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Old Testament: Ezekiel

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Ezekiel, Michelangelo  (1510)The book covers the prophecies, visions, and symbolic actions of Ezekiel, a prophet among the Jews during the exile in Babylon. This book is one of the major prophets, filled with deeply symbolic visions and extreme actions from a man of zealous faith and profound spiritual vision. It includes an awesome vision of the throne-chariot of God as the "glory of the Lord"; prophecies of the judgment of God on Judah and Jerusalem (including the future and final fall of the city); prophecies against the nations surrounding Israel; and many highly symbolic actions and visions. The book concludes with visions of the future restoration of the land and the temple, and the return of the glory of the Lord (God's presence) to Israel forever.

So What?

Ezekiel is a difficult but rewarding book, full of symbols and allegories. It contains a powerful vision of God, the Lord of history and judge of the nations. The awesome majesty of God and the honor and glory of the Lord in judgment and mercy are constant themes of the prophecies and visions of this book.

Where Do I Find It?

Ezekiel is the twenty-sixth book in the Old Testament; it comes between Lamentations and Daniel.

Who Wrote It?

The book is ascribed to Ezekiel, son of Buzi, priest and prophet. He was raised in Jerusalem in a priestly family and lived with the Jews in Babylon during the exile. Ezekiel probably did not write the whole book, but it represents his visions, prophecies, and symbolic acts.

When Was It Written?

The prophecies within the book date from about 591-571 B.C.E. It may have been some years until the book as we have it was compiled and edited by Ezekiel's followers after the exile.

What's It About?

The book contains the prophecies, visions, and symbolic acts of Ezekiel during the exile, concerning the temple, Jerusalem, Judah, and the nations.

How Do I Read It?

The book of Ezekiel is full of symbols and allegories. For many passages a literal interpretation will only confuse and mislead the reader. Ezekiel borrows symbols from earlier Old Testament books. Pay attention to the prophet's symbolic actions, which often accompany his words as powerful enacted parables. Always keep in mind the historical and political context of the prophet in exile. His symbolic visions and allegories often have historical meaning, even while they are drawn in colors from beyond history.

AUTHOR: Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology

I.    Introduction and Call (Ezekiel 1-3)
The book begins with the call of the prophet-priest and his awesome vision of the glory of the Lord and the throne-chariot of God.

II.    Prophecies against Jerusalem, Judah, and the Temple (Ezekiel 4-24)
Prophetic words and symbolic acts foretell the doom of Jerusalem and its coming fall (the second siege by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E.). The glory of the Lord leaves the temple (10:18-19, 11:22-25).

III.    Prophecies against the Nations (Ezekiel 25-32)
All the nations surrounding Israel are brought into the judgment of the word of God by the prophet, including Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon, and Egypt. Babylon itself is a glaring omission.

IV.    More Prophecies concerning the Israelites (Ezekiel 33-39)
Lying between the sections on the nations and the final visions of future salvation for Israel, these chapters deal with Jews in exile, Israel and its future, its leaders, land, mountains, and enemies (past and future).

V.    Vision of Future Restoration (Ezekiel 40-48)
The priest-prophet has an extended vision of consolation, salvation, and blessing in the future for Israel. There is a loving, long description of the restored temple in all its glory, where God will dwell as a center of a new Israel, and this will include blessing for the whole world (chapter 47).

AUTHOR: Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology

The prophet Ezekiel was raised in a priestly family in Jerusalem and educated to become a priest himself. This was not to be. He was taken with other high-ranking Judeans at the first siege of Jerusalem (597 B.C.E.) by Nebuchadnezzar II (ruler of Babylon, 605-562 B.C.E.). Ezekiel went into the servile oppression of exile, working in a small village (Tel-abib, near Nippur) by the river Chebar (3:15). There, in his thirtieth year (593 B.C.E.), he received a powerful vision from the Lord and a call to be a prophet. Between this first exile and the final fall of Jerusalem (in 586 B.C.E.) many Israelites hoped to throw off the yoke of Babylon, often looking to Egypt for help. Ezekiel's prophecies against Jerusalem and some other nations take place in this context. In the end, Jerusalem falls completely to Babylonian forces. Some of the other prophecies against the nations and the visions or prophecies of future restoration of the land and the temple date from after the fall of Jerusalem. The background to the book is exilic, taking place before the rebuilding of Jerusalem under Persian rule (starting 538 B.C.E.). The book may have been edited and put to writing during the later, postexilic period.

