A possible relationship to modern UFO phenomena

An analytical essay by R. Cedric Leonard, Ph. D.


Have you ever wondered how a primitive tribesman from the plains of east Africa might describe the landing of a high-tech military helicopter? How would this confused, frightened villager relate his experience to his peers? Familiar native words would have to be used to describe things beyond the ken of ordinary experience, and his attempt to describe such an experience may turn out to be quite unintelligible to his friends.

Now consider the possibility that something similar happened to Ezekiel somewhere around 600 B.C., as recorded in the Bible. The case I am about to unfold to you is truly worthy of attention.

Biblical scholars have long felt that Ezekiel’s account of the fiery wheels encountered by the River Chebar 1 is one of the most difficult to translate in the entire Bible. Not only does the text abound in obscurities and apparent confusion, but also it has acquired occasional corruptions by well-meaning scribes whose “amendations” have only muddied the issue even further. (NBC; NLBC) It shouldn’t be surprising that Ezekiel believed the encounter to be a “vision”. Certainly nothing in normal experience could be compared to the occurrence he describes:

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 color of amber, out of the midst of the fire. (Ezek. 1:4)

The above is Ezekiel’s first sight of the strange aerial phenomenon which was approaching him from the north. What follows in the next ten verses no biblical scholar has ever been able to unravel. The text, as well as its translation, exhibits a high degree of confusion. We will take up the reason for this in the latter part of the essay. But for now, let’s analyze his description of this event by taking a close look at his choice of words.

The first descriptive word we come to in the above account is se’ahra, translated “whirlwind” in the King James translation of the Bible. Since I’m not expert in the Hebrew language, I consulted several Hebrew scholars to see if the Hebrew words held meanings not apparent in the English translations. My suspicions were rewarded beyond my expectations. I also consulted the Greek LXX rendition (I am more familiar with ancient Greek), which yielded a few insights.

The word se’ahra is rare, and denotes a very peculiar, or unusual, type of storm. This is the same word that is used when God spoke to Job “out of the whirlwind” (Job 38:1). He then mentions “a great cloud”. The word ‘anan can mean an ordinary cloud, but ‘anan is used more often in the Bible to refer to the shining “presence” of deity (an “aureole,” or “nimbus”). Moreover, his next words make his meaning clear: the cloud is surrounded by “a fire infolding itself”. Here another rare Hebrew word is used: mitheleqachath which means “flashing itself”. This sounds almost like strobe lights. The Greek text (LXX) uses exastrapton, meaning “scintillating” or “flashing out”. Some scholars prefer “sheen” or “overall glow,” which seems rather tame: even the conservative King James has the alternative reading in the margin of “catching itself”. (The image of a dog chasing its tail comes to mind.) This is not the Hebrew word for natural lightning (baroq, used in verse 13), and this is no ordinary cloud. This thing looks alive, and terrifying.

The next three words are truly amazing! Hebrew scholars agree that venogah lo savev means something like “touching itself around” (savev: “in a circle”). This seems to reinforce the image of flashing lights spinning in a circle. (The Greek LXX uses the term kuklo from whence we get “circle” and “cycle”.) Now it’s beginning to sound like a modern UFO encounter! Such colorful language is seldom encountered in the Old Testament, and can only mean that Ezekiel was profoundly impressed by the splendor of the sight. Also that he was stretching the Hebrew vocabulary itself, so that nothing of his startling experience would be lost. Now it really gets interesting.

