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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Ezekiel

The primacy so clearly accorded to Zadok by the Chronicler is adumbrated in the earlier writing of Ezekiel 40–8, a discrete subsection of the book of Ezekiel whose final redaction was probably complete before the end of the Exile in 538 BCE. In their final form, which is what will concern us here, these chapters offer a visionary account (see Ezek. 40: 2; 43: 3) of a restored Temple in Jerusalem, with forthright rulings on the status and functions of prince, priests, Levites, and other Temple personnel in the renewed sanctuary. Many of these are quite at variance with Pentateuchal laws (and with the Chronicler's work), and at least some rabbinic authorities regarded this problem as calling into question the book's status as Scripture (b. Shabbat 13b; Menahot 45a). Throughout what follows, the visionary aspects of Ezekiel's statements should not be forgotten (Zimmerli 1979: 27–8; 1983: 329–533; Gese 1957). He certainly proposes an ideal (Schaper 2000: 122–9); and he may have expected it to be realized in constitutional form (Tuell 1992). He was himself a priest (Ezek. 1: 3), who was acutely conscious of the failure of his fellow priests in allowing profanation of sancta, violations of purity laws, and failure to distinguish between impurity and purity. In short, they have violated the Torah (Ezek. 22: 26), and chapters 40–8 appear to be a systematic attempt to remedy these defects in the priesthood.

In this Temple of Ezekiel's vision, the first likely mention of ministers is found in MT 40: 44 with reference to a chamber of singers (šārîm), situated in the inner court at the north gate: nothing further is said about them, but their appearance en passant suggests that they were a recognized and well-established body known in Ezekiel's time. This is so if we follow the MT of this verse; but the LXX has not singers, but two (likely Hebrew Vorlage: šettayim) chambers, and the whole verse may refer to chambers for the priests named in the next verse, those in the south chamber who keep the ‘charge’, mišmeret, of the Temple (a duty of Levites in the Chronicler's work) and those in the north who keep the ‘charge’ of the altar. These priests 40: 46 identifies as ‘the sons of Zadok, who draw near to YHWH from the sons of Levi to minister to him’. This indicates that, in Ezekiel's vision, the Zadokites alone are qualified to minister to YHWH (Milgrom 1991: 577).

Chambers to north and south are specifically designated holy (42: 13): there, the priests who are near to YHWH shall eat and deposit the most holy things, meal offerings, purification offerings, and reparation offerings (see 44: 29; 46: 19–20; and cf. Num. 18: 5). Lev. 6: 16, 26; 24: 9, make plain that offerings in the category of the most holy be eaten in the holy place: Ezekiel specifies exactly where this is to be done. On entering these chambers, the priests must not go out of the holy place into the outer court without laying aside their vestments in which they minister, because these are holy (Ezek. 42: 14): to leave, they must lay them aside and put on other clothes (a general ruling based on Lev. 6: 4, 11), lest they sanctify the people with their vestments, as Ezek. 44: 19 makes clear. But there is nothing at all in the Pentateuch to correspond to this sanctification of lay persons through the priestly garments: it is a ruling of Ezekiel's which extends the list of items which make holiness contagion possible.

Ezek. 43: 19–27 sets out the ritual for consecration of the altar of burnt offering: it is to be undertaken by ‘the priests, the Levites who are of the seed of Zadok, who are near to me to minister to me.’ Such a re-consecration of the altar was made necessary by its previous desecration, explained in 44: 6 ff., where Israel is accused of abominations, in bringing foreigners and uncircumcised to profane the Temple and the sacrifices. In short, Israel has not kept charge (mišmeret) of God's holy things (44: 8), and this is related to the failure of ‘the Levites’ who went astray from YHWH after idols: these are to ‘bear their iniquity’ (44: 9), to be divinely punished for their idolatry by their removal from the priestly office, and from contact with the holy and the most holy things (44: 10, 12–13). Rather, they are to be doorkeepers having charge of the sanctuary (44: 11), and they are also given the duty of slaughtering whole burnt offering and sacrifice (ôlāh and zebah) for the people. In these verses, ‘Levites’ apparently designates a former priestly group now debarred from priestly office and sancta, paying for their former failure to preserve purity in the sanctuary by being given over wholly to the maintenance of this very thing. No source other than Ezekiel speaks of Levites as opposed to priests slaughtering ôlāh and zebah: their slaughtering of the Pesah recorded by the Chronicler (2 Chr. 30: 16–17; 35: 6) was dictated by the necessities of the time.