AUTHOR: Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology

•    Authentic voice of Ezekiel. Most of the critical biblical scholars of the last two centuries sought to find the "real" words of Ezekiel. Scholars assume differing schemes or criteria for authenticity, often seeing much of the book as the work of later hands. However, little consensus has been reached among the experts. Some contemporary scholars have called for a greater appreciation of the text as we have it-as a whole literary work-while also acknowledging that the book has been edited and expanded over time.

•    Chariot-throne of God. One of the most striking and memorable visions of the book is the throne of God, which is placed above a kind of moving chariot (1:4-28; 10:3-22). How to understand this vision has long been debated, some even connecting it (quite wrongly) with UFOs! The vision is best understood as a symbolic presentation of the awesome transcendence of Israel's God. It a visual presentation of the Lord's glory, "the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD" (1:28).

•    Extreme one-man dramas. As part of his prophetic vocation, Ezekiel engaged in a large number of extreme activities, the purpose of which were to dramatize and symbolize his message of doom from the Lord. These activities strike the modern reader as odd, eccentric, or even weird. They include:
o    building a model of the city of Jerusalem and setting siege to it, part of which meant being tied up with ropes and lying on his left side for 390 days and on his right side for forty days (4:1-15);
o    shaving his head bald, dividing up his hair and striking part of it with a sword all around the city model (5:1-4);
o    packing up his belongings every night in a mock exile (12:3b-7);
o    trembling and shaking when he ate and drank (12:17-20)
While seemingly very strange, they may have been very effective, memorable means of dramatic communication in the small community Ezekiel served in exile.

•    Ezekiel as "son of man." The prophet is consistently addressed by God as "son of man." How shall we understand this address? Many contemporary translations, including the NRSV, translate this phrase as "mortal," which conveys only one possible meaning. Another meaning would be "member of the human race," or, in poetic terms, son of Adam. The term sets the prophet off as a mortal, frail creature of dust (as Adam was) as opposed to a heavenly being.

•    Future of the temple. A long section on the future temple and restored vision of Israel's tribes ends the book (chapters 40-48). In loving detail the prophet-priest describes the future restoration of ritual, temple, and land as God's promise of blessing for God's people. In the early centuries of Jewish interpretation of the book, Ezekiel was controversial because his vision of the temple and its rituals was different from the ones described in other books, especially the Pentateuch. The centrality of the first five books of Moses for Judaism made the book of Ezekiel suspect for some of the rabbis. We misunderstand the vision and rituals if we take them literally. These are not literal building plans, ritual codes, and territorial maps but an idealized and parable-like presentation of the holiness of the presence of the Lord and a revitalized Israel blessed with God's presence.

•    Gog and Magog: apocalyptic or historical? The prophetic and symbolic visions regarding Gog and Magog (chapters 38-39) are often seen as early apocalyptic literature. Scholars are divided as to how to interpret these chapters. They are clearly symbolic and not about any contemporary prince and nation-then or now-but what do they symbolize? One option is that they are disguised prophecies against Babylon and its rulers (the one nation around Israel not mentioned in the rest of the book). This would make the reference historical (past). A popular view is that these names represent end-time or apocalyptic enemies of God and God's people, who will be utterly destroyed as God reestablishes the kingdom in Israel.

•    King of Tyre or Satan? Ezekiel's long prophecy against the city and king of Tyre (chapters 26-28) is a difficult passage to interpret. Classical Christian authors have often taken the king of Tyre to be a "type" or figure of Satan, based on such statements as "Your builders made perfect your beauty" (27:4b); "I am a god" (28:2b); or "You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty" (28:12b). The prophet does draw upon biblical and Canaanite myths and symbols to describe the arrogant self-understanding of the king, including comparing him to a "cherub" (or angel) in paradise (28:11-16). It may be tempting to think of this as an allegory of Satan, but that reads too much into the text, which is actually about a human being, the king of Tyre. As the prophet himself says, "you are but a mortal, and no god" (28:2)-and not a fallen angel either!

