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

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Commentary on Ezekiel

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Oracles of Destruction against Judah ( 1:1–24:27 )

Ezekiel's Inaugural Vision and Commissioning ( 1:1–3:27 )

( 1:1–3 ) Superscription

The book begins with a superscription informing the reader of the identity of the prophet and the time and place that the prophecy was received and delivered. Ezek 1–3 actually includes two such introductions, one in the first person (v. 1 ) and one in the third (vv. 2–3 ). vv. 2–3 are the only two verses in the book written in the third person, and the first-person superscription of v. 1 is probably the original. v. 1 announces that the writer saw ‘visions of God’ while among the exiles ‘by the river Chebar’ in ‘the thirtieth year’. The introduction is obscure, assuming the reader's knowledge of which year is ‘the thirtieth’ and who it was who were exiled ‘by the river Chebar’. The second superscription (vv. 2–3 ) seems designed to clarify the first, identifying the speaker and the location of the Chebar, and restating the date in terminology consistent with that employed elsewhere in the book. vv. 2–3 follow the typical form of prophetic superscriptions, providing a date in terms of the reigning monarch, identifying the prophet both by his own name (Ezekiel) and his father's name (son of Buzi), and announcing that ‘the word of the Lord came’ at this time. In this case Ezekiel's profession as a priest is also noted (cf. Jer 1:1 ), as well as the location in which he prophesied: in the land of the Chaldeans (Babylonia), by the river Chebar. Finally, the superscription contains the notice that ‘the hand of the Lord’ was upon him there (v. 3 ).

The significance of the ‘hand of the Lord’ (cf. 8:1 ), and how this term differs from the ‘word of the Lord’ in the same verse or the ‘visions of God’ mentioned in v. 1 , is not clear, although the terminology seems to link Ezekiel's experience with that of earlier prophets such as Elijah (1 Kings 18:46 ) and Elisha (2 Kings 2:15 ; see EZEK D.I). The correlation between the year specified in v. 2 (593 BCE) and the thirtieth year of v. 1 has long puzzled interpreters. Speculation has included the possibility that Ezekiel himself was 30 years old (in his thirtieth year) when he began to prophesy, or that the call actually occurred (or the book was composed) in the thirtieth year of the exile, 568 BCE. The Targum of Ezekiel, however, suggests that Ezekiel received his call in the thirtieth year after Josiah's reform, a dating that would yield 593, and so correlate with the date given in v. 2 . This early understanding has gained little credence among scholars, but given that Josiah's reform took place in a Jubilee year (cf. Hayes and Hooker 1988 ), Ezekiel might well be reckoning his vision according to the Jubilee. In this case, both his initial and his final vision are dated according to their relation to the Jubilee ( EZEK 40:1 ).

( 1:4–28 a) The Vision of the Throne-Chariot

Ezekiel watches as a stormy wind blows in from the north, bringing with it a shiny cloud that in turn contains YHWH's chariot borne by supernatural creatures (identified in 10:20 as cherubim). YHWH's approach from the north carries implications ranging from the mundane to the mythical. Although summer storms do in fact come into Babylon from the north, Ezekiel more probably reflects the Ugaritic traditions according to which the storm-god Baal made his home in the far north (cf. Ps 48:2 [MTv. 3]) or to a tradition describing an unnamed ‘enemy from the north’ (cf. Jer 1:13; Ezek 39:2 ) arriving to destroy Israel. In the light of YHWH's appearance riding his war chariot and Ezekiel's role warning Israel of YHWH's approach, the northerly storm wind of 1:4 probably foreshadows the approaching destruction of Israel. Ezekiel sees in the storm a shining cloud containing fire and ‘something like ḥašmal’ (v. 4 ). The identity of ḥašmal is not known, though the Akkadian cognate elmešu is also used in describing a god's shining appearance (see Greenberg 1983: 43). The details of Ezekiel's vision, while tantalizing, are also intentionally obscure. Ezekiel claims only to see ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory’ of YHWH (v. 28 ), and while the vision is described in minute detail, it is likewise understood that what the prophet describes so fully remains essentially indescribable.