The Zadokites specifically are granted priestly privileges: 44: 15 calls them ‘the priests, the Levites, the sons of Zadok’; and because they are said precisely to have kept the mišmeret of the sanctuary when Israel went astray, they are qualified to minister to YHWH, standing before him and offering blood and fat, entering the sanctuary, approaching the altar, ministering and keeping God's charge (44: 15–16). Ezek. 48: 11 reiterates the claim that the Zadokites kept God's charge, and did not go astray as the Levites went astray. For the future, however, Ezek. 44: 17–31 stresses certain regulations that they must observe. As we have seen, Ezekiel singles out concern for priestly vestments (44: 17–19), unlike the Pentateuch noting that these can convey holiness to lay persons; rules relating to their hair, prohibition of alcohol, mourning laws, and laws of corpse uncleanness generally follow regulations known from the Pentateuch (44: 20–2, 25–7). It is clearly stated that they are to teach the people to distinguish between unconsecrated and consecrated, impure and pure (44: 23); and they are to act as judges (44: 24). What of sancta they shall eat is listed: cereal offerings, purification and reparation offerings, things vowed to the sanctuary, first-fruits and terûmāh and dough offerings (44: 29–30). Perplexing is 44: 31, ruling that they should not eat nebēlāh and terēpāh: this is a command given to all Israel at Exod. 22: 31, and its reiteration here for priests puzzled the rabbis (b. Shabb. 13b).

In the land of Israel itself, Ezekiel's visionary programme provides for a holy portion of the land to be set apart for the priests, for their houses and the sanctuary (45: 4), special provision also being made for the Levites, ‘the ministers of the house’. The land is said repeatedly to be holy (45: 1, twice, 4, 6): it therefore requires the Levites who occupy it to be in a state of purity at all times. This mention of land leads to consideration of ‘the prince’ (hannāsî'), who is also to have a portion set aside (44: 7–8). He is responsible especially for justice in weights and measures, a matter related to the precise amounts of produce to be set aside for the Temple's sacrificial dues (terûmāh) which the prince himself is to set in order for the priests to effect purgation for Israel (45: 13–17). Tuell argues that the ‘prince’ envisaged was the Persian governor of the region, and that the arrangements carefully described here are intended to lead to a real political and constitutional settlement between Persians and Jews, in which the holy city of Jerusalem would come to play a central role as a symbol of Jewish identity throughout the Persian empire. The prince, it will be noted, is responsible (albeit at one remove) for Israel's purgation. Whether this ideal programme would grant to a non-Israelite or to a foreign appointee such a task is not entirely clear.

This mention of purgation leads directly to Ezekiel's regulations for Passover, which differ extensively from the Pentateuchal laws: on the fourteenth day of the first month, the first day of Passover, a bull is offered for purgation (no rule of this kind is found in the Pentateuch), and then for the next seven days seven bulls and seven rams are sacrificed. This does not cohere with Num. 28: 16–25; but it does have the effect of underscoring the need for purification. The prince has no direct part in this; but the following chapter offers precise instructions as to his mode of entry into the Temple (46: 2), and his place relative to that of the priests and the people as he brings the offerings for Sabbath and new moon (46: 3–10). Unlike the Pentateuch, Ezekiel sees the prince as playing a central role in the Temple service and the provisions for it. The specification of the exact gate by which he enters the Temple (46: 2) and the detailed descriptions of his and the people's places as they bring the offerings (46: 9–10) are all laid down: there is a place for everyone and everything, and all must be in their place.

Ezekiel's regulations appear clear-cut; and many of them have the appearance of a ‘tightening up’ of already existing or earlier rules, of providing detail where before there had been imprecision. The sons of Zadok alone may be priests, being qualified to approach YHWH, dealing with the altar, the holy and most holy things, and acting as judges. All other Temple personnel are subsumed under the title ‘Levites’, a group from which the Zadokites themselves also derive; once priests themselves, they are now assigned by Ezekiel responsibility for the Temple's purity and security, and debarred from the altar. They may slaughter sacrificial beasts; but their main task is the ‘charge’, guard duty, of the sanctuary. Ezekiel says nothing about a ‘high priest’. He does, however, legislate for a ‘prince’, whose duties are carefully prescribed. And all these regulations are fitted into very precise and explicit descriptions of the Temple and its architecture, its chambers, porticos, and gates, whose dimensions are meticulously recorded. No one reading these chapters can doubt that the establishing and maintenance of purity inform the writer at all turns; and what is said about the Zadokites, the Levites, and the prince is but part of a larger concern for guarding that holiness which the Temple and its service should guarantee. The last words of the prophecy sum up the message of chapters 40–8: the city in which this Temple is established, in due order with priests, Levites, and prince as Ezekiel understands them, will be named ‘The LORD is there’ (Ezek. 48: 35).