•    Priestly character of the book. Ezekiel is the prophet most concerned with ritual and the temple. Yet Ezekiel's version of the law, ritual, and temple is often different from that of the Pentateuch. Some scholars suggest that he wrote before the Pentateuch was in its final written form, and that he draws upon an alternative legal tradition. Others argue that Ezekiel knew these laws but engaged in a radically new interpretation for a new age, reformulating the shape of the temple, its officers, and its rituals under the impulse of his vision of the future.

•    Prophet and the word of God. Ezekiel has unusual and powerful visions regarding his vocation as one who is to speak the word of God to Israel. God calls Ezekiel to speak the word even knowing that Israel is stubborn and a rebellious house (2:1-7). Following this call to prophesy, Ezekiel has a vision of a scroll (or book), covered completely with writing. God tells him to eat the scroll that is filled with words of lamentation, mourning, and woe (2:8-10). He does eat it, but it tastes as sweet as honey in his mouth. The effect of Ezekiel's prophecies on his hearers will be sorrow and mourning, with the desired end being to bring them to repentance. By eating the scroll, Ezekiel's message becomes part of him, not just an occasional word but central to his very existence-as vital as food to the body.

•    Social context: Jerusalem or Babylon? Because many of the prophecies address all of Judah or Jerusalem (rather than just the Jews in exile), some scholars have argued that Ezekiel was in fact a prophet living in Jerusalem. The book was later redacted and expanded by prophets in the school of Ezekiel in the exile and afterwards. The critical rewriting of the book under this assumption is so radical that most interpreters have rejected it. Even when speaking of all Israel or Jerusalem, the Jews in exile would be very interested in what he had to say on the issues "back home."

•    Unfulfilled prophecy. There is a remarkable case of unfulfilled prophecy by Ezekiel at 29:17-21. The details which Ezekiel foretold concerning Tyre did not all transpire: Nebuchadnezzar and his army did lay siege to the city for thirteen long years, but they did not take it as Ezekiel had predicted (chapters 26-28). It is striking that these details are left in the book, along with a short passage which reinterprets them for a new time (29:17-21). Like Jonah's prophecy of the destruction of Nineveh (Jonah 3:4), the Lord did not fulfill the exact word of the prophet, but used it for another purpose.

•    Use and reinterpretation of Scripture. Recently, Bible scholars have focused on the ways in which Ezekiel uses earlier laws, sacred traditions, symbols, prophecies, and writings. These include regular allusions and references to traditions or texts now found in the Pentateuch, the Psalms, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Ezekiel often alters these earlier texts or knows of different versions, using them to suit his own context and vision. Rituals, laws, Israelite history, the layout of the land by tribes, and other details are similar to, but also different from, what we know from other biblical books.

•    Visions of Ezekiel. Visions occupy the book of Ezekiel more than that of any other prophet, with the exception of Daniel. For example, chapters 1-3; 8-11; 37; and 40-48 contain extensive visions which he later related to his fellow Israelites (11:24-25). They appear to have come to him in a kind of ecstatic state, filled with the Spirit-but the exact nature of his experience remains speculative. How to understand these visions as texts is the important interpretive issue. A literal interpretation must be rejected, but the precise meaning(s) of many symbols remains elusive.

AUTHOR: Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology

•    Glory and presence of the Lord. The vision of the glory of the Lord represents a view of God as transcendent Lord of all creation and serves as a symbol of the spiritual presence of God among the people. The visions occur at several points in the book, where God's glory is leaving the old temple, coming to the Jews in exile, and dwelling within the future, restored temple.

