Ezekiel’s Vision of God and the Chariot
Ezekiel 1 was chosen as the haftarah for the first day of Shavuot, as it picks up on the theme of divine revelation, which is what the festival celebrates. This chapter is part of a larger complex consisting of Ezekiel 1:1–3:15 which belongs to the genre of the prophetic call narrative, and it details how YHWH arrives in his chariot to speak with Ezekiel.
The text is so peculiar that Erich von Däniken (b. 1935), a Swiss “ufologist,” i.e., someone who looks for evidence of alien visits to earth, used Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot as a parade example of an alien visitation story. (When I was an undergraduate in the mid 1970s, he was one of the more popular speakers on the college/university lecture circuit.) In fact, this theory proved so convincing to one NASA scientist, Josef Blumrich (1913–2002), that he wrote a whole book on it, including specs outlining how such a spacecraft would have functioned.
Von Däniken was hardly the first person to notice the strangeness of Ezekiel’s account of the chariot. Jewish tradition has long considered the chapter to be problematic, if not outright dangerous. For example, Mishnah Hagigah 2:1 states:
אין דורשין בעריות בשלשה ולא במעשה בראשית בשנים ולא במרכבה ביחיד אלא אם כן היה חכם ומבין מדעתו
One may not expound upon the sexual rules (Lev 18, 20) in front of three [students], about creation (Gen 1) in front of two, or the chariot (Ezek 1) in front of (even) one, unless he is wise and already understands it on his own.
Indeed, a whole branch of Jewish mysticism has developed from Ezekiel’s description of the divine chariot or merkāvâ: Merkavah mysticism, and philosophers such as Maimonides, believed that it concealed challenging notions about the universe.
Ezekiel 1: A Guided Reading
Ezekiel 1:1 sets the tone, by summarizing what he saw, when, and where:
יחזקאל א:א וַיְהִי בִּשְׁלֹשִׁים שָׁנָה בָּרְבִיעִי בַּחֲמִשָּׁה לַחֹדֶשׁ וַאֲנִי בְתוֹךְ הַגּוֹלָה עַל נְהַר כְּבָר נִפְתְּחוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם וָאֶרְאֶה מַרְאוֹת אֱלֹהִים.
Ezek 1:1 In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, when I was in the community of exiles by the Chebar Canal, the heavens opened, and I saw visions of God.
Since it is unclear what the thirtieth year is (one conjecture being that it refers to Ezekiel’s age, another that it refers to year 30 of the jubilee cycle), a third person gloss (Ezek 1:2-3) explains that the prophecy is occurring during the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin to Babylonia (593/2 BCE),about six years before the Temple would be destroyed by the Babylonians. Ezekiel was exiled with the king, and thus prophesized outside the land of Israel.
The Approach of the Chariot
Ezekiel saw what appeared to be a radiant storm-cloud approaching him from the north:
יחזקאל א:ד וָאֵרֶא וְהִנֵּה רוּחַ סְעָרָה בָּאָה מִן הַצָּפוֹן עָנָן גָּדוֹל וְאֵשׁ מִתְלַקַּחַת וְנֹגַהּ לוֹ סָבִיב וּמִתּוֹכָהּ כְּעֵין הַחַשְׁמַל מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ.
Ezek 1:4 I looked, and lo, a stormy wind came sweeping out of the north—a huge cloud and flashing fire, surrounded by a radiance; and in the center of it, in the center of the fire, a gleam as of amber.
The closer it gets to him, the more he is able to make out what he is seeing, and the more detailed his description becomes. In this manner, we are drawn into the narrative and into the slowly dawning comprehension of the prophet as they both progressively unfold.
The Creatures (חיות)
As the cloud comes nearer, Ezekiel is able to distinguish four “creatures” (v. 5: ḥayyôt, lit. living beings, or as I like to call them in Yiddish: vilde khayes “wild animals”). Each of these vaguely human creatures has four faces and four wings (v. 6), as well as “a single rigid leg” (v. 7, or: straight legs), whose foot (or: feet) end in a calf’s hoof.
Although their feet are theriomorphic (animal shaped), their hands, which are visible underneath their wings (v. 8), are anthropomorphic. Following a notice that the creatures did not need to turn when they faced in a new direction (vv. 9, 12), their four faces—corresponding to the four points of the compass—are described: a human face in front, that of a lion to the right, an ox to the left, and an eagle in back (v. 10).
