THE WHEELS OF EZEKIEL
A possible relationship
to modern UFO phenomena
An analytical essay
by R. Cedric Leonard
Have you ever wondered how a primitive tribesman from the plains of east Africa might describe the landing of a high-tech military helicopter? How would this confused, frightened villager relate his experience to his peers? Familiar native words would have to be used to describe things beyond the ken of ordinary experience, and his attempt to describe such an experience may turn out to be quite unintelligible to his friends.
Now consider the possibility that something similar happened to Ezekiel in ancient Babylon somewhere around 600 B.C., as recorded in the Bible. The case I am about to unfold to you is truly worthy of attention.
Biblical scholars have long felt that Ezekiel's account of the fiery wheels encountered by the River Chebar* is one of the most difficult to translate in the entire Bible. Not only does the text abound in obscurities and apparent confusion, but also it has acquired occasional corruptions by well-meaning scribes whose "amendations" have only muddied the issue even further. (NBC; NLBC) It shouldn't be surprising that Ezekiel believed the encounter to be a "vision". Certainly nothing in normal experience could be compared to the occurrence he describes:
"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 out of the midst thereof as the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire." (Ezek. 1:4; KJV)
The above is Ezekiel's first sight of the strange aerial phenomenon which was approaching him from the north. What follows in the next ten verses no biblical scholar has ever been able to unravel. The text, as well as its translation, exhibits a high degree of confusion. We will take up the reason for this in the latter part of the essay. But for now, let's analyze his description of this event by taking a close look at his choice of words.
The first descriptive word we come to in the above account is se'ahra, translated "whirlwind" in the King James translation of the Bible. I have "worked with" the Hebrew language for several decades, but since I'm not an expert I consulted several Hebrew scholars to see if the words used held meanings beyond what was apparent in our usual English translations. My suspicions were rewarded beyond my expectations. I also consulted the Greek (LXX) texta language with which I am more familiarwhich also yielded some interesting insights.
The word se'ahra is truly rare, and denotes a very unusual or rare phenomenon. It is the same word that is used when Elijah was "carried up" during the Chariot of Fire incident, as well as when God spoke to Job "out of the whirlwind" (Job 38:1). Ezekiel next mentions "a great cloud" ('anan gadol). The Hebrew word 'anan can refer to any weather cloud, but in the Scriptures it almost always refers to the "shining presence of deity" (TTG).
His next words are indeed startling: the cloud is encircled by flashing strobe lights! Here a most unusual Hebrew word is used: mitheleqachath, or "flashing forth continually". The Greek word exastrapton also means "flashing out" like a modern strobe light. This is not a reference to natural lightning (for which the Hebrew word is baroq), and this is no ordinary cloud.
The next three words are unmistakable! Hebrew scholars agree that venogah lo savev means something like "touching itself around". Even the conservative King James version has the alternative reading in the margin: "Heb. catching itself". Something like our modern "chasing lights"maybe? This seems to reinforce the image of flashing, strobe-like lights, turning upon themselves in a circle.
Some scholars have attempted to pass this off as a lightning storm, which is utter nonsenseEzekiel had seen storms before. Translators have even attempted to "smooth over" the event by incorrectly inserting the word "lightning" into their translation, even though that word does not appear until much later in the text. The rare and unusual words appearing in this description are not describing a natural event! This thing looks alive, and Ezekiel is terrified!
Biblical scholars don't know what to make of these passages, and every attempt has fallen short of the subtle nuances embedded in the words chosen by our priestly witness. The translation by the British scholar Ferrar Fenton comes closest to the picture Ezekiel was attempting to convey. He renders it thus:
"Then I looked, and saw a raging wind from the north driving a great cloud, and whirling fire flashing around it, with the gleam of polished brass [or electrum] in the center of the fire." (Ezek. 1:4; HBME).
Most early translators have rendered the Hebrew chashmal as "amber"; but today most scholers would translate it as "gleaming bronze"the ancient Greek and Latin versions have "electrou" and "electrum" respectively. Electrum is a natural alloy of gold and silver, having a high reflectivity factor and truly beautiful to behold. Either rendition indicates that very shiny metal is visible inside this brightly lit "cloud".
Such colorful language is seldom encountered in the Old Testament, and can only mean that Ezekiel was so profoundly impressed by the splendor of the sight that he, being an educated priest, was stretching the Hebrew vocabulary itself, so that nothing of his startling experience would be lost. Some of these words are so rare they are encountered nowhere else in the entire Hebrew Bible!
