By Shelley Neese

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Welcome to Bible Fiber, where we are encountering the textures and shades of the biblical tapestry. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.

Finally, after in-depth studies of the twelve Minor Prophets and two postexilic reformers, we are starting our first Major Prophet. I asked listeners which book they found the most daunting in their own personal study. By far, the most frequently mentioned book was Ezekiel.

If you have ever dipped your toe in Ezekiel’s waters, you know why the book can feel unapproachable: the quirky symbolic gestures, the bizarre visions, complex allegories, and harsh oracles. However, Ezekiel has also carved out a permanent place in the imagination of every Bible reader with his visions of God’s throne chariot, the valley of dry bones, and the apocalyptic battles with Gog from the land of Magog.

Indeed, the prophetic book contains multitudes. We are going to use everything in our toolbox to study Ezekiel. Going chapter by chapter, we will consider the prophet’s historical, social, and geographical context to better understand his teaching. When appropriate, I will offer the traditional Jewish interpretation of difficult passages and the traditional Christian interpretation.


Most modern scholars agree that a single author composed the entire book of Ezekiel with only a small amount of editorial activity. Unlike Isaiah or Zechariah, scholars have not scrutinized and divided the book into different authors. Its style and theme stay consistent throughout, as does the literary structure and organizational scheme.

Ezekiel wrote the book entirely in first person, chronologically describing each of his divine encounters as if he was keeping a spiritual journal. The book’s precise dates place all the oracles between 593 and 571 BCE. Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry spanned those 22 years. As an exile, he had firsthand knowledge of the challenges the Jews faced in Babylon that would be difficult for postexilic editors to know intuitively if they had not experienced captivity.

Ezekiel does not include prophecies or references to historical events that occurred after 571 BCE. This absence suggests Ezekiel completed the book decades before King Cyrus conquered the Babylonian Empire and allowed Jewish deportees the right to return to their homeland.

According to Josephus, Ezekiel wrote his prophecies in two books. Most likely, Josephus was referring to Ezekiel’s first twenty-four chapters as one book and the last twenty-four chapters of Ezekiel as the second book. The book’s first half contained dark predictions of the Babylonian attack and the destruction of Jerusalem. After news reached Babylon of Jerusalem’s fall, the prophet switched from a stern message of judgment to one of hope, promising the deportees’ future return and the restoration of Jerusalem.

Little is known about the historical Ezekiel, other than that he was the son of Buzi and born into the priestly line in Jerusalem (1:3). In 597 BCE, the Judean King Jehoiachin followed in the footsteps of previous kings in Jerusalem and rebelled against his Babylonian overlord. In retaliation, King Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem and captured Jehoiachin along with 10,000 other Jerusalem elites. Nebuchadnezzar’s army carted the Judeans off to Babylon so they could no longer plan an insurrection (2 Kings 24:14-17). All they left behind in Jerusalem were the poorest people of the land. A selective deportation, Ezekiel was among the temple elites taken into captivity. The Babylonian invaders robbed the temple treasury and looted the palace, but they stopped short of destroying the temple and city. That happened a decade later, in 597 BCE, after another attempted Judean rebellion.

During Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry, he never returned to Jerusalem, other than in his visions. His primary audience was the exiled community in Babylon. As an exile, his job was to minister to the exiles, creating a new category of biblical prophet.

Inaugural Vision

The book of Ezekiel opens with two superscriptions, one autobiographical and one editorial. The first is the original opening written by Ezekiel: “In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the River Chebar, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God” (1:1). The second introduction is an editorial insertion, the only lines written in the third-person voice. It said, “On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi in the land of the Chaldeans by the River Chebar, and the hand of the Lord was on him there” (1:2-3). Besides this insertion, the entire book was written in first-person.

Perhaps Ezekiel required two introductions since he wrote the original one to his fellow exiles that already knew his personal context. When a later audience read Ezekiel’s oracles, they required more clarification about his place and time, so an editor inserted a more specific introduction.

Both superscriptions identify the date 31 July 593 BCE as the start of Ezekiel’s prophetic career. The editorial superscription parenthetically offered a reference point that all Judeans would understand: the number of years King Jehoiachin had been in exile. In Ezekiel’s original introduction, he generically wrote “in the thirtieth year,” but to this day, neither Jews nor Christians are certain what Ezekiel originally meant by “in the thirtieth year” since he did not include a reference point.

Prophets often dated their oracles in relation to historic and widely remembered events. For example, the prophet Amos dated his oracle to “two years before the earthquake” (Amos 1:1). Before the exile, prophets often dated their oracles regarding the reigning king in Judah. For example, Zephaniah’s book opened, “in the days of King Josiah” (Zeph. 1:1). Because the second superscription clarified that Ezekiel’s vision occurred in 593 BCE, rabbis counted back thirty years in search of a noteworthy event. It just so happened thirty years before Ezekiel’s commissioning, King Josiah launched his campaign of religious reforms, purging pagan altars and idolatrous priests. Perhaps Ezekiel meant to date his commissioning in reference to the start of Josiah’s revival. That was the rabbis’ best guess.

