk in Cypern, Syrien, Palastina, Transjordanien und Arabien von den Anfangen bis zum Volligen aufgehen in der Greischisch-Romischen Kultur. Verlag Ernst Wasmuth. Tubingen. 1951. Please click here to see the full inscription)

Below, a three dimensional stone Winged Sphinx throne from Phoenica of the Hellenistic period (4th-1st centuries BC). The Winged Sphinxes wear Egyptian crowns and between them appears the Phoenican "Sacred Tree" ("Tree of Life"?) composed of Lotus and Papyrus blossoms. (For the below photo cf. p. 198. Werner Keller. The Bible As History, Archaeologists Show the Truth of the Old Testament. Oxford, Batavia, Sydney. A Lion Book. 1991. ISBN 0-732405262)
The Egyptians understood the Winged Sphinx not only to be an "aspect" of the rising sun as Hor-em-akhet"Horus of the Horizon," but to also be a personification of Pharaoh as "Son of the Sun". The Late Bronze Age Winged Sphinx thrones of Egypt show these creatures on the sidearms of the throne (in a panel) trampling upon the fallen enemies of Egypt: Libyians, Negroid Cushites, and the Asiatics of Canaan and Syria. The Egyptians erected as guardians Winged Sphinxes near portals at Temples and Temple-gardens. The Great Sphinx that "guards" the Pyramids of Giza near Cairo is an aspect of the Sun too.  The Hebrews apparently carried Yahweh's Ark of the Covenant into war against their foes rather like a war-palladium to assure themselves of victory with Yahweh's invisible presence upon the vacant Mercy Seat. The Egyptian Winged Sphinx Thrones' imagery of foes being trampled by Winged Sphinxes appears to suggest to me a similar notion, victory over the national foe being associated with these creatures. Please click here to access pictures of Egyptian Winged Sphinx thrones. In Genesis Yahweh stations the Cherubim in the Garden of Eden to deny Adam access to the Tree of Life. Phoenician art forms show pairs of Winged Sphinxes flanking the "Sacred Tree".

For earlier Egyptian exemplars of the Late Bronze Age, showing a god, Amon-Re or Pharaoh in a "chest-like" carrying chair or portable throne cf. the following Url:  Amon-Re Chest-like Portable Throne. The difference is that the chest-like Late Bronze Age exemplars show the god as either standing or seated WITHIN the chest-like structure rather than seated ATOP the chest-like structure on a throne-chair. Did the Israelites "replace" the image of an Egyptian god WITHIN the chest-like portable throne with the Ten Commandments and add a Phoenician Winged Sphinx throne to the top ?

To the degree that the Bible suggests that Israel dwelt in Egypt for 430 years, and Moses being a "prince of Egypt," supervising the Ark of the Covenant's construction at Mount Sinai, I have sought the origins of the Ark of the Covenant and its "Mercy Seat" in Egyptian portable thrones for gods amongst exemplars of the Late Bronze (ca. 1560-1200 BCE) and Iron Age periods (1200-1000 BCE).

If Yahweh's Cherubim throne is modeled after 1st millennium BC Syrian exemplars (Abraham being of Haran in Syria) perhaps "Yahweh seated over the Cherubim" was envisioned as like the below example excavated at Carchemish on the Euphrates River in present-day Syria? A god is shown seated on the throne under which stride two lions. Perhaps the Hebrews envisioned two Cherubs instead of lions? The seated bearded god has a horned helmet, his two hands rest on his knees and apparently they held objects. The bottom of his skirt bears an elaborate network of tassels above his sandaled toes which rest on a footstool. The two striding lions under the throne suggest the Syrians envisoned their god's throne as possessing mobility thanks to the lions who supported it. Between the lions is a human figure with a calf's head, recalling Ezekiel's Cherubs who support Yahweh's throne they sharing features with lions, calves, eagles and humans (cf. p. 180. Stuart Piggott. Editor. The Dawn of Civilization, The First World Survey of Human Cultures in Early Times. London. Thames & Hudson. 1961, 1967)
Below, Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1386-1349 BC) seated upon a "Winged Sphinx" Throne. The thrones' seat and legs are those of a Lion. The Lion's "head" is at the front edge of the seat just below the back of Pharaoh's knee. The "WINGED SPHINX" is shown in the side panel with its wings flat against its back, trampling the enemies of Egypt. (for the below photo cf. plate 111. Georg Steindorff und Walther Wolf. Die Thebanische Grabervelt. Gluckstadt und Hamburg. Verlag J. J. Augustin. 1936. a paperback monograph)
Below, Tiy (Teye, Teje) queen and wife of Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1386-1349 BC), sits upon a WINGED SPHINX Throne. The thrones's seat and legs is that of a Sphinx, the human head of the Sphinx is at the front edge of the seat behind the queen's knee. A Winged Sphinx with wings flat against its back tramples upon the enemies of Egypt on the throne's side panel below the queen's arm. Below Tiy's throne are two standing captives with their arms bound behind their backs. Amenhotep III sits in front of his wife (viewer's right) on a throne which is not a Winged Sphinx throne. This bas-relief exists in Tomb no. 192 at Thebes.
Below, a wall painting or mural on a tomb showing Queen Tiy and Amenhotep III on thrones possessing Lion-like legs. Tiy's throne is striped. Amenhotep's is blue. A Cobra's head is at the front edge of Tiy's seat behind her knee. Unfortunately the platster is broken away for this same area on Amenhotep's throne. The head could have been either that of human-faced Sphinx or that of a Lion. The side panel below Pharaoh's arm shows a blue-bodied Sphinx with lion's body and human face with golden bejeweled wings flat against its body, trampling a black Nubian or Cushite foe. Two other fallen foes are Asiatics. A spotted cat and a leaping monkey appear under Tiy's throne. Blue Lotus blossoms appear with their vine tendrils under Pharaoh's throne. His footstool shows Nubian and Asiatics prostrate under his feet. A bouqet of Lotus and Papyrus blossoms bound together in a pillar-like form bends before Pharaoh. (For the below photo which is of a facsimilie painting by a modern artist of the wall mural, cf. p. 137. Tomb number 120, Thebes. Gay Robbins. The Art of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard University Press. 1997 Trustees of the British Museum, London. 2000 Harvard University Press. Paperback. ISBN 0-674-00376-4)
Below, a "closeup" of Amenhotep III's throne showing a blue-bodied golden-winged Sphinx trampling Egypt's enemies.
                                 King David's Cherubim Chariot

