The Spaceships of Ezekiel
by Tim Callahan
A perennial example of a supposed ancient record of extraterrestrial contact, used by authors asserting that alien astronauts visited the Earth in antiquity, is to be found in the first chapter of Ezekiel, in which that prophet, in exile near Babylon, recounts a vision (Ezek. 1:4–28):
As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness round about it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming bronze. And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the form of men, but each had four faces, and each had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under the wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another; they went straightforward, without turning as they went.
As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man in front; the four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle at the back. Such were their faces. And their wings were spread out above; each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. And each went straightforward; wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. In the midst of the living creatures was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches moving to and fro, like a flash of lightning. And the living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning.
Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel upon the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction; their appearance was like the gleaming of chrysolite; and the four had the same likeness, their construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel. When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went. The four wheels rims were so high that they were dreadful and their rims were full of eyes round about. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.
Over the heads of the living creatures there was the likeness of a firmament, shining like crystal, spread out above their heads. And under the firmament their wings were stretched out straight, one toward another; and each creature had two wings covering its body. And when they went, I heard the sound of their wings like the sound of many waters, like the thunder of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of a host; when they stood still, they let down their wings. And there came a voice from above the firmament over their heads; when they stood still they let down their wings.
And above the firmament over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness as it were of a human form. And upward from what had the appearance of his loins I saw as were gleaming bronze, like the appearance of fire enclosed round about; and downward from what had the appearance of his loins I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was a brightness round about him. Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about.
Such was the appearance of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face and I heard the voice of one speaking.
What most often strikes UFO enthusiasts as reminiscent of a spaceship, other than the fact that everything that’s in it is airborne, are the wheels. Before dealing with those specifically, however, let us consider the vision as a whole and see if the imagery of the ancient religions of the Near East isn’t a better fit as the source of Ezekiel’s vision than the imagery of a spaceship.
First of all, Ezekiel says he saw the apparition as a cloud coming on a wind from the north. The word translated as “north” is, in the original Hebrew, zaphon, a word that means “hidden” or “dark” and is only associated with the north as being a quarter of the compass that was gloomy and unknown. To the north of the civilized world in the perspective of the ancient near east lay wild barbaric lands out of which such nomadic peoples as the Cimmerians and the Scythians erupted to wreak havoc on the settled world. Thus the portent of the cloud is ominous or mysterious. However, zaphon is also the name of a locality, Mt. Zaphon in Lebanon, the home of the Canaanite gods. The patriarch of the Canaanite pantheon, El, was merged with Yahweh and is referred to in the Bible in the plural / intensive form Elohim. In fact the two names were often coupled as Yahweh Elohim, translated in the Bible as “the LORD GOD.” In co-opting El’s name, Yahweh also co-opted his wife, Asherah, whose image is constantly being removed from the Temple by strictly Yahwist kings such as Hezekiah and Josiah (2 Kgs. 18:4 and 23:6). Yahweh also would have been seen by his worshipers as taking over the sacred mountain of the Canaanite gods, Mt. Zaphon. Thus, the cloud that approaches from the north (zaphon) is both mysterious and holy.
Next, let us consider the living creatures within the flaming cloud. Though having the form of men, they have two sets of wings, four faces, and feet like calves’ hooves. This chimera-like anatomy has been glossed over by those seeing Ezekiel’s version as a spaceship. Their explanation is that the four faces are the faces of different alien beings looking out of different windows of the spacecraft. Given Ezekiel’s primitive mind-set, the argument goes, he certainly couldn’t have understood what he was seeing. However, for someone who was overawed by indescribable space aliens, Ezekiel was very precise and particular in describing what he saw.
Furthermore, his imagery fits that of the myths of the ancient near east. In an ancient relief from the Assyrian city of Nineveh, the god Ninurta is shown with four wings, just as the beings in Ezekiel’s vision have four wings. The wings of the four beings in the vision touched each other, which calls to mind the description of the cherubim in the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s temple in 1 Kings 6:27, 28:
He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house; and the wings of the cherubim were spread out so that a wing of one touched the one wall and the wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; their other wings touched each other in the middle of the house. And he overlaid the cherubim with gold.
As with the cherubim flanking the Holy of Holies, the wings of the living creatures in Ezekiel’s vision touch each other. Solomon overlays the cherubim with gold, while the living creatures sparkle like burnished bronze. As to the four faces of the creatures in Ezekiel’s vision, these, too, hearken back to the cherubim and to Solomon’s temple. Lions and bulls are frequently mentioned as part of the imagery of the temple interior (1 Kings 7:25, 29, 36). Cherubim were often depicted as having men’s heads, the bodies of either lions or bulls — sometimes a lion’s fore parts and a bull’s hindquarters (hence the calf’s feet of living creatures of Ezekiel 1:7) — and the wings of eagles sprouting from their lion or bull shoulders.
The symbolism expressed in this depiction of the cherubim is one of supremacy: The eagle is the foremost bird, the lion the foremost wild beast, and the bull the foremost domestic beast. All of these, coupled with human intelligence (symbolized by the man’s head, or in Ezekiel’s vision, a face) were indications of the godlike power of the cherub. This word in the original Hebrew form is krubh, which is related to the Akkadian karibu, meaning an intermediary between gods and men, a divine messenger. The word for messenger in Greek, hence the word used to designate divine messengers in the Christian scriptures, which were written in Greek, was angelos. So the living creatures of Ezekiel’s vision were not bizarre four-faced space aliens. Nor were they a depiction of different alien species looking out of the portholes of a spaceship. They were angels.
