Back to the Bible - A Former Believer Re-Reads the Old Testament
Prophets of the Babylonian Exile
The various parts of Jeremiah are a bit bewildering. The book starts out clearly enough with a statement of the time Jeremiah was active (about 627-580 BCE) as a prophet in Jerusalem followed by a first person account of his call. But the rest of the book is a jumble of oracles against Judah and Jerusalem coupled with lamentations about their coming doom, accounts of incidents in Jeremiah’s life scattered here and there, a lengthy section of dire prophecies against various nations conquered by Babylon followed by a collection of “illogically arranged and somewhat reduplicated” (as a footnote in the Oxford Annotated Bible puts it) oracles foretelling the coming end of Babylon, and in the final chapter a straightforward historical account of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. There is even one seemingly out of place verse (10:11) written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew! One oracle against Edom is also found in Obadiah.
One explanation for the seemingly scrambled order of Jeremiah as well Isaiah and some other books of the OT has to do with the way scrolls were assembled, with sections of parchment sewn together to make up the final scroll. It may be that the various bits that make up the book were sewn together without much regard for logical order. Perhaps it was more important to gather the various parts together to ensure preservation than it was to figure out the sequence. Once the text in the scroll was regarded as sacred it could not be altered and so its scrambled order was copied over and over again.
Interestingly both the Greek Septuagint and the several Dead Sea Scrolls of Jeremiah, which are much older than any other extant copy of the Hebrew text of the Bible, are significantly different from the Masoretic text upon which modern OT translations are based, being about 13% shorter as well as differently arranged. One Dead Sea Jeremiah scroll, with a date of 200 BCE or earlier making it one of the oldest known biblical texts, interestingly has multiple added corrections. In one place the original copyist left out a lengthy section which a later scribe restored by squeezing part of the missing section between already written text, then spilling it sideways along the margin and upside down at the bottom of the page.
I wonder if the Aramaic verse of Jeremiah 10:11 might be indicative of copyist error. Perhaps it was originally a marginal note that was mistakenly inserted into the text by a later scribe.
Accounts of incidents involving Jeremiah contain specific details and names of the people involved. The stated month and year of a confrontation between the prophet and a priest in the temple translates to August 597 BCE. A story of Jeremiah’s purchase of property from a cousin contains the most detailed account of a business transaction in the Bible. Jeremiah’s words are noted as being recorded by his associate, Baruch, who is the probable author of the biographical sections of the book.
Like Isaiah, Jeremiah responds to his prophetic call by claiming he is unfit to convey the message of Yahve to Jerusalem. But Yahve touches his mouth to “put words in it” (1:7) and Jeremiah begins a lengthy career as Yahve’s messenger to people who don’t want to hear what he has to say. He speaks out against the priests and prophets associated with the temple. The rulers of Jerusalem regard Jeremiah’s advice that they surrender to the besieging Babylonians as treasonous. He is continually persecuted, barred from the temple, beaten, imprisoned, and threatened with death. A scroll he sends to be read to the king is burned. During the siege of Jerusalem Jeremiah is put into a cistern (which was nearly empty because the Babylonians had cut off the water supply), sunk in the mire and left to die until an Ethiopian (not necessarily from Ethiopia which sometimes seems to refer to Egypt or another part of Africa) eunuch from the royal household rescues him.
The prophet calls down divine justice on his persecutors: “Therefore deliver up their children to famine; give them over to the power of the sword, let their wives become childless and widowed. May their men meet death by pestilence, their youths be slain by the sword in battle” (18:21). At times he gives in to despair: “Cursed be the day on which I was born! . . .Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (20:14,18).
But Jeremiah continues proclaiming “Thus says the Lord!” Yahve demands that his people “truly execute justice . . . not oppress the alien, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood . . . and not go after other gods” (7:7). Yahve’s chosen people have forsaken the covenant they made with him, worshipping other gods which “are as many as your cities.” As did other prophets, Jeremiah denounces the temple cult - Yahve does not want burnt offerings and sacrifices but obedience. The temple is no longer the dwelling place of Yahve but a “den of robbers” (7:8), a text which many centuries later Jesus would quote as he drove the merchants out of the temple. The people of Judah have “burned incense to other gods, and worshipped the works of their own hands (idols)” (1:14). Worst of all they have sacrificed their own children as burnt offerings to their false gods.
Interestingly, Jeremiah’s description of the worship of “The Queen of Heaven” indicates that it, unlike the male dominated cult of Yahve, actively involved women. Which might explain why the prophets so frequently mention women in their denunciation of the worship of “false gods.”
As happened to the shrine of Israel at Shiloh, so too the desecrated Jerusalem temple will be destroyed. Judah failed to learn from what happened to her sister, Israel, who also “played the harlot” (3:1) with other gods and was destroyed. Yahve will “bring evil from the north and destruction . . . to make your land a waste; your cities will be ruins” (4:6-7). Babylon is the instrument of Yahve in punishing his unfaithful people.
But Yahve will “will not make a full end of you” but will send his unfaithful people to “serve strangers in land that is not yours” (5:18) after which he “will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and will bring them back to their fold . . . and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed” (23:3-4). Although the old covenant has been broken, there is the promise of “a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (31:31). Jeremiah advises compliance with the Babylonians, writing to those who had been taken captive to Babylon to say that they should settle there while awaiting the promised return to Jerusalem which will be restored.
The concluding chapter of Jeremiah is a straightforward account of the fall of Jerusalem, with the city along with the temple and its furnishings, which are described in detail, destroyed. There are three removals of Judean captives to Babylon with their total number listed as 4600. Which rather surprised me. In my Adventist education I heard repeated references to the “Babylonian captivity” which seemed to imply that most of the population of Judah was carried away by their conquerors.
But Jeremiah makes it clear that only the elite, ruling class was made captive. Most of the rest of the population remained under the administration of a Judean governor appointed by Babylon. Jeremiah was offered the option of staying in Judah which he chose, going to live with the governor with whom he had family connections. He continued to counsel cooperation with Babylon. But then the governor was assassinated during a revolt after which a group of people fled to Egypt for safety. For reasons that are not clear in the text, Jeremiah along Baruch also went to Egypt despite having repeatedly warned against fleeing there. Once in Egypt he continued to issue prophetic messages denouncing the refugees for worshipping Egyptian gods, which made him no more popular with his fellow exiles who responded by saying that they turned to other gods because Yahve had failed them.
The account of Jeremiah’s life fades out in Egypt with his ultimate fate unknown.
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.
Ezekiel’s visions interestingly contain a number of elements from Canaanite mythology and two references to (14:14; 28:3) a Daniel who is probably Dan’el, a Canaanite wise man who also appears in non-biblical texts, rather than the main character in the biblical book of that name. In Ezekiel’s lamentation over the fate of Tyre (28:11-19) 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 representing different aspects of the god. 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 foretold as the length of the northern kingdom’s exile. Then he is to turn and lie upon his right side for 40 days, the number of years Judah will be punished 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 being fully conscious. But perhaps the Bible is better understood as representing the the efforts of human beings to understand the nature of God, an understanding that evolved over the hundreds of 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 enter 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
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