yhvh instructed Moses that two experts in temple crafts, Bezalel and Oholiab (Exodus 31:1-11), should fashion a cover for the ark, hammered out of a single piece of gold, with a cheruv, also hammered out of gold, at either of the two ends of the cover (Exodus 25:17-22). Moses was to place the ark, with its gold cover, behind curtains (Exodus 26:1), surrounded by successive zones of separation and purity, and yhvh promised to sit, enthroned between the cheruvs, and from that place, speak (see Exodus 25:22; Numbers 7:89; Psalms 99:1). The historical record is unclear as to what exactly the cheruvs were. Hebrew scripture states that cheruvs (English: “cherubs”) were winged creatures (Ezekiel ch. 10), and the book of Enoch refers to cheruvs in close conjunction with seraphs, suggesting that these two mythical creatures were related. A seraph was a fiery winged serpent. In the wilderness, when the Israelites were attacked by seraphs, Moses made a copper seraph and raised it on a pole as an apotropaic.
(Numbers 21:4-9) This emblem was then worshiped by the Israelites for several centuries. (2 Kings 18:4) It is possible that, like seraphs, cheruvs too were winged serpents.
Throne of Egyptian King Tutankhamun (Photo: Hans Ollermann)
It is interesting to note in this context that the throne of Tutankhamen (14th century b.c.e.) was made of gold, with a winged serpent, hammered out of gold, at either side. Tutankhamen was the famous boy pharaoh who lived just a short time before Moses. It would not be unreasonable to conclude that the throne of yhvh was like that of Tutankhamen, in which case the cheruvs on either side of the gold ark cover were like the winged serpents on either side of Tutankhamen’s throne.
Further hints about the cheruvs appear in the book of Ezekiel, which describes the chayah (“living creature”) that acts as God’s “mount” (merkavah). Ezekiel’s chayah was probably a winged sphinx with a serpent tail. The sphinx, as most people know, is a composite mythical creature with the head of a person and the body of a lion.
The most famous example of this biform sphinx is the Great Sphinx in Giza, Egypt.
Some sphinxes, however, were composed of four animals, having the head of a person, the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the tail of a serpent. This quadriform sphinx is familiar from Greek mythology as the sphinx in Thebes that posed a riddle to Oedipus. In ancient times, kings and deities were often depicted sitting on quadriform sphinxes of this type.
This historical background gives context to Ezekiel’s description of the chayah that was God’s “mount.” Ezekiel describes God sitting on a composite mythical creature that had the “face” of a person, the “face” of a lion, the “face” of an eagle, and the “face” of a cheruv. (Ezekiel 10:14) It seems very likely that Ezekiel is referring here to a standard quadriform sphinx, using the word “face” to refer to the different components of the composite creature. (See here.) If that is so, then Ezekiel’s use of the word cheruv corresponds to the quadriform sphinx’s serpent tail, although Ezekiel also uses the word cheruv to describe the sphinx in its entirety (see, e.g., Ezekiel 10:1-12, 10:15-21, 11:22, 41:18).
For our purposes, however, the more significant point is that, according to the Babylonian Talmud, the two cheruvs (“winged serpents”) on either side of the ark cover were united in sexual congress — or, as the Talmud puts it, “genitals, this in this.” (Yoma 54a-54b) Of course, two winged serpents united in sexual congress suggests a caduceus — an upright staff twined by two winged serpents. Therefore, that fascinating detail provides a connection between yhvh and the Egyptian god Thoth, because the caduceus was an ancient symbol associated with Thoth. The sexually united cheruvs atop yhvh’s ark appear, then, to correspond to the twined serpents surrounding Thoth’s caduceus.
The latter point raises the interesting possibility that the “copper serpent” that Moses raised on a pole to protect the Israelites from seraphs was actually a caduceus. In the Torah, Moses’ serpent-on-a-pole is called N’CHaSH N’CHoSHeT (“copper serpent”), but the same consonants can be vowelized as N’CHaSH N’CHaSHiT, which can be translated as “male serpent–female serpent.” Read that way, the Torah would appear to be referring again to two cheruvs united in sexual congress.
Pious Jews wear twisted threads called “twinings” (gedilim) or “sproutings” (tzitzit) at the corners of their prayer shawls (see Numbers 15:38; Deuteronomy 22:12), and Nahmanides (13th century c.e.) asserted that these twined threads serve to remind Jews of the cover of the ark. How so? Because the cover of the ark was decorated with two cheruvs (“winged serpents”) twined, like the two winged serpents of Thoth’s caduceus, in sexual union. About the twined threads of the prayer shawl, the Torah states, “so you may see it and remember all the commandments of yhvh” (Numbers 15:39), but the Babylonian Talmud (Menachos 43b) suggests the equally valid translation “so you may see Him...,” indicating that one should see yhvh in these twinings. In other words, the twined serpents of the caduceus are not just Thoth’s symbol; they are also yhvh’s symbol, adorning the throne of God in yhvh’s temple, and also the prayer shawls of pious Jews.
Interestingly, the Torah uses a singular pronoun to refer to the twined threads (plural) of the prayer shawl (“so you may see it”). That minor grammatical irregularity conveys a fundamental
principle of the Jewish religion: Two are always really one. The twined threads of the prayer shawl, like the twined serpents of the ark cover, emphasize visually the importance of not perceiving the world dualistically. For a similar reason, the Torah treats the plural term “gods” (elohim) as a grammatical singular, thereby not denying the plurality and diversity of the divine powers, but emphasizing that they function as inseparable components of a synergistic unity, not as antagonistic rivals.