As this “vision” gets nearer and nearer Ezekiel is able to discern more details; for finally he describes the appearance of “gleaming metal” inside the flashing, spinning cloud mass. The usual translation is “the color of amber,” but chashmal is better translated as “gleaming bronze,” or better yet “electrum”. Electrum is a natural alloy of gold and silver, having a high reflectivity factor and truly beautiful to behold. So, giving a more accurate translation, we have:


And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a glowing cloud, and brilliant fire flashing itself in a circle; and in the midst thereof, an appearance of polished metal (or, gleaming electrum), in the midst of the fire. Try to imagine how Ezekiel must have felt, watching the mirror-like reflections of the whirling lights dancing in the gleaming electrum-like surfaces of this fabulous machine. In verse 13 the “whirling lamps” image is reinforced once more. The King James version puts it in these words:

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. (Ezek 1:13)

Instead of “lamps” which were “going up and down,” the actual Hebrew text uses a word meaning “circling continuously” (mithehalaqat, closely akin to mitheleqachat). The Greek LXX text has lampadon sustrephomenon (“circling lamps,” or “whirling lamps”). It is unfortunate that the King James translators missed so many facets of this relatively accurate description. The appearance of gleaming metal and “chasing lamps” within this glowing, luminous whirlwind certainly puts a different light on the event. We will take up the “living creatures” and the confusion surrounding them shortly, but let us now touch on some rather trivial details mentioned by Ezekiel in his attempt to describe these machines.

We now encounter mechanical nomenclature, such as rings, rims, strakes, spokes and “eyes” (which could well be port holes). Unfortunately, the text is hopelessly corrupt at this point and the details are quite obscure (this is why there are numerous “alternative readings” given in the margin of the King James translation). The words “lofty” and “awesome” are used. However, as the quality of the text improves, Ezekiel does explain that there are four identical machines, and that each one is constructed like “a wheel in the middle of a wheel” (verse 16). Here we are definitely talking about a machine: Ezekiel uses the Hebrew word for “construction”. Even though scholars in the Hebrew language have historically had difficulty in visualizing the details, they have not hesitated to declare that “we are dealing here with a supernatural machine” (ABC). One scholar asserts that the apparatus described is “a supernatural chariot,” even though the word “chariot” is never used by Ezekiel (NBC).

Ezekiel clearly indicates that these vehicles land, take off, hover, and even fly in formation as they zip to and fro in all directions. They are able to do so without needing to bank and turn as do airplanes or birds (verses 14, 17). As they flash through the sky they are–like the mighty flying machines (vimanas) of the Hindu epics–accompanied by a thunderous roar. Finally, as they land on earth they “let down their wings”–a curious statement from our UFO oriented standpoint, unless we realize that these “wings” could conceivably be metal stairways as seen from the side. Such “gangplanks” might be lowered smoothly until they touched the ground, giving him the impression that the cherubim had “let down their wings”.

It would seem natural that after these vehicles had landed and the glowing cloud of plasma had dissipated and the fiery exhausts and rotating lights had ceased, that Ezekiel could better evaluate the physical appearance of the craft.

The climax of this event is when Ezekiel sees the “appearance of a throne” above the machine, and one sitting upon it having the “appearance of a man”. Notice the repetition of the word “appearance”. Did he perceive this to be an artificial image? Was this a projection of the ship’s commander? I believe it more than significant that when Ezekiel fell on his face in awe of this being (verse 28), he was sharply commanded to stand up (Ezek. 2:1). If this was a vision of God himself, why wouldn’t Ezekiel be permitted to worship? The same thing happens each and every time Ezekiel prostrates himself. Once on his feet, he was given a message to be delivered to his fellow captives in Babylon. Then a startling thing happens:

Then the spirit took me up, and I heard behind me a voice of a great rushing, as the glory of the Lord rose from its place . . . So the spirit lifted me up, and took me away, and I went in bitterness, in the heat of my spirit; but the hand of the Lord was heavy upon me. (Ezek. 3:12,14)

Apparently as he was taken up, simultaneously the whole dazzling affair, whirling lights and all, rose majestically into the sky! The book of Ezekiel records a total of seven such occurrences within its pages.

