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Ezekiel 1

A Glimpse of the Glory of Yahweh

Copyright © 1979 Henry Neufeld.  All Rights Reserved


Exegetical Commentary

And it happened in the thirtieth year - Employing these words, the book of Ezekiel opens with an exegetical problem.  There is no indication given as to when this period began, or, other than its position in the book, when it terminated.  How is one to reconcile this with the statement in verse two that it was "the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin"?

Anthony D.  York35  has provided a suitable summary of the varying views on the issue, to which his own must now be added. We have already discussed the various textual emendations previously. It remains here only to discuss those theories that maintain the current wording of the text.  These include two groups: those that maintain both the wording and the present location in the text, and those who maintain the wording, but state either that the verse has been misplaced in the text or that something which was formerly here, either before or following, has now been lost.

One of the suggestions which can maintain the wording is that the "thirtieth year" refers to the prophet's age.  Origen was an early exponent of this position.  More recently Richard Kraetzschmar and Karl Budde have both supported this idea, but have amended the text to agree with it.  Their better emendations have been discussed.  Kraetzschmar's wayehiy biheyothiy ben-sheloshiym shanah lacks probability, as it is difficult to conceive of how this would result in the present text.36  The Targum explained the passage as referring to the finding of the Book of the Law during the reform by Josiah. York notes that this, plus the support for the same view by Jerome witnesses to the antiquity of the text, and is "an added burden to those who seek a solution by emendation."37 It might also be noted that this is a witness to the antiquity of the current position of the verse in the text--no one would have felt it necessary to explain the text were its meaning obvious.38 The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Comments also supports this position. G.  A.  Cooke has mentioned the theory that the thirtieth year belonged to the Jubilee period, but Cooke himself takes a different view, supporting the work of Begrich, who found a 25 year difference between the chronologies of Kings and Chronicles.39 Edwin R.  Thiele opposes this view of the chronology, and in any case, it is difficult to understand why in one place two different chronologies should be used whereas throughout the rest of the book the usage is uniform.40  The works of James Smith and C.  C.  Torrey, believing that the "thirtieth year" referred to the reign of Manasseh, require too difficult a reworking of the entire book.  Some declare that the first verse was introduced to explain the difference between Ezekiel's 40 years for the exile and Jeremiah's 70, but it seems unlikely that they would have left the second verse intact in direct contradiction.  J.  Finegan dismisses the problem as unimportant, Fohrer thought that it was the remains of a statement limiting the study of the chapter to those over 30.  V.  K.  Lowther Clark felt that it could not be solved.41 Berry suggested that the "thirtieth year" referred to the same starting point as the other dates in the book, i.e, the exile of King Jehoiachin, and that it originally preceded a vision now lost.  Allbright thought that the thirtieth year referred to the publication of the entire book.  The Abingdon Bible Commentary suggests that the book was transmitted in two recensions and that this is the combination.42  This does not solve the problem of what the statement meant in the other recension.

York has done a fair job of laying most of these ideas to rest, but there remains his own proposition, as well as that of Paul Auvray which involve the relocation of the chapter or some portions of it, York proposes the following reconstruction of chapter 1.

i 1
(vision: referred to in xliii 3)
xliii 4ff.  (prophecy of restoration)
i 2, etc.

Following this original construction, the prophecy of restoration of chapter 45 was removed to the end of the book, with the vision remaining in chapter 1.  Briefly, the reason for its presence at the beginning at any time was the great joy of the people at receiving it, because of which they would wish to have it stand at the head of the collection of the prophet's writings.  Later editors, wishing to place the prophet's writings more closely in chronological order, removed the prophecy to a more logical position (as well as placing the book of Ezekiel more in accordance with the arrangement of the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah.  However, they left the vision which headed the prophecy behind.  This vision was similar to the one contained in 1:4ff, and so was later assimilated, leaving both headings.  The most that can be said about this is that it is highly improbable that so complex a procedure could have taken place, and that the reasons for the various changes are not adequately explained.44

