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Ezekiel

The book of Ezekiel is known more for its images than its words, for what it complicates rather than what it clarifies, as a challenging text instead of a comforting one. None of these impressions is misguided: Ezekiel is image rich, enigmatic, and demanding to contemporary moral and social sensibilities. And yet, that should not obscure that Ezekiel is a text with a deep interest in the character of God, human knowledge of God, theological anthropology, and eschatology. This essay examines how Ezekiel draws on its ancient Near Eastern context to craft its theology, sets Ezekiel among the theologies of the Hebrew Bible, and briefly explores its reception in later Jewish and Christian writing.

Ezekiel in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context.

It is impossible to overstate how important it is to understand the ancient Near Eastern context from which Ezekiel originates. This is true for all of its theological concerns: its “doctrine of God,” its theological anthropology, and its eschatology.

Ezekiel’s “doctrine of God.”

Ezekiel is frequently described as “radically theocentric” (Joyce, 1989), an expression that succinctly states the central role that Yahweh plays in the book. Among the indicators of this is Ezekiel’s prominent use of formulaic language. Ezekiel, for instance, includes the divine messenger formula “and the word of Yahweh came to me” more than 50 times. The frequency of this phrase gives the impression one is hearing a monologue from God. Walther Zimmerli, who highlighted such language in his form critical approach, demonstrated that the book’s formulaic language held theological significance with his extended study of the so-called recognition formula (Erkenntnisformel), “you shall know that I am Yahweh.” Zimmerli (1982) concluded that Ezekiel’s concept of knowledge of God is incomprehensible without appreciating the uniqueness and origin of this rigidly fixed formulation that habitually points the audience to the tradition of God’s saving action for Israel. For Ezekiel, as for many other texts in the Hebrew Bible, the paradigmatic divine saving action is the Exodus from Egypt, a story to which it frequently alludes (e.g., Ezek 16; 20; 23).

Less overtly, Ezekiel presents two features of the divine character through its overall structure, which describes Yahweh’s choice to abandon Jerusalem, settle for a period of time with the Judahites exiled to Babylon, and eventually lead those captives back to Jerusalem in a second exodus. This narrative culminates with the construction of a new temple in Jerusalem where Yahweh will dwell (Ezek 40–48), the ancient Near Eastern indication of divine power and victory. Ezekiel draws here on the ancient Near Eastern motif of divine departure. The motif is straightforward in its essential components, namely, that it is only when the patron god of a city departs from its temple that this city is vulnerable to outside forces. Ancient Near Eastern kings often gave a visible manifestation to this ideology by capturing, defacing, and deporting the cult statue (sometimes called by the more pejorative term idol ) from a temple to symbolize that the city’s patron deity had been defeated. In order to maintain the viability of their theological convictions, ancient writers wrote stories to explain that the fall of their city resulted from a decision by the patron deity to leave voluntarily rather than because of the power of foreign armies.

Read against this background, the story of Yahweh abandoning Jerusalem in Ezekiel 8–11 is obviously appropriating a familiar concept in order to argue that the fall of Jerusalem (ca. 587 B.C.E.) to the Babylonians is Yahweh’s choice, not a product of the strength and cunning of the Babylonian Empire. Rather, as Ezekiel 17 outlines, the destruction of Jerusalem is the visible manifestation of Yahweh’s judgment upon the city for its transgressions. At the same time, because Yahweh enlists the king of Babylon to do this, it demonstrates that Yahweh’s power is international (Ezek 17:11–24).

The vision of divine departure in Ezekiel 8–11 finds its bookend in the vision of Yahweh’s return to Jerusalem (Ezek 40–48, esp. 43:1–5). This vision, following the prophet’s tour around a reconstructed temple (40:1—42:20), serves as the denouement of the book. Here, Ezekiel is also indebted to a common ancient Near Eastern paradigm in which the construction of a temple for the deity to inhabit is the culmination of his victory over enemy powers. This tradition is known from its West Semitic exemplar The Baʿal Cycle and its Mesopotamian archetype Enuma Elish. The deity’s victory in the divine realm exhibits his control over the cosmos, which is symbolized in the earthly realm through the construction of a temple for him to inhabit. Although commentators legitimately disagree over how closely Ezekiel intends to mirror these ancient Near Eastern counterparts, there is little question that the book intentionally draws on the connection between temple building and cosmic authority to portray Yahweh as powerful and worthy of worship.

