A Shavuot mystery: the angels with four faces

We explore the connection between Ezekiel’s mysterious vision and today’s festival

By Mordechai Beck, May 28, 2009
“They had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they had the face of an  ox on the left side; they also had the face of an eagle” Ezekiel 1:10

“They had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they had the face of an ox on the left side; they also had the face of an eagle” Ezekiel 1:10

The opening chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, with its mysterious image of a heavenly chariot of four-faced creatures, is read as the haftarah on the first day of Shavuot. But the reason is not immediately apparent.

Whereas the festival celebrates both harvest time and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the prophetic chapter from Ezekiel is a report of a vision granted the prophet apparently at the beginning of the Babylonian exile in around 593 BCE ( the exile of King Jehoiachin having taken place a few years before the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchanezzar in 586 BCE).

Of Ezekiel’s early life little is known. There are some commentators indeed who believe that the “thirty years” mentioned in the opening phrase of this chapter refers to the prophet’s age. Like other prophets, Ezekiel is also a Cohen, a priest in the doomed Temple. Unlike most other prophets, however, he is elected to bring his divine message to Israel in a place of exile, in Babylon.

It could be argued that the revelation at Sinai similarly took place outside the land of Israel. Yet whereas the revelation at Sinai was a public event, Ezekiel’s vision was transmitted to the prophet alone, and it is he who shares this vision with others.

Tradition has circumscribed the teaching of this chapter. The Mishnah in Chagigah limits it exposition only to those who are able to handle such an elevated prophetic vision. Without doubt the words and phrases, concepts and ideas are opaque, yet they seem to draw on a common set of images that make the metaphysical grandeur of this prophetic vision coherent, if not exactly comprehensible. Moreover, Ezekiel is the most graphic of the prophets, and as lofty as his language can be, it is filled with metaphors that make his ethereal visions tangible to even the most casual reader.

That said, it is also true that this first chapter became the basis for much of what we know in the West as the mystical tradition; it is a vision of God with angels, fire, violent winds, clouds, lightning, ice, and the four dimensional apparition of creatures with features drawn from the human and animal kingdoms. Parts of the vision suggest hologram-like images that enables us to see multi-dimension figures from different perspectives at one and the same time .

It was the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who observed that whatever their origin, dreams and visions express themselves in objects known to the person having the vision. Thus, too, it might be suggested that many of the tangible items in this chapter are redolent of objects in the Temple with which Ezekiel the Cohen would have been intimately familiar. These include such mundane items as burnished copper, the precious tarshish stone (one of the stones in the High Priest’s breastplate), and the cherubim who inhabited the Holy of Holies. His double role, as priest and prophet, may well be relevant here. He has a vision, but it is tied to what is familiar to him as a servant of the people.

Perhaps, therefore, a deeper connection with the revelation at Mount Sinai can be proposed. The Talmud (Shabbat 88) observes that the “happening at Sinai” was not merely an intellectual or legal occasion where God gave a summary of His Divine Laws (to be followed by the small legal print of Mishpatim).

Rather the whole event was meant to be an experience that would emblazon itself on the souls of the children of Israel for ever. These were recent slaves; reading them their rights and obligations seven weeks after their miraculous exodus was hardly what they needed. Sinai was a multi-media production — thunder and lightning, the noise of shofarot, the springing up of flowers on the desert mountain, the intoxicating aroma that filled the air.

Similarly here in Ezekiel, it might be possible to suggest that what he is describing is the experience that the Israelites had in the Temple. The life of the first Temple is shrouded in mystery. Very little is written about it apart from the continuous fights over the sacrifices (one king was for, another against), but the actual experience of being there is rarely spoken of. Where it might feature (such as in the Book of Psalms 11, 27, 42 and 63), it does so as hints rather than explicit observations.

So perhaps what we have here is a record of one of the Temple’s last priestly-prophets recalling with profound nostalgia the vision of the incomprehensible in the only words as he is able to muster. His is a memorial of a spiritual life that had been, and that was about to be extinguished. Maybe he is trying to remind his listeners what they would be missing and urging them to repent, which is indeed the message of his next chapter.

Perhaps, too, the prophet is trying to strengthen his fellow exiles, by teaching them that revelation is still possible, even outside the land of Israel and beyond the temple precincts. This, too, would connect it to the experience at Sinai which is similarly beyond the bounds of normal civilisation. Ultimately, the festival of Shavuot celebrates the extraordinary, the awesome. It is meant to be out of context — all contexts — belonging neither to a particular country, or a specific people, or time.

The Torah of Sinai may contain universal truths, but it takes a visionary prophet to reveal its inner depths.

Last updated: 2:39pm, May 25 2011