Ezekiel: The Man on the Throne
What is God?
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The Bible is filled with physical sounding references to God. It is impossible to avoid these allusions no matter how hard we try. God has a face, eyes, arms, hands, a mouth, nostrils to flair in anger, fingers to write with, and loins to gird. Man is in the image of God, which gives us a pretty good, if misleading idea of what God looks like. Moses sees God from the back. Isaiah sees God on a throne surrounded by angels (Isaiah 6:1). The Israelites see God and with what looks like sapphire under his feet (Exodus 24:10). Rabbinic descriptions only augment the physical images. There are tresses on His head which is crowned with a tallit and Tefillin. God appears as a man dressed in white in the temple. God appears in dreams, in visions, in clouds, and in fire.
Perhaps the most vivid of the physical images is found in the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel. ‘On the 15th of the month, which was during the 5th year of the exile of King Yoyachin; the word of Hashem came to Ezekiel the son of Buzi, the Priest, in the land of the Kasdim (Babylonians) on the river Kevar, and the hand of Hashem fell upon him there. And I saw, and behold, a storm wind came from the north in a great cloud, inflamed with fire and glowing all around, and from its midst something like the hashmal (some sort of glow) from the fire. And from its midst the image of four living creatures, and this was their appearance – they had the look of a man. There were four faces to each one, and four wings to each. Their legs were straight and the soles of their feet were like the hoof of a calf, with sparks like glowing copper’ (v. 2-7).
It goes on like this for another 18 verses. The living creatures are described in great detail – they have the faces of a man and a lion on the right side, and an ox on the left, and an eagle somewhere else. They glow like coals, lightning sparks around them; there are wheels reaching to the earth, and wheels within wheels. The sky above them looks like awesome ice. Ezekiel hears a sound like crashing waves. In verse 26 we read what was beyond even that: ‘Above the sky that was above their heads was the appearance of a throne that looked like sapphire, and on the image of the throne was the image of the appearance of a man on it from above. And I saw something like hashmal that appeared like fire surrounding it from the appearance of his loins and above, and from the appearance of his loins and below I saw the appearance of fire and glow around it. Like the appearance of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the glow around him, it was the appearance of the image of the glory of Hashem; and I saw and I fell on my face and I heard a voice speaking…’ (v.26-28). This chapter ends right here and stands apart virtually by itself in this book. In fact it is unique in all of the Tanakh.
This chapter is traditionally known as the ‘Work of the Chariot’, even though there is no chariot in the vision. It has become the prototype for most mystical speculation in Judaism. Virtually any Jewish mystical journey will in some way point back to the ‘Chariot’ vision as its template. Maimonides used it as the general term for his understanding of the interaction between angels and the physical world. It would be impossible to over-emphasize the importance of this vision to future Jewish thought, in spite of the fact that nobody really claims to understand it.
There is a lot to examine here, but we are going to concentrate on one thing only – the image of God that emerges from all this. The first verse describes this as ‘visions of Elohim’, so it makes sense that it should present an image of God. But what is the image? The final verses of the chapter are the most vivid, but also the most perplexing. Verse 26 introduces the sapphire-looking throne into the vision. It also is the single place where the ‘image of the likeness of a man’ is stated. Verse 27 has the hashmal above his waist and fire glowing below it. Then verse 28 seems to clarify what this ‘man’ was: ‘Like the appearance of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the glow around him, and the appearance of the image of the glory of Hashem’. What does this verse mean? Could it mean like it seems to mean, even though it smacks of heresy?
Interpreting these verses must be done with great trepidation and hesitation. Indeed the Talmud (Hagiga 13a) states that permission was not given to speak about the matters above the ‘sky’ (verses 26-28). Rashi, the greatest of the medieval commentators writes that we cannot even contemplate it. But as we all know, the best way to get something read is to ban it. The best way to inspire thinking about a difficult idea is to state that it is forbidden to contemplate. We’re going to contemplate it.
These ‘living creatures’, these angels, carried Ezekiel’s vision up through the heavens until he was able to see above the heavens. He saw the vision of the throne. Then he saw this ‘image of the likeness of a man’ on the throne from above. He didn’t actually see a physical man. In fact, he didn’t even see a physical throne. In fact, it isn’t clear that he saw anything in between when he hears the sound of the wings and when he sees the hashmal surrounding the throne. It was all images and likenesses and appearances. But it did have at least an image of a likeness. And that image of a likeness was of a man.