It remains an open question whether Ezekiel’s radically theocentric perspective and assertion of Yahweh’s international span of control represents a nascent form of monotheism. The majority view for at least the last 100 years has been that monotheism only emerged with the so-called 2 Isaiah (i.e., the author of Isa 40–55), where there are explicit statements about Yahweh’s exclusive nature (e.g., “besides me there is no god,” Isa 44:6; cf. 43:11; 44:8, passim). A growing minority is arguing that this view needs reassessment and that Ezekiel contains the same concepts as deutero-Isaiah, although it lacks the overt statements of Yahweh’s exclusivity so prominent in Isaiah 40–55. No doubt, this topic will receive further attention from scholars in the future.

Ezekiel’s theological anthropology.

Because of its radically theocentric perspective, scholars vary in their assessment of what Ezekiel thinks humans are capable of and responsible for in their relationship to Yahweh. On one side are texts that indicate Ezekiel thinks repentance and restoration are only within the power of Yahweh (e.g., Ezek 36:26–27); on the other side are texts that suggest human repentance is necessary for inclusion in the restored community (e.g., Ezek 14:12–23; 18:1–32; 33:10–20). These two poles of thought reveal “a strong insistence upon Israel’s responsibility before her God” and “a remarkable assurance that Yahweh will enable his recalcitrant people to obey him” (Joyce, 1989, p. 125).

Paul Joyce resolves that the radically theocentric perspective of Ezekiel points to an answer, concluding the responsibility of Israel has been marginalized by the overriding initiative of Yahweh. Andrew Mein applies Joyce’s insights to the ethical statements made at various points in Ezekiel, observing that prevailing ethical ideas have been modified in exile because of the limitations placed upon them by their Babylonian overlords. He characterizes the reduction in scope as a “domestication of ethics” and contends that this ethical viewpoint strengthens Joyce’s argument. He concludes that Yahweh restores Israel for his sake alone, without regard to the people’s repentance (Mein, 2001).

By contrast, C. A. Strine (2012) argues that Ezekiel retains an important place for human responsibility in passages that describe the restored community as repentant (e.g., Ezek 20:32–38, esp. vv. 36, 38; 33:10–20, esp. v. 11). He maintains that human repentance is subsidiary to the concern for Yahweh’s reputation in the book of Ezekiel, but it is present and undeniably defines the future community. To support his view, Strine calls for maintaining a distinction between the purpose and process of human responsibility, observing that “the repentance of the people in the process does not, in any way, alter the purpose of venerating Yahweh’s name” (Strine, 2012, p. 490). Or, said another way, Yahweh’s reputation is in no way diminished by the choice to use a community that remains faithful in the face of great obstacles to belief in order to reconstitute Israel.

A second anthropological issue demonstrates again that Ezekiel is indebted to its ancient Near Eastern context. John Kutsko claims that Ezekiel follows the Priestly source (P) of the Pentateuch in presenting humanity as the image of God (Kutsko in Odell and Strong, 2000). To substantiate his view he first seeks to establish similarities between the ethical positions of Ezekiel and P, especially P’s demand for justice that is predicated upon humanity bearing the image of God (Gen 9:5–6). More persuasive is his second point, in which he gives evidence for the way that both Ezekiel and P adopt and adapt the image of God ideology from Mesopotamia, which generally ascribed this role and its power to cult statues, not humans. By parodying the utility of cult statues, and even the ritual used to induct these statues (called the mouth opening ritual), Kutsko shows that both texts commandeer this Mesopotamian ideology for their own aims. Apart from its Mesopotamian context, then, it is hard even to recognize that Ezekiel is interested in these theological issues. And yet, this constitutes an important dimension of how the book thinks about humanity.

A third anthropological concern in Ezekiel is human experience of the divine spirit (see Robson, 2006). Because it is difficult to even translate the Hebrew term rûaḥ, offering a summary of its function in Ezekiel is too. A brief catalog of its different connotations is the best one can offer. Yahweh’s rûaḥ serves as the animating power that gives humanity its vitality, as it famously does in Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones (Ezek 37:1–14; cf. Gen 2:7). Elsewhere, Yahweh’s rûaḥ moves the prophet from place to place so that it appears to represent Yahweh’s control over the physical elements of the earthly realm (Ezek 2:2; 8:3; 37:1 passim). On other occasions, Yahweh’s indwelling rûaḥ gives people the capacity to follow divine statutes, giving the impression that it offers humanity knowledge and faculties otherwise beyond its grasp. Later in history the rûaḥ becomes a means by which the deity is present and acts immanently; Ezekiel, however, ascribes similar work to the glory of Yahweh (but one can see the book as a precursor to this subsequent mode of thought).

Ezekiel’s theology, however one summarizes it, is not a product of sustained, systematic reflection but a proactive response to the crisis of exile. Its theology is a means to define identity, to promote Judahite nationalism, and to stave off religious syncretism. Because it lacks a systematic quality, one good way to contextualize it is by comparison to other theological perspectives that are advanced in the Hebrew Bible.

