Saturday, March 25, 2017

Wheels within wheels

10 And as for their appearance, the four had the same likeness, as if a wheel were within a wheel. 11 When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went, but in whatever direction the front wheel faced, the others followed without turning as they went (Ezk 10:10-11).

Artists and commentators struggle to visualize Ezekiel's description of the wheels. Since I wasn't there, I can't reconstruct what Ezekiel saw. However, I'd like to draw a comparison. One time I was standing near a railroad. I was familiar with the railroad, having see it from both sides. It was a double railroad. Two parallel tracks for two trains. 

The time I was standing there, I saw a train in the foreground, facing me. That train was at a standstill. 

Yet I saw moving wheels. How could the wheels be moving while the train was motionless?

The explanation, of course, is that I was seeing through the undercarriage of the train in the foreground to another train beside it. The train in the foreground obscured the train in the background. This generated the optical illusion that the train facing me was simultaneously mobile and immobile. How would the undercarriage be in motion while the carriage remained motionless? 

Of course, that's impossible, yet I didn't misperceive the situation. The illusion was caused by the ambiguities of perspective. A montage in which the train in the foreground was superimposed on the train in the background. The only part of the train in the background that was visible was the undercarriage. But due to the foreshortened perspective, it looked as if the moving wheels belonged to the motionless train. 

Perhaps Ezekiel's disorienting imagery is analogous to that. 

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