What is the Ophanim Angel in the Bible?
The word ‘Ophanim’ refers to ‘the wheels’ seen in Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot in Ezekiel 1:15–21—from the bible. According to Ezekiel’s narrative in the Bible, they are creatures created of interlocking gold wheels, with the exterior of each wheel covered with many eyes. They move by floating across the sky. The bible does not regard the Ophanim as an angel. However, in the Jewish angelic hierarchy, they are entrusted with defending God’s throne as the highest in Maimonides’ order and are the closest of angels to God.
Angels with Strange or Unusual Appearance
When we think of angels, it’s easy to imagine them as winged beings that are glorious and pure. From gilded armours to perfect faces, the concept of the angel has transcended through generations and has gone on to become the inspiration for art and literature, where the angel is featured as an immaculate human with wings and a pinnacle of all that is righteous.
Even today, many people place a significant amount of importance upon the angels of God—those who to some, are the conduits by which their prayers will be met. They are, for the most part, benign beings that bring about warmth, comfort, and safety and while descriptions of them do vary, seldom are they reported as wicked or scary.
This contradicts one idea from the bible where characters who are descended upon by angels are normally struck with both distress and horror—to the point that they are unable to even stand.
You’ll notice that frequently when angels make their presence known in the bible, they tell those who are listening ‘not to be afraid’, providing us with an idea that the real angels are quite hard to digest.
We see this in Isaiah’s account when he finds himself in the hall of the Seraphim, angels who were six-winged creatures that represented fire. Unable to cope with their sheer presence and the holiness about them, Isaiah becomes stricken and panics that he is damned, for he was not dressed properly for such an occasion.
The Seraphim though inadvertently struck the fear of God into Isaiah, and whilst they prove to be helpful and forgiving, they are not creatures that he feels particularly at ease with.
The same could be said for Ezekiel who discovered the Cherubim, where he described them as possessing four heads, one of a man, one of an ox, one of an eagle and one of a lion. But perhaps one of the strangest and most downright weirdest creatures that are thought to exist within scripture are the Ophanim—those that are believed by some to be just a mechanism of God’s chariot and by others to be angelic beings with significant powers.
The Meaning of Ophanim
The reason why they are called the Ophanim is that in ancient Hebraic, the word Ophanim was thought to have meant wheels. It was also believed that the word could be spelt as Auphanim or Ofanim, as well as a third variation as ‘Galgalim’.
In other beliefs, Ophanim are also described as spheres or whirlwinds, or again the very wheels that were attached to the chariot of God, and the reason for all three of these ideas can likely be pinpointed in the visions seen by Ezekiel.
Ezekiel’s Encounter with the Ophanim
It was thought to be some time into the Neo Babylonian period when Ezekiel and ten thousand Jews were captured by the Babylonians and brought to a village named Tel-Abib.
During this time, Ezekiel finds himself one day by the river Kebar (Chebar) and he is approached by God, who supplies him with what is known as the Inaugural Vision.
The vision consists of some pretty wild and extraordinary things, but as far as the Cherubim and the Ophanim go, Ezekiel tells us,
“As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like topaz, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures were faced; the wheels did not change direction as the creatures went. Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.”— (Ezekiel 1:15-18)
The ‘living creatures’ that Ezekiel sees here are indeed the Cherubim, as he confirms in the prior passage, but he spends an equal amount of time taking in the sight of these four wheels—these Ophanim.
He describes them as glistening like topaz and that all four assembled to make the shape of one wheel intersecting another.
He also adds that whilst they appeared independently mobile, they only moved wherever the cherubim were facing, which has since led some to believe that the Cherubs controlled the Ophanim or was a symbol for their outranking of them.
He continues to state that they do not appear to ever change their direction and that all the rims of their being were covered with eyes. But with this passage alone, it only raises our intrigue as to what these wheels were and what exactly their function was.
The Appearance and Roles of the Ophanim by Ezekiel
Ezekiel is able to paint a somewhat vivid picture of what these wheels looked like, but perhaps what makes them so stark, and fascinating is how elusive they are.