Try to imagine how Ezekiel must have felt, watching the mirror-like reflections of the whirling lights dancing in the gleaming electrum-like surfaces of this fabulous machine. In verse 13 the "whirling lamps" image is reinforced once more. Most English translations miss the nuance of the Hebrew text once again, but this is easily remedied:
"As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearence was like burning coals of fire [i.e., glowing], and there was an appearance of lamps continuously circling among the living creatures." (Ezek 1:13; cf. KJV-II translation)
Notice the italics. Most translations fail to convey the meaning of the Hebrew text at this point. Instead of lamps which were "going up and down," as in the King James translation, the Hebrew text has mithehalaqat, a word meaning "circling continuously" (closely akin to mitheleqachat). The Greek (LXX) has sustrephomenon, that is, lamps which appear to be "revolving" or "rotating".
It is unfortunate that so many translators missed so many facets of this relatively accurate description. Most modern versions, including the New International Version (NIV), have "going back and forth". Which is it? Going back and forth, or up and down? The ancient texts (Hebrew, Greek, and Latin) clearly read "continuously circling".
The appearance of "gleaming metal" within the swirling cloud surrounded by revolving lamps, puts an entirely different light on this event. We will take up the "living creatures" label, and Ezekiel's apparent confusion surrounding them, shortly; but for the moment let us touch on some rather trivial details mentioned by Ezekiel in his attempt to describe the machines once they've moved directly overhead.
We now encounter mechanical nomenclature, such as rings, rims, strakes, spokes and "eyes" (which could well be port holes). Unfortunately, the text is hopelessly corrupt at this point (NBC), and details are rather obscure. This is why there are numerous "alternative readings" (and "Heb. uncertain") expressed in the marginal notes. Words meaning "lofty" and "awesome" are also used, which are not without significance.
Ancient French coin depicting a disk-shaped object among the clouds in the sky, having a ring of port holes around its perimeter, as well as strakes (or "spokes") radiating from a center hub outward to the outer ring. The object depicted on this old coin is extremely reminiscent of the so-called "wheels" described by the biblical prophet and priest Ezekiel. The protrusion reaching down from the center could possibly be indicating a bright beam of light shining downward.
However, as the quality of the text improves, Ezekiel does explain that there are four identical machines, and that each one is constructed like "a wheel in the middle of a wheel" (verse 16). Here we are definitely talking about a machine: Ezekiel uses the Hebrew word for "construction". Even though scholars in the Hebrew language have historically had difficulty in visualizing the details, they have not hesitated to declare that "we are dealing here with a supernatural machine" (ABC). One scholar asserts that the apparatus described is "a supernatural chariot," even though the word "chariot" is never used by Ezekiel (NBC).
Ezekiel clearly indicates that these vehicles land, take off, hover, and even fly in formation as they zip to and fro in all directions. They are able to do so without needing to bank and turn as do airplanes or birds (verses 14, 17). As they flash through the sky they arelike the mighty flying machines (vimanas) of the Hindu epicsaccompanied by a thunderous roar.
Finally, as they land on earth they "let down their wings"--a curious statement from our UFO oriented standpoint, unless we realize that these "wings" could conceivably be metal stairways as seen from the side. Such "gangplanks" might be lowered smoothly until they touched the ground, giving him the impression that the cherubim had "let down their wings".
It would seem natural that after these vehicles had landed and the glowing cloud of supercharged plasma had dissipated and the fiery exhausts and rotating lights had ceased, that Ezekiel could better evaluate the physical appearance of the craft and their occupants.
The climax of this event is when Ezekiel saw the "appearance of a throne" above the machine, and one sitting upon it having the "appearance of a man". Notice the repetition of the word "appearance" (Heb. eth, "image"). Did he perceive this to be an artificial image? Was this a projection of the ship's commander?
I believe it more than significant that when Ezekiel fell on his face in awe of this being (verse 28), he was sharply commanded to stand up (Ezek. 2:1). If this was a vision of God himself, why wouldn't Ezekiel be permitted to worship? The same thing happens each and every time Ezekiel prostrates himself. However, once back on his feet, he was given a message to be delivered to his fellow captives in Babylon. Then a startling thing happens:
"Then the spirit took me up, and I heard behind me a voice of a great rushing, as the glory of the Lord rose from its place . . . So the spirit lifted me up, and took me away, and I went in bitterness, in the heat of my spirit; but the hand of the Lord was heavy upon me." (Ezek. 3:12,14; cf., RSV)
The Greek text of verse 14 above says the spirit "lifted me (exêre me) and took me up (anelabe me) . . ." The "lifting force" mentioned here (Heb: ruach) is the same as that which ofttimes "carried" the prophet Elijah to undisclosed locations (1 Kings 18:12); while at other times "casting" him "upon some mountain, or into some valley" (2 Kings 2:16).
