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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Themes.

1. The Temple.

Ezekiel's passionate concern with the Jerusalem temple—its defilement and destruction—has long been considered a central focus of the book. As a priest of sufficient stature to have been among the first exiled, Ezekiel may be assumed to have had more than a passing interest in both worship practices within and the ultimate fate of the Jerusalem sanctuary. In fact, both the structure and content of the book point to the temple's centrality in Ezekiel's thought. A growing horror at the temple's defilement dominates the oracles of doom in chs. 1–24 , and the temple's destruction, symbolized by the death of Ezekiel's wife ( 24:15–24 ), marks the ultimate satisfaction of YHWH's rage against Jerusalem and the beginning of his forgiveness. In the book's final chapters YHWH's eventual restoration of Israel is signified by the building of a new temple and YHWH's renewed residence within it ( 43:1–5 ). The existence or destruction of the Jerusalem temple serves as a cipher for the existence or non-existence of Israel. Israel's life is defined for Ezekiel, not by political independence, the Davidic monarchy (which receives scant notice in the book), or even the people's possession of the land (the second, more extensive exile of 586 BCE is barely mentioned in Ezekiel), but by the presence or absence of the temple, and by YHWH's acceptance or rejection of the temple as his home. The temple thus forms the emotional core of the book, representing Israel's ritual purity or impurity, its political and theological fidelity or infidelity, and YHWH's presence or absence among his people.

2. The Divine Name.

The exile of YHWH's chosen people to Babylon, as well as their own flagrant disobedience to his laws, could easily be seen as compromising YHWH's reputation as a god worthy of the name. Ezekiel, like other exilic authors, is concerned to vindicate YHWH's offended honour. Exile in itself was sufficient to defile YHWH's divine name, as it implied either YHWH's impotence or his violation of his covenant oath made to Israel. As recorded in 36:20 , the nations' observation that ‘These are the people of the Lord, yet they had to leave His land’ (NJPS) impels YHWH to act in defence of his holy name. The violation of Zedekiah's vassal oath sworn in YHWH's name similarly amounted to defilement of the name, and so YHWH in Ezekiel appears caught between the need to avenge himself against Judah and the competing need to manifest his power by bringing the people back from exile, both of which seem necessary to defend the sanctity of his name. Ezek 20 retells the entire history of Israel as a struggle between YHWH's desire to punish Israel's disobedience and his unwillingness to defile his own name by destroying the covenant people. Ezek 16 and 23 cast YHWH's defilement in the emotionally charged terms of male sexual honour, depicting YHWH as a sexually shamed husband whose honour has been devastated by his wife's (the personified Jerusalem's) infidelity. YHWH's vindication of his honour, first by punishing Israel for its infidelity and then by reestablishing his potency and authority over the people, emerges as a dominant theme over the course of the book. The repeated phrase, ‘Then they will know that I am YHWH’ (my tr.; see inter alia 6:7, 10, 14 ), sometimes employed as a threat of punishment and sometimes as a promise of restoration, emphasizes the concern for the divine name that motivates YHWH throughout Ezekiel. This ‘recognition formula’ (Zimmerli 1979: 37–41) occurs with variations some seventy-two times. In Ezekiel, to ‘know YHWH’ denotes not merely recognizing the deity, but specifically acknowledging his sovereignty. Not only the Judeans but ultimately all nations must come to ‘know the LORD’, that is, to recognize his dominion over all the earth. The climax of Ezekiel thus comes at the moment when YHWH is fully ‘recognized’. After vanquishing his ultimate enemy and so vindicating his holy name in chs. 38–9 , YHWH is at last enthroned in 43:1–5 on his holy mountain, overlooking the city whose name declares his sovereign presence at the centre of the world: YHWH is There ( 48:35 ).

3. The Divine Warrior.

Ezekiel's concern with the sanctity of both temple and divine name manifests itself in the book via the symbolic complex associated with the Israelite celebration of YHWH as Divine Warrior (see ABD, ‘Warrior, Divine’). In Israel, the New Year celebration apparently included a ritual in which YHWH (symbolized by the ark) went forth from the temple in an annual battle against cosmic enemies. While the ritual battle was taking place the temple was cleansed, and upon YHWH's victory a triumphant procession celebrated the renewal of the temple and reaffirmed YHWH's reign as well as that of his regent, the earthly monarch (see ABD, ‘King and Kingship’). In the opening chapter of Ezekiel the prophet reports seeing a vision of YHWH as Divine Warrior, seated on his chariot-throne. Ezekiel then looks on in chs. 10–11 as YHWH mounts his chariot and rides forth from the temple to the Mount of Olives, the traditional goal of the New Year's ark procession. YHWH then engages in battle, first against Jerusalem itself, and then against the enemies of Judah. The wars of YHWH culminate in chs. 38–9 with the battle against Gog, depicted as a cosmic foe. Following his victory over Gog YHWH calls for the purification of the land and a sacrificial banquet, after which he returns in triumph to take his throne as king in a renewed and purified temple. For Ezekiel, writing in Babylon during a period when YHWH's power and kingship could not be affirmed by military, political, or ritual means, the visionary mode provides a venue through which to vindicate YHWH's honour and assert his continued sovereignty.

4. Sin and Repentance.

Ezekiel is widely noted for his assertions, primarily set forth in ch. 18 (cf. 33:10–20 ) that, contrary to the perspective expressed in Ex 34:7 and elsewhere, YHWH does not visit the sins of the parents upon the children; rather, each person is judged on the basis of individual merit. Moreover, each person's merit is determined solely by their current actions. Past sins do not count against a repentant individual, nor does past righteousness count in favour of a person who has turned to evil ways. Ezekiel thus presents a distinctive perspective on the individual as a moral agent and on the present moment as the moment of moral significance. YHWH stresses that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but desires repentance and life for each person ( 18:23, 32 ).

5.

In contrast to the focus on the ongoing responsibility of each individual, YHWH's actions toward the community are designed solely to punish past sins and to purify the people as a whole, regardless of their present moral inclinations. At the communal level YHWH's concern is with the ritual defilement created by Israel's sins and his goal is to vindicate his name and his holiness (see EZEK F.2; ABD, ‘Holiness (OT)’). The community must at all costs be fitted to these ends. Thus, much of Ezekiel describes YHWH's plans precisely to visit the consequences of the community's sins upon it so as to purify people, land, and temple and re-establish YHWH as sovereign. In his wholesale purgation of land and people YHWH will punish ‘both righteous and wicked’ ( 21:3–4 [MT 21:8–9 ]). Regardless of whether they choose repentance YHWH will replace their corrupt hearts with organs inclined to obedience ( 11:19–20; 36:26–7 ), thus ensuring his ability to rule undefiled by the people's sins. Here purification and return (the word ‘forgiveness’, slḥ, does not occur in Ezekiel) take place not as an act of grace, but of necessity, a required step in the vindication of YHWH's sovereignty. Ezekiel's concern presses far beyond the restoration of the people, to climax in ch. 43 with YHWH's own restoration as king. Within this overarching and impersonal scheme focused on YHWH's vindication, however, rests Ezekiel's almost pastoral attention to the moral life of the individual. In the midst of the calamity of the exile comes a firm rejection of despair and moral defeatism. Righteous action is far from pointless, as some in the exilic community claim ( 33:10 ), nor does hope lie in the vague notion that the righteousness of the ancestors will suffice for the present ( 14:12–20 ). Instead, even as he announces YHWH's inevitable destruction of Israel Ezekiel articulates a responsibility and opportunity for each person to ‘turn and live’ on the basis of new choices and righteous acts.

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