As he was being carried aloft, he heard a thunderous roar (which he imagined was caused by the clapping of mighty wings). The King James version uses the mild term “rushing,” but my Rabbinical consultants assure me that the Hebrew words imply a thunderous roar, such as an earthquake or a tremendous waterfall. The “spirit” (ruach) mentioned here is the same powerful force which had lifted the prophet Elijah into heaven during the chariot of fire incident recorded in II Kings (2:11).

I italicized a particular phrase in the above passage purposely. It differs so drastically from the same passage as translated in the King James version, I wanted to draw special attention to it. Here are the two compared:

King James: Blessed be the glory of the Lord from his place.
Restored to: As the glory of the Lord rose from its place.

The astonishing thing is that in Hebrew the difference in the above passage is only one letter! Since the original Hebrew text had no vowels, a scribal error was made at some point which substituted a Hebrew letter K for an original M, making the text to read baruk (blessed) instead of berum (as arose). Most biblical scholars believe this to have happened (with good reason) and have restored the original meaning to the text (PCB). A very similar phrase is used later (Ezek. 11:23), which was helpful to scholars in spotting this error (TIB). Before this was corrected, the meaning was so incoherent that the King James translators had to insert the English word “saying” to make any sense of it.

After the aerial hop in the dazzling spaceship, Ezekiel was so shaken that he sat speechless for seven days (Ezek. 3:15). He was warned, finally, that if he did not deliver the message he had received, the blood of his fellows would be on his hands. That got him up and going.

Incredibly, some scholars believe Ezekiel was not on board when the craft lifted off. In fact, Prof. Davidson (NBC) portrays Ezekiel as being bitter because he was left behind! But this view must be erroneous for several reasons: (1) the text says explicitly that “the spirit lifted me up and took me away”; (2) the Greek text (LXX) of the next verse says, “Then I passed through the air and came to the captivity”; (3) on numerous other occasions it states clearly that Ezekiel was shuttled from place to place (seven times in all) while inside the vision. The anger Ezekiel felt was not disappointment at being left behind, but because the hand of the Lord “was heavy” upon him as the craft soared into the air. He may have been pinned to the floor! His second encounter occurred not far from the first:

Then I arose, and went forth unto the plain: and behold, the glory of the Lord stood there, as the glory which I saw by the river Chebar: and I fell on my face. (Ezek. 3:23)

Once again he is brought to his feet (no worship here) and another message given him. During these encounters he is always addressed as “son of man,” which is the equivalent of “human” or “earthling”. The phrase “the glory of the Lord stood there” indicates that he could see it while he was yet far off, and remained there as he approached. Does this sound like a vision?

Then the prophet was taken to Jerusalem aboard the craft. This time the text states explicitly that “the spirit lifted me up between the earth and the heaven and brought me in the visions of God to Jerusalem.” (Ezek. 8:3) It couldn’t be any clearer. Moreover, since he was a captive in Babylonia, he could not have traveled to Jerusalem on his own (a trip of several months by caravan).

Eventually, all four craft returned. By now Ezekiel is referring to them as cherubs (to be discussed shortly). Someone within hearing distance must have seen the craft also, because Ezekiel records hearing someone cry out, O galgal, i.e., “spinning thing”, or wheel. (Ezek. 10:13) This is equivalent to yelling “flying saucer!” upon seeing a modern UFO. Later, another lift-off is described, this time in downtown Jerusalem:

Then did the cherubims lift up their wings, and the wheels beside them; and the glory of the God of Israel was over them above. And the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city, and stood upon the mountain which is on the east side of the city. (Ezek. 11:22-23)

Notice the italics. This is the statement which helped scholars identify the troublesome scribal error that had occurred in the text referred to earlier.