This visionary scheme, however, confronts us with many difficulties, the most serious of which turn on the identification of Ezekiel's Levites, accused by the prophet of idolatry in former times. But biblical sources almost certainly older than Ezekiel present Levites as faithful protagonists of YHWH (e.g. Deut. 33: 8–11) who were bitterly opposed to idolatry. Indeed, the Deuteronomistic History (probably complete by 560 BCE and whose final redaction may be more or less contemporary with Ezekiel) recorded of Jeroboam I, the first king of Israel who set up golden calfs at Bethel and Dan, that he appointed priests for this cult ‘from among all the people who were not of the sons of Levi’ (1 Kgs. 12: 28–31). This recalls the episode of the golden calf in the days of Moses: the priest Aaron is said to have appeared to condone this (Exod. 32: 1–6), but the cult was violently attacked by Levites described as being ‘on the side of YHWH’ (Exod. 32: 26–9). Ezekiel's picture of Levites offers such a sharp contrast with these other accounts that he may be suspected of engaging in a polemic, designed to bolster his express support for one particular subgroup of priests, the Zadokites, whose ancestor Zadok was firmly linked with the earliest days of the Jerusalem Temple and its royal patrons.

Who, then, might Ezekiel's Levites represent? Already the Deuteronomistic History had presented Zadok as part of a much wider priestly family (see above, pp. 323–4), tracing its descent from Eli, who had presided over the pre-Jerusalem shrine at Shiloh which housed the ark (2 Sam. 8: 17; cf. 1 Sam. 14: 3). Ezekiel seems to wish to exclude from priestly service any branch of the old priestly families which could not claim descent from Zadok, whom Solomon was said to have promoted to the exclusion of Abiathar (2 Kgs. 2: 35). Baudissin (1889: 106) argued that Ezekiel's Levites were descendants of Aaron's son Ithamar, now degraded to menial tasks. Better known is Wellhausen's view (1973: 121–7), that Ezekiel's Levites represent the priesthoods of the old provisional sanctuaries of Judah (‘high places’) abolished in Josiah's reform (2 Kgs. 23: 1–8) in accord with Deuteronomy's stipulation that there be only one sanctuary of YHWH (Deut. 12: 5). Arguing that Deuteronomy knew no such difference between ‘priests’ and ‘Levites’ as is encountered in the Chronicler, Ezekiel, and the Priestly legislation in the Pentateuch, Wellhausen urged that the tribe of Levi was simply the priestly tribe, Deuteronomy acknowledging as much by permitting Levites from the provinces to minister as priests in the single sanctuary as of right (Deut. 18: 6–8). This ruling, however, was flouted by the Jerusalem priests (2 Kgs. 23: 9), with the result that the latter claimed priesthood exclusively as their own, and reduced the former provincial priests to subservient status entrusted with menial tasks, the term ‘Levite’ now being used to designate such second-class functionaries.

This simple and elegant proposal has won many adherents; but it conceals many difficulties. First, recent research has shown that Deuteronomy's account of the relationship between priests and Levites cannot be represented adequately by a direct equation of the two terms: more is said of this below (pp. 339–40) Secondly, Ezekiel's programme did not demote or degrade Levites to menial tasks. They are debarred from priestly activity to concentrate fully on keeping the charge of the Temple: they are to guard it precisely because Israel did not keep charge of God's sancta (Ezek. 44: 18). They operate on behalf of Israel (cf. Num. 8: 19), and are concerned not only with the physical security of the Temple, but also with its purity, the establishment and maintenance of which is fundamental to Ezekiel's visionary scheme. Far from being menial, the Levites' duties are crucial. If they are not carried out assiduously, impurity will gain ascendancy, driving away the Divine Presence as once before, with disastrous consequences (Ezek. 10). The singling out of Zadokites for specific priestly duties at the altar and in respect of most holy things and holy things has the effect of increasing the numbers of those who, in Ezekiel's plan, should be Levites, without whose constant vigilance in respect of purity the sanctuary cannot function. Like the prince and the priests, they reside in holy territory adjoining the Temple, and in this tract of holy land, all must be pure. One would expect little else in a city whose name is to be ‘YHWH is there’.

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