I am resuming this blog after a gap, with apologies to my former readers. We had two family deaths in one week a month or so back, which required attention.
In my next few blogs I want to reflect on the role of the human imagination in matters of faith, using some key passages from the book of Ezekiel as evidence.
He was active as a prophet, during the exile of the ruling class of Jewish people in Babylon after a comprehensive military defeat and the destruction of their temple, roughly from 593 BCE to 571BCE.
In order to give the reader the real flavour of his writing I am using my lightly modernised version of the King James translation, which is fairly literal.
Now in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. 2 In the fifth day of the month, in the fifth year of king Jehoiachin’s captivity, 3 the word of the Lord came expressly to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and there the hand of the Lord was upon him.
4 And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and within was shining bronze, out of the midst of the fire. 5 Also out of its midst came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man. 6 And each one had four faces, and each one had four wings. 7 And their legs were straight; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass. 8 And they had human hands under their wings on their four sides; and the four creatures had faces and wings. 9 Their wings joined them one to another; they did not turn when they moved; they went every one straight forward.10 As for the likeness of their faces, all four had the face of a man, then the face of a lion, on the right side: and all four had the face of an ox on the left side; then the face of an eagle. 11 Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; one pair of each one were joined to a neighbour’s, and one pair covered their bodies. 12 And they went each one straight forward: wherever the spirit was to go, they went; they did not swerve as they went. 13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, or like the appearance of torches going up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. 14 And the living creatures ran out and in like a flash of light..
15 Now I watched the living creatures, and behold, one wheel upon the earth by each living creature, with his four faces. 16 The appearance of the wheels was like the colour of a topaz and all four had one likeness: and their appearance and their working was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. 17 When they went, going in any of the four directions, they did not swerve as they went.18 As for their rims, they were so high that they were frightening; and their rims were full of eyes round all around. 19 And when the living creatures moved, the wheels moved with them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. They went wherever the spirit wanted to go, for there their spirit wanted to go; and the wheels were lifted up with them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels. 21 When those moved these moved; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up with them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.
22 And the likeness of a vault above the heads of the living creatures was as the shining of crystal, terrifying, stretched forth over their heads above. 23 And under the vault their wings were straight, one pair toward the other’s: and each one had a pair which covered their bodies. 24 And when they moved, I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of many waters, as the voice of the Almighty, the voice of speech, as the noise of an army: when they stood still, they let down their wings. 25 And there was a voice from the vault that was over their heads, when they stood still, and had let down their wings.
26 And above the vault that was over their heads was, in the likeness of a throne, the appearance of a sapphire; and upon the likeness of the throne was a likeness with the appearance of a man, high above. 27 And I saw the shining of bronze with the appearance of fire within it, from the appearance of his waist even upward, and from the appearance of his waist even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire; and he had brightness round about him. 28 As the appearance of the bow that is in the clouds on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spoke: Son of Man, stand upon your feet and I will speak with you.
This is of course an astonishing passage. Amongst other unique elements is its use of a piece of human technology, the wheel, to fashion an image of God; it is the first to do so in the history of religion. Before I examine it in detail a few general observations are in order.
The calls to prophetic service of Moses ( via the burning bush) and Isaiah (via a vision of the heavenly court) are the closest precursors to Ezekiel’s vision, which is however, much more elaborate than either. The passage is full of circumlocution and repetition, which clearly confused the scribes who copied the passage into adding repetitions and expansions of their own which remain in the received Hebrew text and many English translations. The Revised English Bible notes 9 serious textual confusions in these 28 verses. The writer also uses a precise literalism by which every relevant detail is noted, even when it has been noted before. I want to appreciate this mode of storytelling, which has some connection with both children’s delight in narrative detail and the obsessive accuracy with which adults recount dreams.
Firstly it’s important to note that Ezekiel was with the Judaean exiles in Babylon, itself a metropolis of cutting-edge technology at the time. He’s the only biblical prophet whose whole career took place outside Israel/ Judah. Like his fellow exiles he must have suffered from the dislocation of all his habits of life, including faith in a God whose reality had been so closely associated with the land. Could such a God even function beyond the boundaries of the promised land? In all that he wrote and/or spoke, Ezekiel expressed his conviction that God still cared for his people, still in his holiness exposed their sin, and still offered them restoration.
