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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament
I didn’t hear a lot about Ezekiel in my Seventh-day Adventist experience. Every so often a choir at some church function would perform the “negro spiritual” about the wheel Ezekiel saw. I probably also heard the song about the dry bones, but that seemed to be more about anatomy than divine revelation. Sometimes someone would cite the valley of dry bones vision as a prophecy of the resurrection we expected would happen when “Jesus came back.” But Ezekiel was one of those parts of the Bible where we didn’t often venture.
Reading Ezekiel now I can understand why I didn’t hear much about it. The major part of the book relates a series of visions, many of them fantastic symbolic allegories. Ezekiel’s visions are explicitly about ancient Israel which makes it harder to read them, as Adventists do with the books of Daniel and Revelation, as applicable to the modern world. Although there is a tradition dating back to early church fathers of reading virtually everything in Hebrew scriptures as a “type” prefiguring Jesus and specific Christian beliefs. Many of Ezekiel’s visions contain long repetitious, unsettlingly explicit descriptions of Yahve’s punishment of his unfaithful people and the nations that oppress them. The book is very dark except for the concluding vision of a restored temple and Israel to which Yahve will return his chastised people. But even there it is difficult to stay focused on the text with verse after verse of minute details complete with specific measurements.
The prophet Ezekiel lived during the Babylonian exile, a time of transition from the ancient Hebrew religion to new religious ideas shaping an emergent Judaism. The “Children of Israel” were becoming the “Jews.” Precise dates for many of Ezekiel’s visions are stated, thus locating him between 593-563 BCE. He seems to have been in Babylonia before the siege and fall of Jerusalem. Perhaps he was among the Judeans Jeremiah records as having been taken captive during the initial Babylonian conquest of 597 BCE. But it is not always clear as to whether he is in Babylonia or Jerusalem when a particular vision occurs. It is also often unclear as to whether the visions describe current events, predict the future, or recall the past. The literary quality is not on the level of Isaiah and Jeremiah and the long, repetitious details of the punishments dealt out by Yahve through his agent Babylon get pretty monotonous. There are many obscure and symbolic references that make it difficult to know just what is being said.
Richard Hess, who generally takes a conservative Christian view of the OT as divinely inspired, says Ezekiel at times “seems like something out of a strange fantasy or science fiction story.” Rabbi Sandmel comments, “I can think of nothing less rewarding for the untrained person than to try to read (Ezekiel) in the King James Version without explanatory help. . . . Many verses are unintelligible simply because we cannot discern the author’s intent.” The Hebrew text is not well preserved and there are many apparent mistakes with words omitted, misspelled, and added by copyists. Ezekiel’s visions carry symbolism to a new level beyond earlier prophets use of relatively simple parable and symbolic action.
Ezekiel was the forerunner of later apocalyptic literature which developed an elaborate symbolic language which countless scholars and believers through the centuries have struggled to decode. In studying apocalyptic writings Sandmel warns against “isolating each detail and assuming that it connotes something specific. . . . It is the total effect of the symbolism that is important. A preoccupation with details distorts the meaning.” That is very different from what I learned, for instance, about the identity of each beast in the book of Daniel (which I will be re-reading soon!).
Ezekiel’s visions interestingly contain a number of elements from Canaanite mythology and two references to Daniel who is probably Dan’el, a Canaanite wise man, rather than the main character in the biblical book of that name. In Ezekiel’s lamentation over the fate of Tyre there is an interesting variant on the Genesis account of Eden and the fall which may reflect a non-biblical tradition.
The book of Ezekiel is represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls by only a few fragments from seven separate scrolls. The Greek Septuagint version of Ezekiel differs from the official Masoretic Text in being shorter and arranging some parts of the book in a different order.
The first chapter is an account of Ezekiel’s prophetic call while “among the exiles by the river Chebar” in Babylonia. Sandmel describes the vision Ezekiel saw of a chariot throne on which sat the “glory of Yahve.” as “a remarkably full assortment of ancient conceptions preserved by folklore.” As the spiritual puts it, “Ezekiel saw the wheels way up in the middle of the air” along with four creatures each of which had four faces. Those faces, of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle, became in Christian iconography symbols of the four gospel writers. They also remind me of Hindu sculptures which frequently depict deities with four faces. The wheels and creatures make up a kind of chariot conveying Yahve and appear again in a later vision in which Yahve departs from the desecrated temple. Ezekiel’s vision became the basis of the merkbah or “chariot” tradition in Jewish mysticism.
Ezekiel is addressed by Yahve as “son of man” over ninety times. The term is used in later writings to denote the messiah but in Ezekiel it is clearly simply how the deity addresses a human being. Ezekiel is called to speak Yahve’s words to “the house of Israel” (in this and many other instances “Israel” refers not to the northern kingdom of Israel but is inclusive of the two kingdoms, Judah and Israel, formed when the kingdom of David split in two) who however will not listen “for they are a rebellious house” (2:7). As seems to always be the case with prophets, Ezekiel’s task is not an easy or rewarding one.
Ezekiel is told by Yahve to perform many symbolic actions, some of which seem highly improbable. He is told to make a model of Jerusalem under siege next to which he is to lie upon his left side for 390 days, which represents the number of years of the northern kingdom’s exile. Then he is to turn and lie upon his right side for 40 days, the number of years of Judah’s punishment in exile. He is to eat only very limited food which he is to cook on a fire of human dung. Ezekiel protests the last requirement as ritually unclean and is given a reprieve: he can use cow dung which was a common fuel.
