Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ezekiel: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

“The word of the Lord came to me: O mortal, propound a riddle, and speak an allegory to the house of Israel.”  —Ezekiel 17: 1

The book of Ezekiel is the strangest, most psychedelic book of the Bible so far.  Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, it was written in reaction to the destruction of Judah by Babylon in the 6th century B.C.E.  Ezekiel’s message is similar to Isaiah and Jeremiah (and, it seems, most of the prophets): the kingdom was destroyed because the people were sinful (mainly idolatry).  Ezekiel differs from the other prophets in the imaginative visions he has, and the bizarre performance art he does to illustrate his message.

While in exile in Babylon, Ezekiel sees a vision of divine glory: four heavenly beings arriving in a stormy wind surrounded by fire and lightning.  Each creature has four faces—human, lion, ox, and eagle.  These creatures move about on spherical wheels.  Above these man/lion/ox/eagles is a heavenly dome and a throne upon which sits a human-like form who is probably God.

Then God makes Ezekiel do some really bizarre things...

He must eat a scroll.

He must sit with the exiles in silence for seven days. (That’s actually not that weird.  It was a mourning custom.)

He must shut himself inside his house, bind himself with cords, and speak to no one for a long time.

He must make a miniature model of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem using a brick and some metal pieces.

He must lay on his side for over a year (390 days)!   While laying on his side, he is bound with cords and must continually speak against Israel.  Also, he has to eat food that is cooked over shit.

He must cut his hair and beard with a sword and divide the hair into three parts.  One part he must scatter around the city.  Another part he must scatter to the wind.  The third part he must burn.

After these bizarre antics, which are meant to illustrate how/why Judah was destroyed, Ezekiel pronounces God's wrath on his chosen people...

“My anger shall spend itself, and I will vent my fury on them and satisfy myself; and they shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken in my jealousy, when I spend my fury on them.  Moreover I will make you a desolation and an object of mocking among the nations around you, in the sight of all that pass by.”  (5:13-14)

“I will stretch out my hand against them, and make the land desolate and waste, throughout all their settlements…then they shall know that I am the Lord.” (6:14)

“Soon now I will pour out my wrath upon you;
I will spend my anger against you.” (7:8)

The main “sin” of Israel is idolatry (i.e. worshipping other gods).  Ezekiel has a horrifying vision of six men in robes slaughtering “old men, young men and young women, little children and women” who had the audacity to practice different religions.  Other sins of Israel that Ezekiel cites are social injustice and human sacrifice. 

Then the divine man/lion/ox/eagles reappear and cruise around on their spherical wheels.  These creatures and their vehicles sound, to me, like aliens.  Ancient aliens.  Some artists have actually depicted Ezekiel’s visions as alien encounters.

And then, just like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel switches from “vengeance” mode to “comfort” mode.  He speaks of restoration of Israel after the exile.  God, through Ezekiel, says:

“Though I removed them far away among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone.  Therefore say: Thus says the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples, and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.” 

And then Ezekiel gives a very beautiful metaphor of inner transformation:

“I will remove their heart of stone…and give them a heart of flesh.” 

Then Ezekiel does some more performance art:

Each morning, he packs his bags and carries his luggage around the city, as a sign of Israel’s exile.

Whenever he eats, he eats “with trembling and fearfulness” as a sign of famine and hunger.

Then Ezekiel harshly criticizes the people of Israel, using metaphors.  He compares them to a useless grape vine.  He compares them to a faithless bride.  He calls them a “whore.”  In a span of 20 verses (16:23-43) he uses the words “whore” or “whoring” 15 times.  He calls them a boiling pot of filth.  

And then God does something terrible.  As a sign of Israel’s destruction, God kills the prophet’s wife…

“The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down.  Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead.  Bind on your turban, and put your sandals on your feet: do not cover your upper lip or eat the bread of mourners.  So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died.  And on the next morning I did was I was commanded.” (24:15-18)

Ezekiel isn’t even allowed to mourn the death of his wife.  Instead, he is commanded to proclaim the Lord’s judgment and wrath on foreign nations.  God promises to punish and hurt the following nations: Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, and Egypt, mainly because they had different religions and concepts of the divine.  God is particularly hard on Egypt, saying things like “I will bring a sword upon you, and will cut you off from human being and animal, and the land of Egypt shall be a desolation and a waste.  Then they shall know that I am the Lord.”  God promises to make lots of places a “desolation”.

Ezekiel criticizes the leaders of Israel, calling them “false shepherds” who mis-lead the people: “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.”

In contrast to the earlier, scary vengeful God, the prophet describes a compassionate God, a shepherd-like God: “For thus says the Lord God: I will search for my sheep, and will seek them out…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy.  I will feed them with justice.”  After all they have suffered, God promises a blessing on his people, and restoration.  As with Isaiah and Jeremiah, the picture of God that ultimately emerges from Ezekiel is a complex mixture of wrath and compassion.

To illustrate the ultimate renewal of Israel, Ezekiel is taken to a valley full of dry human bones.  God tells him to speak to the bones and tell them to rise.  In an amazing scene, sinews and flesh begin to grow on the bones, and living human beings emerge from the dry skeletons.  This is a vision of new life, of resurrection after desolation.

God tells Ezekiel to take two sticks and write on them “Judah” and “Ephraim” (another name for the northern kingdom of Israel).  Then God tells the prophet to bind these two sticks together as a sign that the formerly divided kingdom will be unified and made whole again.  

Ezekiel ends with a vision of a new Temple in Jerusalem, to replace the one which had been destroyed.  The temple is described in minute detail, almost like blueprints, which the prophet is told to give to Israel’s leaders so they can follow them.  Just as in the dedication of the first temple, Ezekiel is told that Temple worship will be re-established, the priests will once again minister in Jerusalem, and the land will once again be divided among the ancient tribes of Israel.  I must admit, the book ends quite beautifully, full of hope and promise after so much desolation.

No comments:

Post a Comment