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Ezekiel

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The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Ethics What is This? Explores the relationship between the text of the Bible and the development and contexts of ethical frameworks.

Ezekiel

The priest-prophet Ezekiel was active early in the Babylonian exile. Taken captive to Babylon in 597 B.C.E., he included in his work a number of specific dates ranging from 593 B.C.E. to 571 B.C.E. These dates reckon time from the reign of King Jehoiachin, who was exiled at the same time as Ezekiel, and are implicitly a snub of Zedekiah, Jehoiachin’s successor (see the sharp criticism of Zedekiah in Ezek 17:5–6, 11–21; 21:25–26). Scholars are divided on how much of the present text can be ascribed to Ezekiel himself. Walther Zimmerli attributed the core of most oracles to the prophet himself, but believed that substantive parts of many oracles came from a later “school of Ezekiel.” Moshe Greenberg, on the other hand, followed a holistic reading that is skeptical about claims of secondary elaboration. Even passages that have been declared secondary by some scholars show a close “family resemblance” to primary materials, and there is marked homogeneity in the Ezekiel tradition. Hence, there is no consensus on what is original and what is secondary in the book. It would be difficult to date Ezekiel’s vision of the new Temple (chapters 40–48), one of the latest pericopes in the collection, later than the dedication of the Second Temple in 515 B.C.E. This essay will discuss only the final form of Ezekiel.

The book may be outlined as follows:

I. Oracles against Judah and Jerusalem Chapters 1–24

A. First vision: the prophet’s call 1:13:21

B. Symbolic actions announcing the fate of Jerusalem 3:22—5:4

C. Oracles of Judgment 5:5—7:27

D. Second vision: abominations in the Temple 8:1—11:25

E. Oracles against Jerusalem’s leaders 12:1—15:8

F. Detailing of abominations 16:1—23:49

G. Death of Ezekiel’s wife 24:1–27

II. Oracles against foreign nations Chapters 25–32

A. Ammon, Moab, Edom, and Philistia 25:1–17

B. Tyre 26:1—28:26

C. Egypt 29:1—32:32

III. Hope Oracles Chapters 33–48

A. The fall of Jerusalem and Ezekiel’s recovery of his speech 33:1–33

B. False shepherds and Yahweh as the good shepherd 34:1–31

C. Oracles against Mount Seir 35:1–16

D. A new heart and a new spirit 36:1–38

E. Third vision: the valley of the dry bones 37:1–28

F. The invasion of Gog of Magog 38:1—39:29

IV. New Temple and renewed Land of Israel Chapters 40–48

Ezekiel was a contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah (627–580s B.C.E.) although he does not mention him, and he prophesied a generation before Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40–55). His message in the years 593–586 was that Judah and Jerusalem’s fate was inevitable and richly deserved because of their misdeeds. Once Jerusalem had fallen he prophesied a great new future for Israel in contours that reflected his own priestly orientation.

Ezekiel depicted the God Yahweh as faithful to his old promises, but free to adopt himself to new situations. In the opening vision, Yahweh appeared in a vision to Ezekiel in Babylon. The rich symbolism of chapter 1 emphasizes the reality of God’s presence in the land of exile, but also the deity’s mobility that explained how he could move from Jerusalem to Babylon (wheels, wings, legs, and the ability to move in various directions without turning). Ezekiel was to prophesy regardless of whether the people would listen or not (Ezek 2:5, 7; 3:11, 27). As a sentinel his responsibility was limited: he was to warn about God’s imminent assault on Jerusalem. At Yahweh’s direction, Ezekiel swallowed a scroll that was filled with nothing but lamentation, mourning, and woe. Surprisingly this scroll tasted like honey because it was the word of Yahweh (cf. Jer 15:16: “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart”). The 12 symbolic actions recorded in Ezekiel are slightly more than for his contemporary Jeremiah, but far surpassing the number in earlier prophets. Ezekiel acted out the siege of Jerusalem (4:1–3), bore the guilt of the people as their substitute (4:4–8), ate limited rations like a person in a siege (4:9–11), and objected to eating bread baked on coals made of human dung, only to have Yahweh mitigate this fate slightly by allowing him to use fuel made of animal dung (4:12–15). Other sign actions are in 5:1–4 (Ezekiel used his own hair to dramatize how Jerusalem’s inhabitants would be burned in the city, killed in flight, or driven into exile); 12:1–16 (Ezekiel marched into exile with a pack on his back), 12:17–20 (the prophet was ordered to eat his bread with quaking and dismay over the coming attack on Jerusalem; 21:6–7 (Ezekiel sighed over the latest news from the homeland), 21:18–23 (Nebuchadnezzar’s divination procedures persuaded him to attack Jerusalem first); and 37:15–28, the only sign action with a positive message, namely, that God would reunite the two kingdoms into one nation.