Paul Auvray suggests that there are two headings here, one (1:1) for the vision in chapter 1, and the other (1:2,3) for the vision of the call in chapters 2 and 3.  Eberhard Baumann supports him on the idea that these two visions were originally separate, stating that "1:4-28a ist nicht wie 2:3-3:9 eine Rerufungsvision, sondern eine Informationsvision .  .  .  "45  However, one must note that the call visions of both Jeremiah (Jer.  1) and Isaiah (Is.  6) also include theophanies, and are presented in a general order similar to the call of Ezekiel.  This very similarity suggests to Auvray that the call of Ezekiel was later reworked to make it conform to the call visions of the other two eminent prophets.  He would place verse 1 as the heading of the vision in 1:4-28a once verses 2 and 3 as the heading of the vision in chapters 2 and 3.  The resulting "chapters" make very good reading.46

Auvray then looks for a place to put the reconstructed vision. Noting that in chapter 10 the glory of Yahweh leaves the temple, and that in chapter 43, it returns, without note of where it has been, he postulates the following movements for it:

1.  depart from Jerusalem (Chapter 10)
2.  Arrival in Babylonia (Chapter 1)
3.  Depart from Babylonia (not recorded)
4.  Return to Jerusalem (Chapter 43)

Thus the vision of chapter 1 must be located somewhere between chapters 10 and 43.  However, the date for the latest vision other than chapter 1 is the 27th year of the exile of King Jehoiachin. To cover this difficulty, Auvray suggests the emendation of the text, already noted, to read, "the thirteenth year", It is apparent that this view, as well as that of Baumann, which relocates the chapter without explanation for the "thirtieth year" does not have a high level of probability, firstly because the emendation is not likely and secondly because the process is too complicated.47  

Due to the difficulties of the passage, two views will here be presented as possible.  Firstly that the thirtieth year refers to the prophet's age, or alternately that it refers to the publication of the book.

The first suggestion has some ancient and some scholarly support as has been noted.  Currently it has the partial support of the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary,48  and A New Commentary on the Holy Scripture,49  as well as Eichrodt in the Old Testament Library.  The following factors support it.  1) Due to the correspondence of the day in the two dates, it is probable that both the "fifth year", and the "thirtieth year" refer to the same date.  2) Ezekiel would have to be 30 years of age in order to be considered totally responsible and at least 25 to be a priest (1:2).  3) John the Baptist, and Jesus both began their work at 30 years of age.  (This, provided by SDABC, provides only very tangential support.) If the emendations of the various scholars who have supported this position are not accepted, the major possibility is that this verse originally concluded a brief narrative of the prophet's early life, which was left out when the book was collected in its present form.50  In support of this we note that the beginning of the work is such as one would expect as a, continuation of a previous idea.

Alternately, one could consider the view of W.  F.  Allbright, that this verse refers to the publication of the book.51 (However, his emendation will not be supported.) In support of this we note 1) that the date, if referring as do other dates in Ezekiel to the exile of King Jehoiachin, would be the final date in the book, thus conceivably referring to its publication, and 2) the word mar'oth in verse 1, indicates more than one vision, while it stands as the heading of a single vision.

Both of these views seem possible, and neither will do any injustice to the interpretation of the vision as a whole.  The author leans toward the former.

while I was among the exiles - There have been several theories of Ezekiel's work, including 1) that he worked completely in Palestine, 2) that he was called in Babylon and then went to Palestine and back to Babylon, or 3) that he worked entirely in Babylon.52  If one takes the book seriously, the milieu of Ezekiel's life work was in Chaldea.

at the River Kebar - This was previously thought to be the Nahr el-Khabur in northern Mesopotamia, which is, however, not in Chaldea.  Recent excavations have indicated that it is probably to be identified with the Naru Kabari, one of the great Babylonian canals.53  This is thought to be comparable with the modern Satt-en-nil.54

the heavens were opened to me - This signifies an opening of the prophet's mind to heavenly things.  Later, John, the Revelator sees a door opened in heaven.  (Revelation 4:1) The author of the book of Enoch sees the heavens opened before viewing heavenly things.55

visions of God - The employment of the genitive here leaves open three possible interpretations.  Ezekiel either saw visions given by God, or visions which were a view of God (or God's glory), or both.  Cooke, in ICC, suggests that the visions means that he saw the appearance of God's glory.  The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary suggests that this means both,56  indicating that the following vision is a theophany (which it is, although this does not necessarily have to indicate it).  Paul Auvray supports the other view by his translation "visions divines".57 The latter seems more probable, as in the rest of the vision, Ezekiel is very careful when referring to a sight of the glory of Yahweh.  Also, if either of the views suggested for the "thirtieth year" is accepted, "divine visions" would refer to the whole of the prophet's prophetic work.

fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin - The exiles apparently dated all their events from the exile of their king, whom they hoped would be restored to the throne.  Ezekiel, at least, dates his visions from this event, which certainly would have had a profound effect on his life.

the word of Yahweh came certainly to Ezekiel - If one views verse one as referring to Ezekiel's entire lifework, this would express the specific vision which is to be recounted here.

the priest - The Ezekiel is here stated to be a priest indicates this as one of the few times when the functions of prophet and priest were combined in one man.58

in the land of the Chaldeans - These words make one of the major points in the vision.  The Israelites had grown used to referring to Yahweh as a sort of local deity.59 The people in the homeland thought of themselves as better than those who had been exiled.60  Ezekiel's receipt of this vision in Chaldea, as well as the content of the vision itself indicated that Yahweh was not a local deity, and that he had not forsaken the exiles.

and the hand of Yahweh was upon him there - Zimmerli notes that the form of introduction of the prophetic message in Ezekiel is markedly similar to that used in preclassical prophecy (Samuel, Kings).  The expression "the hand of Yahweh was upon me" is most frequently found in these books.  Ezekiel shows no compunction about stating that he has been taken control of by the Spirit or by Yahweh, an aversion which Zimmerli finds in the time of some of the later prophets such as Hosea.  (In Hosea 8:7 the people say, "The man of the Spirit is mad." a windstorm - Andrew Blackwood, Jr.(62) discusses this as an actual windstorm coming from the north, and probably a dust-storm.  Rather than re-entering his household as would be normal under the circumstances, Ezekiel remained outside and there had his vision.  It is doubtful, however, than an actual storm is intended here.  Ezekiel has already stated that he had "divine visions", and that the hand of the Lord was upon him.  The sight of the storm came after the "hand of Yahweh was upon him, and should therefore be considered part of the vision.

from the north - There are three viewers with regard to these words.  Cooke,(63) in ICC states that this is just the direction in which the prophet happened to look.  He mentions the second view, espoused by Gresaman in "Eschatologie" that the reference is here to the Babylonian "home of the gods" in the north.  The third view is taken in the Seventh- day Adventist Bible Commentary, namely that the Assyrian and Babylonian armies approached Palestine from the north.64  To the objection that Ezekiel was in Babylon it may be mentioned that an exile's heart and mind turn most often to his homeland.  Either the first or the third view will fit in with the remaining exegesis of the passage, but the second does not appear likely.  The author tends to the third.

fire flashing - Flashing translates mithlaqachath which the KJV translated as "infolding itself".  Holladay65 lists "flash here and there", which agrees with the Greek translation which Arndt and Gingrich66  translate "flash or gleam like lightning.  Fire flashing like lightning seems to be a very appropriate thing to see in a windstorm accompanied by clouds.

it had a gleaming around (it) - Also to be expected if the preceding is true.  This presents an interesting, and significant picture of a storm accompanied by a beautiful light.

like the gleam of brass - Brass translates the Hebrew which was translated the Septuagint.  The English alternates, "amber", and 'electrum" are both translations of the Greek.  G.  R. Driver does not believe that either amber or electrum are probable. He suggests the translation "brass", finding the imagery in a brass foundry.  The word is used only in Ezekiel 1:4,27; 8:2. It clearly indicates a brilliant substance.

four living creatures - It is to be noted that these are in the midst of a storm cloud.

form of a man - The first impression upon observing these creatures is that the form is upright, and generally like that of a human being.  It becomes obvious in the next few verses that this resemblance to a man is very general.

four faces.  ff - The creatures each have four faces, and four wings, but have two feet--at least there is one concession to human form.  Their hands were under their wings.  From here to verse 14, rather than dealing verse by verse, we will deal with four threads of thought separately.

Everything in these verses seems to center around one phrase in verse 9.  "They turned not as they went," Viewed in relation to this, the other factors become much more clear.

The legs of the creatures are straight, and the soles of their feet are like those of a calf.  The purpose in this appears to be to facilitate the motion of the creatures in any direction without turning.  Human beings must turn in the direction to which their toes point (or vice versa!) in order to make any significant progress.  The feet of these creatures were straight, so that it would not be more difficult for them to move in any one direction than in another.

Their hands were located under their wings.  The more mystical interpretation of these hands, that they are the hands of Yahweh, is useful as a theological point, but is unlikely as an original exegesis of this passage.  Chapter 10:8 leans the other way in terms of interpretation, where the hand cannot be that of the living creatures.