Origin, an early Christian theologian, was unsatisfied with the speculative Jewish theory and offered a different explanation. Origen asserted that “the thirtieth year” referred to Ezekiel’s own age. The thirtieth birthday was a significant milestone in the life of a priest because that was when they could begin their service in the temple (Num. 4:30). If Origin was correct, God commissioned Ezekiel as a prophet at the same time he would have been ordained into the priesthood for a lifetime of temple service. Since Ezekiel could not enter God’s presence in the consecrated earthly sanctum in Jerusalem, God kindly allowed him a glimpse of his heavenly throne room. Ancient peoples were not in the habit of making a big deal about birthdays, so Origin’s theory is a stretch, but if true, it is quite meaningful.

Whatever the thirty-year reference point, God chose Ezekiel for the prophetic office five years after his deportation from Jerusalem. On that day, Ezekiel experienced his first mystical apparition. Ezekiel named the exact location where the first divine apparition occurred. He was standing by the Chebar River in the land of the Chaldeans (a term the biblical authors used interchangeably with Babylonian). The Babylonians had a famously elaborate canal system that channeled water from the Euphrates and Tigris. Most likely, the Chebar River was the irrigation canal closest to the settlement of Judean exiles. Ezekiel did not explain if he was praying by the river or cleansing in the waters, but this accords with the Jewish conception of pagan lands as contaminating. Fresh flowing water would have been important to the priest if he was trying to stay ritually pure.


As Ezekiel stood by the water’s edge, a windstorm blew in from the north, directing the prophet’s gaze upward to the opening of the heavens. What he witnessed was supernatural, a glimpse of God’s throne room in the unseen realm normally shielded from humans.

In the middle of the flashing fire, there was “something like gleaming amber” (1:4). Describing God’s throne chariot, Ezekiel exhausted every synonym in his word bank for bright, flashing, radiant, glowing, and fiery. As he tried to relay the features of the apparition, his words failed him. As a result, the grammar and syntax in Chapter 1 is halting and garbled.

From the fire, four hybrid creatures emerged (1:5). The living creatures had human bodies with four-sided faces. The front face was human, the right face was a lion, and the left was an ox. The back face was an eagle. One proposed interpretation of the faces is that the lion represented strength; the eagle symbolized majesty; the ox stood for functionality; and the man represented reason. Alternatively, the combination of faces typified God’s four highest categories of creation. With eyes literally in the back of their heads, the quartet of creatures moved without the need to contort their bodies. In the prophets, the number four stood for the four cardinal directions; God was omnipresence.

The four-faced creatures had two sets of wings. When they raised the top set of wings, they touched each other and formed a canopy (1:9). To Ezekiel and his hearers, such imagery pointed to the protective cherubim stationed by the Ark of the Covenant in the temple’s Holy of Holies. In Chapter 10, Ezekiel parses the mythical creatures again, but that time instead of “living creatures,” he used the word “cherubim.” In the Garden of Eden, God enlisted cherubim into his divine service to protect the garden’s entrance and armed them with flaming swords (Gen. 3:24).

In Ezekiel’s vision, the hybrid creatures had a second set of wings with human hands underneath. The vibrations of the creatures wings made a powerful sound, like rushing water or an invading army (1:24). The prophet awkwardly piled on the allegorical language for the flood of sights and sounds he experienced.

The legs and feet of the creatures were like bull legs with hooves. However, their unencumbered movement came not from their bovine legs or powerful wings, but from their chariot wheels. These chariot wheels were not inanimate objects like one would expect. The spirit of God empowered even the wheels, enabling the creatures and chariot to all move in harmony (1:20).

Within each wheel was a small wheel, a description that is very difficult to visualize, but adds another dimension to an already multidimensional image. Depending on the translation, Ezekiel described the wheel rims as inlaid with eyes or stones in the shape of eyes. Either way, the eye-lined rims add to the otherworldly nature of the scene and the feeling of God’s omniscience (1:18).

Ezekiel’s attention moved to the vast expanse over the creatures’ heads (1:22). Ezekiel used the same word to describe the expanse that Yahweh used in Genesis when he commanded into existence a separation of the “waters from the waters” (Gen. 1:6). In Hebrew, the word is raqia, often translated as dome. Otherwise lacking for the language to describe the vision, the prophet relied on similes, often repeating the phrases “appearance of” and “figure like.” To Ezekiel, the expanse over the chariot was “shining like crystal” (1:22). Above the sparkling crystal, he saw a transparent platform supporting a throne-like object made from something “like sapphire” (1:26).