These wheels are not something that appears frequently throughout the bible and the fact that God allows Ezekiel to see them only teases the idea that they do have some significance that we are not grasping.
One interesting idea that further supports the notion that these wheels were the wheels of God’s chariot comes from a song of praise by David in Psalm 18, where we are told
“He (God) mounted the Cherubim and flew. He soared on the wings of the wind.”— (Psalm 18:10)
In this rather unique imagery, it could be said that Cherubim had more of a practical function as they served as God’s vehicle, or a means for which to transport him across the sky, or from heaven to earth.
The Cherubim, in this instance, become the chariot and by this, the wheels that they are seen to manipulate become the wheels of that very chariot.
But Ezekiel does not make this connection but is instead taken aback by what he continues to witness. He tells us,
“When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When the creatures moved, they also moved; when the creatures stood still, they also stood still; and when the creatures rose from the ground, the wheels rose along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.”— (Ezekiel 1:19-21)
Here, he essentially confirms the idea that the wheels were controlled by the Cherubim, and that they did indeed have power over these elements, and that wherever the Cherubim went, the Ophanim would go too.
He also adds that the very spirit of the Cherubim exists within the Ophanim, suggesting that on some level, perhaps these strange creatures are extensions of the angels, as opposed to being angels themselves.
Touching once again upon the chariot idea as hinted by the song of David in Psalm 18, one might also say that the Cherubim were the drivers of the chariot, and the wheels were merely just that—wheels.
With this idea, they are not angelic, and they do not have sentience, but instead are more along the lines of machinery.
Yet, the idea that the Ophanim were indeed angels —perhaps, the weirdest of angels given their appearance—remains to be consistent within some communities and traditions.
We can agree from Ezekiel’s account that despite their association to the Cherubim, there is nothing particularly angelic about the Ophanim. They do not appear to have human characteristics like all other angels, they do not speak and bring prophecies and they do not appear to even have wings.
The Ophanim in the Books of Enoch and Their Roles
Reference of them is made in the second book of Enoch, where see Enoch ascend before the throne of God. He tells us,
“I saw there a very great light, and fiery troops of great archangels, incorporeal forces, and dominions, orders and governments, Cherubim and seraphim, thrones and many-eyed ones, nine regiments, the Ioanit stations of light, and I became afraid and began to tremble with great terror, and those men took me, and led me after them, and said to me: Have courage, Enoch, do not fear, and showed me the Lord from afar, sitting on His very high throne.” (2 Enoch 20:1-2)
Whilst again not specifically mentioned as ‘Ophanim’, Enoch does refer to them as the ‘many-eyed ones’, which correlates with Ezekiel’s description. What’s interesting here is that he later identifies all the present entities including the Cherubim, Seraphim, and these ‘Many Eyed Ones’ as being men and that these men took him and led him to the throne of God, where they reassured him that he was safe.
Whilst hard to say given that Enoch does not explicitly determine these Many Eyed Ones to be the Ophanim, it could be said that in this story, that the Many Eyed Ones did maintain some characteristics of men and that instead of wheels, they possessed a more expected and relatable form.
They also share the same compassion as the Cherubim and the Seraphim and seek to comfort Enoch when he would otherwise panic, thus suggesting another layer of benignity to these otherwise misunderstood creatures.
The second book of Enoch continues to tell us of the Many Eyed Ones that,
“And the Cherubim and Seraphim standing about the throne, the six-winged and many-eyed ones do not depart, standing before the Lord’s face doing his will, and cover his whole throne, singing with gentle voice before the Lord’s face: Holy, holy, holy, Lord Ruler of Sabaoth, heavens and earth are full of your glory.”— (2 Enoch 21:1)
Here, we get a sense that the Many Eyed Ones guard the throne of heaven and along with the Cherubim and the Seraphim, they will remain here for eternity at the beck and call of God.
It is also established that they sing with gentle voices, which yet again humanizes the Many Eyed Ones and portrays them as more relatable, perhaps even as a charming set of characters.