Ezekiel among the theologies of the Hebrew Bible.

Because of both the prophet’s priestly heritage (Ezek 1:3) and the language of the book, Ezekiel is widely recognized as a close counterpart to the theological tradition of the P source of the Pentateuch. Be that as it may, commentators are increasingly aware that Ezekiel embraces the Deuteronomistic theological tradition (Dtr) as well (Levitt Kohn, 2002). Ezekiel 20 illustrates this phenomenon: alongside many P phrases, the chapter employs distinctively Dtr language to depict Yahweh’s power as exhibited in the first Exodus (e.g., Yahweh choosing Israel [v. 5], a land flowing with milk and honey [v. 6], and Yahweh acting with a mighty hand and outstretched arm [v. 33]).

Furthermore, Ezekiel presumes that there is one, central sanctuary, a position central to the Dtr viewpoint (e.g., Deut 12; 2 Kgs 22–23). Ezekiel also exhibits similarities to Jeremiah, the Dtr prophet par excellence. These books share an unfavorable attitude toward the Davidic monarchy (e.g., Jer 23:1–8; Ezek 17) and a vision for the restored community receiving a new heart (e.g., Jer 31:31–34; Ezek 36:26–27) from Yahweh.

The fusion of P and Dtr ideas in Ezekiel strongly resembles the tendencies of the so-called Holiness Code (H) found in Leviticus 17–26. Ezekiel and H appear to be theological counterparts, both seeking to resolve tensions between P and Dtr in their work by selectively combining them and adding their own views. To recognize that Ezekiel and H are distinct from P and Dtr is to offer an important insight for further study of the diachronic growth of the texts in the Hebrew Bible, especially the Pentateuch. It is also a key insight for the continued effort to trace the changes and developments in the theological views of the elites who guided its religious practices. Reflecting on the larger importance of this feature, one can see that just as Ezekiel employs concepts common throughout the ancient Near East to respond to the Babylonian exiles’ most pressing problems, so too its endeavor to integrate P and Dtr serves as an ad hoc response to the challenges of exile and to the reintegration of the Babylonian exiles with the population that remained in Judah while they were away.

Ezekiel in Early Jewish and Christian Writings.

Rather less space shall be given to exploring Ezekiel’s influence in early Jewish, early Christian, and subsequent writings because, compared with Genesis, Psalms, or even its prophetic counterparts Isaiah and Jeremiah, the book exerted far less influence on subsequent theological thought and imagery. An illustrative example of Ezekiel’s effects in early Judaism, the New Testament, and the patristic period provides some insight all the same (see Joyce and Mein, 2011).

Because of the priestly background of the book and its advocacy for a hierarchical priesthood in which the Zadokites take pride of place (Ezek 44:4–16), commentators have debated whether Ezekiel establishes the hierocratic governance of Jewish society that prevails in later times. Undeniably an influence on those developments in the Hellenistic period (ca. 330–150 B.C.E.), in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and even in rabbinic interpretation, Ezekiel is not itself an advocate of replacing the Judahite monarch with a priestly regime. Nevertheless, because the book does envisage a restored monarchy with substantially restrained powers and prefers the Zadokite priestly line, it marks an important point in the gradual rise of priestly power within Judaism (Rooke, 2000).

Within the New Testament, the book of Revelation irrefutably exhibits the greatest affinity for Ezekiel, especially its imagery. The author of John’s initial vision of the heavenly throne room signals the importance of Ezekiel when it arrays four creatures around the throne (Rev 4:6B–7), an idea that draws heavily upon Ezekiel 1 (esp. v. 10). In chapter 10, John is presented with a scroll that he is commanded to eat, a sign-action replicating Ezekiel’s call (Ezek 2:9—3:3). “More significantly,” writes Richard Bauckham (1993, p. 81), “throughout chapters 4, 5, and 10, John is closely following the inaugural vision of the book of Ezekiel (Ezek 1:1—3:11).” That impression is reinforced by chapter 11, where John measures the new temple just as Ezekiel does (Ezek 40–42). It is no surprise, then, that in John’s culminating vision of the new Jerusalem the city is adorned with jewels and precious metals (Rev 21:19–21), which recalls Ezekiel’s description of God’s appearance (Ezek 1; cf. Ezek 28). It is fair to say that Revelation is impossible to understand without recognizing the influence of Ezekiel.