Winged Hybrid Creatures
Creaturely hybridity has a lengthy history in the ancient Near East. The best-known of these ancient manifestations is the ancient Egyptian sphinx. Having the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the head of a human, the imagery of the sphinx moved from Egypt to Phoenicia, whence it entered Israelite or Judean iconography in the form of what is known as a cherub.
Contrary to the western artistic tradition, in which cherubs are represented as a class of pudgy baby angels, the biblical cherubs are fearsome creatures that served two main functions: as guardians of sacred or royal space and as the pedestal or throne of the invisible God.
Although the Phoenicians influenced the iconography of the Jerusalem temple (cf. 1 Kings 5:15-26; 7:13-51), the word cherub (kěrûb) itself is probably derived from the Akkadian kāribu/kurību, one of a number of names for the imposing hybrid creatures that guarded monumental entranceways particularly during the Neo-Assyrian Period in the first millennium B.C.E.
After a description of the creatures’ luminosity (vv. 13-14), the text shifts its focus downwards to the wheels that were next to each one of them:
יחזקאל א:טו וָאֵרֶא הַחַיּוֹת וְהִנֵּה אוֹפַן אֶחָד בָּאָרֶץ אֵצֶל הַחַיּוֹת לְאַרְבַּעַת פָּנָיו. א:טז מַרְאֵה הָאוֹפַנִּים וּמַעֲשֵׂיהֶם כְּעֵין תַּרְשִׁישׁ וּדְמוּת אֶחָד לְאַרְבַּעְתָּן וּמַרְאֵיהֶם וּמַעֲשֵׂיהֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה הָאוֹפַן בְּתוֹךְ הָאוֹפָן.
Ezek 1:15 As I gazed on the creatures, I saw one wheel on the ground next to each of the four-faced creatures. 1:16 As for the appearance and structure of the wheels, they gleamed like beryl. All four had the same form; the appearance and structure of each was as of two wheels cutting through each other.
Totaling four in all, each wheel consisted of a wheel within a wheel, which some have viewed as being a double wheel, consisting of two parallel parts. More likely, this text was attempting to describe a wheel that was able to face or move in every direction, as exemplified by the four-faced creatures.
In this manner, the two parts of the wheels are described as being perpendicular to each other rather than parallel, once again emphasizing the ability of the wheels to convey the creatures in whatever direction they pleased without having to change position or orientation. The concept so fascinated the engineer turned ufologist, Josef Blumrich, that he actually invented an omnidirectional wheel and patented it.
Yet the wheel is not described as merely a nifty piece of engineering but, unlike earthly wheels which are inanimate objects, these wheels had the “spirit of the creatures” (v. 20 rûaḥ haḥayyâ) within them, as well as eyes along their rims (v. 18). Once again, a contrast is implied between mundane earthly and vibrant heavenly reality.
Above the Chariot
At this point, the reader’s gaze is reoriented briefly from the wheels below the creatures to what was to be found above them:
יחזקאל א:כב וּדְמוּת עַל רָאשֵׁי הַחַיָּה רָקִיעַ כְּעֵין הַקֶּרַח הַנּוֹרָא נָטוּי עַל רָאשֵׁיהֶם מִלְמָעְלָה.
Ezek 1:22 Above the heads of the creatures was a form: an expanse, with an awe-inspiring gleam as of crystal, was spread out above their heads.
Loud Flapping Wings
Before turning to what can be found above the crystal, Ezekiel returns again to the chariot, emphasizing the loud flapping wings of the creatures:
יחזקאל א:כג וְתַחַת הָרָקִיעַ כַּנְפֵיהֶם יְשָׁרוֹת אִשָּׁה אֶל אֲחוֹתָהּ לְאִישׁ שְׁתַּיִם מְכַסּוֹת לָהֵנָּה וּלְאִישׁ שְׁתַּיִם מְכַסּוֹת לָהֵנָּה אֵת גְּוִיֹּתֵיהֶם. א:כד וָאֶשְׁמַע אֶת קוֹל כַּנְפֵיהֶם כְּקוֹל מַיִם רַבִּים כְּקוֹל שַׁדַּי בְּלֶכְתָּם קוֹל הֲמֻלָּה כְּקוֹל מַחֲנֶה בְּעָמְדָם תְּרַפֶּינָה כַנְפֵיהֶן.
Ezek 1:23 Under the expanse, each had one pair of wings extended toward those of the others; and each had another pair covering its body. 1:24 When they moved, I could hear the sound of their wings like the sound of mighty waters, like the sound of Shaddai, a tumult like the din of an army. When they stood still, they would let their wings droop.
