The vision of the throne of God described in the first chapter of Ezekiel included the reference to a firmament. This was a rigid structure. It was a platform, composed of a crystalline substance, which supported the throne of God. It was supported by four living creatures. This firmament or platform was described in Ezekiel 1:22-26:
And the likeness of the firmament upon the heads of the living creature was as the colour of the terrible crystal, stretched forth over their heads above. And under the firmament were their wings straight... And there was a voice from the firmament that was over their heads... 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 the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.
Ezekiel's description of this crystalline firmament, together with the statement in Genesis 1 that the firmament made on the second day was named Heaven, was interpreted in medieval times as an indication that God's throne was located on top of the firmament, or the empyrean, the highest heaven. But the use of the symbol of the sapphire fits the identification of the starry heavens with God's throne. Ezekiel's account clearly shows the Hebrew word raqia referred to a solid structure. Jesus's statement identifying heaven with God's throne, the earth with his footstool, applied to Ezekiel's vision, leads to the identification of the firmament with the earth's crust.
The first and tenth chapters of Ezekiel contain descriptions of "wheels" associated with the vision of God. Some scholars consider these verses referring to the wheels to be later insertions. Klein wrote:
The most serious question about the integrity of the chapter deals with the account of the wheels. It is not clear how we are to conceive the connection of the wheels to the animals in general and to the legs in particular, and Othmar Keel has argued, convincingly in my judgment, that the wheels represent a shift from the basic idea of the vision.
Klein suggested "someone, presumably early in the traditional history of the book, found it appropriate to add wheels to the visionary scenery." In his commentary on Ezekiel 1, Carley pointed out the Septuagint does not contain verse 14. Referring to verse 15, he wrote :
The report of the vision went directly on to describe the throne of God above the heads of the living creatures (verses 22-28a). But there has been inserted a somewhat puzzling description of wheels beside the creatures... There are secondary expansions even within this section. Verse 17 anticipates the movement of the wheels referred to in verses 19f.; verse 18 elaborates the appearance of the wheels; and verse 21, which is absent from some manuscripts, largely repeats verses 19f.
Other scholars suspect the account of the "wheels" may have been inserted into Ezekiel's prophecy by a later writer. Why was there so much interest in these mysterious wheels, and so much elaboration on their properties? The answer could be that the wheels of Ezekiel represent an attempt to introduce the celestial spheres of Greek cosmology into the Scriptures.
Jewish scholars seem to have interpreted the wheels in a cosmological sense, and "the old rabbis declared that if anyone knew the secrets of the merkabah, he would know all the secrets of creation." There are similarities between the wheels and the circles or spheres of Eudoxus and Aristotle. Perhaps this is another example of cosmological editing of the Scriptures in the 2nd century BC. Some versions of the Septuagint do not contain Ezekiel 1:14 of the KJV. In the Aramaic Targum, this verse reads:
And the creatures, when they are sent to do the will of their Master who makes His Shekinah dwell on high above them, are like the eye seeing a bird on the wing, they turn and circle the world, and the creatures return together, quickly, like a flash of lightning.
Could the quick movement of the wheels, and their instantaneous return, have something to do with an attempt to explain meteors in terms of the theory of homocentric heavenly spheres? Meteors were identified with stars in ancient times, so a mechanism was needed for movements other than the regular motion of the heavens.
The wheels of Ezekiel "circle the world," they are homocentric, like the spheres of Eudoxus; one wheel is identified with the earth; they are said to be "so high that they were dreadful" (verse 18), which seems to indicate a size of cosmological proportions, and they revolved in a constant direction like the heavenly spheres of Greek philosophy. The wheels are animated; "the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels" (verse 21). This is reminiscent of the teaching of Aristotle about the nature of the heavenly spheres. There does not seem to have been any specific word for sphere in the ancient Hebrew, and the word for circle, "chug", often designated a sphere. The idea behind the word translated "wheel" seems to be that it is something revolving, as the heavenly spheres were thought to do.
From as early as the fourth century BC, gentiles of the land of Palestine identified the Hebrew Yehveh or "Iao" with one of the Greek sky-gods; sometimes Zeus, and sometimes Helios or Apollo. This seems to be illustrated on the Phoenician silver drachma at right, showing the image on a coin struck about 350 BC, now in the British Museum; it depicts a bearded divinity enthroned over a winged chariot wheel, interpreted by some scholars as a solar chariot, but quite possibly representing the rigid rotating sky of the geocentic cosmology. The deity is depicted wearing a long garment that extends to his feet; he holds an eagle on his outstretched hand; he is labelled with the letters YHW. Arthur B. Cook says there is little doubt it is a gentile representation of the Hebrew deity; "the coin represents Jehovah under the guise of a solar Zeus". There are several elements in the image that may possibly be associated with some of the concepts present in the first chapter of Ezekiel; perhaps some ancient Jewish scribe attempted to introduce imagery similar to that of this coin into Ezekiel's prophecy.
The book of Ezekiel was written about 593 BC, long before Eudoxus and Aristotle proposed their cosmologies. The account of the "wheels" in Ezekiel's prophecy may be a veiled reference to the geocentric cosmology, introduced in the Hellenistic period, superimposed onto Ezekiel's throne vision. Naturally, this procedure would produce a somewhat garbled account.
Copyright © 1996 by Douglas E. Cox
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