The Ark vs Idolatry
Moshe Ben-Chaim
Reader: It is written in Shemot 25:18:"Make two golden cherubim etc..." and verse 20 "The cherubim shall spread their wings upward, sheltering the cover with their wings, and the cherubim shall face one another. Their faces shall be toward the cover".
This verse is in contradiction with another passage Shemot 20:4: "You must not make for yourself any carved image, or picture of anything that is in heaven above, or on the earth below, or in the water below the earth" and also with Shemot 20:20: "Do not make [an image of anything that is] with Me, gods of silver or gods of gold you must not make for yourselves". Rabbis have received it by tradition that this verse is a command not to draw pictures of objects on high or of below; that is: "Ye shall not make anything resembling My servants that are before Me." (Shulchan Aruch 168:1)
My question is: Why did G-d command to do something, what He forbade to do before? (in Shemot 20:20) What was the reason for making this exception? Wasn't there any danger of idolatry? The same question should be given regarding the golden snake that was made by Moshe Rabeinu in the desert.
Response: Your question is a good one, but one which Rambam already addressed in the Moreh Nevuchim.
Let me first show the main point why there is no problem; "Idolatry" is only a reference to man's own devised modes of worship. An example would be when man decides on his own that he needs to make a physical form to use in relating to G-d. The creation and worship to such an object would constitute the prohibitions of idolatry. If however, G-d instructs us to make physical objects, this is no longer man's devised mode of worship, but it is G-d's wisdom. This is what sets apart idolatry from true worship of G-d. This is why the ark is not considered idolatry, whereas man's own creations would be.
Rambam explains , "the belief in the existence of angels is connected with the belief in the existence of G-d; and the belief in G-d and angels leads to the belief in prophecy and in the truth of the law. In order to firmly establish this creed, G-d commanded [the Israelites] to make over the ark the form of two angels. The belief in the existence of angels is thus inculcated into the minds of the people, and this belief is in importance next to the belief in G-d's Existence; it leads us to believe in prophecy and the law, and opposes idolatry. If there had been only one cherub, the people would have been misled and would have mistaken it for G-d's image, which was to be worshiped in the fashion of the heathen; or they might have assumed that the angel [represented by the figure] was also a deity and would thus have adopted a dualism. By making two cherubim and distinctly declaring that "the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One", Moses clearly proclaimed the theory of the existence of a number of angels; he left no room for the error of considering those figures as deities, since [he declared that] G-d is One, and that He is the Creator of the angels, who are more than one". ("Guide for the Perplexed", Book III, Chap XLV. - Dover Pub. paperback edition, pp 356)
Reader: Thank you very much for researching an answer for me. But now we go back to our original point. It seems that the cherubs are true angelic forms.
Response: 'Truely angelic' would be proper, but not as you put it, "truly angelic forms". Angels do not have forms, as angels are non-physical forces, or simply put, laws. The fact that cherubs have wings is to indicate perhaps "speed" of fulfilling a mission set into play by G-d. Wings imply speed of motion, or of getting somewhere.
Reader: The quote you have cited blatantly states " to make over the ark the form of two angels." It seems Judaism believes that angels resemble cherubs. I would appreciate your comments on that.
Response: Cherubs and angels share common ideas. This is possibly why the term is interchangeable. But we do not say that cherubim "are in fact angels". They are "forms", necessary objects for man's comprehension that G-d relates to man, but it is not G-d Himself who relates to physical man. G-d Himself only relates to man via prophecy. G-d is not physical, and therefore cannot occupy space on Earth.
See the article on Angels for more on this topic.

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