By comparing the sound of the wings to the sound of Shaddai, Ezekiel makes use of a divine appellation that is generally associated with the ancestral age (e.g., Genesis 17:1; Exodus 6:3; and passim in the archaizing book of Job). The name Shaddai is probably a cognate of the Akkadian šadû“mountain” or “steppe,” which is itself a cognate of the Hebrewśādeh “field/wilderness.” Hence, (El-) Shaddai is to be understood as the “(God) of the mountain/steppe.”
The Driver of the Chariot
Having made an oblique mention of an elevated (pun intended) designation for the divine, the text follows Ezekiel’s unfolding gaze as it continued its upward journey:
יחזקאל א:כו וּמִמַּעַל לָרָקִיעַ אֲשֶׁר עַל רֹאשָׁם כְּמַרְאֵה אֶבֶן סַפִּיר דְּמוּת כִּסֵּא וְעַל דְּמוּת הַכִּסֵּא דְּמוּת כְּמַרְאֵה אָדָם עָלָיו מִלְמָעְלָה.
Ezek 1:26 Above the expanse over their heads was the semblance of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and on top, upon this semblance of a throne, there was the semblance of a human form.
Using the figure’s loins as his focal point, Ezekiel described the nimbus that surrounded the figure above and beneath (v. 27). And then, in a flash of recognition, Ezekiel realized that what he was seeing:
יחזקאל א:כח …הוּא מַרְאֵה דְּמוּת כְּבוֹד יְ־הוָה וָאֶרְאֶה וָאֶפֹּל עַל פָּנַי…
Ezek 1:28 …That was the appearance of the semblance of the Glory of YHWH. When I beheld it, I flung myself down on my face….
Ezekiel Sees God
Although the text is careful to put a couple of awkward, nominal barriers between itself and a clear statement of Ezekiel’s vision, it is evident that Ezekiel is presented as having had a vision of the divine or of the divine glory (kābôd YHWH) in human form. In and of itself, this is not a unique occurrence in biblical literature, where God is manifest in human form on a number of occasions (e.g., Genesis 18; 1 Kings 22:19; Isaiah 6). While it could be assumed that the kābôd is a separate entity from God, it is more likely that the kābôd is the aura of light surrounding the deity—as it surrounds many other deities throughout the ancient Near East and beyond—and that thekābôd is the visible manifestation of God and not a separate being.
Why, then, does Jewish tradition view specifically this vision as so dangerous that an engagement with it was restricted to personal reflection or discussion with those already in the know? Indeed, one midrash (b. Hag. 13a) claims that a young student was burnt to a crisp by a divine fire that leapt off the page when he speculated about the meaning of the word ḥašmal “amber” (Ezek 1:4, probably some sort of gleaming precious stone or metal alloy).
The easiest explanation is that the rabbis considered a literal understanding of the text to mean that Ezekiel saw God in human form to be theologically dangerous. However, this notion was attacked in an original manner by Howard Eilberg-Schwartz in his provocative book God’s Phallus and Other Problems for Men and Monotheism, who draws attention to the many biblical texts that speak of God’s arm, nose, face, etc.
What sets this text apart from all the others is – in his opinion – its focus on the divine figure’s loins in v. 27:
יחזקאל א:כז וָאֵרֶא כְּעֵין חַשְׁמַל כְּמַרְאֵה אֵשׁ בֵּית לָהּ סָבִיב מִמַּרְאֵה מָתְנָיו וּלְמָעְלָה וּמִמַּרְאֵה מָתְנָיו וּלְמַטָּה רָאִיתִי כְּמַרְאֵה אֵשׁ וְנֹגַהּ לוֹ סָבִיב.
Ezek 1:27 From what appeared as his loins up, I saw a gleam as of amber — what looked like a fire encased in a frame; and from what appeared as his loins down, I saw what looked like fire. There was a radiance all about him.
In other cases where the divine body is depicted, the focus is on God’s extremities; only here is the virtual gaze of the reader directed at God’s indistinct genital region. This emphasis is repeated in 8:2, when Ezekiel encounters the divine chariot again.
This reference to seeing God’s loins stands in distinction to the creatures bearing the divine throne, each of whom had a pair of wings modestly covering its body. No wonder the rabbis had their issues with this text, Eilberg-Schwartz argues.
