A passage from Ezekiel 1:
4 I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, 5 and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, 6 but each of them had four faces and four wings. 7 Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. 8 Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings, 9 and the wings of one touched the wings of another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved.
10 Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. 11 Such were their faces. They each had two wings spreading out upward, each wing touching that of the creature on either side; and each had two other wings covering its body. 12 Each one went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went. 13 The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it. 14 The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning.
15 As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. 16 This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like topaz, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. 17 As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not change direction as the creatures went. 18 Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.
19 When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose. 20 Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. 21 When the creatures moved, they also moved; when the creatures stood still, they also stood still; and when the creatures rose from the ground, the wheels rose along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.
The elusive first chapter of Ezekiel cannot be held under one’s thumb. In this chapter the reader sees God, at least seemingly, materially manifested. Old Testament literature in which God is anthropomorphically imagined would inspire the school of theology known as Merbakah mysticism. Merbakah means “chariot” or “thing to ride in,” and the word is derived from the first chapter in the book of Ezekiel. The chariot described in these selected passages in Ezekiel is moved by hayyot or the “living creatures” that are so vividly described. The chariot itself is made up of heavenly beings. The hayyot wings make up the carriage and propel the chariot, and the wheels are made from ophanim or wheel shaped angels. Ohanum means “wheel” or “wheel inside of a wheel.”
Vision of Ezekiel
The image seems to be a miraculous symbol, but historical information concerning the thematic teachings of rabbis from Ezekiel 1 is sparse. These scriptures, the mystic visions, were considered among the most sacred. Teaching of the themes thereof was prohibited except to the most pious and worthy of sages. The secret doctrines built upon these passages were to never be discussed in public. At one time the chapter was excluded from temple worship because it was considered too sacred to even be read in synagogues. According to the third century Rabbi Ammi, only those who possessed the 5 qualities described in Isaiah 3:3 could be educated in Merkbah mysticism. Of course, a certain age was required to begin learning the sacred secrets, and, as one story goes, young Rabbi Eliezer replied “I am not yet old enough” when his mentor, Rabbi Johannon wished to initiate him. Another boy nearby recognized the meaning of Ezekiel 1:4 and was consumed by fire (Hagigah 13b). Additionally, no one was allowed to read or converse about Ezekiel 1 because it dealt with God’s image or personhood, and a scripture so ambiguous is susceptible to diverse schools of thought which could lead to schisms and heresies.
First century Rabbi Eleazer ben Arak is closely tied in Hebrew lore to Merkabah mysticism. A story in the Mishna tells of Rabbi Arak riding a mule behind his mentor, Rabbi Johannon ben Zakkia, and Arek asked to be told the secrets of the Merkabah. Arak told his mentor of his impressive credentials, and, as Arak was being told the ancient secrets, fire descended from heaven, and an angel cried aloud, “Truly these are the secrets of the Markabah.”
Depiction of Rabbi Akiva
Another significant Merkanah mystic is second century Rabbi Akiva. He and Rabbi Arak were often the protagonist of exegetical expositions of prophecy and visions of God. The background of the writers of these legends is unclear. Based on the language used in the literature, scholars speculate that the writers were educated because of their language and articulation, but they were not Rabbis because they had no problem with characterizing God and celestial beings with human-like characteristics. Mystics considered pious enough to learn the secrets of 1 Ezekiel considered the events therein very real. To a select few initiated rabbis, the angelic figures from scripture came to life and moved before their eyes. After a strict regimen of fasting, prayer, ablution, etc, these mystics, some of which devoted their whole life to studying the Merkanah, believed that they could ascend to a heavenly realm on a chariot likened to the one described in Ezekiel 1, and, after seeing the heavenly host, would return back to earth with fully fulfilled knowledge of all things. Unfortunately, according to Megilla 3.4.28, “Many have expounded upon the merbakah without ever seeing it.” Nonetheless, the mystics fully submitted themselves in hopes of experiencing something otherworldly.
A Gathering of Merkabah Mystics
Rabbi Sa’adiah ben Yosef was a well-known and respected rabbi and Jewish philosopher. At 20 he left home to study under the Torah scholars of Tiberias. He was most recognized for his works on Hebrew linguistics, but he was a paramount agent in the influence of Jewish thought in consideration of Ezekiel 1. Rabbi Yosef accepted traditional beliefs that God could and did send angels to chosen prophets for the purpose of delivering messages, and he also had no contention with the idea that God could make speech in the air in an effort to communicate with prophets. However, he did disagree with the aforementioned mystics about God presenting himself in a material form. Sa’adiah proposes that God does not come down in a body. What prophets see when they have visions of God is not God at all; it is his kavod, roughly translated as created glory. Kavod literally means honor or respect, and it is related to kaved which means heavy. Although God is shapeless and without matter, God is capable of sending down a representation of his majesty and glory weighty enough to overwhelm any spectator.
Depiction of Rabbi Sa’adiah
Maimonides, a 12th century Spanish scholar, bears several similarities to Rabbi Sa’adiah ben Yosef of 10th century Asia Minor. Maimonides was a Jewish philosopher, and he too could not conceptualize God coming from heaven in a bodily form. His most famous work is a lengthy apology of his theology pertaining to Ezekiel 1 and a criticism of traditional ideas about Merbakah mysticism; the climax of his piece comes in the third of a lengthy three book masterpiece, The Guide for the Perplexed, addressed to one of his students. The book is framed as letter from a teacher to his pupil preparing him for an education in the background of the Merkabah. The book offers very little in terms of direct allusions or explanations of the scripture, but Maimonides expresses his concerns clearly and articulately. Not unlike Rabbi Yosef, Maimonides disagrees with the literal interpretation of Ezekiel’s vision in chapter 1, and he makes clear that he feels altogether uncomfortable with anthropomorphic representations of Yaweh. The issue that arises is that an immaterial God cannot come to earth in a material manifestation according to Maimonides. He argues that God can only be described in negative terms. For instance, God is not physical, God is not bound in time, God is not changing, etc. The philosopher makes the intriguing point that with unrestrained anthropomorphism inevitably comes idolatry; when one worships an image of a shapeless God, one is not worshipping God at all, but he or she is worshipping his or her own mental impression of God.
Depiction of Maimonides
Christians eventually develop their own hypotheses about Ezekiel 1. Rarely do Christian thinkers explicitly disagree with each other concerning Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot, but each writer that attempts to make sense of the prophet contributes something original and beneficial. Followers of Jesus saw Christ on every page of the Old Testament, but the early church had plenty of theology and doctrine on which the needed to settle. Not only the Gospels and Epistles, but the Old Testament, including Ezekiel 1, helped Christians build their case for solidarity, to fight heresy, and achieve singlemindedness.
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lugdunum and significant Christian apologist, wrote in his defense against Gnostics, Adversus haereses, that the four beasts depicted on the hayyot (the eagle, lion, calf, and human) symbolized the gospels in the canon as well as a characteristic of Christ. The Lion represents Jesus’s royalty, and it is paired with the Gospel of John which, of the Gospels, emphasizes Christ’s divinity most.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1
“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am! (Yahweh)” John 8:58
The calf represents Christ’s priestly role, and Irenaeus couples it with Luke because of Zachariah’s office. The calf represents a sacrifice.
“Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.” Luke 1:8
The eagle plays the part of the Holy Spirit, and Mark portrays the spirit of the prophets with a quote from Isaiah in the first chapter.
“as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” – “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” Mark 1:2&3
And last, the human face directs the reader’s attention to the incarnation. Matthew is assigned this symbol because Matthew, by giving Christ’s genealogy, accentuates Jesus’s personhood.
“Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah” Matthew 1:17
Irenaeus’s purpose for this examination of Ezekiel 1 is without doubt a response to the heresies of his time- particularly the Gnostics who were attempting to validate their own accounts of the life of Christ. He mentions in this piece that just as there are “4 universal winds” and “4 regions of the earth” there are “4 pillars of the church.” Irenaeus is insisting that there are only four legitimate gospels. Irenaeus never directly alludes to Ezekiel 1, and he seems to be making a more concrete reference to Revelation 4. Later in Adversus haereses, though, he will address the hayyot as “four faced cherubim,” a clear allusion to Ezekiel 9-11, in which the prophet does the same (ch 2 pg 16-17 of link). Several Christian thinkers would expound on this idea of Irenaeus’s- for example, St. Jerome and Gregory of Nyssa. However, Irenaeus originates the interpretation, and he altered the way Christians think about Ezekiel for centuries; Irenaeus painted Christ on yet another page of the Old Testament.
Depiction of Irenaeus
Gregory of Nyssa, while expounding on and slightly altering Irenaeus’s ideas about Ezekiel 1, also created some original ideas of his own concerning this tricky vision. In his Homily on Ezekiel, Gregory employed the wheels, or ophanim, of the chariot to typify the Holy Scripture and the living creatures to be the readers. Ezekiel tells us “And when the living creatures went, the wheels went together with them, and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth the wheels also were lifted up with them.” Dr. Robert L. Wilken expresses in his book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought what he believes Gregory is telling us: “The more profoundly one understands the Scriptures the more depth one penetrates into them. The Wheels would not be lifted up if the living creatures were not lifting them up. . . But if the living creature moves and seeks the path that leads to a virtuous life, and through the footsteps of the heart learns to do good works, the wheels keep pace with him.”
Depiction of Gregory
Interpretation of Holy Scriptures, even the most mundane of verses, varies according to the point of view of the reader. That the Hebrews only allowed these scriptures to be formally studied by an exclusive group of the most pious and learned of rabbis is no surprise. Books and chapters that are hard to put one’s thumb on or that surpass the reader’s mental fortitude can be intimidating, and the Hebrew laws concerning Ezekiel 1 might have been to avoid dissent among their religion. Even still, great Jewish philosophers broke the status quo, and they introduced ideas that would forever change Jewish philosophy. John Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, said about scriptures such as these, “I make this broad declaration, that whenever God gives a vision of an image or beast, or figure of any kind, he always holds himself responsible to give a revelation or interpretation of the meaning thereof, otherwise we are not responsible or accountable for our belief in it.” Smith is saying what we all know-that, in some cases, interpretable variation is inevitable.
There is no clear, solitary doctrinal themes in the first chapter of Ezekiel, and there are myriads of ways that the narrative can strike you. I find that the variable gives the book more splendor than a would-be constant could. Gregory and Irenaeus did not differ from the other’s theology; on the contrary, the theology that these early church leaders conjured up complimented each other. While not similar in nature, their points do not clash. What a gift Ezekiel has been to those that have invested their life in theology. In it there is no definition, no convention, nor any doctrinal formula, and yet, through the centuries Jews and Gentiles have revered and cherished the account of the prophet (and sometimes cherished it above all others). Augustine expressed a sentiment regarding variations of interpretation in his piece titled De Doctrina Christiana (Book 3 ch 27. 38) that seems as if it were tailored for Ezekiel, and he diagnoses the effects Ezekiel has had on theology:
“When, again, not some one interpretation, but two or more interpretations are put upon the same words of Scripture, even though the meaning the writer intended remain undiscovered, there is no danger if it can be shown from other passages of Scripture that any of the interpretations put on the words is in harmony with the truth. . . For what more liberal and more fruitful provision could God have made in regard to the sacred scriptures than the same words might be understood in several senses, all of which are sanctioned by the concurring testimony of other passages equally divine?”
Augustine urges theologians to not back away from Ezekiel. And, by Ezekiel, thoughts will always be provoked, discussions will be had, and spiritual thought will grow.