Monday, September 18, 2017

Bible in a Year: Ezekiel

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week, I’m studying Ezekiel, a book that I was dreading, because it can be so weird and angry, but at the same time it is so profound and concerned.

In his book Holiness in Israel (Fortress Press, 1989), John G. Gammie writes: “[N]ot only was Ezekiel a priestly prophet and theologian of the divine holiness, he was also a pastor and superb moral theologian. His homilies of divine judgment on the unfaithful shepherds (chap. 34) and of divine hope for the exiles who considered themselves as dead as dry bones in a dry valley (chap. 37) certainly rank among the best-known homilies from all of Scripture. Ezekiel spoke with the eye of a pastor to the needs of those in exile” (pp. 49-50).

Daniel Block describes other aspects of Ezekiel:

“Nor surprisingly, Ezekiel has been the subject of numerous psycho-analytical studies. While prophets were known often to act and speak erratically for rhetorical purposes, Ezekiel is in the class of his own. The concentration of so many bizarre features in one individual is without precedent: his muteness; lying bound and naked; digging holes in the walls of houses; emotional paralysis in the face of his wife’s death; ‘spiritual’ travels; images of strange creatures, of eyes, and of creeping things hearing voices and the sounds of water; withdrawal symptoms; fascination with feces and blood; wild literary imagination; pornographic imagery; unreal if not surreal understanding of Israel’s past; and the list goes on. It is no wonder that Karl Jaspers found in Ezekiel an unequaled case for physiological analysis. E. C. Broome concluded that Ezekiel was a true psychotic, capable of great religious insight but exhibit g series of diagnostic characteristics: catatonia, narcissistic-masochistic conflict, schizophrenic withdrawal, delusions of grandeur and of persecution. In short, he suffered from a paranoid donation common in many great spiritual leaders. This psychoanalytic approach has been rejected by commentators and psychiatrists alike (quoted in Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 2nd edition, 223-223).

Block rightly dismisses this approach, but his comments do illustrate the strangeness of this particular prophet, even among the strange individuals who were gifted with prophecy  in Israel’s history.

Ezekiel was not only a prophet but a priest of Zadoc—the priests appointed by Solomon for the Temple, 1 Kings 2:35 (Jewish Study Bible, p. 1042) This priesthood has an interesting history. Not surprisingly, Ezekiel’s prophecies have a focus of purity and priestly faithfulness. The years of his prophetic office seems to coincide with the twenty years stipulated for priests (Numbers 4:23, 39; JSB, 1044. The purpose of the book is to announce and describe judgment on Judah and to urge repentance. Set during the Babylonian captivity, the book was likely written in about 571 BCE, according to one source.

But Ezekiel's concern to be a watchman is also a very pastoral duty. As Gerhard von Rad points out (Old Testament Theology, Vol. II [Harper & Row, 1965], p. 2320, his prophetic role made him go out among the people and minister to them (pp. 230-231). These words are very famous and are often taken to heart by pastoral leaders:

At the end of seven days, the word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, I have made you a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die’, and you give them no warning, and do not speak to warn the wicked from their wicked way, in order to save their life, those wicked persons shall die for their iniquity; but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and they do not turn from their wickedness, or from their wicked way, they shall die for their iniquity; but you will have saved your life. Again, if the righteous turn from their righteousness and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumbling-block before them, they shall die; because you have not warned them, they shall die for their sin, and their righteous deeds that they have done shall not be remembered; but their blood I will require at your hand. If, however, you warn the righteous not to sin, and they do not sin, they shall surely live, because they took warning; and you will have saved your life (3:16-21)

This commission of God’s for Ezekiel is reiterated in chapter 33 as well.


The book is more chronological and orderly compared to Jeremiah. Here is a basic outline:

Chapters 1-3, the Lord commissions Ezekiel and gives him visions and messages concerning Judah.

Chapters 4-24. Ezekiel proclaims his message, not only in oracles but also in symbolic actions and parables.

