Prophet Ezekiel and Plato’s ‘Myth of Er’

 by

Damien F. Mackey

 

 

Traces of Ezekiel’s famous ‘merkabah’ vision of the wheels within wheels may perhaps be found towards the end of Plato’s Republic, in the mysterious Myth of Er.

 

 

 

IMAGE: WHEELS WITHIN WHEELS (Ezekiel 1 and 3)

 

The prophet Ezekiel tells of what he saw (1:15-17):

 

As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels, and their construction: their appearance was like a gleaming of beryl; and the four had the same form, their construction being something like a wheel within a wheel. When they moved they moved in any of the four directions without veering as they moved. ….

 

Ezekiel would encounter these whirling creatures again at the river Chebar, in captivity, when he said (3:15): “I came to the exiles at Tel-abib, who lived by the river Chebar. And I sat there among them stunned for seven days” (note this is exactly what Job’s three friends had done as well, Job 2:13).

Here is the prophet’s full account of it (Ezekiel 3:12-21):

 

Then the spirit lifted me up, and as the glory of the Lord rose from its place, I heard behind me the sound of loud rumbling; it was the sound of the wings of the living creatures brushing against one another, and the sound of the wheels beside them, that sounded like a loud rumbling. The spirit lifted me up and bore me away; I went in bitterness in the heat of my spirit, the hand of the Lord being strong upon me. I came to the exiles at Tel-abib, who lived by the river Chebar. And I sat there among them stunned for seven days.

At the end of the seven days, the word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, I have made you a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die’, and you give them no warning, or speak to warn the wicked from their wicked way, in order to save their life, those wicked persons shall die for their iniquity; but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and they do not turn from their wickedness, or from their wicked way, they shall die for their iniquity; but you will have saved your life. Again, if the righteous turn from their righteousness and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before them, they shall die; because you haven’t warned them, they shall die for their sin, and their righteous deeds that they have done shall not be remembered; but their blood I will require at your hand. If, however, you warn the righteous not to sin, and they do not sin, they shall surely live, because they took warning; and you will have saved your life.

 

Myth of Er

 

Now let us see what (as I think) Plato might have done to this inspired text, in the ‘Myth of Er’, at the end of the Republic, with Ezekiel, replaced by the messenger, Er; Er being the soul of a dead person come to life, whereas Ezekiel had been in spirit lifted out of his body. And Er being set apart as a messenger to the dead as they choose their destiny, whereas Ezekiel, set apart as the prophet-sentinel, is amongst the exiled living, calling them to righteousness over evil (Republic, 614):

 

[Er] said when his soul left its body it travelled in company with many others till they came to a wonderfully strange place, where there were, close to each other, two gaping chasms in the earth, and opposite and above them two other chasms in the sky. Between the chasms sat Judges, who, having delivered judgement, ordered the just to take the right-hand road that led up through the sky, and fastened the badge of their judgement in front of them, while they ordered the unjust, who carried the badges of all that they had done behind them, to take the left-hand road that led downwards. When Er came before them, they said that he was to be a messenger to men about the other world, and ordered him to listen to and watch all that went on in that place.

 

As to the Glory of God and the wheels within wheels, a famous image from Ezekiel, Plato again tells of something very similar. It is what he calls the ‘spindle of Necessity’, and is eschatological like Ezekiel.

And the seven day period is there also, as in Ezekiel (Republic, Bk. 10, 615):

 

‘After seven days spent in the meadow the souls set out again and came on the fourth day to a place from which they could see a shaft of light running straight through earth and heaven, like a pillar, in colour most nearly resembling a rainbow, only brighter and clearer; after a further day’s journey they entered the light and could then look down its axis and see the ends of it stretching from heaven, to which they were tied; for this light is the tie-rod of heaven which holds its whole circumference together like the braces of a trireme [a Greek boat]. And to these ends is fastened the spindle of Necessity, which causes all the orbits to revolve; its shaft and its hook are of adamant, and its whorl a mixture of adamant and other substances. And the whorl is made in the following way. Its shape is like the ones we know; but from the description Er gave me we must suppose it to consist of a large whorl hollowed out, with a second fitting exactly into it, the second being hollowed out to hold a third, the third a fourth, and so on up to a total of eight, like a nest of bowls. For there were in all eight whorls, fitting one inside the other, with their rims showing as circles from above and forming a continuous surface of a single whorl round the shaft, which was driven straight through the middle of the eighth…’.

 

Er’s “Forgetful river”, where the souls were all encamped (ibid., 620), has probably taken the place of the river Chebar, where Ezekiel was living amongst the exiles. Whereas Er seems to be amongst the dead, Ezekiel – who does in fact have a vision of dead bones becoming en-fleshed again (Ezekiel 37:1-14) – is a prophet to the living, with the portfolio from God to warn the evildoers. Ezekiel’s account of the good who turn to evil, and the evil who turn to good, may have been picked up in the Greek version as souls choosing in what form they will come back, whether as tyrants or as virtual saints.

Now, Justin Martyr had given consideration to this famous Platonic myth:

 

The Myth of Er

 

Justin is quoting from Plato’s The Republic book 10. It is the very last section of the Republic where Socrates is relating to Glaucon a story about the fate of souls after death. The story is known as the myth of Er. A description is given of a man called Er son of Armenius from Pamphylia and his journey into the realm of the dead. In his journey he was shown how Souls were judged, how they had to pay back 10 fold for all that they did on earth. Halliwell introduces the myth.