•    Holy character of God. The holiness of the Lord is a constant theme of this book, a background belief manifested in many ways. God's holiness appears in visual form in the awesome throne (1:4-28). Divine holiness demands that evildoers and idolaters be punished-a central theme in Ezekiel's prophecies against Judah, Israel, and the nations. Despite the covenant God made with God's people, they were disobedient and rebellious: "You are more turbulent than the nations that are all around you…" (5:7). Because of the divine holiness and righteousness, the Lord punishes the people; yet, in defense of the holy name, God does not utterly destroy (20:9, 14, 22). God will gather, heal, and sanctify the people in future restoration. The structure and character of the restored temple embody the holiness of the Lord (chapters 40-43).

•    Hope of restoration. Despite the sinfulness of Israel and the righteous wrath of God, Ezekiel does contain messages of healing, hope, and consolation. The long vision of the restoration of the land and temple is one significant locus for this theme (chapters 40-48), but it occurs in many places (6:8-10; 11:16-20; 16:60-63; 20:33-38). Ezekiel's theology focuses on Israel, and in a future new exodus God will gather the people back to the promised land. God's words of consolation are about concrete blessings from God, such as food, peace, land, and a restored covenant and temple.

•    Responsibility: individual and corporate. Like much of the Old Testament, Ezekiel has a firm notion of the corporate responsibility of a tribe, nation, or people before the Lord. His judgments against the nations are evidence of this. Yet we find a new theme alongside it: the responsibility of the individual sinner to repent, and the justice of the Lord in punishing individuals only for their own sins (chapter 18).

•    Rethinking salvation history. Israel in exile is faced with unbelief: Is their god real, or just a local deity of little importance? Is their religion of any enduring value? Ezekiel's resounding Yes to continued faith in the Lord occurs along with a willingness to rethink key issues in the relationship between God and Israel, including their covenant history (chapters 16 and 20). This suggests the flexibility of God in relationship to God's people in history.

•    Sinfulness of God's people. As was common among the prophets, Ezekiel's prophetic vocation includes a powerful word of the Lord to the people of Israel regarding their sins. The sinfulness of the people is not recent; Ezekiel retells the early history of Israel to emphasize their constant rebellion and sinfulness (chapter 20). These sins include rebellion, turning their backs on the Lord (that is, abandoning their faith in God), idolatry, defiling the temple, willfully breaking the commandments, including blasphemy and Sabbath-breaking. For these grave sins, God punished Judah and Jerusalem with destruction and exile.

•    Sinfulness of the nations. As the holy Creator and Lord, God acts as judge of the nations and their rulers (chapters 25-32). The Lord does not expect them to follow the laws of Israel (like the Sabbath), but condemns them for general wrong-doing, such as oppression, corruption, greed, and lust for violence. Especially important for the prophet was the cruel way Israel's neighbors treated Judah/Jerusalem during its fall; their greed and gloating is condemned by God. Another theme is the prophet's words against any false trust that some were putting in other nations (chiefly Egypt) rather than in the Lord.

•    Temple: God's dwelling place. The temple is a key theme in Ezekiel. The temple is a physical manifestation of the presence, glory, and blessing of God in Israel. A key sin of Israel is the defilement of the temple (5:11; 8:5-18), and this is in turn a key reason for its destruction, the sacking of Jerusalem, and the exile. In one of his visions of the "glory of the LORD" as an awesome throne-chariot, Ezekiel sees the glory departing from the temple (10:18-19). In the large vision that ends the book (chapters 40-48), the prophet-priest describes the future restoration of the temple and its rituals as God's promise of blessing, restoration, and divine presence for the future.

•    True and false religion. As prophet and priest, Ezekiel is zealous for the Lord, consistently condemning idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, and disobedience to the law. This applies to Israel past, present, and future as well as to the surrounding nations (on grounds of general human justice rather than Israel's unique laws). The Lord is revealed throughout the book as Lord of all nations and all creation.

•    Wrath of God. The wrath of God against Judah, Israel, the Jews in exile, and the nations and their rulers is a common theme in Ezekiel. The wrath of God is not arbitrary or vicious, but God's steady resolve to destroy evil and wickedness. God's wrath is provoked by the sinfulness of the people Israel, sins which include idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, defiling the temple, and placing their faith in other nations rather than in the Lord. God's wrath also rests upon sinful nations and rulers surrounding Judah/Israel.

AUTHOR: Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology