The Four-faced Visitors of Ezekiel

by Arthur W. Orton

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Ezekiel, they say, "saw de wheel"--but he saw somewhat more than that. And Orton suggests that what he saw made perfectly good sense. to the understanding!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

We are told from our Sunday School days that the Bible is a “living book,” the oldest of man’s written works that is read and used anew, from generation to generation. It remains “living” because we are able to find new meaning to fit our daily lives. Although it is not the usual kind of new meaning, I believe that I have found something of the sort in the very old prophesies of Ezekiel.

Bible scholars have long recognized the first chapter of Ezekiel as a strange and nearly unfathomable account of a vision. I suggest that it is strange only because it is written by a man far removed from us in time and experience, about a subject totally unfamiliar to men of his time. I do not think that this was a vision in the usual sense, nor was it meant to be mystical. This particular chapter has been called “Science fiction in the Bible” and many attempts have been made to unravel the meaning of the original author, along both spiritual and mundane lines. I am convinced that this chapter is the account of an actual happening; the landing of extraterrestial beings, reported by a careful, truthful and self-possessed observer.

I am not a student of theology and therefore you may feel that I am being presumptive in attempting to throw light on a mystery as old and well-studied as Ezekiel’s first chapter. I feel that any success that I may have in doing so will be due to the accident of my birth at the very beginning of an era when the events I have to describe are fact, or are about to become fact.

If, as I believe, this is an account of an actual encounter with men from space, I may be better able to interpret the meaning than a student of theology, who by training and interest, is looking for a theological meaning. I have worked with mechanical things, and as an instructor of aircraft mechanics for most of my adult life. During this time I have had to untangle a lot of mechanical misconceptions and misunderstandings. I think that this gives me some insight into this problem.

If you are not too familiar with the Old Testament, I suggest that you read through the first chapter of Ezekiel to get the feeling of the flow of words, and a general idea of what sort of material we will be covering. If you have done a considerable amount of reading in the Bible, I am sure you will notice at once how different and “un-Bible-like” this chapter sounds. It isn’t long. The first chapter covers little more than one page. Don’t expect to get a clear picture the first time through. It seems to have an elusive quality. About the time you feel that you have hold of a fact, it seems to be contradicted in a later verse. I am going to try to show you that this is due to your own preconceived notions of what some of the words and phrases mean. You, not Ezekiel, are supplying the contradictions.

You will see that I am not going to make excuses for the words, as written. It is my belief that those who had the task of translating the Bible from its original tongue and re-copying it through the ages were particularly careful of this chapter because they did not understand it and were afraid of damaging it.

Let us begin with the first verse of chapter one:

The Book of The Prophet EZEKIEL

803. Chapter 1

Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.

2. In the fifth day of the month, which was the fifth year of king Jehoiachin’s captivity.

3. The word of the Lord came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the Land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the Lord was there upon him.

This fixes the location of this incident on the outskirts of Bagdad. The Chebar is sometimes called “The Grand Canal of Bagdad.” Although the entire book was supposed to have been written by Ezekiel, the second and third verses sound like an editor’s note, inserted by a later writer.

4. And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.

Here is a man who had lived most of his life in arid desert country. He had probably seen whirlwinds of all kinds, from dust-devils to full-scale tornadoes. He was an accurate and honest observer, as we shall see later. If he said it was a whirlwind, it must have really been one, or at least it looked enough like one to fool him for a while. Notice that he does not say that it was high in the air, or that it came out of the sky, but, “ ... out of the north,” or toward him from the north.

The first thing that he noticed was that it had fire associated with it, a strange companion for a whirlwind. There is something strange about the fire itself. He says that it “infolds itself,” which suggests a fire of more active nature than Ezekiel would be accustomed to. The association of fire and whirlwind must have struck him as peculiar.

Also something amber colored was associated with the cloud and fire. He said that this color came “out of the midst,” which might mean that it was above the cloud and flame, or appeared as the fire and cloud subsided, or blew to one side. Considering the detail he gives in later verses, this is quite vague, as it might be if he saw it from a distance.

5. Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.

Why didn’t he say that out came four men? Remember that he is telling this to very primitive, superstitious people. He was himself bred in a time when the supernatural was taken for granted. Under these conditions he has gone about as far as he could by saying that they certainly looked like four men. He does not say here that he took them for angels or any other kind of supernatural beings.

6. And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.

This short verse is very clear, yet you wonder how a creature with four faces and four wings could possibly be taken for a man, even by you or me.

Although he does not say so, we can imply that these creatures must have advanced much closer to him after they got out of the fire and cloud, for him to be able to see so much detail.

Imagine the courage it took for him to stay put in order to observe these creatures. Notice also how objective he is, never mentioning his own feelings.

7. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass.

Each verse of the description covers one or two parts of the creatures. When Ezekiel mentions more than one part it becomes confusing, so that one verse seems to contradict another. These can usually be sorted out however. Nowhere will you find a direct contradiction.

Here he is describing the feet only. The word “straight” can be taken several ways. Does he mean regular feet, or feet that point straight forward, or feet that are straight up and down, like an elephant’s? Probably he means regular, forward-pointing feet because he does not dwell on the point. In other places he leans heavily on simile to describe some unusual feature of the beings.

The sole of the foot sounds as if it was heavily cleated. What then has he described in this verse? For a person living in a warm climate who had never seen any footwear more complicated than a sandal, he has described a highly polished leather, plastic or metal boot very well.

8. And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings.

Notice carefully that he is not saying that each creature had four man-like hands, one on each of four sides. He is saying that each has the normal number of hands and they are located below their wings. Remember that he was a careful observer and he had probably noticed that birds have wings instead of arms. These had both. In addition, he has given us another bit of information about the distribution of the wings. They do not appear to be arranged like a biplane, but each wing is at a ninety-degree angle from its neighboring wing like a helicopter.

Ezekiel must have been something of a numerologist. He points out that there are four creatures, and each of the four has four faces each, and each has four wings each--but not four hands.

9. Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward.

He is not saying that the wings of one creature are joined to the wings of another creature. He is saying that each wing is joined to another wing, not directly to the creature.

The second and third parts of this verse present a mystery. We do not know what the “theys” refer to. There are three “theys” in this verse, one after another and we are given very few clues to which refer to creatures and which refer to wings. The first “they” most likely is tied to the first part of the verse and therefore refers to the wings. Given this, there are still three interpretations:

1. The wings turned not when the wings went; The wings

went every one straight forward.

2. The wings turned not when the creatures went; _The

wings_ went every one straight forward.

3. The wings turned not when the creatures went; _The

creatures_ went every one straight forward.

None of these three statements make much of a point, whether the creatures have helicopter wings, or bird-angel wings. Let us assume then that the first “they” refers to the creatures:

1. The creatures turned not when the creatures went;

The creatures went every one straight forward.

2. The creatures turned not when the wings went; _The

wings_ went every one straight forward.

3. The creatures turned not when the wings went; _The

creatures_ went every one straight forward.

This last statement would pretty well describe the action of the blades of an inoperative helicopter being carried forward in a straight line. It would strike Ezekiel as odd that the wings might move and turn without turning the men under them. You might wonder why he would say “ ... wings went...” instead of “ ... wings turned...” When a light breeze moves the blades of an inoperative helicopter the blades not only turn, but they change their pitch and plane in a most random manner.

Although Ezekiel has not completed his description of the creatures, we can try now to form a picture of what he saw. No matter how we bend and squeeze, we are not going to get a Michelangelo-type angel. Look at figure one. Go back over the points that Ezekiel has described. You will see that it fits quite well.

10. As for the likeness of the faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side; and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.


This again does not sound very man-like. You wonder what could have kept him from pronouncing them demons. If you will study figure two, you will see what Ezekiel described. Now look at figure three. How much better could a man living six centuries before Christ describe figure three?

11. Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; Two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies.

