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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.

The Theology of the Book

Ezekiel's theology originated in his prophetic interpretation of the situation of his community—the Judeans living as exiles in Babylonia—and his counsels on how they should live in their new circumstances. His theology includes praxis, or observance. Although Ezekiel is concerned with the actions of the Lord and the course of Israelite history, he must also deal with the people's immediate anxieties and concerns, among which are concerns about whether they have title to their land and whether they have a future as a people. In other words, should they give up their dreams of being the Lord's special people and, instead, acculturate themselves into the Babylonian empire? As many exiles saw things, their ancestors' sins definitively severed the relationship of the Lord to Israel. This bitter truth was especially visible among the landless and unhappy exiles. Ezekiel thus had to explain concrete issues without losing sight of the overall purposes of the Lord whose spokesman he was.

At the basis of his theology was the great founding moment of Israel—the Exodus from Egypt and entry into Canaan as seen through priestly eyes. It has already been pointed out that the Priestly source deeply influenced the prophet. An example of its influence is the dominant structuring device of the glorious Lord on the throne of wheels: the glory appeared to the exiled prophet ( 1, 28; 3, 23 ), departed from the Jerusalem Temple ( 10, 18; 11, 23 ), and will return to the temple‐city ( 43, 2–5 ), to fill the Temple ( 44, 4 ) as the glory once filled the tabernacle in the wilderness in Exodus 40, 34. The mobility expressed by the throne with wheels is very important: the Lord is not tied down to one place or to a particular way. Like Micah's prediction, affirmed by Jeremiah, that the Temple was not sacrosanct and could be destroyed (Mi 3, 12; Jer 7, 4 ), and like Isaiah's prediction that the Lord was doing a new thing (Is 43, 19; 48, 6 ), Ezekiel strikes a blow for the freedom of God. It is important to note, however, that the Lord does not leave the Jerusalem Temple to become a spiritual presence available in every time and place. Rather, the Lord will come back to a specific place, there to meet the people in a purified and sacred place. The great empires, Assyria and then Babylonia, and the writing prophets' assessment that Israel had failed to live up to its covenantal responsibilities, changed forever the situation of Israel, in a sense “requiring” the Lord to do a new thing. What is the “new thing”? Those empires will be the instruments of Israel's purification (“judgment”) and eventual return to the Lord. Hence, exile and destruction are not the end of the relationship; rather they constitute the judgment process that will establish justice, that is, uphold the righteous and put down the wicked. God is not absent from the process. Ezekiel does not hesitate to affirm that the Lord is present among the exiled population and that if people give up their delusions and their sinful ways, the Lord will raise them from the death of exile and give them a new city and temple. In the general picture of exile and restoration just presented, Ezekiel did not differ significantly from his prophetic predecessors. What then was his peculiar contribution to the Bible and to the contemporary church?

Though not cited as often by Christians as other prophetic books, Ezekiel says much to modern Christians. It insists on the Lord's transcendence and freedom; one can be overwhelmed and transformed by the presence of the Lord whom one cannot see. The Lord moves easily from the Temple to the exile and back to a restored Temple. Yet this utterly free and sovereign Lord has fallen in love with Israel and cannot leave or abandon her. Ezekiel insists more than any other prophet that the Lord acts because of the Lord's own reasons, not because of Israel's virtues or miseries. In fact, the prophet insists on this point with such vehemence that some modern readers are offended. The text locates the authority of the prophetic oracle in the Lord: the prophet is constantly referred to as “son of man,” that is, mere human in comparison with God. The phrase “oracle of the Lord” occurs eighty‐five times; the so‐called recognition formula “that they may know that I am the Lord” occurs fifty‐four times; and the assertion that the Lord acts so his name will not be profaned among the nations is constant. Although at first reading they might suggest a self‐centered deity, they actually make a positive statement, for they locate the reason for God acting in God's very self in the divine character. How dangerous it would be if God acted because of human righteousness! God acts because of who he is, not because of who Israel is. That is the basis of true hope, and it is why Ezekiel is so intent on destroying all human grounds for hope. True hope is based in God, not in human beings.