The last dated oracle in Ezekiel also provides an occasion for Ezekiel to discuss God’s faithfulness and freedom (Ezek 29:17–21). In Ezekiel 26:7–14, God had promised to turn Tyre over to Nebuchadnezzar II, the king of Babylon, as reward for his deed of bringing divine judgment on Judah. We know from Josephus that Nebuchadnezzar was unable to capture Tyre despite a thirteen-year siege. God remained faithful to the original promise to Nebuchadnezzar, but was free to adapt it to the contingencies of history: Yahweh gave Nebuchadnezzar victory over Egypt instead of the original promise of victory over Tyre.

Ezekiel Identifies the Sins of Judah and Jerusalem.

The second vision in chapters 8–11 describes Ezekiel making an inspection of the Jerusalem Temple and describing a series of abominations that were being perpetrated right in the Temple itself. These abominations would force Yahweh to leave this sanctuary: an image that made Yahweh “jealous,” perhaps an image of a goddess (8:5–6); people worshipping with incense before images of creeping things and loathsome animals while asserting that Yahweh did not see them because he had abandoned the Land (8:7–13); women worshipping with weeping the god Tammuz (8:14–15); and, finally, 25 men standing in front of the Temple and apparently worshipping the sun (8:16–18). Ezekiel’s account of the abominations in the Temple ends with an uncompromising and heartrending sight: six executioners were dispatched throughout the city to kill both old and young, not excluding women and children. Though some people were marked for deliverance by a taw marked on their foreheads (9:4), the size of the destruction forced Ezekiel to cry out for a halt (9:8). In chapter 10 the glory of Yahweh did abandon the Temple, driving away from it in a chariot (10:1–22). One senses in the hesitant departure of the glory of Yahweh (10:19; 11:23) a divine grieving over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple that this departure signified.

In large part, Ezekiel thought it was too late for repentance. He rehearsed the history of Israel as one of sin right from the start. According to this revisionist history, the Israelites were idol worshippers already in Egypt before the Exodus. God considered destroying them then and there, but acted for the sake of his name or reputation lest the nations would draw the wrong conclusions about God’s ability to save (20:1–9). Exodus was followed by giving of statutes and ordinances, much as at Sinai, but the people again rebelled against these laws and profaned the sabbath. Despite these offenses, God again acted for the sake of his name and did not totally destroy them (20:10–17). In a third phase of that revisionist history, God again gave laws, which were again disobeyed, and Yahweh decided while Israel was still in the wilderness that they would be exiled among the nations—more than six centuries later (20:18–24). In one of the more troubling ethical passages in the book, Yahweh gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live (20:25–26). The laws in question were interpreted by Israel as requiring child sacrifice. According to Ezekiel, Israel’s history in the land is anticlimactic since the people’s fate had already been decided (20:27–31), and even that history in the land was only marked by idolatry and going astray after detestable things. Ezekiel undercuts any claim Israel might offer to escape the full destruction of Jerusalem.

A similar critique is outlined in chapters 16 and 23, which are widely considered misogynist and pornographic in contemporary scholarship. Here, as in Hosea and Jeremiah, Israel’s sin is compared with the behavior of wayward women. In chapter 16 Jerusalem, depicted as a woman, is said to reflect the morals of her Amorite father and her Hittite mother. Yahweh found Jerusalem as an abandoned child and preserved her life as she grew into sexual maturity (graphically described in v. 16:7). Yahweh entered into a marriage-like covenant with the adult Jerusalem and lavished rich clothing and honor on her. Jerusalem, however, became sexually promiscuous, a metaphor for such sins as idolatry, child sacrifice, and alliances with such foreign powers as the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Chaldeans (foreign alliances are often seen in the Hebrew Bible as reflecting lack of trust in Yahweh). Jerusalem was an unusual prostitute who paid money to her lovers, a metaphor for tribute paid to these foreign nations. Jerusalem’s sins resembled those of her sisters Samaria and Sodom, and even were much worse than their sins. The punishment by her international lovers included stripping her naked, stoning her, cutting her in pieces, and burning her houses. While these are presumably metaphors for the forthcoming Babylonian attack on Jerusalem, they also offer tacit approval for such behavior by outraged husbands.

