What’s a Rational Monotheist to Do with Biblical Angels?

Jan. 25 2023

Despite the image bequeathed to us by medieval Christian artists, the cherubim of the Hebrew Bible are never depicted as rosy-cheeked or childlike. In the vision of Ezekiel, which gives the only detailed biblical account of their appearance, they are described as having the faces of various creatures and four wings each. James A. Diamond explains the significance of these angelic beings in Jewish thought, and the struggle of ancient and medieval thinkers to place them into a monotheistic cosmology:

Considering their mythic overtones, the classical rabbis were . . . anxious about the possibility of angels becoming, in the popular consciousness, demigods or autonomous divine beings, sharing or competing with God’s governance. This fear resonates in a caution cited in the name of God, “If a person is in trouble, he should cry neither to Michael nor to Gabriel, rather he should cry to Me and I shall answer him immediately.” (Talmud, Brakhot 9:1). . . . It reaches its height in no less than Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith, where the fifth admonishes worshipping only God to the exclusion of any intermediaries.

Cherubim are particularly crucial in the angelic hierarchy geographically, architecturally, and oracularly. Their debut performance on the biblical stage is as fearsome armed guardians stationed at a specific location barring re-entry to the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24). Subsequently, their images adorned the ark situated in the inner sanctum of the portable desert Tabernacle and the Holy of Holies of the later-established Temples, the holiest space known to Judaism, where God Himself is thought to reside. As such, there is palpable rabbinic angst at the idea of a pagan incursion into the very heart of Jewish worship to the point where the possibility is canvassed that these icons contravene one of the cardinal Ten Commandments prohibiting the sculpting of graven images.

So dangerous is this idolatrous presence that the rabbis worry about it setting a precedent for those institutions that fill the vacuum left by the destroyed Temple. They thus prohibit their deployment in the future design of synagogues and rabbinic academies.

From the medieval theologians, Diamond goes on to examine how the image of “the iron cherub of Acra” in the Holocaust poetry of the Romanian Jewish writer Paul Celan.

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Read more at Marginalia

More about: Angels, Hebrew Bible, Holocaust, Moses Maimonides, Theology

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy