Were the terms of the Covenant and the distinctive mark of the number seventy the only evidence that Israel was intended to be a replacement Divine Council, it would be remarkable enough, but as we continue to search the Scriptures, we find still greater proofs in the design of the camp of Israel in the days of the Exodus. But first, we must understand the meaning behind another strange company: that of the cherubim.
The word kheruv is related to the Akkadian term karibu, which referred to an intercessor between the Divine and man. Isaiah (6:2) seems to describe the same creatures, though he dubs them the seraphim (“burning ones”) instead. They were familiar figures in the ancient near east, adorning the thrones and chariot-thrones of its kings. Ezekiel’s vision of the cherubim accompanying the chariot-throne of Hashem as he came to visit his people in exile fits perfectly with the iconography of both Israel and Babylon.
Ezekiel, like John, describes each as having all four faces—the lion, the man, the ox, and the eagle—whereas Isaiah did not see their faces directly at all, as they were covered by their wings. We find that just as there are four cherubim here around God’s throne, there were four cherubim in the Holy of Holies in the Temple: Two rendered on the Mercy Seat of the Ark, and two built into the room that overshadowed the Ark. Before that, in the Tabernacle, the two cherubim on the Ark were accompanied by two woven into the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies (Exo. 26:31).
In Ezekiel’s vision, the prophet was facing north, and described the face of the man first, suggesting that was facing him (south), the face of the lion on the right (east) side, the bull on the left (west) side, leaving the eagle facing north (Ezk. 1:4, 10). This corresponds with the placement of the camp of Israel. Each of the tribes had their own standard, or symbol. In Numbers 1 and 2, we see God giving Israel our orders as to how to set up camp: The twelve tribes were gathered into four camps, headed by the tribes of Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan, respectively. Each of these camps stretched out in one of the four cardinal directions from the camp of the Levites, which stood in the center with the Tabernacle and the Ark, and each had its own standard. According to the Midrash Rabba, “The banner of Reuben was red, and in the centre painted [as a] mandrake. . . Judah’s banner was the color of the sky, and in the centre the picture of a lion. . . Dan’s banner had the color of sapphire, and an image of a serpent in its centre. . . then an ox representing Ephraim” (Num. Rabba 2, as quoted by Rapaport, Midrash, p. 105). Since the mandrake root looks rather like a man’s figure, we have three out of four of the faces of the cherubim represented in Israel’s tribal standards. But what of Dan? “Jacob had compared Dan to a serpent [in Gen. 49:17]. Ahiezer substituted the eagle, the destroyer of serpents, as he shrank from carrying an adder upon his flag” (Unger’s Bible Dictionary, “Dan,” p. 273).
Thus, the very camp of Israel represents the throne of God surrounded by the cherubim, which again is symbolized by the Mercy Seat on the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle, surrounded by the four cherubim who guard it. Like the cherubim, the four camps of the tribes of Israel were not there to protect the Holy One, but rather to protect and intercede for those who might draw too close to him unprepared. It was always the Lord’s intention that peoples of other nations would seek him out to worship and offer their own sacrifices (Num. 15:14). It would be the task of the camp of Israel to explain to such individuals how they were to approach the Holy One and what they needed to do to prepare themselves both spiritually and physically.
There is yet another association in these four living creatures that many Biblical commentators are wary to explore, but which the editors of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia note (ISBE, “Astronomy”)
7. The Standards of the Tribes
“Neither the Mosaic law nor the Old Testament generally gives us any intimation as to the form or character of the standard (deghel). According to rabbinical tradition, the standard of Judah bore the figure of a lion, that of Reuben the likeness of a man, or of a man’s head, that of Ephraim the figure of an ox, and that of Dan the figure of an eagle; so that the four living creatures united in the cherubic forms described by Ezekiel were represented upon these four standards” (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Pentateuch, III, 17). A variant of this tradition gives as the standard of Reuben, “unstable as water” (Gen. 49:4 the King James Version), a Man and a River, and of Dan, “Dan shall be a serpent in the way” (Gen. 49:17), an Eagle and a Serpent. These four forms are also found in the constellations in the four quarters of the heavens. Aquarius, the man with a stream of water, and Leo were the original zodiacal constellations of the two solstices, Taurus was that of the spring equinox, and Aquila and Serpens were close to the autumnal equinox, the latter being actually upon the colure.
8. The Cherubim
This distribution of the four cherubic forms in the four quarters of heaven gives a special significance to the invocation used by Hezekiah and the Psalmist, “Thou that dwellest between the cherubims” (Isa. 37:16 King James Version: Psa. 80:1 the King James Version). The Shekinah glory rested indeed between the golden cherubim over the ark in the Holy of Holies, but “the Most High dwelleth not in houses made with hands” (Acts 7:48), and the same cherubic forms were pictured on the curtains of the heavens. “Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee” (1Ki. 8:27); ‘Thou dwellest between the cherubim,’ filling the infinite expanse of the stellar universe.