Chapter 23 presents similar ethical problems. It describes two wanton women, Oholah and Oholibah, representing, respectively, Samaria and Jerusalem. These women again are promiscuous with other nations as their lovers, and their sexual excesses are again described very graphically and pornographically (see vv. 23:8, 20). Their promiscuous sexual behavior represents metaphorically incorrect foreign alliances and sins like child sacrifice, defiling of the sanctuary, and violation of the sabbath day. The assembly punishes these women with stoning, killing their sons and daughters, and burning their houses. The women are stripped naked and left publicly humiliated.

While modern readers are appalled that the sins of Israel are compared to wanton women who receive violent and humiliating punishments, the three revisionist histories in chapters 16, 20, and 23 are building a case that the destruction facing Jerusalem at the hand of the Babylonians is inevitable and is the consequence of sin. Ezekiel describes a history of sinning that in his judgment merits the military consequences that were taking place during the first years of Ezekiel’s function. I believe, however, that Jacqueline Lapsley misstates the case when she proposes that Israel was corrupt in the core of its being, incapable of obedience, and ethically subject to determinism. She alleges that the child in chapter 16 inherited the wanton cruelty of its parents and had an inherently depraved nature. Ezekiel actually states that Jerusalem is like her pagan ancestors and mimics their behavior. Lapsley’s description of the dominant anthropology in Ezekiel comes close to what the Reformers of the sixteenth century called “the bondage of the will” or to what is referred to as original sin. It is better to say that Ezekiel charged Israel with a long history of sinning, right from the start, but sinning that came from their own ethical decisions.

While Ezekiel by and large thinks it is too late for repentance, there are notable exceptions in his book. In Ezekiel 14:6 the prophet quotes a divine oracle: “Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations.” In chapter 18 Ezekiel presents the possibility of people turning away from God or turning back toward God in repentance. In vv. 18:5–9 he describes a righteous person, who follows divine statues, observes ordinances, and acts faithfully. Such a one is accurately called righteous. In vv. 18:10–13 Ezekiel describes a child of the next generation who departs ethically from the life of the father and does abominable things. That child is condemned to death because of sins. But in a third generation (vv. 18:14–18), the child of the wicked parent acts righteously and is granted life. The point seems to be that people are not locked into the behavior of a previous generation or even into the behavior of an earlier period in one’s own life. Rather, Ezekiel exhorts everyone to turn and live.

The Contours of Ethical Behavior.

Chapter 18 provides descriptions of what, according to Ezekiel, is right behavior. A righteous person avoids the following behaviors: eating on the mountains (probably idolatry), lifting up one’s eyes to idols, defiling the neighbor’s wife (adultery), approaching a woman sexually during her menstrual period (cf. Lev 15:19–24; 18:19), oppressing the neighbor, robbing, taking advance or accrued interest (cf. Exod 22:24; Lev 25:35–37; Deut 23:20), and violence and shedding blood. But the righteous person is committed to the following behaviors: restoring to the debtor his pledge taken to secure a loan, giving bread to the hungry and covering the naked with a garment, and executing true justice between contending parties. Sexual intercourse during a woman’s menstrual period reflects a concern with ritual cleanliness and is not considered a moral issue today. In our capitalist economy, charging reasonable interest on loans is acceptable behavior, but biblical loans were understood as helping the poor who were burdened with debt and therefore should not be an occasion to charge interest.

Elsewhere Ezekiel lists additional ethical issues: mistreatment of parents, orphans, and widows; sabbath violations; incest; bribes; and extortion (Ezek 22:6–12); misconduct by governmental exploitation and priestly malfeasance in false teaching and in making decisions regarding what is clean and unclean (Ezek 22:25–29).

From Judgment to Hope and Renewed Ethical Behavior.

When Ezekiel received an oracle reporting the fall of Jerusalem (33:21), it marked a transition in Ezekiel’s prophecy from words of judgment against Judah and Jerusalem (chapters 1–24) and against the nations (chapters 25–32). Tyre is rebuked for its pride, violence, the unrighteousness of its trade, and its rejoicing over Jerusalem’s fall. Ammon, Moab, Edom, and Philistia are celebrating the profanation of God’s sanctuary and the fall of Jerusalem and for sharing in the plundering of the land. Egypt is criticized for its worthless offers of support for Judah in its final years, for its pride and its violence. The new phase of Ezekiel’s prophecy is marked by words of hope (chapters 33–39). At this time the mute Ezekiel also recovered his voice. Clearly this does not mean that Ezekiel was silent during the first seven years of his ministry—chapters 1–32 are full of his words. Rather, it is an editor’s way of showing how after the fall of Jerusalem Ezekiel’s mouth was opened to speak with boldness a great new word, a word of hope.

