Visits to the great museums of the world provide many illustrations that help us understand the background of biblical images. This is especially true when we think of the apocalyptic imagery in Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation. The Greek name of the Book of Revelation is apocalypsis. In the opening sentence of the book we are told that it is an apocalypse.
In two previous posts we have called attention to the cherubim of the Bible. In this post I want to further this discussion and call attention to the multi-headed creatures that we encounter in apocalyptic literature. In the great throne scene of Revelation 4 we see four living creatures.
The first living creature was like a lion, the second creature like an ox, the third creature had a face like a man’s, and the fourth creature looked like an eagle flying. Each one of the four living creatures had six wings and was full of eyes all around and inside. They never rest day or night, saying: “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God, the All-Powerful, Who was and who is, and who is still to come!” (Revelation 4:7-8 NET)
In Ezekiel we see figures representing four living beings with human form. Each living being had four faces and four wings. Each face was of a different creature.
Their faces had this appearance: Each of the four had the face of a man, with the face of a lion on the right, the face of an ox on the left and also the face of an eagle. (Ezekiel 1:10 NET)
One notes immediately that in early Christian art the Four Evangelists (or we might say, the four writers of the gospels) were likened to the same creatures.
Andre Parrot, in Babylon and the Old Testament, calls attention to the imagery used in Ezekiel. He provides two drawings of images uncovered by the archaeological spade in Mesopotamia. One shows a two-faced image; the other a four-faced image.
The location of the images is not given. The four-faced image seems to be an image that is now on display at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. This is a museum you must not miss if you visit the Chicago area. Here is a nice photo made by David Padfield.
One notices immediately that these two-faced and four-faced images all have human heads. We need only turn to the sculpture of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia to find many composite creatures bearing features of four or more creatures. That will have to wait for another time.
In closing I must return to the title of this post. “Apocalyptic imagery is not strange.” That is, it was not strange to those to whom the apocalyptic books of the Bible are addressed. It may be strange to us at first glance, but that can easily change by investigating the culture in which these books were written and read.