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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Historical Background

To understand Ezekiel's message, one must go back a century and a half before Ezekiel, to the earliest writing prophets—Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah of Jerusalem. What provoked these individuals to initiate a new religious movement and write down their prophecies and publicize them for the widest possible audience? Though we will probably never understand the reasons fully, two factors played a major role: (1) the prophets' conviction that the Lord's relationship to Israel had reached a crisis point; and (2) the fact that Israel faced a new kind of enemy, a superpower (Assyria) against which it could not defend itself. The earliest prophet, Amos, it is true, did not mention Assyria, but stated decisively that Israel's special relationship to the Lord had ended ( 8, 1–3 ) and that Judah and Israel, like the nations, now stood under the severe judgment of God ( 2, 4–3, 2 ). Before the rise of the writing prophets, prophets fought for the Lord and the cause of righteousness in Israel, but never called into question the relationship itself. Reform measures would bring the people back into right relationship with the Lord, they thought. Indeed, it was possible to mount defenses against the modestly scaled armies that attacked Israel in those days. In the last third of the eighth century BC, however, Assyria moved into the area. Massive, relentless, and superior in war, it could not be defeated in any meaningful sense. The best one could do was to pay tribute.

How did these two new factors—the military situation and the prophets' conviction that the relationship had ended—affect Israel's traditions? These two factors severely damaged the credibility of the traditions, for the usual version of the national story, preserved in such psalms as 105, 114, and 136, proclaimed that the Lord set Israel apart for himself, freed them from Egyptian bondage, and gave them the Promised Land. The political changes of the mid‐eighth century made the people's possession of their land precarious and uncertain. Israel's identity as a special people was called into question when the Lord remained silent before this new threat. Prophets were needed to reinterpret the ancient traditions for a radically new turn of events and to make it possible for the people to respond in a new situation. Each prophet emphasized in his own way the centrality of the relationship to the Lord and guided the people to appropriate actions. Hosea, for example, used the metaphor of marriage and the prospect of a new exodus to exhort Israel to remain faithful to the relationship. Amos mercilessly exposed the social injustice of the people and revised the traditional notion of the Day of the Lord to mean that the Lord might attack Israel rather than its enemies. Isaiah uncovered forgotten aspects of the Zion and David traditions to show that the promises were demands for fidelity as well as assurances of divine help. Jeremiah used the Exodus tradition and attempted to show that the divine judgment the people were experiencing could have a positive outcome if the people were obedient. Ezekiel, it will be shown below, interpreted the same historical events as Jeremiah, but saw them from a quite different perspective—that of a priest. The writing prophets, therefore, had a twofold task: to interpret the national traditions in the light of the ever‐changing course of history, and to persuade people to act in accord with the required changes. Theory and practice, interpretation and praxis, were inseparable for the prophets.

Shortly before Ezekiel appears on the scene, in the last quarter of the seventh century, the hitherto dominant Assyrian empire collapsed with astonishing speed, enabling small states in the Levant such as Judah to regain their freedom and rebuild. (The Levant is the land area bordering the eastern Mediterranean.) Under Assyrian rule, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had become an Assyrian province, and Judah, with territory reduced, was a vassal state. These were the times of the prophets Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah, who had the task of explaining to the people that what was happening, however horrific, was the work of the Lord, that the events did not necessarily mean the end of Israel, and that the divine work demanded a faithful response.

In 640 BC, Josiah came to the throne in Judah. A child just eight years old, Josiah was assisted by a group of people loyal to the Lord and the authentic traditions of Israel. The death of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal, in 627 BC, freed him to launch a reform and reclaim the people's national and religious identity. Josiah sought to restore the old boundaries of the kingdom of David, annexing the former Assyrian provinces of Samaria, Gilead, and Galilee (2 Kgs 23, 19 ). In 622 BC, an ancient law book, the nucleus of the present book of Deuteronomy, was found in the Temple in the course of restoration work. It became the basis of a wide‐ranging religious reform (2 Kgs 22, 1–23, 27 ). Unfortunately, the promising reform collapsed with Josiah's unexpected death in 609 BC (2 Kgs 23, 28–30 ). Judah was again reduced to a vassal state, first under Egypt and then, after Nebuchadnezzar defeated Egypt at the battle of Carchemish (in northern Syria) in 605 BC, under Babylon. Descendants of Josiah came to the throne in succession, all at the command of foreign powers: Jehoahaz (609, three months), Jehoiakim (609–598) and his son, Jehoiachin (598/7, three months), and Jehoiachin's uncle, Zedekiah (597–587/6). Though it had to yield control of Palestine to Babylon, Egypt remained a formidable state, never letting an opportunity pass to encourage Judah to rebel against Babylon. Jehoiakim and Zedekiah, for their part, played one great power against the other, but found, to their cost, that Egypt was weak and unreliable. Jeremiah vigorously opposed such attempts to fend off Babylon, which he regarded as God's instrument to punish and purge Judah. Jeremiah was right. Judean political juggling roused the Babylonians, and in 598 its army sacked the city and deported many of its leaders to Babylonia (2 Kgs 24, 8–17 ). Jehoiakim died during the siege, and the Babylonians took his eighteen‐year‐old son Jehoiachin to Babylon as a hostage to prevent further rebellion. Many people placed their hopes for eventual restoration in Jehoiachin, a king in the line of David; to them, his release from prison was a good omen (2 Kgs 25, 19; Jer 52, 31–33 ). Jehoiachin's uncle Zedekiah was named regent (2 Kgs 24, 18–20 ), and he continued his predecessors' rebellious policies. Nebuchadnezzar responded with force. After a campaign lasting three years (588–586 BC), he destroyed the cities of Judah and looted and burned Jerusalem and its Temple (2 Kgs 25; Jer 52 ). Babylon had done what Assyria had not done—destroy Jerusalem and the Temple.