This is also the case for the glow that was surrounding the throne. It was visible but not quite real. At this point the punch line kicks in: ‘It was the appearance of the image of the glory of Hashem’. What he saw, or imagined, was three levels removed from actuality. ‘Appearance’, ‘image’, ‘glory’ – the vision seems to go out of its way to describe something that wasn’t ‘real’ in the normal sense. But what was it then?
So the ‘man on the throne’ is now the ‘Man on the throne’. That man had the ‘appearance of the image of the glory of Hashem’. To old Chumash prose this might seem like small potatoes. We’ve discussed the shechina, God’s glory, God’s holiness, angels that take on some godly appearance, a burning bush that God appeared in, and a few other things that might make Ezekiel’s vision seem distant and blurred. But none of them, not Moshe seeing God’s back, the Israelites seeing God, Isaiah seeing God on a throne, various people seeing God’s glory or angels, and the shechina making token appearances throughout Jewish history, actually go far as to describe the image as that of a man. This is the radical step of Ezekiel’s vision of the Chariot.
Is he just imagining this whole thing? Is this just the way he would have wanted to ‘image’ God, based on his own impressions and what he was familiar with from the Torah (man created in the image of God)? Or was this a real image that was presented to him through the vision of prophecy. We are going to take the second side – that he saw this image through prophetic insight. It still means that Hashem either created this image and presented it to him, or Hashem assumes this image. It wasn’t a photograph of God.
But this was the vision that Ezekiel was presented with. This tells us a great deal. When God allows a human being to envision what God ‘looks like’, the image is one of a man. This is not God that the person is envisioning. It is the glory of God. It isn’t even the unadulterated glory of God, but the image of the glory of God. It isn’t even the direct image of the glory of God, but the appearance of the image of the glory of God. But after cutting through all that, it is still in the image of a person. In some manner, in some mystical, insightful, prophetic manner, when we experience this image, we see a reflection of ourselves. We, in some way, are a reflection of God.
Perceiving the Image
Before anybody gets up in arms with accusations of heresy or Christianity, it would be wise to remember that in Genesis it does say quite explicitly that man was created in the image of Elohim. This means something. It may not mean that God has two hands, two feet and a Jewish nose, but it does mean that man’s image reflects the image of God in some way. Maybe it means that man creates just as God creates. Or maybe it means that man has free will like God has free will. At the very least, it means that there is a resemblance on some level.
This image here is the appearance of the image of the glory of Hashem. We are a reflection of the image of the glory of Hashem. Perhaps we alone can see this image, being as we are human beings. Perhaps other sentient beings would see their own image reflected. But we see our image. We see God’s glory reflected in us. This does not mean that God’s glory is found among all the warts and quirks found in our personalities. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But it does mean that there is some higher element of the human conscience, ‘above the sky’, surrounded by a fiery glow, sitting on a clear blue throne, that does indeed reflect God’s glory.
Ezekiel does give us clues as to where we might look for this reflection. The path to get to it will be dramatic, filled with fiery glow and sparks of lightning. It will have these wheels within wheels, reaching from the earth to up above, wheels that turn and move from here to there. It is not static. When the sky is finally reached, when the highest level is achieved, one has to go even higher. The throne is all the majesty and dignity of the human conscience – its greatest potential and its noblest aspirations. On that throne is the person. Perhaps that person is you.
There is one other factor in seeing this image. Upon seeing it, you will have to experience a spontaneous yearning to fall on your face in awe. This is not something that can be planned in advance. It cannot be faked. It is not some perfunctory religious ritual. Perhaps the actual falling on the face isn’t necessary, but the impulse to do so is imperative. If this is lacking it is the tell-tale symptom that pay dirt was not hit. Perhaps you are just looking at yourself through some internal mirror. But you are not looking at any reflection of God. The difference is as obvious as the difference between feeding the ego and experiencing wonder at being human. One is the feeling of pride, the other is feeling of awe. To gaze at the spiritual potential within is to gaze at the reflection of the glory of God.
There is an obvious danger in this image. The reflection of God’s glory may be found deep in the human conscience, but there is a lot of other stuff lying in their also. How does one find the image of God and not the image of man?
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