1 Chronicles 28:18 mentions King David's "plan for the golden chariot of the Cherubim that spread their wings." 

1 Chronicles 28:18 RSV

"also his plan for THE GOLDEN CHARIOT OF THE CHERUBIM THAT SPREAD THEIR WINGS and covered the ark of the Covenant of the Lord."

Below is a Phoenician rendering of an Egyptian sphinx (Hebrew: Cherub) wearing an Egyptian Cobra head-dress with "spread wings" harnessed to a war-chariot. Underneath the chariot is a lioness. The below  photo is of a bronze bowl dated ca. the 8th century BC found as a votive deposit at Olmpyia, Greece (cf. p. 74, figure 209. Heinz Demisch. Die Sphinx, Geschichte ihrer Darstellung von den Anfangen bis zur Gegenwart. Stuttgart. Verlag Urachhaus Johannes M. Mayer. 1977 (ISBN 3-8738-219-7)

According to the Bible, Phoenician craftsmen were responsible for building the Temple of Solomon and its decorations (2 Chronicles 2:1-13). Perhaps David's Golden Chariot of the Cherubim is replicated in the below Phoenician Cherubim-chariot ?
Below, another Phoenician Cherubim-chariot (war-chariot), drawn after a votive bronze platter found at Delphi, Greece ca. the 8th century BC. The Cherub or Winged Sphinx wears a war helmet rather than the cobra head-dress found on the previous, above example (cf. figure 208. p. 74. Heinz Demisch. Die Sphinx, Geschichte ihrer Darstellung von den Anfangen bis zur Gegenwart. Stuttgart. Verlag Urachhaus Johannes M. Mayer. 1977 (ISBN 3-8738-219-7).
Below, a bas-relief at Maltai in ancient Assyria shows a procession of Neo-Assyrian gods being worshipped by the Neo-Assyrian warrior-King Sennacherib (7th century BC). To the viewer's left is the warrior-god Asshur with sheathed sword standing atop two beasts: a dragon and a lion; next is the war-goddess Ishtar seated on a throne underwhich strides a lion.

A description of the Maltai  (Malthayiah) cliff-face bas-reliefs reveal that two beasts support the goddess' throne, a lion and a bull:

"...we proceeded to the Christian village of Malthaiyah...The second divinity is beardless, also carries a ring, and is seated on a chair, the arms and lower parts of which are supported by human figures with tails, and by birds with human heads. The whole rests on two animals, a lion and a bull."

(p. 163. "Malthayiah-Sculptures." Austen Henry Layard. A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh. London. John Murray. 1852)

The Bible's notion that Yahweh is "seated over the Cherubim" seems to reflect Ancient Near Eastern religious beliefs about dieties being seated in thrones borne by beasts. Ezekiel understood God's throne possessed mobility, it being borne by four Cherubim (Ez 1:1-28). It appears from the above pictures that the gods' mobility was conceived sometimes as accomplished by their being borne about by beasts, the gods assuming either a standing or seated position above these animals (some creatures being mythical like the dragon under Asshur).