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Citation for The Biography of Ezekiel

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Clifford, Richard J. . "Ezekiel." In The Catholic Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Oct 25, 2021. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195282801/obso-9780195282801-div1-91>.


Clifford, Richard J. . "Ezekiel." In The Catholic Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195282801/obso-9780195282801-div1-91 (accessed Oct 25, 2021).

The Biography of Ezekiel

According to the date formula in 1, 2, Ezekiel's prophetic ministry began with his call in July 593 near a canal (“River Chebar” in NAB) near Nippur, a few miles south of the city of Babylon. He was among the eight or ten thousand able men exiled to Babylonia after the siege of Jerusalem in 597 BC (2 Kgs 24, 14.16 ). (Evidently other family members were not counted in the census.) The last dated formula in the book is March/April 571 ( 29, 17 ), which introduces a promise that Babylonia will plunder Egypt. The time span between the first and the last oracle is twenty‐two years. To judge from the contents of the oracles, most of his ministry took place from 593 to 585. Ezekiel, however, may well have continued teaching and writing after 571 about matters that did not require a date, for example, the future events depicted in chapters 33 through 48 . His public career was spent completely in dismal circumstances. The period from 593 to 571 was one of unrelieved doom—unhindered Babylonian domination, inept and cowardly Judean leadership, the fiery destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and exile in humiliation and poverty. These were the events that required Ezekiel's attention and comment. No wonder that the scroll in his inaugural vision “was covered with writing front and back, and written on it was: Lamentation and wailing and woe!” ( 2, 10 ). It is a tribute to his faith and imagination that the prophet's message is ultimately about the bright future God has in store for his people.

The fact that Ezekiel is called a priest is of enormous significance: “The word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar. There the hand of the Lord came upon me” ( 1, 3 ). It has already been noted that his call “in the thirtieth year” most probably refers to the age of ordination. Priestly ordination was complex, however, requiring animal sacrifice (Ex 29 and Lv 8 ), which could only be carried out in Temple precincts. Ezekiel seems to be saying that normal ordination and priestly service was impossible for him, for he had no access to the Temple. He would be present in Jerusalem and exercise his priestly service in a new way, through visionary experience. Like that of Isaiah (Is 6 ), Ezekiel's inaugural vision is one of the throne of the Lord ( 1, 26 ). In chapters 8 through 11 , he will tour the Temple in a vision and will show how profoundly it has been corrupted by unholy conduct. In chapters 40 through 48 , he will go on a visionary tour of the new city and the new Temple. As a priest, his categories are purity and impurity, and the boundaries between profane and sacred. As a prophet his purview included social justice and the fidelity required by the covenant. Holiness implied social justice (cf. Lv 19 ) and social justice implied right worship (cf. Is 1, 2–20 ). Ezekiel demands both exactness in rituals and compassion toward one's neighbor. An example is 18, 5, “If a man is virtuous—if he does what is right and just, if he does not eat on the mountains, nor raise his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel; if he does not defile his neighbor's wife, nor have relations with a woman in her menstrual period.… ( 18, 5–6 ). The fact that he is a priest, even if not actually ordained in the Temple, does not take away in the least from his calling as a prophet. He often prophesies about Israel's problems and possibilities in priestly terms: how God will dwell in the midst of a sinful people, rebuild the Temple to protect its holiness, and arrange the people in the zones of holiness around the Temple. (See “The Traditions That Ezekiel Used.”)

Ezekiel does not tell us very much about his personal life, for evidently he did not consider it significant for his public task. We know that his wife died in 588 only because it was important to his preaching ( 24, 15–27 ). To dramatize how devastating would be the loss of “the delight of your eyes” (referring to the Temple), Ezekiel was forbidden by God to perform the customary mourning rites for his wife (“the delight of your eyes”) when she died. The examples show that the book is not a biography but a record of preaching.

Several verses show Ezekiel's style of communicating to the elders of the people ( 8, 1; 14, 1; 20, 1 ). The elders gathered around him to consult the Lord. The verb “to consult the Lord” was a technical term for seeking an oracle from the Lord. That the elders would come to Ezekiel shows that they recognized him as an authentic prophet. Like a true prophet, he had no hesitation in criticizing them vigorously ( 14, 1 ). Though his frequent use of divine speech might suggest that he did not converse with his hearers, several oracles directly respond to sayings current among the people. An example: “What is the meaning of this proverb that you recite in the land of Israel: ‘Fathers have eaten green grapes, thus their children's teeth are on edge'?” ( 18, 2 ). Ezekiel proceeded to a detailed refutation of this popular saying. Other popular sayings provoked a similar critique ( 12, 22.23.27; 22, 28; 37, 11 ). Some exiles dismissed him as no more than an entertaining figure, as the Lord informed the prophet: “Your countrymen are talking about you along the walls and in the doorways of houses. They say to one another, ‘Come and hear the latest word that comes from the Lord.' My people come to you as people always do; they sit down before you and hear your words, but they will not obey them, for lies are on their lips and their desires are fixed on dishonest gain. For them you are only a ballad singer, with a pleasant voice and a clever touch. They listen to your words, but they will not obey them” ( 33, 30–32 ).

