Eyes in their Stars: Ezekiel meets a Constellation
I recently read an interesting book by John Pilch called Flights of the Soul: Visions, Heavenly Journeys, and Peak Expericnes in the Biblical World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). Pilch is a biblical scholar who has for many years used the tools of social anthropology to make sense of texts. He has a lot of helful insights, even though Christian readers could not leave things where Pilch does (and in some cases they cannot go where he goes).
Anyway, one little thing that really caught my attention was a chapter on Ezekiel's inaugral vision. Pilch suggests that the four living creatures (each with the face of a lion, a human, an ox, and an eagle) are not simply weird angels but are, in fact, constellations (i.e., groups of stars).
He observes that Ezekiel has his vision while in Babylon and that in Babylonian astrology the four Babylonian seasonal constellations are:
Leo (the lion),In Babylonian astrology these four constellations depict the four directions of the sky, being about 90 degrees from each other. Thus they represent the entire sky with God’s throne at the centre.
Scorpio (who had a human face),
Taurus (the bull),
and Pegasus (the thunderbird/eagle).
"Ezekiel has made immediate sense of his vision. He is looking into the night sky and interprets the constellations in line with Babylonian understanding. For this reason Ezekiel is called an astral prophet. He learns God’s will from the stars in the sky. The fact that the rim of the wheels (v. 18; see vv. 15–21) on which the living creatures moved are “full of eyes” confirms this. The ancients called stars “eyes,” and thought them to be living entities. Constellated stars, called “full of eyes,” were perceived as animate beings like persons or animals. Since Ezekiel sees all four constellations moving at once, his vantage point was high above the entire cosmos (vv. 4–11).Above these astral living creatures is the firmament (raqîa') and above the firmament is the throne of God.
According to ancient star lore, the constellations support the firmament, that solid bowl-like object that covers the earth. That is precisely what Ezekiel saw (vv. 22–23) . . .”
This drew my attention to a commentary on Revelation by Pilch and Bruce Malina where they read the whole book in terms of astral stuff. That sounds fascinating.
This all fits with an article I have been working on about stars in the OT. It is often said by scholars that one of the revolutionary things about the OT is that ancient Israel, unlike the pagan nations around it, stripped the stars of their divine status and made them simply into . . . stars. I don't think that is correct. What Yahwism did was to forbid the worship of stars and to put stars in their proper pace. But stars were still very closely linked with "divine" beings — the "sons of God" (i.e., the divine council).
So this raises all sorts of fun theological questions for modern believers because we do not (indeed cannot) think of stars as divine beings. So what is God trying to say to us through this ancient set of texts? What a fun question that one is! Once I have something intelligent to say about it I'll let you know. But I am convinced that this ancient notion of stars has important things to teach us about the resignification of the cosmos — pointers to transcendance.