Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
THE prophet says that he saw four Ḥayyot: each of them had four faces, four wings, and two hands, but on the whole their form was human. Comp. "They had the likeness of a man" (Ezek. i. 5). The hands are also described
as human hands, because these have undoubtedly, as is well known, such a form as enables them to perform all manner of cunning work. Their feet are straight that is to say, they are without joints. This is the meaning of the phrase "a straight foot," taken literally. Similarly our Sages say, the words, "And their feet were straight feet" (ibid. i. 7), show that the beings above do not sit. Note this likewise. The soles of the feet of the Ḥayyot, the organs of walking, are described as different from the feet of man, but the hands are like human hands. The feet are round, for the prophet says, "like the sole of a round foot." The four Ḥayyot are closely joined together, there is no space or vacuum left between them. Comp. "They were joined one to another" (ibid. i. 9)." But although they were thus joined together, their faces and their wings were separated above" (ibid. ver. 11). Consider the expression "above" employed here, although the bodies were closely joined, their faces and their wings were separated, but only above. The prophet then states that they are transparent; they are "like burnished brass" (ibid. ver, 7). He also adds that they are luminous. Comp. "Their appearance was like burning coals of fire" (ibid. ver. 13). This is all that has been said as regards the form, shape, face, figure, wings, hands, and feet of the Ḥayyot. The prophet then begins to describe the motions of these Ḥayyot, namely, that they have a uniform motion, without any curvature, deviation, or deflexion: "They turned not when they went" (ver. 17). Each of the Ḥayyot moves in the direction of its face. Comp. "They went every one in the direction of his face" (ver. 9). Now, it is here clearly stated that each Ḥayyah went in the direction of its face, but since each Hayyah has several faces, I ask, in the direction of which face? In short, the four Ḥayyot do not move in the same direction; for, if this were the case, a special motion would not have been ascribed to each of them: it would not have been said, "They went each one towards the side of his face." The motion of these Ḥayyot is further described as a running, so also their returning is described as a running. Comp. "And the Ḥayyot ran, and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning" (ver. 14), raẓoh being the infinitive of ruẓ, "to run, "and shob the infinitive instead of ŝhub, "to return." The ordinary words, haloch and bo, "to go" and "to come, "are not used, but such words as indicate running to and fro: and these are further explained by the phrase, "As the appearance of a flash of lightning" (bazak, used by the prophet, is identical with barak), for the lightning appears to move very quickly; it seems to hasten and to run from a certain place, and then to turn back and to come again to the place from which it had started. This is repeated several times with the same velocity. Jonathan, the son of Uzziel, renders the phrase raẓo vashob thus: They move round the world and return at once, and are as swift as the appearance of lightning. This quick movement and return the Hayyah does not perform of its own accord, but through something outside of it, viz., the Divine Will; for "to whichever side it is the Divine Will that the Hayyah should move, thither the Ḥayyah moves," in that quick manner which is expressed by "running and returning." This is implied in the words, "Whithersoever the spirit was to go they went (ver. 20); "They turned not when they went" (ver. 17). By "the spirit" (ruaḥ), the prophet does not mean "the wind," but "the intention," as we have explained when discussing the homonym ruaḥ
[paragraph continues] (spirit). The meaning of the phrase is, that whithersoever it is the Divine Will that the Ḥayyah shall go, thither it runs. Jonathan, the son of Uzziel, gives a similar explanation: Towards the place whither it is the will to go, they go; they do not turn when they go. The employment of the future tense of the verbs yihyeh and yeleku in this passage seems to imply that sometimes it will be the will of God that the Hayyah should move in one direction, in which it will in fact move, and at other times it will be His will that the Hayyah should move in the opposite direction, in which it will then move. An explanation is, however, added, which is contrary to/this conclusion, and shows that the future form (yihyeh) of the verb has here the meaning of the preterite, as is frequently the case in Hebrew. The direction in which God desires the Ḥayyah to move has already been determined and fixed, and the Hayyah moves in that direction which His will has determined long ago, without having ever changed. The prophet, therefore, in explaining, and at the same time concluding [this description of the Ḥayyot], says, "Whithersoever the spirit was to go they go, thither was the spirit to go" (ver. 20). Note this wonderful interpretation. This passage forms likewise part of the account of the motion of the four Ḥayyot which follows the description of their form.