With the Many Eyed Ones singing, it could also be associated with several Jewish prayers known as the ‘Kedushah’, where the Ophanim are told to offer praise upon God and glorify Him as the creator.
Whilst the second book of Enoch refers to them as the Many Eyed Ones, the first book of Enoch refers to them directly as Ophanim and they are said here to also guard the throne of heaven and that together with the Seraphim and the Cherubim, they do not sleep.
Enoch tells us here,
“And roundabout were Seraphim, Cherubim and Ophanim: And these are they who sleep not. And guard the throne of His glory.”— (1 Enoch 71:1)
What Really is the Ophanim?
There appears to be some variation in these very angels when it comes to both their ranking and their closeness to God. Most commonly in Jewish expositions of the angelic hierarchy, the significance and purpose of the Cherubim, Seraphim and the Ophanim seldom seem to coincide across all traditions.
To some, the Cherubim are the closest to God and as mentioned before, they are his chariot. More significantly, they are much more prominent in the bible and appear to Ezekiel, thus giving them the edge at least in terms of recognition.
The Seraphim by comparison are also seen in a variety of ways including as a caretaker to God’s throne, and as the bible shows in Isaiah’s vision, the Seraphim can be viewed as absolvers of guilt. To more conservative Judaism though, the Seraphim are more symbolic in nature.
These inconsistencies, if you will, are the same for the Ophanim in Jewish beliefs, with some believing them to be the closest of all the angels to God (as told to us by medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides) or as ‘the thrones’, another classification of angels.
Many other Jewish philosophies confirm this idea that the thrones and the Ophanim are one in the same and one of the ways that this is done is by one interpretation of Daniel’s Vision, where Daniel tells us he sees God in his chariot.
“As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze.”— (Daniel 7:9)
With this idea, the thrones become established as the wheels of God’s vehicle and are set in place before he takes his seat upon it.
A quote from American spirituality writer Rosemary Ellen Guiley sums up the notion of the thrones and the Ophanim being the same quite concisely, where we are told,
“The ‘thrones’; also known as ‘ophanim’ (offanim) and ‘galgallin’, are creatures that function as the actual chariots of God driven by the cherubs. They are characterized by peace and submission; God rests upon them.
Thrones are depicted as great wheels containing many eyes and reside in the area of the cosmos where material form begins to take shape. They chant glorias to God and remain forever in his presence. They mete out divine justice and maintain the cosmic harmony of all universal laws.”
As we can see, going by this interpretation, the thrones—or the Ophanim—lose their more typical angel appearance and again, resume the more biblically accurate depiction as a mechanism.
In any case, one might say that the function of the Ophanim, whilst intriguing and novel, is not essential to believers, which is why concrete information about them is so scarce.
Whether it be from the characters of the bible themselves or scholars who studied them, the wheels are only vital in their accordance with God. They serve to remind believers that their mystique and uncanny form are just one of many of the creations that God has made that man cannot understand and, in some cases, it might serve to humble believers into realising that they do not have all the answers.
It also brings God’s engineering ingenuity into the limelight, for whilst many may take for granted how the world was created, elements like the Ophanim remind them of how much of a mechanical mastermind a supreme being like God must be—especially given we to this day would not be able to create something so unusual.
Others might see the Ophanim as a representation of God himself, in that because they are covered with eyes, the eyes become symbolic of God being all-seeing.
If the Ophanim have a multitude of eyes and spin omnidirectionally, then it would be believed that they can see everything from every angle. This would imply then that God could very well do the same—as we know he can from very specific mentions in the bible that God is everywhere, and God knows everything.
Whether or not the Ophanim are angelic beings or simply a mechanism that allows for multi-dimensional travel, may not necessarily be so significant in the grand scheme of things given that their role appears to be more useful to God than to mortals.
Notice how in both Ezekiel and Daniel’s account, they only see these wheels, but the wheels don’t seem to have much impact on them, nor do they seem to be of any real merit to either character beyond their fascinating design.
Art Sources: Simon Wong, Danilo Wolf.