Ezekiel's style has caused some modern commentators to question his balance and even his sanity. Chapters 1, 8, 10, 37, and 40 describe ecstatic visions seizing the prophet's whole person. Among his prophetic gestures are clapping his hands and stamping his feet ( 6, 11 ), digging through the wall of his house at night with a pack on his back to illustrate the exile ( 12, 5 ), lying on his side for 390 days, and arranging his cut hair in three piles ( 5, 1–17 ). Though some scholars of the previous generation argued that such behavior indicated mental instability, most today recognize that the actions are prophetic gestures, like Isaiah walking naked in Jerusalem for three years to dramatize the Assyrian conquest of Egypt (Is 20 ). They are a kind of living parable, designed to shock and provoke reflection. They do not provide a glimpse of “the real Ezekiel,” whose personality (in the modern sense of personality) is largely hidden from our eyes.

The Traditions That Ezekiel Used

Every prophet favors certain traditions out of the many in Israel's lore. Isaiah made great use of the traditions about Zion and the Davidic king. Though Jeremiah cited the royal traditions, they were less important to him than the Exodus, which was the event that established the relationship between the Lord and the people. The traditions, it should be noted, do not exist as separate entities; they are related to one another as parts of a whole.

Ezekiel employed several traditions: the Exodus (especially the building of the tabernacle with its kabod, “glory”) and the wilderness journey; Israelite and ancient Near Eastern traditions about the Temple and temple‐city; and mythological traditions about the creation and maintenance of the world. The Exodus figures especially in one passage, chapter 20 , where it is given an extraordinary reinterpretation. Unlike Amos and Jeremiah who regarded the Exodus as the golden moment of Israel's fidelity before the corrupting influence of the land, Ezekiel saw Israel's infidelity as beginning in the founding moment itself. Even before they left Egypt, the people had compromised themselves. To the elders consulting him, Ezekiel received the oracle: “Make known to them the abominations of their ancestors in these words … in the land of Egypt I revealed myself to them and swore: I am the Lord, your God. That day I swore to bring them out of the land of Egypt to the land I had scouted for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, a jewel among all lands. Then I said to them: Throw away, each of you, the detestable things that have held your eyes; do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt: I am the Lord, your God. But they rebelled against me and refused to listen to me; none of them threw away the detestable things that had held their eyes, they did not abandon the idols of Egypt” ( 20, 4–8 ). Only zeal for the divine name held back the Lord from pouring out his anger against them then and again during rebellions at the giving of the law and at the rise of the next generation.

Why did Ezekiel radically devalue the revered traditions of the Exodus? The elders consulted him in 591 ( 20, 1 ); in four years the siege would begin that will bring down Jerusalem and the Temple. Ezekiel had to prepare the people to believe that the destruction would be the Lord's doing. The prophet must unmask the false hopes that have deluded the people up to this point. He could not allow even the Exodus, the sacred moment of foundation, to be a source of pride. Israel was unfaithful even then. The people's only hope was the Lord, and in the last part of chapter 20 (vv. 33–44 ) Ezekiel outlined in glowing terms how the Lord, with a dazzling display of power, would enter into judgment with the people and lead them in a new exodus.

