Ezekiel and rabbinic literature have something in common: they both have a reputation for being difficult. There is some truth to this perception. I don’t think Ezekiel makes the best reading material for beginners.
Ezekiel is also mentioned in a few rabbinic stories. There is the story about how Ezekiel was almost not accepted by Judaism as a holy book. There is a story about two rabbis walking, one began expounding on a mystical part of Ezekiel and the trees were singed with fire.
First, about Ezekiel almost not making it into the Jewish canon (which would likely have kept it out of Christian Bibles as well), the sages tell a wonderful story. It is a story that would inspire scholars everywhere.
R. Judah (c. 270) passed on a tradition from his teacher Rav (c. 230) concerning how Ezekiel was qualified and received by the rabbis as a genuine holy book. The tradition is that Hananiah ben Hezekiah (c. time of the New Testament) made a study of Ezekiel to reconcile it to Torah. To do this, he first gathered three hundred vessels of oil for his lamps and went into an upper chamber. He needed all three hundred vessels of oil (literally “burning the midnight oil”) while he was sequestered without interruption to reconcile the contradictions (Shabbat 13b, Babylonian Talmud).
Aside from the endearing image of a great scholar poring over the books in a lonely room by the light of tiny oil lamps, what is this all about? What contradictions does this refer to? There are a number of them. I have not compiled a complete list (though I will eventually), but Ezekiel has many changes from the Torah. A few examples should suffice.
In Ezekiel 45:18 mentions and holy day, for cleansing the sanctuary, unheard of in Torah. The same chapter’s rundown of the festivals does not mention many from the Torah, leading one to wonder if God will change the festivals in the Age to Come. In Ezekiel 44:15, the priesthood is limited to the line of Zadok, which is a narrower definition of the priestly line than in Torah where all Aaron’s descendants are priests. Ezekiel 46 suggests numerous regulations for a prince which are not found in Torah. The whole Temple in Ezekiel 40-48 is of a completely different plan than Solomon’s. And Ezekiel 43:7-8 gives a new law forbidding the prince to have a palace adjacent to the Temple.
Concerning these and others, Hananiah burned three hundred jars of midnight oil to show that Ezekiel is not a false prophet, but true.
Second, there is a story about the dangers and also the glories of Ezekiel’s chariot vision, a vision which inspired a tradition of mysticism. Much as the text of 2 Corinthians 12:1-8 inspired a whole tradition of Christian mysticism, so the vision of Ezekiel 1, which reappears throughout the book, is the basis of merkavah or “chariot” mysticism. It is called this because the vision of four living creatures and wheels within wheels is a chariot bearing the divine glory.
Concerning the chariot vision, there is a story about R. Yohanan ben Zakkai (c. time of the New Testament) riding with Eleazar ben Arakh driving the donkey for his master. Eleazar asked Yohanan to teach him about the Work of the Chariot (ma’aseh merkavah). Yohanan replied that only a fully qualified sage, able to render his own halakhic and midrashic opinions was fit to hear such teachings. Eleazar then replied that his master had already taught him some principles of the Chariot.
As Eleazar began to speak about the Work of the Chariot, Yohanan leapt off his donkey, wrapped his cloak about his head, and took shelter under an olive tree. When Eleazar inquired, Yohanan said the presence of angelic beings was sure to be with them. Eleazar then expounded and fire came from heaven and consumed all the trees, which sang verses from the Psalms as they were consumed by heavenly fire. An angelic being called out, “Surely this is the Work of the Chariot.”
Aftwerwards, Yohanan kissed his disciple on the head and blessed him as a rare one who had the gift of expounding on the Chariot, “Happy are you, O Abraham, our father, that R. Eleazar ben Arakh has come forth from your loins” (Hagigah 14b, Babylonian Talmud).
The moral of both stories, it would seem, is that Ezekiel is not child’s play. It is difficult book in some places to reconcile with Torah and it is full of mysteries that ascend to the heavens.