Chapters 25-32 concern God’s judgment against the nations: Ammon, Edom, Philistia, Moab, Sidon, Egypt, and Tyre.

Chapters 33-48 contain the prophets messages of salvation and restoration. This section contains the famous vision of the valley of dry bones, the oracle of Gog and Magog, and finally the vision of the restored Temple.

The Jewish Study Bible identifies thirteen major blocks, from the fifth year of King Jehoiachin’s exile in 593 to the vision of the restored temple in the 25th year:

Ezekiel’s inaugural vision and resulting oracles (1:1-7:27)
Oracles concerning the departure of God from the Temple (8:1-19:14)
Oracles about Israel’s punishment (20:1-23:49)
symbolic actions about Jerusalem’s destruction and the condemnation of neighboring nations (24:1-25:17)
Oracles about Tyre (26:1-28:26)
Oracles concerning Egypt (29:1-32:1-6)
Oracles about the nations; Ezekiel’s role as watchman (32:17-33:20)
Oracles about Israel’s restoration (33:21-39:29)
Vision of the restored temple (40:1-48:35) (paraphrased from JSB, 1045).


God’s holiness is a major theme of the book. Ezekiel expresses God’s desire that God, or the Name of God, shall be known. The phrase “that you (they) may know that I am the Lord” occurs at least 63 times in Ezekiel (Gammie, p. 45).

Also, the Name of God is theological important in Ezekiel. “My holy name” and “for the sake of my holy name” are also frequent phrases in the book (p. 47)

Ezekiel chapter 20 provides the story of Israel, where the people are delivered “for my name’s sake”). Then they are given the Sabbaths and the laws where Israel may know the Lord and sanctify God’s name. The wilderness generation rebelled, too, but God acted again for the sake of God’s name” (p. 46).

Ezekiel also is a theologian of God’s “glory” (kabod). The book begins with a vision of glory: the weird vision that inspired that spiritual, “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel,” perhaps my first acquaintance with this Bible book. In chapters 8-11, the prophet depicts the departure of God’s glory from the Temple, and also the return of God’s glory to the restored Temple (Ez. 40-48).

Gammie further notes that 18:5-9, 10-13, 14-18 is an outline “for a moral theology that may justifiably be called a theology of the ethical requirements of holiness” (p. 50). For instance, 18:5-9:

If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbour’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully—such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God.

Gammie connects Ezekiel chapter 18 with Leviticus 19 as the Bible’s high points of ethical reflection—-but also the Temple passage in chapters 40-48. Here, too, we have a lofty theology of ethics and holiness in the framework of God’s glory (pp. 52-59). Although the Temple vision does not depict the ark or incense or other aspects of the cultus that we find in the Torah, we do have these requirements of holiness:

1 A newly built Temple (40-42)
2. Removal of memorials of kings (43:7-8)
3. Removal of foreigners from the sanctuary (44:6-9)
4. Demotion of the Levites along with an elevation of the Zadokite priests (44:10-27)
5. Social reforms 45:9-12)
6. The people bring sacrifices to offer (45:13-17)
7. The sanctuary is cleansed (45:18-20)
8. The passover is kept (45:21-25)
9. The holiness of the inner rooms are safeguarded (44:19, 46:19)
and the land is apportioned to the prices, prince, and Zadokites, with the Temple in the center (chapter 48). (Paraphrased from Gammie p. 56)

That author goes on to discuss ways this depiction differs with or complements other scriptures about the priesthood and holy places (pp. 56-57), and also similarities with Ezekiel’s conception of holiness with that of the Chronicler (Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah), pp. 58-69.

In An Introduction to the Old Testament, Brueggemann also points out the way the repentance of the people Israel is not a matter of ethics alone, but also (for the priest Ezekiel) a regaining of God’s holiness after the ritual contamination (36:23-28). The theological focus of Ezekiel is the priestly care for the divine presence as well as the honor of the name of the sovereign God. When Jerusalem falls, then (in Ezekiel’s theology) God’s dishonored name has been vindicated (pp. 228-229). Thus the first portion of the book ends at chapter 24, with Jerusalem’s fall, and then with chapter 25 and following, he prophet teaches of God’s hope. Not only the fall of Jerusalem but the defeat of the nations (e.g, chapters 25-28, and the vision of Gog and Magog in chapters 38-39) also serve to illustrate the sovereignty of God (pp. 230-231, 234-235).