Another important contribution of the book is its careful literary structure. Ezekiel is a writer as well as a speaker. The structure in a sense frees Ezekiel from his immediate context to address a wider audience. In the book, one sees the glorious Lord, obligated to no human institution, choosing an individual to announce a painful judgment on beloved Israel that will eventuate in the renewal of that people. The metaphors for this process are dominantly those of love (marriage and betrothal) and personal presence (departing and returning), even though Ezekiel employs the metaphors in his peculiarly concrete and dramatic way. The judgment process extends to other nations as well and has as its ultimate aim restoration rather than destruction. When the final blow comes (the destruction of the Temple), the judgment process enters a new phase, that of restoration. Again, this phase uses relational metaphors—a loving shepherd, the mountain lands of Israel, dry bones, and a stick rejoined. The restoration phase addresses the problem of permanent and residual evil in the universe in the great victory over Gog of Magog. Only after that evil is destroyed (in some future time) is it possible for the Lord's own palace and city to be constructed. Chapters 33 through 37 speak of the immediate future and Chapters 38 through 48 of the indefinite future. It is his vision of the process of judgment that Ezekiel makes his greatest contribution to the Christian Bible.

In the confusing and destructive events of the early sixth century, Ezekiel recognized the judgment of the Lord. He allowed the Lord to act in justice and compassion and do a new thing—bring about a restored people living peacefully and happily with God at the center. Without panic, steadily and insistently, he instructed the people how to live in the judgment process. He showed them its immediate goal (33–37) and its ultimate goal (40–48). They thus could endure, trust in God alone, and hope in the world that God would bring in. Ezekiel illuminates the New Testament, in which judgment leading to life plays a significant role. The book illuminates as well the life of Jesus, who underwent his own process of judgment: a righteous poor person, killed by sinners, but raised up to life.

Another important contribution of the book is its insistence that the Lord has a dwelling among human beings and among the people of Israel. God is not abstract and universal. Rather, God provides a place where people can hear and encounter him, and where fertilizing waters can flow over the earth from that precious center.

The Text of Ezekiel

The Hebrew text at times seems repetitive and overloaded. In the view of many scholars, it contains doublets (repeated verses) and expansions by disciples or scribes. The problem is particularly acute in the vision of the divine chariot in chapters 1 and 10 . The Septuagint, the Greek translation made in the second century BC, is about 4 or 5 percent shorter than the Hebrew text and seems to be an earlier edition of the book. The Hebrew text is a later form of that text, which has been supplemented by systematic additions, some of which resemble language and concepts in Deuteronomy. The additions are mostly minor: additions of parallel words or phrases, explanations, filling out of the context, harmonizing additions, and Deuteronomistic formulations. The textual situation is much like that in Jeremiah, where the Greek text is 15 percent shorter than the Hebrew, and is an earlier version of the text. Scholars are divided on how to explain the longer Hebrew text and the apparent doublets, repetitions, and expansions, many of which are in the Greek text as well as the Hebrew. A few scholars defend the position that Ezekiel is the author of virtually the entire book and so attribute the repetitions and expansions to the prophet's rhetorical style. The older position, which is still the majority position today, believes that that additions and expansions were added to the text in course of copying it. Many expansions could have been made by Ezekiel himself, who apparently realized early on that the prophetic book itself could carry on his God‐given task of instructing Israel. Walther Zimmerli, a respected recent interpreter, suggests, for example, that 16, 1–43 is the original core of this long chapter, and that verses 44–58 and 59–63 are expansions.

Oral proclamation can change greatly when written down, because the writer or disciple now has a new and quite different audience in mind. The arrangement of the entire book can take on a entirely new significance, for it helps readers to interpret the prophet's proclamation for a different situation. The editing and arranging of Ezekiel was done with such care and intelligence that it is a further step in the prophetic task of interpretation and exhortation. Thus, the additions to the book of Ezekiel do not obscure his purpose but make it available to readers. Israel never regarded the prophetic books primarily as biographies or histories. Rather, the books were and are still regarded as preaching the divine word to every generation.

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