Next comes the description of another part; for the prophet relates that he saw a body beneath the Ḥayyot, but closely joining them. This body, which is connected with the earth, consists likewise of four bodies, and has also four faces. But no distinct form is ascribed to it: neither that of man nor that of any other living being. The [four bodies] are described as great, tremendous, and terrible; no form is given to them, except that they are covered with eyes. These are the bodies called Ofannim (lit. wheels). The prophet therefore says: "Now, as I beheld the Ḥayyot, behold one wheel upon the earth beside the living creatures, with his four faces" (ver. 15). He thus distinctly states that the Ofannim form a body, of which the one part touches the Ḥayyot, and the other part the earth; and that the Ofan has four faces. But he continues--"The appearance of the Ofannim (wheels) and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness" (ver. 16). By speaking of four Ofannim, after having mentioned only one Ofan, the prophet indicates that the "four faces" and the "four Ofannim" are identical. These four Ofannim have the same form; comp., "And they four had one likeness." The Ofannim are then described as partly inter-joined; for" their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel (ver. 16). In the description of the Ḥayyot such a phrase, with the term "in the middle of" (tok) is not employed. The Ḥayyot are partly joined, according to the words, "they were joined one to another" (ver. 11); whilst in reference to the Ofannim it is stated that they are partly intermixed, "as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel" The body of the Ofannim is described as being covered with eyes; it is possible that a body covered with real eyes is here meant, or a body with different colours [‘ayin denoting "eye," also "colour"], as in the phrase "the colour thereof [‘eno] as the colour (ke‘en) of bdellium" (Num. xi. 7); or a body filled with likenesses of things. In this latter sense the term ayin is used by our Sages in phrases like the following:--Like that [ke‘en] which he has stolen, like that [ke‘en] which he has robbed; or different
properties and qualities are meant, according to the meaning of the word 'ayin in the passage, "It may be that the Lord will look (be‘enai) on my condition" (2 Sam. xvi. 12). So much for the form of the Ofannim. Their motion is described as being without curvature and deviation; as being straight, without any change. This is expressed in the words, "When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went" (E.: ver. 117). The four Ofannim do not move of their own accord, as the Ḥayyot, and have no motion whatever of their own; they are set in motion by other beings, as is emphatically stated twice. The Ḥayyot are the moving agents of the Ofannim. The relation between the Ofan and the Ḥayyah may be compared to the relation between a lifeless body tied to the hand or the leg of a living animal; whithersoever the latter moves, thither moves also the piece of wood, or the stone, which is tied to the named limb of the animal. This is expressed in the following words:--"And when the Ḥayyot went, the Ofannim went by them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the Ofannim were lifted up" (ver. 19); "and the Ofannim were lifted up over against them" (ver. 20). And the cause of this is explained thus:--"The spirit of the Hayyah was in the Ofannim" (ibid.). For the sake of emphasis and further explanation the prophet adds, "When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the Ofannim were lifted up over against them; for the spirit of the Ḥayyah was in the Ofannim" (ver. 21). The order of these movements is therefore as follows:--Whithersoever it is the will of God that the Ḥayyot should move, thither they move of their own accord. When the Ḥayyot move the Ofannim necessarily follow them, because they are tied to them, and not because they move of their own accord in the direction in which the Ḥayyot move. This order is expressed in the words, "Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was the spirit to go; and the Ofannim were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the Hayyah was in the Ofannim" (ver. 20). I have told you that Jonathan, the son of Uzziel, translates the verse thus, "to the place whither it was the will that the Ḥayyot should go," etc.
After having completed the account of the Ḥayyot, with their form and motion, and of the Ofannim, which are beneath the Ḥayyot, connected with them and forced to move when the Ḥayyot move, the prophet begins to describe a third object which he perceived prophetically, and gives the account of a new thing, viz., of that which is above the Ḥayyot. He says that the firmament is above the four Ḥayyot, above the firmament is the likeness of a throne, and over the throne the likeness of the appearance of mar. This is the whole account of what the prophet perceived at first at the river Chebar.