Afterwards the spirit took me up, and brought me in a vision by the spirit of God into Chaldea, to them of the captivity. So the vision that I had seen went up from me. Then I spake unto them of the captivity all the things that the Lord had shewed me. (Ezek. 11:24-25)

Once again, he makes it clear that he is inside the “visions” as he travels from place to place. After debarking, he apparently watched it fly away into the sky. He is taken up several more times, but the following example happens to mention that the presence of the craft lights up the surrounding terrain as it moves along:

. . . And, behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east: and his voice was like a noise of many waters: and the earth shined with his glory. (Ezek. 43:2)

Once more he falls on his face, and again he is taken up and brought to the inner court of the temple at Jerusalem, whereupon the “glory of the Lord filled the house.” (Ezek. 43:5)

During my consultation with local Rabbis concerning Ezekiel’s visions, one of them said: “Do you know that the first chapter of Ezekiel has traditionally been read in the synagogues once a year on the day of Pentecost?” Intrigued, I asked why. It was explained that this is the day the Feast of Weeks is celebrated . . . the day Moses received the Law on Mt. Sinai. I didn’t make the connection, so the Rabbi explained: “The Feast of Weeks has also been declared the Festival of Revelation, and both men received a divine revelation.” I pressed the Rabbi: “But why the first chapter of Ezekiel in particular?” His answer surprised me.

He told me that there is a connection between the “divine chariot” in Ezekiel’s vision and the “pillar of fire” which escorted, and protected, the children of Israel during the exodus from Egypt. I protested that Ezekiel never once used the term “chariot” in his account. He in turn asked me, “What did Elisha exclaim when he saw Elijah being taken up into the chariot of fire?” The answer was, of course: “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel”. The Rabbi continued: “This chariot, the chariot of Israel, was present during the exodus from Egypt, during the giving of the Law, during the forty years in the wilderness, and also during the conquest of Canaan.” He added: “It is believed that Ezekiel saw this same chariot.”

Upon consulting numerous Bible commentaries I found that most refer to Ezekiel’s vision as a chariot (ABC, HBC, NBC, OAB, PCB, TIB). In view of these discussions I see only two possibilities. Either Ezekiel encountered mechanized aircraft and their occupants, or he received visions of mechanized aircraft and their occupants. So why did he use the term “cherubim” in reference to these events? I have deliberately put this off until last since it has consistently thrown both scholar and layman into a state of confusion.

I believe the answer to be extremely simple. All four vehicles bore ensignias on them which denoted their universal or “star ship” status. The four faces of the “cherubim” are simply the four “signs” at the cardinal points of the heavens: Leo (the Lion), Taurus (the bull), Aquarius (the man), and Scorpio (which the Chaldeans often represented as an eagle). If one finds a circle depicting the twelve signs of the zodiac, uses a perfect cross with four arms, then rotates it until one of the arms is pointing at one of the four named signs (Aquarius for instance), the three remaining arms will point to the other three (Leo, Taurus, and Scorpio). This is a sensible way of representing this region of the universe. It now appears that we have properly identified the mysterious four faces of the so-called “living creatures”. The question remains, Why did Ezekiel refer to these zodiacal faces as “cherubim”?

The word “cherub” (cherubim is plural) has no etymology in the Hebrew language. Both the word and the concept is Akkadian (Babylonian).2 (Dhorme, 1945) Cherubs were early mythological creatures believed by the Babylonians to possess awesome and terrifying power (in the same class with griffins and sphinxes). The winged bull is often depicted with the head of a man and the tail of a lion. The similar sphinx is usually (but not always) depicted with a human head, sometimes with an eagle’s wings, and a lion’s body. Cherubs were usually placed at the entrances of temples or other sacred places to protect those holy precincts. It should be remembered that the earliest mention of cherubim in the Bible were those guarding the entrance to the garden of Eden.


A line drawing of one of the two cherubim which guarded the entrance to the throne room of Sargon II. The cherub shown is a composite depicting the body and horns of a bull, the head and face of a man, and sporting the wings of an eagle.

Since Ezekiel was in Babylon (Chaldea) and sculpted representations of these four cardinal zodiacal signs could be seen on every hand, it is only natural that Ezekiel would use the very terminology he heard day after day in the environs of Babylon to describe such images.

