Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Ezekiel’s Vision 3: The Storm Theophany

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

Ezekiel’s vision begins with a distant storm coming from the north to the south including a cloud and a flashing fire—probably lightening. This phenomena is known to scholars as a “storm theophany,” that is to say, a manifestation of God (theophania) in (or as) a storm.

It is important to note that at the time of his vision Ezekiel is in Mesopotamia on the Chebar River (1:3), a tributary to the Euphrates. The appearance of the storm from the north may be present an indirect indication that it is meant to come from Jerusalem, since at the time of Ezekiel communication between Mesopotamia was not direct from east to west (across the Syrian desert), but travelers would go north and then south, a longer but much easier root. More on the implications of this later. Another way to read “from the north” is from ṣāfôn, which does mean north, but is also the name of the sacred mountain of the Canaanites. Thus, the storm may be coming from the mountain of the gods.

Storm theophanies are quite common in the Bible, most prominent in Ex 19, where a God appears in a storm on Mt. Sinai (e.g. Nah 1:3; See Anchor Bible Dictionary “Theophany in the Old Testament”). The appearance of God in a cloud is also a common motif (eg. Ex 24:15-20, 40:34-38, Num 9:15-23, etc.), and is related to the appearance of God in a cloud at the Transfiguration of Jesus.

The cloud of the storm theophany is symbolically reproduced in the Temple by the burning of incense, so that God appears in the Holy of Holies “in the cloud upon the mercy seat” (Lev 16:2, 12-13). The important point to note here is that in the Temple or outside of the Temple, God frequently appears in a cloud, and to enter into the presence of God, one must pass into this cloud, either the cloud of incense in the Temple, or the storm cloud outside the Temple (Ex 24:15-18; Mt 17:5). In the Temple the flashing light or the shinning glory of the Lord (Mt 17:2) the light of the menorah and the burning coals of the incense altar, while the thunder of the storm is the sounding of the trumpets (šōfār) (Ex 19:16-19). Thus, in the Temple context, storm-cloud, lightening and thunder are incense-cloud, menorah/coals and trumpets.

On the context of importance of storm gods and storm theophanies in the ancient Near East, see:
Green, A. The Storm-god in the Ancient Near East, (Eisenbrauns, 2003)
Cross, Frank, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, (Harvard, 1997)


Anonymous said...

Grandpa Enoch,

Thank you for this.

I notice that in the Book of Mormon which Latter-day Saints accept as scripture that there is this:

"The Lord came down and talked with the brother of Jared; and he was in a cloud, and the brother of Jared saw him not" (Ether 2:4)

"And it came to pass that the Lord did go before them, and did talk with them as he stood in a cloud, and gave directions wither they should travel" (Ether 2:5)

"The Lord came again unto the brother of Jared, and stood in a cloud and talked with him. And for the space of three hours did the Lord talk with the brother of Jared, and chastened him because he remembered not to call upon the name of the Lord" (Ether 2:14).

I had never thought of the "cloud" in these passages as a possible storm theophany, before, but it would make sense in light of what you are discussing.

Thanks again for the insights.

Grandpa Enoch said...

That's exactly right. It's a very nice fit. Note also the "the hand of the LORD was on" Ezekiel when he has his vision (1:3), just as Jared sees the hand of the Lord. I'll engage this topic in more detail in relation to hand of the Lord in a cloud representations in Jewish and early medieval Christian art.

Anonymous said...

I offer as another possibility what my professor in a Western Civilization class in college suggested (if I remember correctly): the "cloud" might have been something like an after-image on the eye caused by the brightness of the presence of the Lord, similar to what happens when we look at something bright and then look away and can't really see anything else because of the after-image.