“The fact that these living ones are twice said to be filled with eyes ‘before and behind,’ ‘round about and within’ is symbolic of the fact that these beings are not blind instruments who act as automations, but sentient creatures who see and know and understand,” writes Barnhouse (Revelation, p. 97). This is certainly true. However, the “eyes” that both Ezekiel and John reported seeing may also refer to the lesser stars that dot the constellations that the faces of the cherubim represent.
The Bible, of course, forbids astrology. The reason that it does is not simply that it is foolish to expect inanimate stars to guide our course, but because the pagans literally worshipped the stars as gods. The Bible itself equates the stars with the angelic beings (Job 38:7, Daniel 8:10, Revelation 1:20 and 12:4). The title “Lord (or Eternal) God of Hosts” speaks of Hashem’s dominion over the heavenly beings and the stars worshipped as gods by the nations. By containing the four principal constellations of the zodiac in the cherubim around his throne, Hashem’s message to Ezekiel in the prophet’s vision is very clear: The destruction of Jerusalem was not the defeat of Israel’s God, and when he comes on his chariot-throne to visit his people in exile, the constellations that the Babylonians worshipped as gods were reduced to his honor guard.
While the four principle corners of the zodiac are represented in the faces of the cherubim, there are some important distinctions: Scorpio has been replaced with Ophiucus/Aquila, representing the serpent-catching eagle, and the positions of Taurus (the Bull) and Aquilla (the Man, pouring out a river) have been swapped to put Man opposite the Scorpion/Eagle instead of in the adjacent quarter. These changes serve several purposes, not least of which is to make the twelve tribes in their array around the Tabernacle impossible to map to the zodiac.
But more than that, the arrangement of the camp of Israel and the faces of the cherubim are a calculated insult against the Adversary and the Archons. The Tabernacle was arranged so that its entryway–and therefore, the orientation of its “throne-room” faced east, towards the camp of the Lion of Judah. From this position, we would normally expect to find the camp of Ephraim, signified by the bullock or ox, to be to the right hand. In Canaanite belief, the bull was sacred to Baal, the viceroy (and therefore, right hand) of El. However, in the camp of and the arrangement of the cherubim, it is Reuben, the “Seen Son,” symbolized by Aquarius, who sits to the south, at the right hand, and the camp of Ephraim the Bull is behind Hashem’s back.
The insult continues: Scorpio, the Scorpion would lie to the north. Scorpio lies right next to Serpens and Ophuichus, the Serpent and the Serpent-Holder, and in fact the path of the planets passes right between the two constellations so that it was really a toss-up which would have been considered the twelfth sign of the zodiac. The “serpent of old,” of course, has long been associated with the Adversary in Scripture (Gen. 3, Rev.12:9), as has the scorpion (Luke 10:19, Rev. 9:3). In the Camp of Israel and in the faces of the cherubim, the serpent-scorpion has been replaced with the eagle, the seizer and devourer of serpents (Ophiuchus and Aquila).
First the Serpent of Old is set to the left hand, with the “beheld Son” (Reuben) of Man, who pours out a river of living water (John 4:10-14, 7:38-39) set at the right hand of God, then he is cast out of the company altogether, replaced by his immortal enemy.
If the four principle camps in the Exodus that surrounded the Tabernacle represented the four principle corners of the zodiac, it follows that the twelve tribes together represent a new zodiac, or mazzerot, a new order of the heavens. Indeed, the Jewish sage Philo argued that they represented exactly that: “Then the twelve stones on the breast, which are not like one another in colour, and which are divided into four rows of three stones in each, what else can they be emblems of, except of the circle of the zodiac?” (“Life of Moses II”, XXIV.124). It is neither necessary nor particularly beneficial to attempt to map each tribe to a particular set of stars. The point of the twelve tribes in the camp was not astrology but anti-astrology, for men to cease looking to the astral “gods” of the nations and to look instead to the Holy and Eternal One who had graciously come down to dwell in our midst.
The seventy elders of the Sanhedrin represent a replacement for the seventy fallen Archons ruling over the nations, the four principle camps around the Tabernacle represent the four cherubim and the four principle corners of the zodiac, and the twelve tribes replace the twelve constellations of the zodiac. Every element of the camp of Israel set the nation up as a new Divine Council. And when Hashem chose Mt. Zion and Jerusalem as the resting place of his glory, he did so in direct contrast to the gods of the pagans, who secluded themselves atop tall summits that were nearly impossible to climb. Instead, the Holy One chose as his sacred mountain a place where his chosen new council would be able to live with him, draw near to him, and take part in his government.
The fall of Israel into idolatry was not simply a tragic betrayal of the truth and love of God, as terrible a crime as that is, but was a fall on a cosmic scale, a failure to redeem the world from their unjust “gods” and into the peace, justice, and security that Man once knew as the sons of the true Father God. Such a crime could not but result in a punishment almost too much to bear: The Curse of the Law.