In vv. 5–14 Ezekiel sees ‘something like four living creatures’ in the midst of the cloud. The designation of the creatures as ḥayyôt, living beings, may emphasize that he is not experiencing a vision of the temple furniture, the carved cherubim bearing the ark, but of the living original (cf. the seraphim of Isa 6:1–8 ). The description of the four creatures is garbled in MT, with repetitions, sentence fragments, and even changes in the creatures' gender. While the uncertain prose creates translational difficulties, and may well reflect a corrupt text, the result is a strangely enhanced sense of awe and bedazzlement built up over the course of the vision. The creatures have four faces—each face having the likeness of a different animal, with a human face in the front—and four wings. The effect is that the creatures face in all directions simultaneously, and are thus able both to move in any direction and to guard the blazing substance around which they stand. In vv. 15–21 Ezekiel describes four shining wheels accompanying the four creatures. The construction of the wheels, ‘a wheel within a wheel’, may indicate either concentric circles in the same plane or wheels at right angles to one another, thus facing, like the living creatures, in all directions at once. The wheel rims are full of eyes so that, like the creatures, they may be both omnipresent and all-seeing. Whereas the living creatures move at the impulse of ‘the spirit’ (of YHWH) the wheels are themselves moved (vertically as well as horizontally) by the spirit of the creatures.

In vv. 22–8a Ezekiel sees a crystalline dome stretching over the creatures' heads (cf. Gen 1:6 ), and notes the sound made by the creatures' wings as they move, ‘like the sound of mighty waters, like the thunder of the Almighty’ (v. 24 ). A voice sounds from over the firmament; the creatures halt and let down their wings. Ezekiel now looks above the dome to see the ‘likeness of a throne’ with what appears to be ‘something that seemed like a human form’ (v. 26 ). The form shines as if with ḥašmal, fire, and even a rainbow (vv. 27–8 ), and upon seeing it Ezekiel falls prostrate, recognizing ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory’ of YHWH (v. 28 ).

Ezekiel's vision report, for all its claims to describe only the remotest representations of things divine, employs what for an Israelite reader would have been unmistakable symbols of YHWH's presence. Zoomorphic throne guardians formed part of both Israelite and Babylonian iconography, as did the transformation of the divine throne into a war chariot, borne by its winged guardians and accompanied by fire, storm, and the thundering voice of the god (Ps 68; 77:16–19 [MT vv. 17–20 ]). The throne's location above the crystalline dome reflects YHWH's location ‘above the heavens’ (Ps 8:1 [MT 8:2 ]; 11:4; 57:11 [MT v. 12 ]), while the repeated emphasis on the mobility of the creatures and wheels may serve to explain YHWH's unexpected presence in Babylonia.

( 1:28b–3:15 ) Ezekiel's Commissioning

Ezekiel hears a voice addressing him, commanding him to rise. Ezekiel is called ‘son of man’ ( 2:1 RSV) here and throughout the remainder of the book, not as an honorific title, but as a mark of the distance between this ‘mere mortal’ and his divine interlocutor (see Vermes 1981; ABD, ‘Son of Man’). The prophet is then set on his feet by the spirit (cf. 37:10 ), moving, like the living creatures, only at YHWH's behest. Ezekiel receives a commission to go to the ‘rebellious house’ of Israel and speak for YHWH. YHWH's emphasis on Israel's stubborn rebellion, and even his reassurance that Ezekiel need not fear the people's words and looks, suggest that Ezekiel's message will be rejected; none the less he will serve as evidence of YHWH's will, so that the people ‘will know that there has been a prophet among them’ ( 2:5 ). Ezekiel is now shown a scroll containing ‘words of lamentation and mourning and woe’ ( 2:10 ) and instructed to eat it (cf. Jer 15:16 ). Henceforth, Ezekiel speaks YHWH's words, which have literally been put into the prophet's mouth. The scroll's contents, lamentation and woe, confirm the earlier suggestion that YHWH has come as an enemy from the north: Ezekiel will prophesy destruction to Israel. In 3:4–11 YHWH offers Ezekiel the ironic consolation that he will not be sent to foreigners whose speech he cannot understand. Rather than going to foreigners, who might listen despite the language barrier, Ezekiel will go to his fellow exiles, who, understanding his words, will simply refuse to listen.