Their wings were each joined to one another.  It is possible that they are joined at the base, but from verse 11 it seems that they were joined at the tip, and that the four living creatures formed a square below the vault.  This seems possibly inconsistent with verse 14, where the living creatures go and return.  Possibly when the living creatures were all under the vault their wings would be touching at the ends.  The other two wings would cover their bodies.

The four faces are basically intended to continue to illustrate the ability of these creatures to move and to see in any of four directions.  This would be complementary to their straight feet, They would not only have no difficulty with their legs and feet, but they could see in whatever direction they cared to move.

The form of the faces, however, presents some interesting problems of interpretation.  There have been a number of interpretations suggested.  Eichrodt69  states that they are merely intended to show the combinations of various abilities and powers in the creatures.  Cooke70  repeats the explanation of the Rabbis "'man is exalted among creatures; the eagle is exalted among birds; the ox is exalted among domestic animals; the lion is exalted among wild beasts; and all of them have received dominion, and greatness has been given them, yet they are stationed below the chariot of the Holy One,'" The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary71  provides three alternates, although not supporting any one of them.  1) "The human face is the highest symbol of the Eternal, the lion, a symbol of sovereignty; the ox, a kind of sovereignty, together with a symbol of strength made subservient to human uses; and the eagle, en emblem of kingly power." Or 2) the faces are the symbols of the four evangelists .  .  .  or 3) According to later Jewish tradition, the four forms, taking Ezekiel's order are the standards generally borne by the tribes of Reuben, Judah, Ephraim, and Dan when they encamped in the wilderness (Num.  2:2)." It is stated there that the second has merely an imaginative foundation, which is also witnessed to by the variations in the interpretation of which of the four evangelists each face represents, Irenaeus interpreted the faces to mean: Man - Matthew, lion - John, Ox - Luke, eagle - Mark. Jerome and some others interpreted them as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John being represented by the man, lion, ox, and eagle respectively while Augustine transposes Matthew and Mark, A vision representing the four evangelists would have little meaning for Ezekiel, so it seems unlikely that this would be the proper interpretation.

Dr.  Leslie Hardinge72  has recently taken up the third of these explanations, with some adaptation, but the lack of proof for the arrangement and identification of the standards still tends to detract from this explanation.  In the context of the vision, which we will shortly see as being to show the sovereignty of God, it seems that the most probable identification of these creatures is to show the sovereignty of God over the various branches of the creation.(73) In any case, the main necessity for the continued interpretation of the vision is that the creatures could move in any direction which they chose.

wherever the wind was about to go, they went - The choice of translation here is difficult, Should this be wind, or should it be Spirit.  There is nothing in the context to indicate which. Perhaps Ezekiel was simply commenting that the creatures remained within the cloud and windstorm.  However, it is important to note here that in whichever case, the creatures remain directly under the control of the being on the throne.  We begin here with the series of statements which show the incredible unity of movement of this entire group of beings and objects.  From the construction it is obvious that they are under the control of the one above the vault.

One peculiar and striking item in this section of the vision is the continuous use of the number four.  Blackwood(74) states that four represents the earth.  Baumann(75) states that these correspond to the four cardinal points.  It seems that the representation here is of a rule over the totality of the earth.

Verse 14.  - Many commentators believe that this entire verse is a gloss misinterpreting verse l3.  (See textual commentary.) However, it is possible to see this as simply a comment on the speed with which the living creatures performed their missions. The various textual difficulties in the text point more to our lack of knowledge of the language of the time than to the text's status.

l5-21 The Wheels - It is simpler to deal with the wheels as a complete subject than to comment on them phrase by phrase. We find that beside each living creature there is a wheel, whose "works" appear to be a "wheel within a wheel", probably intersecting each other, if we are to integrate them with the context, In this manner, we are presented.  with wheels which can move in the same manner as the living creatures--without turning as they move.  They are thus able to move in complete harmony with the living creatures.

Ezekiel spends all of verses 19-21 in stating and restating the unity of movement which is here presented.  He also states that the wheels have a "living spirit" or "spirit of life".  They are thus seen to be not simply mechanisms but so to speak, more "living beings".  They are also full of eyes, representing perception.  The constant harmony of motion must have been impressive.


Copyright © 1979 Henry Neufeld.  All Rights Reserved

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