October 1, 2015

Ezekiel’s Strange Vision Wasn’t So Strange

Of all the Scripture passages we can turn to for strange circumstances, the enigmatic vision that opens the book of Ezekiel in the first chapter might be first on the list. However, once reading this passage with its original ancient contexts in mind reveals a powerful and interesting message not only for its original readers/hearers but also for every believer. The trick is gathering its surrounding biblical, cultural and historical evidences and figuring out where they point in the most reasoned fashion. People do not exist in a cultural vacuum. They are affected by their own culture and the culture of others. I can assure you of one thing. What I believe they do not point at is visions of the demonic or of alien origin (at least aliens from outer space). You are free to disagree.

Let’s look at the context. 

Culturally and historically, it is a Babylonian context. Ezekiel had his vision in Babylon. He was one of the captive exiles. When we do even a little historical study of Babylonian history, astrology and religion I believe this cryptic Bible passage begins to decipher itself. Ezekiel’s vision contains Babylonian iconography and symbolism if one looks at it with Babylonian eyes (see what I did there?). God often gives visions to people in their setting in life in images they can understand so they are easier to interpret and not misunderstand. I mean, what good is a vision or prophecy if no one understands it? 

I believe Ezekiel saw a divine “throne chariot” of the heavens. These chariots were widely described in the ancient biblical world. Just as human kings had chariots, so did deities. Supposedly, god’s (not just Babylonian ones) would traverse the heavens in chariot throne inspecting and exercising authority over it. Also in the vision the throne sits atop an “expanse” (Ezekiel 1: 26), the same Hebrew word used in Genesis 1: 6 for the heavens specifically created by God in the Creation account.

The “wheels” are what supported the chariot throne, along with four unusual creatures (identified as cherubim in Ezekiel 10: 4. Keep in mind Ezekiel is using his known contexts and knowledge to describe a scene to other exiled Hebraic minds here. Each creature had four faces: human, lion, eagle, and ox in Ezekiel 1:10. Adjacent the cherub were four gleaming wheels in Ezekiel 1: 15– 16. They had wheels within them or each one had at least one concentric circle within it. Additionally the outer edge, or “rim,” of each wheel had “eyes”. It should be noted here that Daniel (also a Babylonian exile) described the very same blazing throne with wheels in Daniel 7: 9.

So what’s up with the wheels within wheels and eyes? If we look to Babylonian history, religion and myths we will quickly find that these animals who Ezekiel calls cherubim (because he had no other context) are easily identified. The human, lion, eagle, and ox are the images or icons of the Babylonian zodiac and are also known as a tetramorph. A tetramorph is a symbolic arrangement of four differing elements, or the combination of four disparate elements in one unit. By seeing this, the passage immediately takes on a distinct heavenly and celestial flavor.

Babylonian (and other) archaeological evidence exists showing that early man divided the four quarters of the horizon, or space, later a place of sacrifice, such as a temple, and attributed characteristics and spiritual qualities to each quarter. It is interesting to note that this same type of tetramorph is also outlined in Revelation. Each quadrant or sector equal to one quarter of a circle represented a seasonal constellation in Babylonian astrology. Each face or constellation mentioned here also represented one of the four cardinal directions or quadrants: North, South, East or West. Through observation the Babylonians (like the Israelites) seemed to understand that the heavens and heavenly bodies were often connected to what happened on earth. In other words: Times, seasons, crops, weather, tides, etc. Instead of things like gravitational fields and the like, Babylonians believed their gods controlled those functions.

Furthermore, extensive data about the stars had been laid out on Mesopotamian astrolabes or clay tablets whose concentric circles could well correspond to the “wheels within wheels” imagery (as pictured). This data and these tablets and tables stockpiled in Babylonian libraries is where we would eventually get the idea of “gazerim" or "dividers" or as they are called in our Bible..."soothsayers". Soothsayers who divided the heavens into constellations or "houses" for orientation, astronomical and astrological purposes. It is believed by many learned people that the astronomers of Babylon published a monthly table of the leading events that might be expected to happen. 

We have a similar corollary in today’s world…the zodiac and our horoscopes. As a matter of fact the term zodiac derives from Latin word zōdiacus, which in turn comes from the Greek phrase ζῳδιακὸς κύκλος or zōdiakos kuklos, meaning "circle of animals", derived from the stem ζῶον / zōon "animal". The name is driven by the fact that half of the original signs of the classical Greek zodiac were divided into zodiacal ecliptics and were placed into groupings of stars (constellations/celestial sphere/eliptic) and were represented as animals.

But I digress…

English translations of Ezekiel’s vision though often breaks down and ceases to make sense at the point where the prophet describes “eyes” on the rims of the wheels. The word for eyes in Hebrew occurs a number of places in the vision, but it is not always translated. Taking the ESV as an example, the Hebrew word occurs six times in Ezekiel 1:4, 7, 16, 18, 22, 27. In the vision’s description of the wheels, the word eyes is translated once as “sparkling” in Ezekiel 10: 9. Since ancient Babylonian astronomical texts commonly describe shining stars as "eyes" we can understand how eyes could potentially refer to stars because of their twinkling or sparkling appearance.

So what is the meaning of the vision for the Israelites during their time of exile. Having studied this I have come to the conclusion that even the devout in faith within the body of captives might have easily believed God had abandoned them forever and the Babylonian powers were here to stay. Likewise, the Babylonians could have easily assumed their gods had defeated the One True God and was the one who really ruled the heavens unopposed. Ezekiel’s imagery sends a completely different message to the Jews and the Babylonians that would heed Ezekiel’s vision.

God was not dead nor defeated. He had not turned away from his people. He [God] remained seated in His chariot throne at the center of His domain as seen in the vision and his dominion and rule was the entire heavenly realm and earth as seen in the vision. In other words: Even in the midst of difficult circumstances, we can know that an all-powerful God is active and present in our lives and he is definitely in control.

So we see that Ezekiel's vision might not have been so strange after all. Sometimes the simplest or easiest answer is often the best one. It wasn't alien spaceships or demons in strange futuristic vehicles. It might very well have been God showing Himself to be in total control of both heavens and earth. It is an idea that is clearly more consistent with Biblical principles and other biblical teachings rather than little green men from another planet or the Devil driving a hot rod across the sky.

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