In Ezekiel’s description of the future, Yahweh would give Israel a new heart of flesh, replacing their stony heart (cf. Jer 31:33), and put a new spirit within them. This would enable people to follow the statutes of Yahweh and keep and obey God’s ordinances. Their new relationship to the deity is outlined in the covenant formula: “They shall be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezek 11:19–20; see also Ezek 36:26–27). This new ability to live the obedient life is the direct result of God’s gracious intervention. Again I believe Lapsley misstates the case when she characterizes their new status as Israel’s passivity in the face of restoration or that Ezekiel has a negative view of the people’s capacity to participate in their own salvation. Ezekiel speaks of a new, everlasting covenant of peace that will banish wild animals from the land so that people may live in the wild and sleep in the woods (Ezek 34:25; 37:26).

One of the most frequent expressions in Ezekiel is the proof saying or recognition formula. It occurs more than 70 times in Ezekiel and in three contexts: in words of judgment against Israel; in words of judgment against the nations; and in hope oracles for Israel. In each case the goal of the divine action is that the hearer would recognize Yahweh: You will know that I am Yahweh. Knowledge of Yahweh is at the center of the new self. It will also lead to new knowledge of oneself and to loathing of previous behavior. When Yahweh leads Israel back into the land, the prophet promises: “There you shall remember your ways and all your deeds by which you have polluted yourselves; and you shall loathe yourselves for all the evils you have committed” (20:43; cf. 36:31; see Lapsley, 2000, pp. 130–157).

Ezekiel foresaw a new exodus as God’s way of remaining faithful to the promise inherent in the first exodus (20:32–44). “As I live, says the Lord Yahweh, surely with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out, I will be king over you. I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you were scattered.” But not everyone who would experience the new exodus would be allowed to go on to Zion. Yahweh would sort out those who rebelled or transgressed, so that only the faithful would enter the Land of Israel. The goal of this new exodus is a procession to Zion, not merely a retaking of the land (20:40).

Ezekiel’s third vision takes place in the valley of dry bones (37:1–14). This valley is a metaphorical battlefield, full of very many bones that are already very dry. Ezekiel addressed these bones with the word of Yahweh and the bones came together, connected by sinews, and then covered with flesh and skin. In a reprise of the creation story in Genesis 2, Ezekiel calls for breath or spirit to enter these reconstituted bodies so that they can live. The resurrection that is described is of the nation Israel rather than of individuals, as in later Jewish and Christian theology. The future of Israel is only possible by miracles, of creation and resurrection. In the description of Israel rising up out of graves there also may be a reference to a third divine miracle, the Exodus. Ezekiel thus makes clear that the future is totally dependent on divine intervention. Three times in this short pericope Ezekiel includes the recognition formula (vv. 37:6, 13, 14). God’s saving actions will enable Israel to know and acknowledge Yahweh. New life in the Land is not an end in itself. Rather, the enfleshed bones, the enlivened nation, and the subsequent gift of the land have as their ultimate intention Israel’s recognition and acknowledgment of Yahweh’s true identity. This vision of the future calls into question the people’s complaint: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off” (v. 37:11).

Ezekiel’s Vision of the Future.

Ezekiel outlines four key themes in his future hope in 37:25–28: Israel will live in its land forever; David will be their prince forever; God will make an everlasting covenant of peace with Israel; and, repeated twice, God’s sanctuary will be in their midst forever. The covenant of peace is a promise of wholeness and prosperity. Israel will dwell securely and no one will intimidate them (34:25–30; see also 16:59–63). This new covenant is made possible theologically by the imposition of God’s gracious forgiveness, as in Jeremiah (e.g., Jer 31:34). Forgiveness also plays a role in Yahweh’s promise to purify restored Israel (36:25).

In the final complex vision in the book, chapters 40–48, Ezekiel first describes the ideal sanctuary of the future. Its purity will be protected by double gates on north, east, and south, and there will be no entrance from the west. As people approached the new Temple from the north, east, or south, they would not face the rising sun in the east, making the sin of Ezekiel 8:16–18 impossible. The Holy Portion, also called the Portion for Yahweh, will be in the center of the land, where also the priests and Levites will dwell. When this description is finished, the glory of Yahweh returns and fills the Temple (43:1–5), and then Ezekiel is brought to the east gate of the Temple and is told that this gate will be permanently shut. No one can retrace the path by which Yahweh reentered the Temple, and the shut gate guarantees that Yahweh will never leave again (44:1–2).