Ezekiel’s wife is taken away by Yahve “at a stroke” but the prophet is forbidden to mourn, like the exiles who are unable to mourn what they have lost.
There is an allegory of a pot in which Judah will be boiled. As in other prophets, the unfaithful Judah and Israel are compared to promiscuous women. They are like two sisters who “played the harlot” in Egypt but are rescued by Yahve who marries them. But they continue their illicit behavior with lovers from Assyria and Babylon until Yahve turns away from them in disgust (23).
Israel’s conduct is “like the uncleanness of a woman in her impurity” (36:17-18), i. e. the ritual impurity of menstruation which is likened to the blood shed in sacrifices to idols. A footnote in the Oxford Annotated Bible notes that the word translated into English as “idol” actually means “dungball” in the Hebrew original.
Yahve comes across in some passages of Ezekiel as a rather appalling narcissistic character. He states that he forced his people to “offer by fire all their first-born that I might horrify them; I did it that they might know that I am the Lord” (20:26). He is not really concerned with their well-being but his reputation “among the nations.” “Not for your sake do I act, O house of Israel, but rather for the sake of my holy name . . . I will spend my fury upon them” (36:22, 6:12). Verse after verse delineates how Yahve will vent his fury on not just Israel but also a multitude of other nations. I am reminded of Jung’s argument in Answer to Job that the Bible is an account of God gradually becoming conscious through his interaction with humanity. In his dealings with ancient Israel he was far from fully conscious. But perhaps the Bible is better described as an attempt by human beings to understand the nature of God, an understanding that evolved over the thousand plus years of the Bible’s composition.
Yahve is a vengeful deity, but he has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (33:11). As with other prophets there is a promise of restoration of Israel, “I will gather you from . . . where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. . . . I will give them a new heart . . . that they may walk in my ordinances and obey them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (11:17-20).
As did Jeremiah, Ezekiel speaks of a new covenant in which he more explicitly states salvation is dependent on individual rather than collective acts. Those who repent of their sins will be accepted by Yahve. No longer will the sins of the fathers be held against the children but each person will be judged according to their own deeds (18:19-20, 30, 33).
Although there is a new emphasis on the individual, Ezekiel still expects the restoration of Israel as a nation. The vision of the valley of dry bones which come back to life is clearly not, as is often claimed, a reference to the Christian doctrine of personal resurrection. Rather the dry bones are “the house of Israel” which appeared to be dead but will be restored (37:11-12). Both exiled peoples, Israel and Judah will be returned to their land to be once again united in one kingdom ruled by a descendent of David.
This brings up the issue of failed prophecy, of which there seem to be a number of examples in Ezekiel. History tells us that the northern kingdom of Israel didn’t return after 390 years, or ever, from the Assyrian territories where they had been scattered. The Babylonian captivity of Judah is recorded as lasting, not the 40 years predicted by Ezekiel lying on his right side, but about 70. A long section of Ezekiel describes the ruin by Nebuchadnezzar’s army of the wealthy seaport of Tyre which would be reduced it to bare rock and never rebuilt. But the Babylonian siege of Tyre ended with negotiation, not destruction. Tyre continued to exist and is currently the fourth largest city in Lebanon. Egypt too was not made desolate and its people scattered by Babylon.
Uncircumcised (circumcision being a sign of Israel’s covenant with Yahve) people “slain by the sword” in death are described as going down to a vaguely defined place alternately referred to as “Sheol” or “the Pit.” What becomes of the righteous dead is not specified.
A lengthy apocalyptic vision involving Gog and Magog, which seem to be symbolic rather than actual nations, describes how a final foe will come against Israel “in the latter days” (a term I remember well as an Adventist reference to the present time being just prior to the Second Coming!) but will be defeated with the superiority of Yahve conclusively established as he “pours out his spirit on the house of Israel” (38-39)
Unlike earlier prophets, perhaps because he was a priest dedicated to serve in the temple, Ezekiel does not disparage the temple and its services. But he does denounce in detail the alien gods which have been brought into the temple. Along with the idols also vilified by prior prophets there are references to sun worship.
Chapters 40-48 describe Ezekiel’s concluding vision of the temple and its rituals in great detail. It would seem to be a prescription for restoration that is somewhat different from how the temple and its rites are described elsewhere in the Bible. The “ten lost tribes” of the northern kingdom will return along with the two Judean tribes held captive in Babylon. There is a description (which an Oxford Bible footnote states “completely ignores geographic reality”) of the distribution of the Holy Land between the twelve tribes.
Jerusalem will be rebuilt and renamed Yahve-shammah, “Yahve is here.” The temple was constructed with an east-west alignment so that on equinox days the rays of the rising sun entered through the eastern door, representing the glory of Yahve coming into the temple. In Ezekiel’s vision the glory of Yahve, which in another vision deserted the desecrated temple, comes from the east to once again fill the temple. The eastern gate is shut, for Yahve will now “dwell in the midst of the people of Israel forever” (43:1-9). In the Christian reworking of motifs from Judaism Ezekiel’s restored earthly Jerusalem became Revelation’s vision of the heavenly City of God.
Reading thus far in the Prophets has given me a clearer sense of what happened with events leading up and during the time of the Babylonia exile. I now better understand why biblical scholars often say that monotheism wasn’t firmly established until the return to Judah. As well as how the Children of Israel become the Jews.
© 2021 James Moyers