Some confusion still remains concerning Ezekiel’s terminology involving “living creatures”. It almost seems that he believed everything in his vision to be alive. However, at times he seems to consider the human-like beings which disembarked from the wheels as alive and in control of their associated machines. The machines themselves exhibited many characteristics which, to one unfamiliar with electricity, might have made them appear to be alive. I am sure Ezekiel himself was confused on this score. Also one should remember that in ancient times anything that could move on its own was considered alive. Witness the old familiar “living water”. If water flowed, it was “living water”. This, I believe, is the answer. Ezekiel himself was confused.

To return once more to the chariot concept. Just what is a chariot? According to Funk & Wagnalls, the word is Old French and is an augmented form of char (from Latin, carrus, car, cart, or wagon). As an intransitive verb it means, “to convey, ride, or drive as in a chariot.” (SDEL) Our word “carry” derives from the same source. Ezekiel’s wheels represent an aerial vehicle, a celestial car, a “divine chariot” if you please, the function of which is transportation! So that’s why Rabbis and biblical scholars consider Ezekiel’s wheel as a chariot.

I think the UFO hypothesis (and that’s all it is) is on reasonable ground. It certainly explains a lot hithertofore unexplainable. I haven’t closed my mind to other possibilities: maybe the preachers and theologians are correct. However, the phenomenon in Ezekiel’s account did everything one would naturally expect of an aerial vehicle. Fortunately for us, Ezekiel told us everything in chronological order. In this last sense, scholars say the book of Ezekiel is the best organized of any of the prophetic books of the Bible.  [SEE REFERENCES FOR THIS ARTICLE BELOW THE BIBLE SERIES URLS]


Nancy B. Detweiler, M. Ed., M. Div.







ABC = Abingdon Bible Commentary
Dhorme = Les religions de Babylonie et Assyrie
HBC = Harper’s Bible Commentary
NBC = New Bible Commentary by F. Davidson
NLBC = New Laymen’s Bible Commentary
OAB = Oxford Annotated Bible
PCB = Peak’s Commentary on the Bible
TIB = The Interpreters Bible (twelve volumes) Vol. VI
LXX = The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament
SDEL = Standard Dictionary of the English Language

Due to the fact that most of the references used in this essay do not have a single author, a new system of notes was adopted. More complete information on these publications is given in the bibliography below.


1 The “River Chebar” mentioned here by Ezekiel is believed by many scholars to be the nari kabari (“great canal”), an artificial canal near the city of Nippur created by the Chaldeans for irrigation purposes.
2 Archeological discoveries have brought to light numerous examples of Akkadian style “kerubs” in the Phoenician city of Biblos, and in Samaria as well as Chaldea. Such representations do not consistently have four heads (e.g., Ezek. 41:18f describes them as having only two); but nearly always all four cardinal signs of the zodiac are represented in some way, i.e., in the form of wings, tails, horns, hooves, human heads, etc.


Abingdon Bible Commentary, Abingdon Press, New York, 1957.
Dhorme, E, Les religions de Babylonie et Assyrie, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1945.
Harper’s Bible Commentary, William Neil, Harper & Row, New York, 1962.
Holy Bible, King James and King James II versions.
New Bible Commentary, F. Davidson (editor), William B. Eerdmand Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 1960.
New Laymen’s Bible Commentary, Howley, Bruce & Ellison, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1979.
Oxford Annotated Bible (editors Herbert G. May & Bruce M. Metager), Oxford University Press, New York, 1962.
Peak’s Commentary on the Bible, Black & Rowley, Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., London, 1962.
The Interpreters Bible (twelve volumns), Abingdon Press, Vol. VI, New York, 1956.
The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament, (LXX) Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, 1970.
Standard Dictionary of the English Language (International Edition), Funk & Wagnalls, New York, 1992.

Copyright © by R. Cedric Leonard, 12 Mar 2002.
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