Ezekiel does not seem to have been a favorite text of the church fathers, but its imagery is again perceptible. As the New Testament canon coalesced, the centrality of the fourfold gospel produced various explanations for its hegemony (e.g., Irenaeus of Lyons, Haer 3.11.8) and invited speculation about its prefigurement in the Old Testament (e.g., Augustine of Hippo, Cons. 1.6.9). To substantiate these views, various figures drew on Ezekiel’s vision of four figures holding up the platform upon which God is enthroned. Each figure has four faces, arrayed to the four points of the compass: one face like a human, one like a lion, one like an ox, and one like an eagle adorn these peculiar individuals (Ezek 1:10). Jerome was one notable figure who explicitly correlated these animals with the four Evangelists (Preface to Comm. Matt., NPNF 2, 6.1036–1037), ascribing to Matthew the human image, to Mark the lion, to Luke the ox, and to John the eagle. Despite the familiarity of this approach, consensus about which animal represented which writer remained elusive.

Reception History of Ezekiel.

Ezekiel’s reception since the fourth century of the Common Era is too sparse and too diverse to recapitulate succinctly. It is only possible to mention two areas in which Ezekiel tends to appear: eschatology and mysticism.

As a result of its own eschatological temple vision and its strong influence on the book of Revelation, it is unsurprising that Ezekiel is prevalent among millennial groups and in end-time speculation. Indeed, scholars have wondered whether the book of Ezekiel was written among such a group in antiquity (Cook, 1989). Perhaps more than any other text in the book, the battle between Yahweh and Gog of Magog (Ezek 38–39) has fueled such speculation. The sort of imaginative exegesis that sees this as a veiled explanation of a great battle and the end of history is unlikely to end soon, although the consistent inaccuracy of such “predictions” surely belies their validity.

Ezekiel’s mystifying visions of God enthroned on a chariot (Heb. merkābâ) have also played an important role in Jewish mysticism. Famously, rabbinic tradition prohibited anyone under 30 years of age from reading these passages because of their content, making it the polar opposite from those who embraced these texts as a way to promote supernatural visions. In more recent history, these texts were a strong influence on William Blake’s “visionary poetics” that formed such an important part of his political and social commentary (see Rowland’s essay in Joyce and Mein, 2011).

The book of Ezekiel, despite the real challenges it presents to commentators, remains a source for new and fruitful theological thinking. Indeed, its image-rich character and the ever growing acknowledgment of its connections to other texts suggest that it will remain so for years to come. Albeit less influential than other texts from the Hebrew Bible upon theology, Ezekiel remains a valuable text for those interested in the doctrine of God, theological anthropology, eschatology, and more besides.

[See also ISAIAH; JEREMIAH; JERUSALEM (ZION); PROPHETS AND PROPHECY; TABERNACLES, TEMPLES, AND SYNAGOGUES; and THEOPHANY.]

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • Bauckham, Richard. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. New Testament Theology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Block, Daniel I. Gods of the Nations: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern National Theology. Evangelical Theological Society Monograph Series 2. Jackson, Miss.: Evangelical Theological Society, 1988.
  • Bodi, Daniel. The Book of Ezekiel and the Poem of Erra. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 104. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1991.
  • Cook, Stephen L. Prophecy and Apocalypticism: The Postexilic Social Setting. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989.
  • Greenberg, Moshe. Ezekiel: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. 2 vols. Anchor Bible 22. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983–1997.
  • Joyce, Paul M. Divine Initiative and Human Response in Ezekiel. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 51. Sheffield, U.K.: JSOT Press, 1989.
  • Joyce, Paul M., and Andrew Mein, eds. After Ezekiel: Essays on the Reception of a Difficult Prophet. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 535. New York: T&T Clark, 2011.
  • Kohn, Risa Levitt. A New Heart and a New Soul: Ezekiel, the Exile and the Torah. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 358. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.
  • Mein, Andrew. Ezekiel and the Ethics of Exile. Oxford Theological Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Odell, Margaret. Ezekiel. Macon, Ga.: Smith and Helwys, 2005.
  • Odell, Margaret, and John T. Strong, eds. The Book of Ezekiel: Theological and Anthropological Perspectives. Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series 9. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000.
  • Robson, James E. Word and Spirit in Ezekiel. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 447. New York: T&T Clark, 2006.
  • Rooke, Deborah. Zadok’s Heirs: The Role and Development of the High Priesthood in Ancient Israel. Oxford Theological Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Strine, C. A. Sworn Enemies: The Divine Oath, the Book of Ezekiel, and the Polemics of Exile. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 436. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2012.
  • Zimmerli, Walther. I Am Yahweh. Translated by D. Stott. Atlanta: John Knox, 1982.
  • Zimmerli, Walther. A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel. 2 vols. Translated by Ronald E. Clements. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1979–1983.

C. A. Strine

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