The vision he recounts shows that his conviction of the continuing relevance of God was not a matter of faith alone, but of faith joined to imaginative experience: God is real to him, and through him to the exiles. What are the sources of his vision of God?
1. He was a priest with intimate knowledge of the Jerusalem Temple, with its furniture and ritual, especially of its holy place containing the ark of the covenant and its cherubim with touching wings. It’s not too much to describe this whole vision as a kind of travelling temple, as the ark had been. God’s available holiness was central to his faith.
2. He was a prophet with a grasp of prophets before him and of the religious tradition of his people. He draws from that tradition and from the common stock of visionary material from the ancient near- East. For example, both Israel and other nations had stories of storm- Gods erupting from their dwellings to terrify or lead their people.
3. He was an imaginative artist with the capacity to blend diverse traditions in a single compelling image.
His initial words describe the arrival of a storm God, who appears from the cold North in his war-chariot, although at first it’s not clear exactly what has arrived. There is fire which “infolds” itself, meaning it does not spread outwards and burn up, but burns and is not consumed like Moses’ burning bush, an image of the fiery, self- contained and self- replicating holiness of God. Bronze signifies its primary function in the bronze age, warfare. God in his holiness has come to do battle against evil.
Then we are introduced to the “living creatures” who are defined by the Hebrew word, “chay” which comes from the verb, “to live”. The Hebrew has only this word, “creatures” being an addition in English which maintains the sense of mystery about these beings. They are like human beings but with four animal faces, straight legs like Assyrian statues, feet like a calf’s, and wings with human hands underneath. Their wings touch their neighbour’s like those of the cherubim above the ark of the covenant in the temple. In themselves, therefore, they sum up God’s creation of living beings: animals, humans, and angels. They have the gift of swift movement in response to the spirit, being all fire and sparkle. Some of the same characteristics are seen in Isaiah’s seraphs (Isaiah 6).
For this author however, the image of fire is not a sufficient indicator of the nimble mobility of these creatures, so he brings into play the wheels, one for each creature, although as we proceed we see that each has two wheels at right angles to each other- rather than wheels within wheels as is often depicted in Bible illustrations. Although it is completely unclear how this might work, we can imagine that it makes them able to move with ease in at least four directions, without swerving. The addition of eyes round the wheel rims adds sharp perception to their other qualities. The wheels are precisely obedient to the spirit of the living creatures, which is also the spirit of God.
Once the author mentions a vault above the creatures, the reader is reminded of the vault mentioned in the Genesis story of creation which divides heaven and earth. If this reference is correct then we would expect God to be found above the vault, and indeed we do. By this time we have perhaps been able to identify the whole structure as a chariot, the war chariot of Yahweh, the God of the Jewish people. This God, although in control of his chariot, is not totally detached from it, but likes to move with the help of these elements of his creation. In a sense the chariot is an image of a creation perfectly obedient to its creator, sharing God’s spirit. The detail that the wings make a noise like the sound of many waters reminds the reader of the waters of the great deep which God has brought under his control (see Job 38: 8-11).,
The description of God is even more indirect than that of the creatures and the wheels. Nothing is simply named but each detail prefaced by the Hebrew words “demuth and mareh” meaning likeness and appearance. The human words are not adequate to describe divine reality. Even as God reveals himself, human imagination has to admit its inadequacy. Still Ezekiel can say that God is like a human being, just as Genesis says that human beings are like God. The shining out of God’s glory is also described as the appearance of the rainbow in the cloud. Finally the whole chariot with its rider is described as the appearance (mareh) of the likeness ( demuth) of the glory (cabod) of God. What is seen in the vision and recorded is three times removed from the reality of God. There is no vagueness in the description; each detail is clear and often emphasised by repetition. These visionary details are true, but they cannot do justice to God.
What is happening in this passage? I want to say that a human being is inventing God. The marks of human invention are evident in his use of elements from the religious tradition of his people, and from that of surrounding cultures. The skill with which he subordinates these elements to an overarching image, is another mark of invention. But the God he invents is One who is utterly beyond human understanding and yet reveals himself/ herself to human beings. The author believes that as his imagination – working within a visionary experience- constructs a God out of his own and his people’s most profound experiences, God the One True God desires to be imagined by him and obeyed. This place, where we cannot wholly separate God from our lives is the place of revelation, where the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of the Church of Scotland, and of me, can be known.
(more to follow in the next blog)