Ezekiel was chosen as the haftorah 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 "The Strength Of El" [Yehezq'El].
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. 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 very problematic, if not outright dangerous. For example, Mishnah Hagigah 2:1 states:
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.
the heavens opened
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 Yehoiachin 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 prophesied outside the land of Israel.
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 Yah.
The Approach of the Chariot
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.
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 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 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).
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 omnipresent God.
Although the Phoenicians influenced the iconography of the Jerusalem temple (1 Kings 5:15-26; 7:13-51), the word cherub (kěrûb) itself is derived from the Akkadian kāribu/kurību, one of a number of names for the imposing hybrid creatures that guarded monumental entrance ways particularly during the Neo-Assyrian Period in the first millennium B.C.E.
Loud Flapping Wings
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.”
Before turning to what can be found above the crystal, Ezekiel returns again to the chariot, emphasizing the loud flapping wings of the creatures:
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.
The Four Wheels
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.
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.
From Beasts to Cherubs: From Babylon to Yerushalayim
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.