“When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner as the outer, and the upper as the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male shall not be male, and the female shall not be female:... then you will enter [the kingdom].” (Gospel of Thomas, saying 22)
Return to top of page.
Kundalini Yoga’s Jewish Antecedents
But the creation myth from the book of Genesis describes the serpent in a fallen state, tellurian and earthbound, just as the vital soul that animates our own earth-red blood tends toward base pleasures such as eating and sex. The serpent is unable to rise from the earth toward the sky, and our own vital energies are unable to rise from base desires toward more refined pleasures.
“And yhvh-God said to the serpent, ‘Because you did this, cursed you are more than all the animals and more than all the life of the field. Upon your belly you will go, and dust you will eat all the days of your life.’ ” (Genesis 3:14)
But Moses’ encounter with yhvh in the book of Exodus suggests that the serpent, when grasped tightly (i.e., controlled), becomes an erect staff.
“And yhvh said to [Moses], ‘What is that in your hand.’ And he said, ‘A staff.’ And [yhvh] said, ‘Cast it toward the earth.’ And he cast it toward the earth, and it was a serpent, and Moses recoiled from before it. And yhvh said to Moses, ‘Send forth your hand, and grasp it by its tail.’ And Moses sent forth his hand and grasped it, and it was a staff in his palm.” (Exodus 4:2-4)
Later, Moses erected the serpent on a pole and saved the people.
“And Moses fashioned a nachash-nachashit (lit., ‘male-female serpent’), and he set it upon a pole, and it was that if a serpent bit a person and [the person] gazed at the nachash-nachashit, [the person] lived.” (Numbers 21:9)
Finally, both Hebrew and Christian scripture insist that just as Moses raised the serpent, so must the “shelter of David” and the “son of Adam” be raised.
“Says yhvh,... ‘In that day, I will raise the shelter of David that has fallen,... and I will build it like the eternal Days.’ ” (Amos 9:11)
“And even as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so should be lifted up the Son of Adam.” (John 3:14)
Psalms 145 is an alphabetic acrostic (each line starts with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, proceeding in alphabetical order). Only the Hebrew letter “nun” is omitted. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 4b), the letter “nun” stands for “noflah” (“fallen”), and therefore it was omitted. The next line (after the omitted “nun” line) is “yhvh supports all the fallen.”
Perhaps the missing “nun” line refers to “nachash” (the “serpent”) who has “fallen.” According to Hindu thought, the “serpent power” (the kundalini) is, for most of us, in a fallen state, coiled (kundal) at the base of the spine, animating the lower centers of consciousness such as the sexual drive. When it is seized and held tightly, it becomes an erect staff, rising through the central axis of the body to the higher centers of consciousness in the heart, throat, and head, animating those higher centers with its awesome power — the same power that animates nature.
“Moses sent forth his hand and grasped [the serpent], and it was a staff in his palm” (that is, under his control). (Exodus 4:4)
The foregoing interpretation of the Torah in terms usually associated with kundalini yoga is not mere New Age syncretism. One of the leading experts in the Kabbalah — Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555–1630 c.e.) — makes the precise point in his influential book The Generations of Adam (Krassen, Miles (translator), The Generations of Adam (Classics of Western Spirituality 1996), pp. 218-221. Horowitz explicates the serpent/staff passage from the book of Exodus (just quoted) and the following statement about the serpent from the Babylonian Talmud:
“Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya says: ‘Woe that a great servant was lost from the world. For had the serpent not been cursed, each and every one... would have been presented with two good serpents. One he/she would send to the North, and one he/she would send to the South to bring sandalphon gems, precious stones, and pearls.’ ” (Sanhedrin 59b)
More Jewish kundalini yoga appears in the ideas attributed to the Ba‘al Shem Tov (died 1760 c.e.):
“ ‘From my own flesh I behold God.’ Just as no child can be born as a result of physical copulation unless this is performed with a vitalized organ and with joy and desire, so it is with spiritual copulation, that is, the study of [scripture] and prayer. When it is performed with a vitalized organ [(that is, with the entire body vitalized)] and with joy and delight, then does it give birth.”
“Prayer is copulation with the Shekhinah [(the ‘Divine Presence’)]. Just as there is swaying when copulation begins so, too, a man must sway at first and then he can remain immobile and attached to the Shekhinah with great attachment. As a result of his swaying man is able to attain a powerful stage of arousal.”
(Both the above quotes appear in Louis Jacobs, Hasidic Prayer (Schocken Books 1972), page 60.)
Egyptian god Thoth, holding caduceus. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, holding caduceus.
Finally, the following passage from the book of Numbers alludes again to mastery over the “serpent power,” channeling the vital energies of the body so that they rise from the “earth” of base desire to animate one’s spiritual practice, resulting in divine communion:
“And it was that the next day, Moses went to the tent of the testimony, and behold, Aaron’s staff... had bloomed and brought forth blossoms, and brought forth shoots, and bore almonds.” (Numbers 17:23)
To read Torah Nondualism: Diversity, Conflict, and Synthesis in the Pentateuch, please click here.
Please “like” or “share” this website on Facebook:
You can also “like” or “share” this page of the website using these buttons:
Copyright © 2011 James H. Cumming