Chapter

Ezekiel

Michael D. Coogan

in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version

Published in print February 2007 | ISBN: 9780195288803
Published online April 2009 |
Ezekiel

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The prophecies in the book of Ezekiel are among the most fascinating and puzzling writings in the Bible. The prophet expresses his thought through a variety of literary forms, including signs, visions, allegories, denunciations, and legal arguments. He sometimes uses bizarre or extreme imagery and elaborates it to an almost excessive point. He has inspired fear, awe, and wonder in readers because he attempts not merely to name, but also to embody, God's sovereignty, holiness, and mystery in words that come close to the limits of expression.

At first this variety, intricacy, and elaboration can seem confusing. It is easy to get lost in Ezekiel's images and forget his larger concerns; it is easy as well to pick out striking passages and ignore the context of the book as a whole. But Ezekiel makes a coherent effort to deal with profound and difficult issues: Has God abandoned Jerusalem and the Temple? Does the suffering of the people of Judah have a purpose? How should the people understand their tragic history? And, perhaps most important, how can God now move on with God's people, in a transformed and renewed state? To understand how Ezekiel addresses these questions, we must consider not only the situation in which he found himself, but also the traditions and beliefs to which he looked for answers. The complexity of the book becomes clearer when we understand that it is the carefully written composition of one with a profound respect for the texts of his tradition, and that it has been carefully put together and preserved for the instruction of later readers.

Ezekiel wrote his prophecies, and his followers edited, expanded, and preserved them, in the sixth century bce in Babylon, during the exile of the Judeans from their homeland. The exile thus forms the historical context of the book, and at several points, particularly in the allegory in 17.1–24 , Ezekiel refers to the Babylonian subjugation of Judah.

The Babylonians under Nebuchadrezzar II (who ruled 605–562) defeated the Egyptians in 605. The Egyptians had allied with the great Assyrian empire, which the Babylonians destroyed between 614 and 609. Although these victories made Babylon the leading political power in Syria‐Palestine, including the territory of Judah, the Judeans, often acting in concert with other neighboring states, eventually rebelled. The Babylonians, in an escalating response to the continued efforts of the Judeans to throw them off, exiled the Judeans in two phases, spaced about a decade apart. They first besieged Jerusalem in 597 under King Jehoiakim, who died during the siege. When his successor, his son Jehoiachin, surrendered to the Babylonians, he, along with many of the Judean ruling class, was exiled to Babylon. The Babylonians installed a puppet king, Zedekiah; when he, too, attempted to rebel, they destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, and exiled much of the population, except the poorest, to Babylon in 586.

Ezekiel was among the first group of exiles, taken to Babylonia in 597. Even so, he remained well informed about events in Judah, and his prophecies concern both expatriates and those who remained behind. He could address both communities as a single entity, since they were in frequent contact with each other, and both were passionately concerned about the fate of Jerusalem. Neither group accepted Ezekiel's indictment of their guilt or believed his prophecies about Jerusalem's coming destruction. After the destruction in fact took place, the prophet's words turned to themes of renewed hope and restoration.

Ezekiel and his school, the followers who edited and preserved his prophecies, were members of a specific lineage of priests in Israel known as the Zadokites (see 1.1–3n.; 44.15–31n. ). At the time of Ezekiel's exile the Zadokites controlled the Israelite high priesthood and held power at the Jerusalem Temple. These Jerusalem priests were proponents of “Zion theology,” the traditions that emphasized God's choice of Jerusalem as Zion, the holy city, and the protection for Jerusalem that resulted from this choice (see 2 Sam 7.4–17; Ps 46; 132 ). These traditions also stressed God's unconditional choice of the Davidic monarchy and of Abraham's descendants. (See the annotations for instances of Ezekiel's use of this theology.)

The exile of the Judean rulers and the destruction of Jerusalem directly challenged this theology, since they called into question God's eternal promises to Zion. Ezekiel answered these challenges with cosmic, eschatological, and apocalyptic visions of a rebuilt Zion that fulfilled the promises of God's eternal protection despite the fall of the earthly Jerusalem (see 1.22–25n., 26–28n.; 37.28n.; 38.12n.; 43.7n.; 48.35n. ). In these visions particularly, Ezekiel anticipated much that was yet to come in the biblical writings, including later developments of apocalypticism (see especially Dan 7–12 , and, in the New Testament, the book of Revelation).