See figure one again. The arrangement is like he describes. Notice that when he talks about “ ... the wings...” of one creature, he apparently means the whole system of wings and attachments.

12. And they went every one straight forward: wither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not as they went.

Again we have trouble with the “theys.” Notice however, that the first part of this verse repeats the last part of verse nine. If we were right in that verse, the first “they” in this refers to the creatures again. The second part of this verse contains a new idea, “whither the spirit was to go...”, has an opposite meaning from “ ... they went ... straight forward...” and, “ ... they turned not when they went.” The first and last part sounds like the four creatures were marching purposefully in one direction. If then the second or middle part refers to the wings, we could read it:

“And the creatures went every one straight forward:

whither the spirit was to go, the wings went; and _the

creatures turned not when the wings_ went.”

Again we have a picture of four men walking with their inoperative helicopters moving in several different ways as the breeze and the men’s motions cause them to move slightly.

Notice that Ezekiel seems to be more impressed with the wings and their motion than with any other feature of what he witnessed.

13. As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.


Here he is describing their over-all appearance. We can assume that creatures that look like men but has a surface that resembles lights, coals and fire must be wearing suits with a brightly colored metallic surface. The modern anodized aluminium coatings glisten and sparkle with an effect like he describes. If these are space-suits, there is a good reason for making them gaudy. If they were worn in space while working on and around a ship, they should be as bright and eye-catching as possible, in the case the man became detached and floated away. He would be quite visible against the blackness of space.

14. And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.

This might mean that they moved swiftly, but more than likely it means that they sparkled and shined on all sides, and this was visible as they moved about.

This ends the description for a while. There are two later verses of description, but we will take this when we come to it. It is surprising that Ezekiel has organized his material so well. It reads like a scientific report. If he had headed the section that we just covered, “Description,” we would not have been too surprised to find the following section headed, “Action”:

15. Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces.

If we read Ezekiel correctly and the creatures did have helicopter attachments on their backs, we can assume that one of them now started his helicopter, which would appear as a “wheel” to Ezekiel, and probably surprised him greatly.

16. The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of Beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.

Here we must digress in order to put ourselves into the life and time of this man because he has mentioned the wheel. A wheel did not have quite the same meaning for him as it does for you and I, living in a mechanical age. The wheel in 600 B.C. in the area around the eastern end of the Mediterranean, the most civilized part of the world at that time, had only a few very limited uses.

One use, old even in Ezekiel’s time was the potter’s wheel; a simple platform mounted on crude vertical bearings so that it could be turned with one hand while the clay was worked with the other. From this the grindstone and the lapidary wheel developed for working metal and stone. These early machines probably employed some form of foot treadle but even these could not turn the wheel very fast. If the stone had a large enough diameter, it was possible to get the speed at the outer edge high enough to produce sparks when grinding hard material. The “work” took place at some distance from the axis, usually at the edge of the stone.

The wheel we usually associate with ancient times is the cart wheel. In its earliest form it was a solid wheel, like those still in use in primitive sections of Mexico. Even with the cart wheel, ancient man would associate the edge of the wheel with the “work” of the wheel. This was the part that left a track in the mud and dust, crushed an occasional rock and fractured an occasional toe.

In order to increase the efficiency of military chariots it was necessary to build a wheel that was lighter, yet just as strong as the solid model. This was first done by cutting out “lightening holes” between the hub and rim. Pressing this invention to the ultimate produced a spoked wheel. The Egyptians used a six-spoked chariot wheel thousands of years before Ezekiel’s time, and the Greeks and others had four-spoke models. This was quite an invention and in addition to its useful aspects, it produced some rather unusual, even magical side-effects. As every child knows, if you turn your tricycle upside-down and spin the wheel, the spokes seem to vanish. All that can be seen is the rim and the parts of the hub near the center of rotation. No matter what shape the hub actually is, it too looks round like a wheel. It is very likely that such an effect was referred to as “a wheel within a wheel.”