King Zedekiah had to face the awful consequences. Captured, he was forced to look on as his two sons were murdered, then his own eyes were put out (2 Kgs 25 ). Among the eight or ten thousand deportees of 597 (2 Kgs 24, 14–16 give both figures) was Ezekiel (Ez 1, 1 ), evidently a Zadokite priest. With other exiles, he settled in Nippur and seems to have occupied a prominent place in the transplanted community and was often consulted by them (Ez 8, 1; 14, 1; 20, 1 ). To judge by his commission to stand in opposition to the community and by his vigorous criticism of their opinions, he had a very different understanding of the exile than they did. He saw the exile as a long process of judgment that required faith. The people, on the other hand, saw themselves as helpless victims and hoped for a speedy and trouble‐free return. No wonder that the Lord said to the prophet: “Hard of face and obstinate of heart are they to whom I am sending you. But you shall say to them: Thus says the Lord God!” ( 2, 4 ).

Dated Oracles in the Book of Ezekiel

The book contains two series of seven dates that introduce selected oracles throughout the book. (The first date [1, 1] is outside of the sequence.) One series of seven dates introduces foreign oracles in chapters 25 through 32 ( 26, 1; 29, 1.17; 30, 20; 31, 1; 32, 1.17 ), and range from 587/586 to 571; all but one, 29, 1.17, are in chronological order. The sections describe specific actions of enemy nations. The other series of seven dates ( 1, 2; 3, 16; 8, 1; 20, 1; 24, 1; 33, 21; 40, 1 ) introduces important moments in the prophet's ministry. Ezekiel 1, 2 and 3, 16 mark his call and commission. The crucial vision of the departure of the divine glory from the Temple in chapters 8 through 11 is signaled by the date heading in 8, 1. The fourth date, 20, 1, is less certain; it may allude to the beginning of Zedekiah's rebellion, which was so fraught with consequences for the nation. The fifth date, 24, 1, marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem in January 588. The last two dates are concerned with restoration: 33, 21 is the date of the arrival of the news that Jerusalem has fallen, indicating that the prophet can now devote his attention to the revival of the nation; 40, 1 begins the final vision of the new city and its Temple in 573. Carefully arranged in chronological order, these dates show how Ezekiel's preaching corresponded with God's judgment that unfolded over time. The number seven, which often expresses fullness and completion in the Bible, underlines the comprehensive nature of the divine plan. The dates suggest that the plan will come to completion even if human beings resist it.

Two dates require special comment. Ezekiel 1, 1 gives the date of his call, “In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, while I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens opened, and I saw divine visions,” whereas the immediately following date ( 1, 2 ) gives the date as July 593, “On the fifth day of the month, the fifth year, that is, of King Jehoiachin's exile, the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel.” To what does “the thirtieth year” refer? It could mean several things: Ezekiel's age at the time of his call (a priest could begin work in the Temple at thirty, according to Nm 4, 3 ); the year when the book was finally edited; or thirty years after an event known to Ezekiel's original readers but not to us. The first suggestion makes the most sense: though Ezekiel was at the proper age for ordination, he could not be ordained in Babylonia because he could not go to the Temple; he would therefore serve at the Temple through visions ( see 8–11 and 40–48 ). The other date, March/April 571 ( 19, 17 ) is not in the proper chronological sequence; it may update an oracle originally given earlier.

The dates link Ezekiel's preaching to specific events in human history. Since Ezekiel employed divine speech and visionary experiences more than any other prophet, the date formulas remind readers that he was interpreting real events and urging hearers to practical action.

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