Ezekiel then reports that as the divine chariot departed he himself was lifted up by the spirit and returned to the exiles living at the Babylonian settlement of Tel Abib ( 3:12–15 ). Ezekiel depicts his visionary experience as entailing pain and consternation. The intensity of YHWH's hand upon him causes Ezekiel ‘bitterness’ and ‘rage’ ( 3:14 , my tr.). Following the vision Ezekiel sits stunned for seven days. Ezekiel is not unique in experiencing the prophetic role as galling (cf. Moses in Ex 4 ; and Jeremiah in Jer 15:15–18 ); Ezekiel feels the burden even before receiving orders or learning the community's response. ‘Rage’ (ḥēmâ) in Ezekiel is most often characteristic of YHWH (see inter alia 5:13, 15 ; 6:12 ; 7:8 ) and it may be that Ezekiel is overwhelmed by his empathic experience of YHWH's fierce emotion. In his later sign-acts (beginning with 4:1–3 ) the prophet frequently takes on YHWH's role. Ezekiel is thus stunned not only by the fact of his encounter with the divine glory, but also by his internalization of divine rage.

( 3:16–21 ) The Sentinel

(See also EZEK 33:1–9 .) After his seven days' recuperation, Ezekiel receives in effect a second commissioning, this time couched in metaphoric language. Ezekiel is to serve as the sentinel for Israel. The sentinel is posted on the city wall to watch for and give warning of enemies without. The metaphor refers obliquely to Jerusalem, the walled capital whose ‘rebelliousness’ ( 2:5 ) should give it reason to expect retaliation by Babylon. In fact, however, YHWH is the enemy approaching the city, and although YHWH, speaking through Ezekiel, warns the people, it is also YHWH against whom the people must be warned. The image of YHWH attacking the city is consistent with Ezekiel's vision in ch. 1 of YHWH riding on his war chariot, confirming the uneasy possibility that it is Israel against whom the Divine Warrior rides. Ezekiel's commission as sentinel employs military imagery to convey Israel's moral accountability. As sentinel Ezekiel is responsible for conveying YHWH's warning to the people. While it is the people who will be judged, the passage focuses on Ezekiel and his own accountability as sentinel. Thus, if Ezekiel warns the wicked to repent but they do not, they bear responsibility for their own sins. Should Ezekiel fail to warn them, however, they will receive the death sentence for their actions, but he will be held responsible for their death. Regardless, then, of the people's response, Ezekiel's own life is at stake as he is charged with a message of life-and-death importance.

( 3:22–7 ) Binding and Dumbness

In the final episode of Ezekiel's call the prophet is sent out to ‘the valley’, where he again sees the divine glory. As in the earlier vision, Ezekiel falls prostrate but the spirit stands him upright. YHWH now restricts both Ezekiel's mobility and his speech. He is to confine himself to his house, where he will be bound with cords, and YHWH will strike him dumb and thus unable to reprove the people. YHWH's command is puzzling, as its effect is to render Ezekiel incapable of communicating with the people, and thus seemingly to negate his commission as prophet. The restriction is particularly alarming in the light of 3:16–21 in which Ezekiel is told that he must warn the people on peril of his life. The problem is compounded by the fact that immediately following the announcement of his binding and dumbness YHWH commands Ezekiel to perform symbolic actions requiring both mobility and speech. While Ezekiel rarely reports his own fulfilment of YHWH's command the problem remains as to why YHWH would command actions he himself has rendered impossible to perform. One traditional solution has been to label vv. 22–7 a late addition, or out of place in its current setting. Such a solution merely introduces the new problem of what the difficult passage is in fact doing out of place—how it got there and how it functions now. One less radical possibility is that Ezekiel's confinement and dumbness symbolize his status as a writing prophet. If in fact Ezekiel's prophecies were produced substantially in writing (while seated, silent and immobile, indoors) rather than orally, this novel practice might have required both explanation and theological justification in a culture regarding prophecy as primarily an oral genre. In v. 27 YHWH declares that when he addresses Ezekiel he will open the prophet's mouth to tell the people, ‘Thus says the Lord God’. This emendation could refer to YHWH's removal of the dumbness in 33:21–2 but more likely means that YHWH will relieve the prophet's dumbness whenever YHWH gives Ezekiel oracles to deliver in YHWH's name.

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