Gerhard von Rad reminds us that, during Ezekiel’s two decades of prophecy, there was yet no Deuteronomistic theology that interpreted theologically the reasons for the disaster that has befallen upon Judah. Is God weak? Is God unfaithful and uncaring? Some of the working-out of problems that Gammie points out, as well as some of the extremity that Block discusses, is Ezekiel’s effort—crude and unpoetic as he may sometimes be—-to preach the reasons for Judah’s exile. For instance, the untoward eroticism and terrible violence of the parables of chapters 16 and 23—where God’s people are depicted as a sexually insatiable, faithless wife violently punished by her jealous and wounded husband/God—is unacceptable by our contemporary standards but, in the context of the time, illustrates the intimacy of the bond between God and his people and the wounded quality and dishonor God feels when God’s people have been unfaithful to the covenant.

The unfaithfulness that Ezekiel depicts as "whoring" refers both to cultic apostasy as well as Judah's attempts to gain the help of powerful neighboring nations (pp. 229ff). Marc Zvi Brettler (How to Read the Jewish Bible, Oxford 2007, p. 191), notes that the prophet uses the root זנה (znh), "to whore," thirteen times in chapter 16 and seven times in chapter 23. A good book on Ezekiel's themes, which I've studied but can't find in my library at the moment, is Jerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel: The City as Yahweh's Wife by Dr. Julie Galambush (Scholars Press, 1992). She discusses more about the marital and covenantal images in the prophet.

A significant aspect of Ezekiel’s moral loftiness is his refutation of the idea of intergenerational guilt. For instance, chapter 18 begins:

The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

Marc Zvi Brettler paraphrases that proverb, "The parents eat Snickers® and the children get cavities." He interpret's Ezekiel's daring affirmation of individual responsibility as reflecting his ability to listen to the worries of the exiles and to offer the right words to his fellow people (pp. 188-189). 
After all, the Ten Commandments themselves (see Exodus 20:5) presumes intergenerational guilt, and stories like Sodom presume communal guilt; these are ideas we've often seen in the scriptures so far. “Ezekiel is arguing against two beliefs found in a variety of biblical texts—intergenerational punishment, and corporate (communal) responsibility and retribution. That is why he needs to make his point so forcefully” (p. 190). Thus the repetitiveness of chapter 18 and also chapter 14.

Ezekiel's theology of the law provides a potential link to Paul’s theology—-although Paul does not quote Ezekiel in this content. Von Rad writes: "Ezekiel brings a new direction to the old prophetic task of exposing sin. He is, perhaps, more concerned than his predecessors were to demonstrate its total dominion over men. These excursuses on the history are intended to make clear that it is not a matter of separate transgressions, nor simply of the failure of one generation, but of a deep-seated inability to obey, indeed of a resistance to God which made itself manifest on the very day that Israel came into being. What makes Ezekiel’s pictures of Israel’s history so unvarying is that in his eyes the end is no better than the beginning. There is no difference, no moment of suspense—the same state of affairs exists in every age of her history.” Thus God departs Israel (p. 230) but restores Israel for the sake of his name, which includes the nations (p. 236-237). “The final goal of the divine activity is therefore that Jahweh should be recognized and worshipped by those who so far have not known him or who still do not know him properly.” (p. 237).

Also, according to von Rad, although Jeremiah does not unify the traditions of Sinai and of a future Davidic king, Ezekiel does in 37:24, though for Ezekiel the Sinai mitzvot are still uppermost. (p. 236).  When we get to the New Testament texts I'll try to remember to connect this particular prophetic theology to Paul.

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