Hundreds of years later the prophet Ezekiel seems to be having similar experiences. Each time he is taken up it appears that simultaneously the whole dazzling affair, whirling lights and all, lifts majestically into the sky! The book of Ezekiel records a total of seven such occurrences within its pages.
As he was being carried aloft, he heard a thunderous roar (which he imagined was caused by the clapping of mighty wings). The King James version uses the mild term "rushing," but my Rabbinical consultants assure me that the Hebrew words imply a thunderous roar, such as an earthquake or a tremendous waterfall.
I italicized a particular phrase in the above passage purposely. It differs so drastically from the same passage as translated in the King James version, I wanted to draw special attention to it (the RSV renders it correctly). Here are the two compared:
King James: Blessed be the glory of the Lord from his place.
Restored to: As the glory of the Lord rose from its place.
The astonishing thing is that in Hebrew the difference between the above passages is only one letter! Since the original Hebrew text had no vowels, a scribal error was made at some point which substituted a Hebrew letter K for an original M, making the text to read baruk (blessed) instead of berum (as arose).
Most biblical scholars believe this to have happened (with good reason) and have restored the original meaning to the text (PCB). A very similar phrase is used later (Ezek. 11:23), which was helpful in spotting this error (TIB). Before this was corrected, the meaning was so incoherent that the King James translators had to insert the English word "saying" to make any sense of it.
After the aerial hop in the dazzling spaceship, Ezekiel was so shaken that he sat speechless for seven days (Ezek. 3:15). He was warned, finally, that if he did not deliver the message he had received, the blood of his fellows would be on his hands. That got him up and going!
Incredibly, some scholars believe Ezekiel was not on board when the craft lifted off. In fact, Prof. Davidson (NBC) portrays Ezekiel as being bitter because he was left behind! But this view must be erroneous for several reasons: (1) the text says explicitly that "the spirit lifted me up and took me away"; (2) the Greek text (LXX) includes this passage, "Then I passed through the air and came to the captivity"; (3) on several other occasions it states clearly that Ezekiel was shuttled from place to place (seven times in all) while inside the visions. The anger Ezekiel felt was not disappointment at being left behind, but because the hand of the Lord "was heavy" upon him as the craft soared into the air. He may have been pinned to the floor by the suddenness of the takeoff! His second encounter occurred not far from the first:
"Then I arose, and went forth unto the plain: and behold, the glory of the Lord stood there, as the glory which I saw by the river Chebar: and I fell on my face." (Ezek. 3:23; KJV)
Once again he is brought to his feet (no worship here) and another message given him. During these encounters he is always addressed as "son of man," which is the equivalent of "human" or "earthling". The phrase "the glory of the Lord stood there" indicates that he could see it while he was yet far off, and remained there as he approached. Does this sound like a vision?
Then the prophet was taken to Jerusalem aboard the craft. This time the text states explicitly
that "the spirit lifted me up between the earth and the heaven and brought me in the visions of God to Jerusalem." (Ezek. 8:3) It couldn't be any clearer. Moreover, since he was a captive in Babylonia, he could not have traveled to Jerusalem on his own (a trip of several months by caravan).
Eventually, all four craft returned. By now Ezekiel is referring to them as cherubs (to be discussed shortly). Someone within hearing distance must have seen the craft also, because Ezekiel records hearing someone cry out, O galgal, i.e., "spinning thing", or wheel. (Ezek. 10:13) This is equivalent to yelling "flying saucer!" upon seeing a modern UFO. Later, another lift-off is described, this time in downtown Jerusalem:
"Then did the cherubims lift up their wings, and the wheels beside them; and the glory of the God of Israel was over them above. And the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city, and stood upon the mountain which is on the east side of the city." (Ezek. 11:22-23; KJV)
Notice the italics. This is the statement which helped scholars identify the troublesome scribal error that had occurred in the text referred to earlier.
