Historical Background:

Ezekiel is a man who was taken captive by Babylon before the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. It is likely that Ezekiel was enslaved in the captivity in 597 BCE when many of the leading families of Judah were enslaved. This would have also been the time when Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah, Michael were taken off to Babylon. The visions recorded in the book of Ezekiel happen while the prophet is in the Exile in Babylon. This means that Ezekiel is preaching his visions to the Jews in Babylon while Jeremiah is preaching to the Jews in Jerusalem.

The book is compiled at some point after the Exile. There are a couple of references to Noah, Job, and Daniel, which pushes the date to likely being later than both the compilations of the Law of Moses and Job. The Daniel text was not written until much later, so these could be references to more general memories of stories rather than references to specific texts. This gives the text of Ezekiel a wide range of time for a compilation date. Some of the latest material in Ezekiel is believed to come from the temple cult practices around 300 BCE, which would mean the final composition was sometime around the Late-4th century.[1]

Literary Synopsis:

The text of Ezekiel is separated into four main sections. The first section is Ezekiel’s call into ministry.[2] A common element between Jeremiah and Ezekiel is that the message given to them about the destruction of Jerusalem is not a message they wanted to preach to the people. God threatens to place the guilt of disobedient Jews on the head of the prophet Ezekiel if he does not speak up and preach the message of destruction. God wants his people to know what is coming and why so that in this way they know how to think about the suffering they are enduring.

The second section is a large section dedicated to revealing to those Jews in Babylon why God has sent them into Exile and why he is going to destroy Jerusalem.[3] Ezekiel meticulously explains that the prophets, priests, and leaders of Jerusalem have led the people of God further and further from rightness with God. Judah, the kingdom of the South, will fall for the same reason as the Israel, the kingdom of the North fell—on account of idolatry. There are beautiful depictions of God’s presence preparing for the Destruction Event of Jerusalem and his divine presence leaving the temple and the city. There are also sexually grotesque images of God’s people as an adulterous wife who plays the part of a whore simply for the enjoyment and pleasure of it. God, as the covenantal husband, vows to punish his wife brutally by letting her lovers abuse and oppress her at his command. For those Jews in Exile, hoping that their stint in Babylon would only last a short number of years, these visions would have been deeply demoralizing since it seems God is fully abandoning Jerusalem and his people.

The third section is a long list of judgment declarations against the smaller nations around Judah who turned against Jerusalem when it was clear that Babylon was going to come and conquer the Jews.[4] Egypt is also condemned because they did not fulfill their promise to come to the aid of Jerusalem. Of course, even if the nations had fought for Jerusalem, God would have empowered the Babylonians to fully destroy the city and enslave the people. The nations are being condemned for their own sins that were revealed in their relationship to God’s people.

The last section is full of positive prophecies concerning the future of those who would be allowed to return to Jerusalem someday and begin to rebuild the city and temple.[5] Ezekiel spends a great deal of time working through all of the broken realities of God’s people to show that they will be redeemed. The leadership is restored, even though they once sinned they will be trusted again to lead the people. The kingdom of Israel will be fully restored, both in numbers to reverse the loss of life in the slaughter of so many and also in the return of the northern tribes to join the south to be ruled by the Davidic kingship. God’s presence among the people in the land will defeat any future enemy nations, which echoes the presence of God leading the people in the wilderness after the Exodus. Lastly, the temple is perfectly rebuilt and it is explained in great detail.

Observations:

  1. There are a number of instances in Ezekiel that seem to show God using human sacrifice to satisfy his anger. The first instance, 5:13, could just be a judgment text and not referring to sacrifice, but such language does seem to parallel other prophets were sacrificial language is explicit, such as Zephaniah 1. The second instance is 22:17-22 where God is purifying Israel through melting off any unfaithful Jews through the Exile. Both of these texts are couched in angry prophecies about Israel participating in idolatry and the language of clean and unclean, common and profane seem to be in the context of sacrificial cultic practices. The last text is 28:18, where the setting is the holy mountain, fire comes out to consume the proud prince of the city. This one, I believe, is an unambiguous destruction by God of a human in the form of a burnt offering. All of these texts are human sacrifices through which purifying judgment comes to a people group.
  2. Twice Ezekiel seems to say that God actively uses evil.[6] Both texts are in the middle of God lamenting that Israel has rejected him by disobeying the teachings for worship he provided. What would make sense with the rest of Ezekiel is that God uses the evil that Israel has created to punish them by bringing it back on their own heads. It is important to note that this is not God being passive. While God did not create the evils in his creation, as the Creator he has every right to use and act through those evils which the sin of humanity has created. God is not the origin of sin, suffering, or death but he can surely, by his own wisdom and power, actively use those things that humans have created to redeem and purify his creation. While Israel devised and chose idolatry, it seems that God intensified their participation in the evil somehow. Paul’s belief from Romans 7 might be helpful here. It is possible that God used his Law as a forceful ultimatum to demand obedience resulting in Israel hardening in their choice to reject it God’s teachings. In this way, God gave forced evil upon them by forcing them to act knowing that they would continue down the path of rebellion, even as the goodness of his teachings were offered to them.
  3. This understanding of punishment and God’s use of evil while for a future good allows Ezekiel to declare that the Exile is a form of mercy by God.[7] The Exile is a disciplinary lesson if only the Jews will learn from it to give up idolatry. Through suffering Israel can find new, Spirit-filled life if they learn to obey.
  4. It is worthwhile to note that for Ezekiel the Destruction Event and Exile become a hermeneutic to understand who God is and what he desires of his people. In 12:21-25 and in 13:816 the destruction of Jerusalem becomes an event through which God reveals himself. Then in chapter 20 Ezekiel uses a hermeneutic in light of the Destruction Event to explain that the Exodus, God’s patience for so long in the face of Israel’s unfaithfulness, the Exile, and the future Return are all revealing of God’s faithfulness to Israel. They also reveal a reality that God is not interacting with Israel on account of Israel’s goodness or even for her benefit alone. Rather, God is doing these things with Israel to reveal to all the nations in his creation who he is as Creator.
  5. In 18:1-32, Ezekiel teaches the people of God that righteousness and guilt are not naturally, or even ritualistically, passed between humans. Rightness with God or sin against God that exists in the father is not transferred to the son, or vice versa, passively. The son must intentionally be right with God or intentionally do evil through sin for it to be counted as the son’s own righteousness or guilt. This text also reveals that the present moment of life with God is what has reality to God. Former righteousness does not speak over the life of evil a person is presently living. Likewise, a repentant person living right with God now matters more than all the evils that might have been done before repentance. This is a fundamental text that must be learned from when it comes to raising children up in the faith and sacramental theology.
  6. The texts about the prince and king of Tyre are interesting. Is there any chance this could be about the Davidic kingship with Jerusalem being called Tyre? I don’t see any reason why Ezekiel would need to hide this critique of the kingship in the Exile, but there are many statements to Tyre that are things that would make more sense if they were said to Jerusalem. Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.
  7. The destruction of Egypt is interesting in chapter 31 because it is imagined in creation story language. Particularly 31:14 where the fall of Egypt is seen as simply a part of the human process of death inherited by being a part of the children of Adam. If guilt is not passed from Adam to all of the children of humanity, seen here as the nations, then why do the nations fall as a part of the death Adam introduced?
  8. Ezekiel is one of the prophets who declares that God is becoming king over Israel again. He then explains that God’s kingly rule will be through the Davidic kingship being reinstated.[8]
  9. The Nations are depicted as beasts throughout the text. I think this beastly image of the nations falls into the category of creation language, by which I mean it is alluding to the creation stories of Israel. The beasts were created by God on the same day as humanity and this is about the nations (beasts) created by God but Israel (humanity) is made specially, even if similar.
  10. Ezekiel seems to echo and expand the Spirit-renewal theology of Joel restoring Israel. This coming of the Spirit is new creation, more creational language and still in line with Joel, but this is seen as resurrection. Israel is seen as Adam being recreated again by God’s Spirit through resurrection. This time there is not one man, there is a great army! Creation is renewed through Israel’s restoration.
  11. Much of my personal studies of theological anthropology focuses on erotic theology and the importance of the sex act, and depictions of sexuality in theology both in the Bible’s texts and developed later. So, it is worthwhile for me to note that Sodom is mentioned in 16:44-58 as a younger sister to Israel. Sodom is not accused here of any sexual sins, like she is by Jeremiah about the same time,[9] but she is described as prideful, gluttonous indicating a love of pleasure, too prosperous indicating greed, and having a selfishness that ignored the suffering of the poor and needy around her. But it would be foolish to not see this is light of the surrounding texts about family. Israel is being critiqued as sexually imitating the evils of the nations around her. These nations have become her family and she excels even more than the nations who taught her these sins. While sexual sins are not directly attributed to Sodom here, it is more likely they are assumed in the evils of Sodom while she excels in these particular sins in the eyes of Ezekiel. Note though, Sodom has been destroyed long ago in the memory of all the ancient near eastern people’s. The prophets are expressing reasons why God would utterly destroy such a great city in their memory and how it is like Israel’s own destruction. Sin against the Creator is the most likely answer in a Destruction Event interpretation of God’s actions in the world.

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This post is a part of a Read-Through project in which I am reading through biblical and extra-biblical literature. I’m reading the texts in an order based on a couple of timelines I compiled. If you would like to join me on this journey the timelines are available, as well as my prior posts. Each one gives some historical background, a literary synopsis, and a few observations I found interesting enough to share about the examined text.



[1] See the article on Ezekiel in Mark J. Boda and J. G. McConville, eds., Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2012).

[2] 1:1-3:27.

[3] 4:1-24:27.

[4] 25:1-32:32.

[5] 33:1-48:30.

[6] 6:10, 20:25-26.

[7] 12:15-16.

[8] 34:11-24.

[9] Jer. 23:14.

Posted by Justin Gill

2 Comments

  1. I am so glad to be able to follow you on here and read all the great messages you post. Thank you!

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