There will be a royal figure in the new age Ezekiel describes, but he is called “prince,” and not king, signifying his diminished or limited role. Ezekiel had much negative criticism about earlier kings and especially Zedekiah, the last king. But the promise to David remained for him part of the ongoing fidelity of Yahweh (17:22–24; 34:23–24). The prince’s primary assignment will be to sit in the east gate during sacrificial rites (44:3; 46:1–12). He will be the most prominent member of the worshipping community, but a member of that community nevertheless. The prince is assigned land west and east of the Holy Portion (45:7; 48:21–22), guaranteeing him income, but in a limited amount, so that he would not repeat the excesses of his royal predecessors. Never again will the kings appropriate property of ordinary people (45:8). A separation will be made between the Temple and the location of the prince’s dwelling, making impossible the defiling of the Temple by the interment of dead kings in the Temple precincts (43:7–9).

By giving the Land once more to Israel, Yahweh will remain faithful to his promises to the patriarchs, especially to Jacob (20:42; 28:25; 37:25; 47:14). Even the layout of the land itself reflects respect for the holiness of the Temple. Next to the Holy Portion on north and south will be tribes descended from Jacob and one of his wives. While there would be seven tribes north of the Temple and five south of it, echoing the fact that the Northern Kingdom was larger than the Southern Kingdom, there is little similarity between the specific locations of the tribes and their locations in preexilic times. The portions of land assigned to each tribe are equal, metaphorically demonstrating their equality, and all the tribes are located west of the Jordan River, avoiding Transjordan, which had been more vulnerable in earlier times to apostasy and idolatry (47:1–48:7).

Jerusalem itself will be replaced by a new city, which at first is nameless. It will be populated by workers from each of the 12 tribes, and its limited income will be guaranteed by fields set aside west and east of the city. Only in the last verse of the book is the city named, but not with the name Jerusalem, but with the title “Yahweh is there” (48:35).

Yahweh’s presence in the Temple and in the Land is at the center of Ezekiel’s utopian picture. In Ezekiel 47:1–12 he notices a small stream coming out of the Temple. God’s dwelling in Canaan and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is often characterized by the presence of rivers (see the four rivers in the Garden of Eden, Gen 2:10–14; Ps 46:4, and Rev 22:1–2). As Ezekiel follows this stream east of the Temple, it becomes gradually deeper until it became deep enough to swim in. Although this land east of Jerusalem is some of the most desiccated and infertile in the Holy Land, the stream’s presence nourishes fruit trees on both its sides, which bear monthly fruit, and whose leaves have medicinal properties. When the stream enters the Dead Sea, the stream turns the waters fresh and the Dead Sea abounds with fish. God’s presence with his people means that there is nothing that cannot be changed.

[See also COVENANT; ECONOMICS; JUDGMENT; LAND; RIGHTEOUSNESS; SALVATION; and SIN.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Allen, Leslie C. Ezekiel 1–19. Word Biblical Commentary 28. Dallas: Word Books, 1994.
  • Allen, Leslie C. Ezekiel 20–48. Word Biblical Commentary 29. Dallas: Word Books, 1994.
  • Block, Daniel I. The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1–24. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997.
  • Block, Daniel I. The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25–48. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998.
  • Darr, Katheryn Pfisterer. “The Book of Ezekiel.” In The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 4, pp. 1073–1607. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 2001.
  • Galambush, Julie. Jerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel: The City as Yahweh’s Wife. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992.
  • Greenberg, Moshe. Ezekiel 1–20. Anchor Bible 22. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983.
  • Greenberg, Moshe. Ezekiel 21–37. Anchor Bible 22A. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
  • Joyce, Paul M. Ezekiel. A Commentary. London: T&T Clark, 2007.
  • Klein, Ralph W. Ezekiel: The Prophet and His Message. Studies in the Personalities of the Old Testament. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.
  • Lapsley, Jacqueline E. Can These Bones Live? The Problem of the Moral Self in the Book of Ezekiel. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 391. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2000.
  • Odell, Margaret S. Ezekiel. Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentaries. Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys, 2005.
  • Weems, Renita J. Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.
  • Zimmerli, Walther. Ezekiel 1. A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, Chapters 1–24. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979.
  • Zimmerli, Walther. Ezekiel 2. A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, Chapters 25–48. Hermeneia, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983.

Ralph W. Klein

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