The myth of Er belongs to a great ‘family’ of Platonic eschatological visions, whose other members are the myths found in the Gorgias; Phaedo, and Phaedrus… Few will dispute that the interpretation of all these passages must take as primary frame of reference Plato’s own attitudes to myth …Yet the myth of Er contains an especial number of elements ­- starting with Er’s name itself – which stimulated inquiries into Plato’s sources” (Halliwell 1988,169) “the rewards and punishments experienced during human life cannot compare with those which await us after death. Socrates explains the nature of these by relating the story of Er, a Pamphylian soldier who returned to life and told of what his soul had witnessed in the other world” (Halliwell 1988, 169).

Having seen many Er comes to the place where the souls were permitted to choose their next life on earth. This process was overseen by ones who were called the three daughters of Necessity (Thugateras tees Anagkees), being Lachesis, Clotho and Atropos who can be seen in the writings of Hesiod and Pindar. They were first named by Hesiod (Ferguson, 118). They were singing in tune with a Siren which was making a single sound. Lachesis sung of the past, Clotho of the present and Atropos of the future. Our main interest is in Lachesis as it is her words which Justin quotes. She is called the Disposer of Lots or She who allots. Her name can also be an appellative for lot or destiny as in Herodotus (LS 1978, 466). Lachesis sang of the past and when it was time for souls to choose their next life on earth, they would be lined up by a prophet to appear before Lachesis. They could choose their life in order of the lots they received. They would each choose a daimon to go through their life with them. A daimon is sometimes synonymous with a god as in Homer, but sometimes considered inferior as in Hesiod where it is between God and man. In the myth of Er they are attendant (Ferguson, 120) or guardian spirits. We will let Socrates relate the rest of this event:

From the lap of Lachesis he (the prophet) took numbers for drawing lots and patterns of lives. Ascending a high platform (beema), he began to speak:

“The word of the maiden Lachesis, daughter of Necessity. Souls, creatures of the day, here begins another cycle of mortal life and death it brings. Your guardian spirit will not be given to you by lot. You will choose a guardian spirit for yourselves. Let the one who draws the first lot be the first to choose a life. He will then be joined to it by Necessity. Virtue knows no master. Your respect or contempt for it will give each of you greater or smaller share. The choice makes you responsible God is not responsible” -Aitia elomenou. Theos anaitios ….

It is the last four words spoken by the prophet as the word of Lachesis, which Justin Martyr quotes to indicate Plato took them from Moses and uttered {eipe} them.

These then are the four words under investigation. …. Justin’s claim that these four words came from Moses to Plato.

[End of quote]

 

The discussion after this goes beyond our interest. I inserted a part of it here simply to demonstrate that a Platonic Myth, whose origin I think might lie with the prophet Ezekiel, was discussed by Justin Martyr in terms of a possible Hebrew-biblical connection.

There is also an interesting – but rather difficult and perhaps occasionally far-fetched – article in which comparisons are made of the mathematics of Plato and that attributed to Ezekiel:

 

The forgotten harmonical science of the Bible

 

Ernest G. McClain

 

Here is a portion of it (# 3):

 

Both Ezekiel and Plato project their arithmetic into similar concentric circles, “a wheel in a wheel,” functioning as the throne of an idealized heaven. Plato’s analysis of 5,040 fits many of Ezekiel’s metaphors and thus facilitates decoding the sameness and difference between nascent Greek science and traditional Jewish wisdom. This is the cross-cultural ambiance in which Philo was educated and about which he wrote with equal passion for Greek learning and for his own religion, which shared the same models. The music of the synagogue embodied their union and freed his soul to roam where it would. The two musical modes decoded from Bible numerology have proved to be associated historically with the mode of the Torah (Greek Dorian) and the mode of the Prophets (Greek Phrygian) in ways Philo helps us understand; they are the two modes Plato admitted in model cities.16,17

The importance of the priestly 7-year calendrical cycle is emphasized in Ezekiel 39:10 where God insists that after his destruction of Israel’s enemies the country will have no “need to take wood out of the field or cut down any out of the forests” for a period of seven years, “for they will make their fires of the weapons” of warfare. I analyze the tonal content in 5,040 “days plus nights” as furnishing Jewish “weapons” of spiritual warfare not merely on this circumstantial biblical evidence but because this also follows Jewish philosophical precedent.

[End of quote]

 

The Greeks often absorbed Hebrew and Near Eastern culture and civilization, mythology and folklore, and re-presented it as their own. Every later generation does this sort of thing, of course. Perhaps it is more true to say that western scholars have given credit to the Greeks – the civilization with which they especially identify (we find Socrates and his friends holding gentlemanly-like discussions, ‘My dear chap …’) – for culture, ideas, inventions, philosophies, laws, you name it, that actually arose from the more ancient nations of the Fertile Crescent (Egypt, Syro-Palestine, Mesopotamia).

Much has been attributed to the Greeks that did not belong to them. Take architecture, for example. Egyptologist Sir Henry Breasted made the point that Queen Hatshepsut’s marvellous temple structure, “The Most Splendid of Splendours” at Deir el-Bahri, near Thebes, was a witness to the fact that the Egyptians developed architectural styles for which the later civilization of Greeks would be accredited as the originators (A History of Egypt, 1924, p. 274).

 

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