The specific language and laws of the priests and the traditions of the Temple heavily influenced Ezekiel as a Zadokite. A significant body of these laws, the so‐called “Holiness Collection,” can be found in the Pentateuch. The Holiness Collection extends beyond the confines of Lev 17–26 (known as the “Holiness Code”), and includes other parts of the Pentateuch often identified as belonging to the Priestly source (P). The relationship between God and Israel assumed by the Holiness Collection is that of a vassal‐covenant, a type of agreement in which guarantees on one side are specifically linked to responsibilities on the other. For Ezekiel this covenant form proved invaluable in interpreting the exile, since it allowed for the possibility that defilement, injustice, and covenant infidelity on Israel's part could lead to judgment and even exile without annulling God's eternal promises to Israel (Lev 26.42 ). The Holiness Collection stresses the unique sacredness of the people and land of Israel, in the midst of which the Lord dwells. This sacredness includes not only ritual and worship but also morality and social justice.

The prophet and his followers composed the book in writing and preserved it for the specific purpose of instructing readers at a later time. The written composition and the careful preservation of Ezekiel contrast with much of the other prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible, which was spoken directly to a contemporaneous audience. Many of the words of prophets such as Isaiah were only written down a considerable time after they had been spoken; therefore they could be, and often were, modified to adapt them to situations that arose in later times. In Ezekiel, however, there are clear indications of an originally written composition and of an early intention to preserve the text. For instance, the thoroughgoing chronological notations show that Ezekiel and his followers took great care to demonstrate the timeliness and veracity of Ezekiel's oracles, and thereby their authority as prophecy. This care for the written text and its accurate transmission, as well as for the preservation of authoritative traditions such as the Holiness Collection material, mark a breakthrough in the development of written scripture in Israel, and therefore help us to understand the historical processes that created the biblical canon over the centuries.

Ezekiel's character as a literary text makes it a complex book to read and interpret. Much of the other prophetic literature, as oral literature, generally uses less elaborate forms; Ezekiel, however, is made up of intricate, deliberately composed literary creations. Although some scholars have viewed such literary ornamentation and intricacy as indicating confused layers of literary growth, more recently scholars have argued for literary integrity in the texts, even when the final form has resulted from a process of transmission and editing. One of the characteristic features of the book is the frequent repetition of key words or phrases, such as “mortal” (literally “son of man”), “for the sake of my holy name,” and “so that you/they will know that I am the Lord.” Important aspects of the theology of Ezekiel are reinforced by the repetition of these and other formulas.

The style of Ezekiel is often non‐mimetic: It does not always render reality by immediate representation. Instead, it probes behind or beyond observable things and events, using metaphors and mythic poetry to portray the underlying structure of existence or the transcendent realities beneath both plain sensory observation and historical records. The visions in Ezekiel show both inner and outer realities, abolishing or going beyond normal sensory and temporal bounds.

Because of these literary qualities, reading Ezekiel requires a sophisticated approach, in order to avoid mistaking some of the descriptions for historical events, observable behaviors, or factual reports. For example, some interpretations of Ezekiel's behavior take it as evidence of a disoriented or abnormal personality. But the descriptions of these acts—such as muteness ( 3.22–27 ) or holding prolonged, agonizing postures ( 4.4–8 )—are not evidence of psychopathology but are instead literary images that have rich theological import.

The book of Ezekiel is complex, but fortunately its organization and outline are agreeably simple. Chapters 1–24 are set before the fall of Jerusalem, and are largely prophecies of doom against the city and against Judah. An extended body of material on Ezekiel's call to prophesy begins this section in chs 1–3 . Chapters 25–32 are prophecies against foreign nations, forming a bridge between Ezekiel's initial message of doom and his ultimate message of hope. The hope comes in the prophecies of restoration, chs 33–48 , dating from the time after Jerusalem's fall. Clearly the capture and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 was the critical moment in Ezekiel's prophetic career. The prophecies of restoration include an apocalyptic passage (chs 38–39 ) and an extended blueprint for the restored Temple and land (chs 40–48 ).

Chapter.  38052 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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