From Beasts to Cherubs: From Babylon to Jerusalem
The progressive unfolding of Ezekiel’s comprehension of the creatures transporting the divine throne is one of the threads that helps bind together the book. In chapter 1, Ezekiel sees the divine chariot approaching. In chapter 2, God’s presence addresses him; while in chapter 3 the chariot departs.
The chariot returns in chapter 8, which tells how God transports Ezekiel to Jerusalem, where he is shown the sinful activities in the Temple through a hole in the wall. After this (ch. 9), he watches as God appoints agents to go through the city, marking all the innocent people and killing all the guilty.
Ezekiel then spends the bulk of chapter 10 describing the chariot again and how it transports God’s presence out of the temple to begin its journey to take up residency among the exiles in Babylon, and finally, in chapter 11, Ezekiel is given a prophecy about the destruction of the sinful in Jerusalem. This long four-chapter vision ends with the (divine) spirit taking Ezekiel back to Babylonia, where the prophet proceeds to tell the other exiles what he saw.
Focusing on the description of the chariot in chapter 10, we can see a subtle shift in how Ezekiel conceptualizes the creatures that he sees. Throughout chapter 1, Ezekiel refers to them asḥayyôt, creatures. In his second encounter, he begins to call them cherubim.
יחזקאל י:א וָאֶרְאֶה וְהִנֵּה אֶל הָרָקִיעַ אֲשֶׁר עַל רֹאשׁ הַכְּרֻבִים כְּאֶבֶן סַפִּיר כְּמַרְאֵה דְּמוּת כִּסֵּא נִרְאָה עֲלֵיהֶם.
Ezek 10:1 I looked, and on the expanse over the heads of the cherubs, there was something like a sapphire stone; an appearance resembling a throne could be seen over them.
For the rest of the chapter, Ezekiel will continue to use the word cherubim and not ḥayyôt.
In case the reader has not noticed the change in how Ezekiel is describing the beings, he makes this explicit, multiple times in chapter 10:
וַיֵּרֹמּוּ הַכְּרוּבִים הִיא הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר רָאִיתִי בִּנְהַר כְּבָר.
The cherubs ascended; those were the creatures that I had seen by the Chebar Canal.
הִיא הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר רָאִיתִי תַּחַת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּנְהַר כְּבָר וָאֵדַע כִּי כְרוּבִים הֵמָּה.
They were the same creatures that I had seen below the God of Israel at the Chebar Canal; so now I knew that they were cherubs.
וּדְמוּת פְּנֵיהֶם הֵמָּה הַפָּנִים אֲשֶׁר רָאִיתִי עַל נְהַר כְּבָר מַרְאֵיהֶם וְאוֹתָם…
As for the form of their faces, they were the very faces that I had seen by the Chebar Canal—their appearance and their features….
Why does Ezekiel switch their names at this point? The key to the change is the setting. Ezekiel’s first revelation takes place on the Chebar Canal, but whereas the second one also begins there, Ezekiel is quickly transported (in his vision) to the Jerusalem Temple, where he had only a few years before served as a priest.
One of the features of the Jerusalem Temple with which any priest would have been familiar was the two giant statues of cherubim that stood in the inner sanctum of the Temple (1 Kgs 6:23–28). It would seem that once Ezekiel sees the creatures in the courtyard of the Jerusalem Temple, he finally comes to the realization of what they are: these are the cherubs from the Temple come to life. The inanimate statues that stood motionless in the Temple have now revealed their meaning to him: they are the divine throne as well as chariot.
Statues Versus the Real Thing
The reason Ezekiel was unable to comprehend that fact the first time he saw them was because the images that he was familiar with (as a Temple priest until his exile to Babylon) were but a pale imitation of the divine reality. Just as a two-dimensional painting is a flat representation of three-dimensional reality, so too were the manmade temple cherubs simply pale three-dimensional representations of a multi-dimensional divine reality.
Ezekiel’s difficulty lay in trying to describe the indescribably superhuman. If one makes the effort to understand the text of Ezekiel within the context of the prophet’s world and of his worldview, there is no need to concoct foolish theories about alien visitations or other such twaddle to understand Ezekiel’s vision of the divine throne chariot.
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June 5, 2019
March 31, 2020
Professor Carl S. Ehrlich (Ph.D. Harvard ’91) is Professor of Humanities and Director of the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto. His Ph.D. is from Harvard. His most recent publications include the (co-)edited collections From an Antique Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature andPurity, Holiness, and Identity in Judaism and Christianity: Essays in Memory of Susan Haber
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