In verse 16 Ezekiel says that, “wheels and their work was the colour of beryl...”, a blue-green color. This sounds like the emphasis is on the color at the edge of the wheel. This could be from a flame coming from jets on the tips of the rotors.

All of the creatures must have started their rotors. (“ ... they four had one likeness.”) They looked like “ ... a wheel in the middle of a wheel.” Or the spinning spokes of a wheel. Notice also that he never mentions “wings” and “wheels” at the same time, for when one appears the other vanishes.

17. When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went.

If four men were standing fairly close together on the ground with running helicopters, they would tend to spread out as they left the ground, so as to not run into each other. Moreover, with a helicopter, it is not necessary to face the direction you intend to go. This sounds like four men lifting off the ground, spreading out slightly and starting up and away, in formation.

18. As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four.

The four creatures are now high in the air above Ezekiel, a dreadful and awe-inspiring sight for a man of Ezekiel’s time. Their “rings” obviously are the flames from their tip-jets, seen from below--the only part of the wheel now visible from far below. And the rings would be full of eyes. When a jet or rocket motor is operating there is a shock wave generated in the tailpipe which tends to cut the exhaust gas into segments. Time exposures of jet aircraft at night often show this. When a tip-jet is operating, these bright, evenly spaced spots give it the appearance of a string of pearls, “ ... full of eyes round about them...”

19. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went up by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.

Ezekiel makes it clear that he does not know whether the men are lifting the wheels or the wheels lifting the men, but both went up together.

20. Withersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted over against them: for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

This is a most sophisticated opinion. Although Ezekiel was describing only what he saw, he could not help but have some opinions about the creatures. In verse nineteen he makes it clear that he does not know whether man is lifting the machine, or the other way around, but here he makes it clear that whichever, there is no doubt that the creatures are controlling. They are not being carried off by the will of the wheel.

21. When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

This carries the idea of control one step farther. Not only are the men controlling the wheels, but they are self-controlled: They are flying in formation.

22. And the likeness of the firmament upon the heads of the living creatures was as the colour of terrible crystal, stretched forth over their heads above.

Perhaps this verse was moved out of it’s original position, for it returns to the description of the creatures. You may have noticed that many of the verses are written so that it is in part, an enlargement of the thought put forward in the preceding verse, and part new thought, to be enlarged upon in the following verse. Verses twenty-two and twenty-three seem to go together. Both would fit the rest of the chapter better if they were between verses twelve and thirteen.

What is meant by “firmament”? These people had no term for a hollow-sphere. Most spherical objects were not hollow. They had no soap, so they had no soap bubbles. The most common thing to compare a hollow sphere to was the sky, the bowl of the heavens--the firmament. This crystal-clear bubble was over the heads of the creatures, one on each creature.

We will come to the word firmament again, but notice that this is, “ ... the likeness of the firmament...”, not the firmament itself. Later verses speak only of the “firmament”.

23. And under the firmaments were their wings straight, the one toward the other: every one had two, which covered on this side, and every one had two which covered on that side, their bodies.

If you changed “ ... under the firmament...” to, “ ... below the sky” you would get a clearer picture. If you look at the picture of a house, the roof is, “below the sky,” if you start at the top and work down. If you start at the ground and work up, the roof is, “at the top” of the house. Ezekiel’s description of the wings, which is continued in this verse, concerns the wings “at the top.” They are (connected), “ ... one toward the other, about like in figure one.”

24. And when they went, I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of great waters, like the voice of the Almighty, the voice of speech, as the noise of the host: when they stood they let down their wings.

If you have ever stood near a running tip-jet, or any jet engine, I think you will know what Ezekiel means. The last statement is most interesting. It seems that when the creatures landed again they detached the helicopter mechanisms and set them down, as anyone will with a heavy back-pack who is resting or waiting.

25. And there was a voice from the firmament that was over their heads, when they stood, and had let down their wings.

This voice, or sound, was not from the likeness of the firmament, but from the sky, as they stood there with their wings off.

This is the end of Ezekiel’s attention to the four creatures.

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