Another instance of the centrality of the Exodus is found in the account of the new temple‐city and worship in chapters 40 through 48 . Ezekiel 45, 717.21–25 and 46, 1–18 speak of the prince (Hebrew nasi) instead of the king. Why? Because, it seems, the prophet wants to return to the ideals of the Exodus period, before there was a king. In ancient tradition, the nasi was the leader of each tribe in the march in the desert (Nm 2 and 7 ). Another indication of the importance of the Exodus is Ezekiel's demotion of the Levitical priests and promotion of the Zadokites ( 44, 6–16; 48, 11 ). The warrant for demoting one group and promoting another was apparently inspired by the people's apostasy and punishment in Numbers 25. Phineas, of the line of Aaron, killed the apostates and it was reckoned “for him and for his descendants after him the pledge of an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous on behalf of his God and thus made amends for the Israelites” (Nm 25, 13 ). A true priest rejects all foreigners in worship. The Levitical priests had been lax in excluding them from preexilic worship (Ez 8–11; 44, 10–14 ). In contrast, the ancestor of Zadok, Phineas, had shown himself a zealous defender of orthodox worship, and so it is only fitting that his descendants, the Zadokites, are made priests in the renewed liturgy. One may also note that the mountain in chapters 40 through 48 is associated with Mount Sinai; chapters 40 through 48 is the only body of law not uttered by Moses; and Ezekiel plays the role of Moses providing the plans for a Temple and arranging for the encampment of the tribes. To Ezekiel is revealed the blueprint of the divine dwelling, as it was to Moses in Exodus 25, 9 . The purpose of the revelation on the mountain in Ezekiel is right worship and the proper ordering of the community, the same purpose as the legal material in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.

The most important traditions for Ezekiel are priestly, although it is difficult to trace exactly all the antecedents of his vision in the existing priestly traditions in Exodus 25–31 and 35–40 (the tabernacle with its equipment and rituals), Leviticus, and Numbers 1 through 10. There are similarities in Ezekiel to the so‐called Holiness Code (Lv 17–26 ), a collection of laws concerned with the holiness of the people and the land they are entering. Examples of such similarities are the phrase, “for I, the Lord, am your God” (Lv 26, 2 ; in Ezekiel, “I am the Lord”) as a motive to act rightly, and the mixing of “ritual” and “moral” laws (e.g., Lv 19 ). Some scholars distinguish two traditions in Leviticus, a “priestly code” in chapters 1 through 16 (abbreviated P) and a “holiness code” in chapters 17 through 26 (abbreviated H). Each tradition has distinctive ideas about sin and holiness. In P, the Temple is the primary locale of holiness, and in H, it is the land. Ezekiel seems to straddle the two viewpoints: Chapters 8 through 11 focus on the holiness in the Temple, and chapters 40 through 48 focus on the holiness in the land in its concern to arrange the tribal allotments around the Temple in the center. His priestly outlook is consistent. For him, Israel's sin consisted in defiling the sanctuary ( 5, 11 ), in committing “abominations” (a term used in worship, e.g., 5, 9; 7, 4; chapters 8 and 11), and in worshipping images (14, 3–5 ). An important metaphor for him is the priestly one of uncleanness (e.g., 20, 30–31; 22, 26; 36, 18 ). Uncleanness plays an important role in the long allegory of the two sisters in chapters 16 and 23 , and in his attack on against the mountains, corrupted by the people's abominations. In chapter 18 , Ezekiel gives a priestly torah, or teaching, on the question whether the guilt of one generation is passed on to the next.

Ezekiel also draws on mythological traditions. According to one definition, a myth is a traditional story set in the primordial past and involving supernatural elements. Myth and history are not necessarily opposed; mythological concepts and language were employed by biblical authors to show the transcendent significance of the historical laws and events they interpreted. Ezekiel, for example, used mythological language to describe his vision at the Chebar canal: the Lord appears to him in a storm cloud, luminous yet dark with water, borne by four composite figures having traits of animals and humans. The Lord is here portrayed as the divine warrior, a familiar portrayal in ancient Near Eastern religion and art (and in the Bible as well, for example, in Ex 15; 1 Kgs 18, 41–46; 19, 1–18 ). How much more effective and “true” is Ezekiel's mythic‐historical report of his experience in 1, 3–3, 15 than a bare and unadorned statement that the Lord had appeared to him! Ezekiel's language conveys a sense of the transcendent. The mythic motifs are not mere decoration, however. They occur within a story, called by modern scholars “the combat myth,” which was widely known in the ancient Near East from the third millennium BC to well into the common era. Ezekiel assumes that his hearers and readers know the story.

Though every version of the combat myth was unique, there was a basic plot: a power (often depicted as a monster) threatens the cosmic and political order of the universe. The assembly of the gods cannot find a senior god to repel the monster; the assembly appoints a young god, promising him kingship if he succeeds. Defeating the monster, the god restores the prethreat order (in some versions creates the world), builds a palace, and is acclaimed king by the gods. In biblical adaptations of the combat myth, the victory of the warrior God is normally the creation of the world or the creation of Israel. Ezekiel's adaptation of the combat myth is clearest in chapters 38 through 48 . Before the Lord can build his palace and city, an enemy, greater and more resistant than the historical nations mentioned in chapters 25 through 32 , must be faced and defeated. That enemy is Gog of the land of Magog. Only when he and his armies are defeated (38–39) can the Temple be built. With Gog of the land of Magog eliminated, the Lord can build his city and decree new ordinances. When one appreciates the mythic nature of these chapters, one realizes that Ezekiel is speaking of the far future in these chapters. Before the new world can come in definitively, evil itself, which is more than the evil of any one nation, has to be defeated. One can see how a mythological perspective enables the prophet to speak of matters that transcend history as such, yet without cutting loose from history, for he is speaking of history's goal.