"Afterwards the spirit took me up, and brought me in a vision by the spirit of God into Chaldea, to them of the captivity. So the vision that I had seen went up from me. Then I spake unto them of the captivity all the things that the Lord had shewed me." (Ezek. 11:24-25; KJV)
Ezekiel makes it clear that he is actually inside what he believes to be a "vision" as he travels from place to place. After disembarking, he watches it fly away into the sky (it "went up from me"). And although he is taken up several more times, the following example once again mentions the thunderous roar accompanying the craft, and that its very presence lights up the surrounding terrain as it makes its approach:
"And, behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east: and his voice was like a noise of many waters: and the earth shined with his glory." (Ezek. 43:2; KJV)
Again Ezekiel falls on his face to worship. This time he is taken up and brought to the inner court of the temple at Jerusalem, whereupon the "glory of the Lord filled the house." (Ezek. 43:5) And so it goes.
During my consultation with local Rabbis concerning Ezekiel's visions, one of them said: "Do you know that the first chapter of Ezekiel has traditionally been read in the synagogues once a year on the day of Pentecost?" Intrigued, I asked why. It was explained that this is the day the Feast of Weeks is celebrated . . . the day Moses received the Law on Mt. Sinai. I didn't make the connection, so the Rabbi explained: "The Feast of Weeks has also been declared the Festival of Revelation, and both men received a divine revelation." I pressed the Rabbi: "But why the first chapter of Ezekiel in particular?" His answer surprised me.
He told me that there is a connection between the "divine chariot" in Ezekiel's vision and the "pillar of fire" which escorted, and protected, the children of Israel during the exodus from Egypt. I protested that Ezekiel never once used the term "chariot" in his account. He in turn asked me, "What did Elisha exclaim when he saw Elijah being taken up into the chariot of fire?"
The answer was, of course: "My father, my father, the chariot of Israel". The Rabbi continued: "This chariot, the chariot of Israel, was present during the exodus from Egypt, during the giving of the Law, during the forty years in the wilderness, and also during the conquest of Canaan." He added: "It is believed that Ezekiel saw this same chariot."
Upon consulting numerous Bible commentaries I found that most refer to Ezekiel's vision as a chariot (ABC, HBC, NBC, OAB, PCB, TIB). In view of these discussions I see only two possibilities. Either Ezekiel encountered mechanized aircraft and their occupants, or he received visions of mechanized aircraft and their occupantstake your pick. So why did he use the term "cherubim" in reference to these machines? I have deliberately put this off until last since it has consistently thrown both scholar and layman into abject confusion.
I believe the answer to be extremely simple. All four vehicles (which Ezekiel referred to as "living creatures") bore ensignias on them which denoted their universal or "star ship" statusthe four cardinal signs of the zodiac. I believe biblical theologeons have been mistaken when they have attempted to put the four faces mentioned on the human-like occupants who stood outside the craft whenever they landed.
The four faces of the "cherubim" are simply the four "signs" at the cardinal points of the heavens: Leo (the Lion), Taurus (the bull), Aquarius (the man), and Eagle (which in modern times has become Scorpio). If one looks at a circle depicting the twelve signs of the zodiac, takes a perfect cross and rotates it until one of the arms is pointing at any one of the four named signs (Aquarius for instance), the three remaining arms will point to the other three (Leo, Taurus, and Scorpio). This is a sensible way of representing this region of our galaxy.
We have now, at least tentatively, identified the enigmatic four faces of the so-called "living creatures". The question remains, Why did Ezekiel refer to the craft bearing these zodiacal faces as "cherubim" (Hebrew plural of cherub)? It happens that the Babylonian "kerubs" were a combination of these same zodiacal signs (see illustration immediately below).
The word "cherub" has no etymology in the Hebrew language. Both the word and the concept is Babylonian, not Hebrew (LRBA).# Cherubs were early mythological creatures believed by the Babylonians to possess awesome and terrifying power (in the same class with griffins and sphinxes). The winged bull is often depicted with the head of a man and the tail of a lion. The similar sphinx is usually (but not always) depicted with a human head, sometimes with an eagle's wings, and a lion's body. Cherubs were usually placed at the entrances of temples or other sacred places as protectors of those holy precincts. It should be remembered that the earliest mention of cherubim in the Bible were those guarding the entrance to the garden of Eden.
A line drawing of one of the two cherubim which guarded the entrance to the throne room of Sargon II. The cherub shown is a composite depicting the body and horns of a bull, the head and face of a man, the wings of an eagle, and possibly the tail of a lion.
Since Ezekiel was in Babylon (Chaldea) and sculpted representations of these four cardinal zodiacal signs could be seen on every hand, it is only natural that Ezekiel would use the common terminology heard day after day in the environs of Babylon to describe such images.
