The Bible in and as History: Ezekiel

flemish_-_ezekiels_vision_of_the_sign_-tau-_ezekiel_ix_-2-7_-_walters_44616Well at long last I am back and at this again and finally overcoming the real slog that is the Book of Ezekiel.  More than two years ago I made a commitment here, and perhaps this year I’ll actually finish it, so without further adieu.

Ezekiel is the last of the ‘Major’ Prophets of the Old Testament.  It’s also, for want of a better phrase, the most ‘biblical’ in the sense I originally had coming into this project.  It has the language one most associates with say Scripture quoting preachers on TV.  There are reasons for this, and it’s historicity and place both within Jewish and Christian thought is pretty interesting.

It starts with a rather trippy opening, describing creatures ‘like men’ with four faces and four wings.  It, unlike some of the previous books, very sincerely paints itself as the recordings of a single person.  Besides using personal pronouns(I say, on the fourth day I witnessed, etc.)  it places each of its prophecies as occurring on a particular day.  This makes them more personal in a way, but also, strangely, less mystical.  Perhaps it’s the ‘Well on Tuesday the 8th, God talked to me’ aspect of it that makes you wonder if Ezekiel was quite all there.

The themes that follow in the first sets of prophecies are familiar to us by now; Ezekiel as a prophet was supposed to have lived during the Babylonian captivity between 593-571 BCE.  Scholars generally agree that the book follows the writings of this figure, but with additional edits over time.  The first sections of the prophecy are all about the iniquities of Jerusalem and the state of Israel.  Comparisons made in flowing, lyrical language describe Jerusalem as a harlot and a whore.  The author really seems enamored of this comparison.  We see here a continuation of prior themes; the state and people of Israel and Judah going astray, away from the ‘God of their fathers’.  Attempts by the priest-class, in exile, to reassert power.  The language warns of iniquity, that the prophet, informed by God, needs to bring the wickedness of men to their attention, least the prophet also be condemned.

It’s clear from the language that there are specific contexts being addressed here.  That is Ezekiel is making specific criticisms of practices in his age.  13:17 for example talks about women sewing pillows to their armholes.  That seems a really odd thing to be specifically calling out as evil.  Yet we find that this is most likely a reference to specific spiritual or magical practices of female prophets in and around the area Ezekiel is in.

One way in which Ezekiel’s language turns out to be useful for late philosophers is that it’s lyricism, it’s use of metaphor and simile, mean it can be adapted away from the specific context it was written in and into other forms.  Jerusalem can be any corrupt city and has been. Preachers have railed against Rome, Moscow, London, New York and probably every major city on earth using the language of Ezekiel.  Even less specific, references to rotted vines, to corruption, can be extracted and used against any adversary.

After the prophecies regarding Jerusalem, which are of the theme “The People abandon God, bad stuff happens, when the people return to God, good stuff happens”, are the prophecies regarding other nations.  This reads some-what, if I may use the analogy, like a teenagers list of grievances: “The Ammonites will get theirs!  and then the Egyptians!  and then Assyrians!”  Again, placed more specifically in the context of Ezekiel’ time.

Lastly is the second on the New Temple.  This section is often now referenced as the ‘Third Temple’ though of course at the time it was written the Second Temple didn’t yet exist.  It is exhaustive in its details and specifics, though with just enough ambiguity to have particular disagreements between scholars on some of the exact features of this future temple.

As I have said, Ezekial was an important book in both Judaism and Christianity.  It serves as a foundational element of the idea of the ‘Third Temple’ for the Jews.  For Christians its symbolism has made its way into many a Fire and Brimstone preachers sermon, but on a broader theological level serves to point towards both Jesus’ return(seen here as the rhetorical and metaphysical restoration of Jerusalem) and towards redemptive theology in general.

Alright, so Ezekiel is a bit of a slog.  It’s the third longest book as far as I can tell, second to Genesis and Psalms and matching Numbers.  Next come a string of the ‘minor’ prophets, which are much shorter and I should be able to get through relatively rapidly.  Than, finally, on to the New Testament to find out what all this talk about this Jesus guy is about.

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