The Literary Structure of the Book

Of all the prophetic books, Ezekiel is arranged with the most skill and purpose. To some extent, the structure is the message. Chapters 1 through 24 are oracles against Judah; 25 through 32 are oracles against foreign nations; and 33 through 48 are oracles of restoration for Judah and Jerusalem. Since the oracles against the foreign nations are by that fact for Judah, they can be viewed under restoration. The whole book falls into two equal parts, doom (1–24) and restoration (25–48). Like a good sentinel ( 3, 16–21; 33, 1–6 ), Ezekiel preached doom and warning right up to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. After that great event, his task was to preach restoration. The two halves of the book are closely connected. The first part announced the fall of the city and urged Israel to give up its delusions and false hopes of speedy relief. Divine judgment had to come, for only a divine action makes possible the reign of God. The reign of God means, first, the overturning of the false rule of the pagan nations (25–32) and, second, the implementation of the justice of God in the land (33–48). The implementation has three aspects: (1) a new exodus and conquest of the land (33–37); (2) the vanquishing of primordial evil greater than that in any one nation (38–39); and (3) the new temple‐city, the return of the Lord who departed in chapter 11 , the regulations of the new worship, the river coming from the Temple, and the new encampment of the tribes around the temple‐city (40–48). A detailed outline illuminates the significance of the structure. See outline, RG 327 .

Three visions provide a complementary structure: chapters 1 to 3, 8 to 11, and 40 to 48 . The first depicts the prophet's call, the second is the judgment against Jerusalem and the Temple, and the third is the restoration of the Temple and the arrangement of the holy land. Ezekiel 43, 3 expressly relates the three visions: “The vision was like that which I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and like that which I had seen by the river Chebar.” Although there are visions in other prophetic books (Zec 1–6 ), only in Ezekiel are they woven into the architecture of the book. In the first vision, Ezekiel sees the glory (Hebrew kabod) of God that dwelt in the tabernacle in the wilderness and in the Temple in Jerusalem. Phrasing carefully in order to safeguard the sacrality and otherness of the glory, the prophet describes only the wheels of the divine throne. The throne is mobile; it is in Babylon rather than Jerusalem. This opening scene foreshadows the departure of the glory from Jerusalem in 10, 1–11, 25 and the return in 43, 1–12. A deity able to move, unlike the traditional picture of the deity dwelling in the Temple in Jerusalem, is an ominous beginning to the book. Ezekiel's unpopular message has evidently isolated him from the other exiles as he sits alone at the banks of the canal. God finds him by a canal outside the city. The next vision (8–11) is pivotal in the book: an angelic figure transports Ezekiel from Babylon to Jerusalem, gives him a tour of the Temple, and points out men committing cultic abominations and injustice against others. Angelic servants kill all those within who have not been marked as contrite, a harbinger of the slaughter that will take place when the Temple is destroyed. In the ancient Near East no temple is destroyed unless its god has already abandoned it. The glory abandons the city, lifted up by the wings of the cherubim. Ezekiel describes the vision to his fellow exiles and attempts to show them its significance. In the last vision (40–48) the Lord returns to the temple‐city, rebuilt on a heavenly model and protected from all corrupting foreign influence. A new torah or authoritative teaching is given and all is made ready for a new people.

Within the structure, there are some correspondences between chapters 1 through 24 and 25 through 48 . The news of the destruction of Jerusalem plays a key role in the book. Shortly before the city fell in July 586, Ezekiel's wife died, and the prophet was forbidden to perform the mourning rites for her as a symbol of the loss of the city ( 24, 15–27 ). He was also struck dumb ( 3, 26–27; 24, 27 ). When the news comes, he was able to speak ( 34, 21–22 ) and proclaimed the Lord's restoration. In 3, 16–21, Ezekiel was made a sentinel charged with telling his people of their impending destruction. When the destruction took place, his sentinel task was reaffirmed ( 33, 1–9 ) for the new phase in God's plan for the people. In 36, 1–5 , the prophet blessed the mountains of Israel, reversing his earlier denunciations in 6, 1–10 ; the mountains evidently stand for the entire land.

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