The famous vision of the celestial chariot and the fantastic creatures described in Ezekiel 1 served as the basis for mystical speculation and theosophy in later Jewish writings. The exposition of this chapter (often greatly expanded) in rabbinic literature is generally called "the account of the chariot" (ma'aseh merkavah). The merkavah texts served as the basis for the mystics of Europe. In addition, echoes of the fanciful merkavah traditions are present in the liturgical poetry (piyyutim) of both Spanish and Ashkenazi authors.

According to the superscription to the first chapter of the biblical book of Ezekiel, the prophet saw his vision of the Throne in Babylon, where he was in exile, during the fifth year of King Jehoiachin's captivity, which corresponds with July 28th in the year 593 B.C.E. Visions of the Throne of God are found in other parts of the Bible [1] but that of Ezekiel is the most detailed and comprehensive.[2]

A noteworthy feature of the vision is the frequent use of the word "likeness" (demut). The prophet seems bent on qualifying his experience. He makes no claim to have seen things as they are but as they appear to be. All through the account, there is the suggestion of mystery, of elusiveness, of attempting to describe the indescribable. When describing the One who sits on the Throne the suggestion of ineffability becomes even more pronounced:

And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone; and upon the likeness of the throne was a likeness as the appearance of a man upon it above (verse 26). Ezekiel sees in his vision a great cloud with brightness all around it. In the midst of this cloud there is something resembling the flash of hashmal (of doubtful meaning, perhaps "electrum" or "amber"). From this there emerges the appearance of four living creatures. The Hebrew word used is hayyot, a word that may also be translated "beasts" (in Ezekiel, chapter 10, these four are called "cherubim"). These resembled men in form but each had four faces—of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle, representative of the four most majestic creatures. Each of these four creatures also had four wings.

"And they went every one straight forward whither the spirit was to go...." When they wished to change direction, they had no need to turn around since each had a face in all four directions. The spirit, ru'ah in Hebrew, may also be translated "wind"; in either case the meaning seems to be the vital force which propelled the living creatures. The verse, "and the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning" is interpreted by the later Jewish mystics to mean that whenever the living creatures approached too near to the Throne, they recoiled immediately in dread.

In the appearance of these creatures there were also wheels (ofanim) full of eyes, and there were "wheels within wheels." The wheels were not attached to the living creatures but were under the indirect control of the living creatures, so that when the latter moved the wheels moved. The wheels were later identified as superior angels, hence the reference in the Jewish liturgy to the ofanim: "And the ofanim and the holy hayyot with a noise of great rushing, upraising themselves towards the Seraphim, those over against them offer praise and say: ‘Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His place.'" Over above the living creatures was a firmament (raki'a), a kind of platform upon which the throne rested. On this platform was set the great throne and on the throne there rested "the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord." When the prophet saw this, he fell on his face in awe and dread and he heard a voice proclaiming a message to him.

There has been a good deal of speculation on the psychological background of Ezekiel's vision. Images such as that of the thick cloud, the storm and the bright light are found elsewhere in the Bible. The theophany at Sinai (Exodus 19:16-20) is described in not dissimilar terms. Jewish tradition has it, in fact, that on Shavuot, the festival on which the revelation at Sinai is celebrated, the prophetic reading (the haftarah) is this very chapter of Ezekiel, as if to draw the analogy between the revelation to the people as a whole and that vouchsafed to the individual prophet. Other features of the vision such as the four-headed creatures and the wheels are peculiar to Ezekiel.

It has been conjectured that the prophet's subconscious mind had absorbed the images of the bull-like figures guarding the entrance to the Babylonian temples. This certainly cannot be discounted but it remains no more than theory. Even though the term "chariot" is not used in the account of the vision, the term is not inappropriate. It is possible that the significance of the vision of a throne carried on wheels is that the prophet sees his vision outside the holy land so that he sees God as transporting His throne in order to speak to His servant.

[1] 1 Kings 22:19; Isaiah 6:s-8; Daniel 7:9-10 [back]
[2] Whether the first chapter of Ezekiel was composed by the prophet himself depends on the more general question of the authorship of the book as a whole. The verdict of modern scholarship is that while a good deal of the book may well go back to the prophet himself there is much evidence of a later editing of the book. It is consequently precarious to conclude that this chapter contains the ipsissima verba of the prophet. However, even if the detailed account is not from the prophet himself, there is no reason for doubting that the account is based on his actual experience. There is a further account of the chariot in chapter to of the book of Ezekiel. [back]

From The Schocken Book of Jewish Mystical Testimonies by Louis Jacobs (Schocken Books, 1996, 1997)

Louis Jacobs, C.B.E., one of the world's most knowledgeable scholars of Jewish mysticism, is the author of The Oxford Companion to the Jewish Religion, as well as many other books on Judaism and Jewish mysticism.




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