Ezekiel specified that the form on the throne was “like” a human, but his upper body radiated like gleaming amber and his lower body was ablaze but not consumed (1:27). Ezekiel explained, “it was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (1:28). He did not see God directly, but the manifestation of God on his throne. Either way, the experience left Ezekiel trembling and in shock for a week (2:15). Even though the Hebrew scriptures had other theophanies, with God taking on a humanoid form, the prophet knew he was entering dangerous territory. Although the Genesis creation narrative explained that God created man in his image, biblical authors proceeded with caution when describing God in human terms. In relaying visions of God, there was a fine line between reverence and blasphemy.

While the images of multifaced winged creatures may seem bizarre to us as modern readers, Ezekiel and his exilic listeners were familiar with composite creatures in the art and icons of the ancient Near East. Winged bulls and winged lions with human heads were a common motif in Assyrian reliefs. For example, archaeologists unearthed colossal winged composite figures guarding the entrance to a royal palace in the Assyrian city of Nimrud. One statue had a bull body with a human head and the other had a lion body with a human head. Most often, the Assyrians depicted composite creatures as throne supports for deities or they stationed them as protective guards of temples. What would have shocked and terrified Ezekiel, however, was that the creatures in his apparition were not static statues or artistic depictions; they were living animated creatures. Yahweh’s powerful and roaming guards were merely one more way that he transcended everything Ezekiel witnessed in Babylon.

The overall message in Ezekiel’s vision was that Yahweh was on the move. He was not back in Jerusalem, weakened from the attacks of opposing deities. Yahweh appeared to Ezekiel in the mode of divine warrior, riding on the clouds and mounted on a fiery throne chariot. As Lord of heaven and earth, Yahweh invaded the land of their captivity. Nowhere was outside of his authority. Even if the throne chariot terrified Ezekiel, it was also a relief because that meant the deportees were not abandoned and alone. Their covenant God had not forsaken them.

As Ezekiel took in the whole of the fiery enthronement atop supernatural creatures, he compared the image to the radiance of a rainbow. He said, “like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all around” (1:28). For his listeners, he called up a reminder of God’s promise that he might judge his creation, but he would never again erase it.

Practitioners of Jewish mysticism, also known as Kabbalists, revere Ezekiel’s throne chariot scene as a literary Holy of Holies. Only the initiated can access or contemplate the power of this foundational text. Kabbalists study the details of Ezekiel’s vision, mining it for symbolism and allegory that reveal attributes of the heavenly and cosmic realms. The practitioners of this belief contemplate Ezekiel’s vision for hours as they try their own internal spiritual ascent.

Rabbi Maimonides took the opposite approach as Kabbalists to Ezekiel 1. Maimonides was a twelfth-century medieval philosopher, known for his promotion of a rational and intellectual form of Judaism over the mystical. Maimonides worried that when mystics contemplated Ezekiel 1’s physical attributes of God, they were focusing on the wrong part of the story. He believed the prophet meant the throne chariot descriptions as allegorical or symbolic, and it was pointless to take the vision too literally.

In modern times, Ezekiel 1 elicits new interpretations every day because of the endless nature of internet theorizing. UFO enthusiasts regard Ezekiel’s descriptions of radiating objects, high-tech wheels, and glowing metal as pointing to objects from outer space. To them, Ezekiel did not see a vision of God by the Chebar River. It was an extraterrestrial encounter.

I would encourage you in your own reading of Ezekiel to be open to the supernatural but also aware that Ezekiel’s description of his vision was informed by his own experience with ancient imperial artforms and biblical depictions of God’s likeness. You are free to prayerfully contemplate his description of God’s radiance, but also free to analyze the throne chariot for what would have been familiar and strange to the prophet.

In next week’s episode, we are reading Ezekiel 2:1–3:11, the commissioning narratives. It comes as no surprise that the unexpected visionary experience left Ezekiel stunned for a week (3:15). However, the prophet transitioned from mere spectator to a participant in the dialogue with Yahweh as he received a special commission into the prophetic office. Yahweh’s power extended well beyond Jerusalem, and so did the gift of prophecy.

Thank you for listening and please continue to take part in this Bible Reading Challenge. And please keep the nation of Israel in your prayers as the country continues to accomplish its war goal of releasing the remaining hostages and eradicating Hamas. I have been thinking a lot about how Ezekiel was also a hostage living in exile and what better prophet to read and study as we empathize with the Jews who are once again living their nightmare.

For all the Biblical references each week, please see the show transcript on our blog or by signing up for our emails at I do not say all the references in the podcast but they are all in the transcript.

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Shabbat Shalom