The thrones of Phoenician kings often had arm rests in the shape of cherubim, signifying divine sponsorship of the king, and God is often depicted in the Bible as enthroned on the cherubim. That this is precisely what Ezekiel relates in his vision is made clear by the final description in this passage (Ezek. 1:26–28):
And above the firmament over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness as it were of a human form. And upward from what had the appearance of his loins I saw as were gleaming bronze, like the appearance of fire enclosed round about; and downward from what had the appearance of his loins I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was a brightness round about him. Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. Such was the appearance of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face and I heard the voice of one speaking.
God sits enthroned on a firmament resting on the cherubim. All of the symbolism fits that of the ancient near east. The firmament over the living creatures, upon which God sits enthroned, represents the firmament of heaven — the dome of the sky — to which the stars were fixed and over the surface of which the sun and moon traveled according to the ancient near eastern model of the cosmos. If anyone has any doubts that Ezekiel’s vision is of God enthroned upon the cherubim, consider what Ezekiel says in the final description in this passage (verse 28): “Such was the appearance of the glory of the LORD.” In the very next verse, Ezek 2:1, the voice of the one enthroned says to Ezekiel: “Son of man, stand upon your feet, and I will speak to you.” Always, in the Book of Ezekiel, when God speaks to the prophet, he opens by addressing him as “son of man” (ben adam in the original Hebrew).
Yet what is the significance of the wheels? As noted in the Anchor Bible’s commentary on Ezekiel, wheels before the invention of spokes were small solid disks with large axles. The large axle would have the appearance of a wheel within a wheel. While the wheels of chariots and most other vehicles of Ezekiel’s time had spokes, wheeled stands used within the temple often used the small old-fashioned wheels of earlier days. That the rims of the wheels were full of eyes again evokes the supernatural. The wheels are more metaphor than mechanical detail. So the wheels were yet another reference to temple imagery and holiness and were not flying saucers.
However, to those who see Ezekiel’s vision as a UFO sighting, the phrase “a wheel within a wheel” suggests machinery. The wheel within a wheel is rendered as a “wheel in the middle of a wheel” in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, the word in Hebrew being tavek, meaning “to sever” or a bisection, in other words “in the center of.” In his 1970 book Chariots of the Gods? Erich von Daniken wrote (p. 56): “Ezekiel says that each wheel was in the middle of another. An optical illusion! To our present way of thinking what he saw was one of those special vehicles the Americans use in the desert and swampy terrain.”
Von Daniken went on to say that the vehicle was possibly a version of an amphibious helicopter. But are these wheels made from some form of rubber, as we would expect in such a vehicle? No. According to Ezekiel’s vision they have the appearance of chrysolite (Revised Standard Version or RSV) or beryl (KJV). Chrysolite is a yellow-green form of the mineral olivine and is sometimes used as a gemstone. Beryl is also a gemstone. It is noted for its hardness and comes in the form of green, yellow, pink, or white six-sided prisms. That means that light shines through it. The actual Hebrew word translated as chrysolite or beryl is tarshiysh, which can as well mean topaz (another yellow, transparent jewel) or merely a gem. The word is identical to the name of the city of Tarshish in Spain that symbolically stood for the uttermost west, or the ends of the Earth. So the substance called tarshiysh meant any exotic gemstone from far away. It seems odd that a machine that might be a form of amphibious helicopter would have wheels made of a yellowish translucent crystal.
Once we take away the “wheels within wheels” reference is there anything in Ezekiel’s vision that sounds like alien machinery? Possibly, depending on how certain words are translated. For example, “The creatures’ feet are not so much the feet of calves as they are those of bull-calves or young bulls.” In Hebrew the word is egal. But Hebrew has few words, and those words have many meanings. The ancient Israelites understood which meanings to use from how the word was used in a sentence, but the meanings aren’t always clear to us. Egal can also mean “round.” Since the beings’ legs were straight, could it be that the feet were round because the straight legs were actually metal columns with round bases? How can we know whether or not this is the case?
To answer that question we must remember that parts of the description of what Ezekiel saw can’t be viewed as separate from the rest of it, and we have to see if the images in the vision relate to anything else in the Bible. If the legs are metal columns, wouldn’t we expect the creature’s wings to also be like aircraft wings? In fact, they don’t seem to be either fixed wings or a picture of a whirling Helicopter propeller. The Hebrew word translated as “wings” is kanaph, meaning either a bird wing, an edge, or a flap of clothing.
If those who want to see the living creatures as space aliens would read more of Ezekiel they would find an almost identical vision in Ezekiel 10. There the prophet identifies the beings as cherubim, and says in verse 15 that they were the living beings he saw in his first vision.
Finally, let us consider what Moshe Greenberg said in his commentary on Ezekiel, 1–20, volume 22 of the Anchor Bible (p. 58):
Virtually every component of Ezekiel’s vision can thus be derived from Israelite tradition supplemented by neighboring iconography — none of the above cited elements of which need have been outside the range of the ordinary Israelite.
Ezekiel’s vision, so exotic and otherworldly to us, was something any of his compatriots in exile in Babylon would have understood easily. In fact, it is only when the vision is rendered in translation, rather than in the original Hebrew, coupled with modern readers’ unfamiliarity with the iconography of the ancient near east, that makes it possible for us today to mistake angels for spaceships.
- Greenberg, Moshe (commentator). 1983. Ezekiel, 1–20, Anchor Bible. Vol. 22. Albright, William Foxwell and David Noel Freedman (General Editors). Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co. Inc.
- May, Herbert G. and Bruce Metzger (eds). 1962. The Oxford Annotated Bible (RSV). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Strong, James. 1890. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Gordonville, TN: Dugan Publishers Inc.
- von Daniken, Erich. 1970. Chariots of the Gods New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.