Some confusion still remains concerning Ezekiel's terminology involving "living creatures". It almost seems that he believed everything in his vision to be alive. However, at times he seems to consider the human-like beings which disembarked from the wheels as alive and in control of their associated machines. The machines themselves exhibited many characteristics which, to one unfamiliar with electricity, might have made them appear to be alive. I am sure Ezekiel himself was confused on this score.
Also one should remember that in ancient times anything that could move on its own was considered alive. Witness the old familiar "living water"if water flowed, it was "living water". Quicksilver (mercury) was called "quick" (living) because it seemed able to move on its own. This, I believe, is the answer. Ezekiel believed that these self-moving, mysteriously flashing, aerial vehicles were in some way "alive".
To return once more to the chariot concept. Just what is a chariot? According to Funk & Wagnalls, the word is Old French and is an augmented form of char (from Latin, carrus, car, cart, or wagon). As an intransitive verb it means, "to convey, ride, or drive as in a chariot." (SDEL) Our word "carry" derives from the same source. Ezekiel's wheels represent an aerial vehicle, a celestial car, a "divine chariot" if you please, the function of which is transportation! So that's why Rabbis and biblical scholars consider Ezekiel's wheel a chariot.
I think the UFO hypothesis (and that's all it is) is on reasonable ground. It certainly explains a lot hithertofore unexplainable. I haven't closed my mind to other possibilities: maybe the theologians and biblical scholars are correct. However, the phenomenon in Ezekiel's account did everything one would naturally expect of an aerial vehicle. Fortunately for us, Ezekiel told us everything in chronological order. In this last (and only) sense, scholars say the book of Ezekiel is the best organized of any of the prophetic books of the Bible.
ABC = Abingdon Bible Commentary
HBC = Harper's Bible Commentary
HBME = Holy Bible in Modern English by F. Fenton
KJV = King James Version (of the Bible)
KJV-II = King James II Version (of the Bible)
LRBA = Les Religions de Babylonie et Assyrie by E. Dhorme
LXX = The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament
NBC = New Bible Commentary by F. Davidson
NIV = New International Version (of the Bible)
NLBC = New Laymen's Bible Commentary
OAB = Oxford Annotated Bible
PCB = Peak's Commentary on the Bible
RSV = Revised Standard Version (of the Bible)
SDEL = Standard Dictionary of the English Language
TIB = The Interpreters Bible (twelve volumes) Vol. VI
TTG = The Tenth Generation by G. E. Mendenhall
Due to the fact that most of the references used in this essay do not have a single author, an alternate system of notes was adopted. More complete information on these publications is given in the bibliography below.
* The "River Chebar" mentioned here by Ezekiel is believed by many scholars to be the nari kabari ("great canal"), an artificial canal near the city of Nippur created by the Chaldeans for irrigation purposes. [Back]
# Archeological discoveries have brought to light numerous examples of Akkadian style cherubs in the Phoenician city of Biblos, and in Samaria as well as Sumer and Babylonia. Such representations do not always have four heads (e.g., Ezek. 41:18ff describes them as having only two); but nearly always all four cardinal signs of the zodiac are represented in some way, i.e., in the form of wings, tails, horns, hooves, human heads, etc. [Back]
Abingdon Bible Commentary, Abingdon Press, New York, 1957.
Dhorme, E, Les Religions de Babylonie et Assyrie, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1945.
Fenton, Ferrar, The Holy Bible in Modern English, Destiny Publishers, Merrimac MA, 1903.
Harper's Bible Commentary, William Neil, Harper & Row, New York, 1962.
Holy Bible, King James Translation (text comformable to that of the original 1611 version).
Holy Bible, King James II Version (5th edition), Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1983.
Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1952.
Interpreters Bible (twelve volumns), Abingdon Press, Vol. VI, New York, 1956.
Mendenhall, George E., The Tenth Generation, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore & London, 1973.
New Bible Commentary, F. Davidson (editor), William B. Eerdmand Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1960.
New Laymen's Bible Commentary, Howley, Bruce & Ellison, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1979.
Oxford Annotated Bible (editors Herbert G. May & Bruce M. Metager), Oxford University Press, 1962.
Peak's Commentary on the Bible, Black & Rowley, Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., London, 1962.
Septuagint Version of the Old Testament, (LXX) Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1970.
Standard Dictionary of the English Language (International Edition), Funk & Wagnalls, New York, 1992.
Copyright © by R. Cedric Leonard, 12 Mar 2002.
Version 1.8: Latest update 2 Mar 2013