Ezekiel the priest; Ezekiel the ben adam, the human one; Ezekiel was captured by the Babylonians in 599 BCE, sent into exile, but nevertheless was seized by the spirit, given visions from the Lord, and charged with speaking the word of the Lord not only to the people with him in exile and to those later taken into exile in 587 BCE, but also to those who remained in the land of Israel after the Babylonian conquest at that time. His dramatic, vivid visions, and his potent, articulate proclamations, make for exciting—and troubling—reading.
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After Ezekiel is granted his numerous visions by the spirit, he often enacts them with tangible items. He sees the siege of Jerusalem, and portrays it with a brick and iron plate (4:1–8). He sees the destruction of Jerusalem, and uses a sword to shave his hair, to dramatise this (5:1–17). He sees the ravaging of the altars of idols throughout the land, and claps his hands and stamps his feet to demonstrate the destructive anger of the Lord at this (6:1–14).
“On the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month”, says Ezekiel (with his relentless priestly eye for detail), “as I sat in my house, with the elders of Judah sitting before me, the hand of the Lord God fell upon me there”. He describes the “figure like a human being” that he sees, and in characteristically careful detail he describes the scene unfolding before him; a scene of “the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary”, as God laments (8:1–18).
So extensive are these abominations that God concludes, “I will act in wrath; my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity; and though they cry in my hearing with a loud voice, I will not listen to them” (8:18). As a result, “the glory of the Lord” leaves the temple and is taken by the cherubim up and away from the earth (10:1–22). Those in exile are informed that their exile is due punishment from the Lord (11:1–12), but also that after sufficient punishment, they will return to the land (11:14–25). The “glory of the Lord” remains absent from the city until, in the final sequence of his visions, Ezekiel sees the new temple, built in the city, and “the glory of the Lord filled the temple” (Ezek 43:1–5; see also 1 Ki 8:11; 2 Chron 7:1–2; Exod 40:34–35; and cf. Isa 6:1, 4; Rev 15:8).
One of Ezekiel’s visions uses typical prophetic imagery to portray Israel as a female child, abandoned by her parents, but taken in by the Lord, who waited until she was at an age for love, and then he “spread his cloak over her” – that is, he seduced her (16:1–14). He then complained, “you trusted in your beauty, and played the whore because of your fame, and lavished your whorings on any passer-by”, worshipping other gods, even engaging in foreign rituals of child sacrifice (16:15–34).
As a result of this, God threatens that he will execute a fulsome punishment. The blame is placed squarely on Israel, depicted as a woman engaging in countless acts of adultery—even though, in the patriarchal society of the time, the male priests, kings, and elders were the ones responsible for the decisions to erect images of other gods and to encourage the worship of pagan deities.
Only after he visits his punishment, does God then say, “I will satisfy my fury on you, and my jealousy shall turn away from you; I will be calm, and will be angry no longer” (16:35–43). And so, God promises forgiveness; “I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish with you an everlasting covenant” (Ezek 16:60; also 37:26), echoing the exact phrase also used to describe the covenants with Noah (Gen 9:16; and perhaps Isa 24:5), Abraham (Gen 17:7, 13, 19; 1 Chron 16:17), and David (2 Sam 23:35; Isa 55:3), and indeed with Israel as a whole (Ps 105:10; Isa 61:8; Jer 32:40; 50:5).
The character of God in this sequence of events is deeply troubling, and takes us to the heart of the issue; both deep loving kindness and savage wrath are part of this God’s nature. The prophet gives consideration to punishment as retribution (18:1–32), the need to abstain from idolatry (20:1–32), and judgement on idolatry and injustice practices (“father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the alien residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you”; 22:1–23). In each case, God wrestles with the tension between executing judgement and withholding wrath, between upholding justice and demonstrating covenant love.
A dramatic enactment ensues, when Ezekiel proclaims that God declares judgement on “the bloody city”, saying “set on the pot, set it on, pour in water also; put in it the pieces, all the good pieces, the thigh and the shoulder; fill it with choice bones; take the choicest one of the flock, pile the logs under it; boil its pieces, seethe also its bones in it … heap up the logs, kindle the fire; boil the meat well, mix in the spices, let the bones be burned” (24:1–14). The meat being placed into the pot is nothing other then the residents of “the bloody city”. The savage imagery is brutally confronting.
Yet judge the falls not only on Jerusalem; Ezekiel declares God’s judgement on the Negev (20:45–49) and, in an extended series of oracles, on Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon, and Egypt (chs. 25–32). The repeated words, “raise a lamentation over … “ (19:1; 26:17; 27:2, 32: 28:12; 32:2, 16) and the relentless reference to “the day” (26:18; 27:27; 30:2–3, 9, 18; 31:15; 32:10) drive home the message that God’s justice brings persistent terror and requires harsh punishment. “The day of the Lord is near; it will be a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (30:2–3)—the motif appears regularly through the prophets, and into later apocalyptic literature.
As the destruction of Jerusalem occurs (33:21–29), Ezekiel berates “the shepherds of Israel”: “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” (34:4).
Where is God during this time of exile? Ezekiel affirms that God is present: “I will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (34:11–12). The extended oracle ends with the affirmation, “you are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God, says the Lord God” (34:31). The mercy of God is bound up with the justice of God. The resonances with Psalm 23, as well as the sayings of Jesus in John 10 and the well-known parable of Jesus found in Luke 15 and Matt 18, are clear.
There follows an extended blessing on Israel (36:1–38) and the vision of bones brought to life in the valley (37:1–28), followed by visions relating to Gog and Magog (38:1–39:20; and see Rev 20:7–8). Finally, the exile ends, and Ezekiel speaks of the restoration of Israel to their land (39:21–29); “I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God” (39:29).
The issue of being in exile, away from the land that the Lord God had long ago given to the people of Israel, was a difficult situation for those who sought to remain faithful to the covenant with the Lord God. This matter exercises Ezekiel. He knows that exile is the consequence of Israel’s idolatry and infidelity (5:1–7:27). “Alas for all the vile abominations of the house of Israel—for they shall fall by the sword, and by pestilence … and any who are left shall die of famine” (6:11–12), say the Lord; “I will make the land desolate … then they shall know that I am the Lord” (6:14). Exile, it would seem, is a fair punishment.
The sense that the psalmist expresses—“how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps 137:4)—is not a view that Ezekiel would have agreed with. Whilst the psalmist grapples with the loss of all that is familiar and valued—no temple, no familiar rituals, no priests, not being in the homeland—Ezekiel is able to find spiritual nourishment in his exile. The many visions he sees and oracles he proclaims attest to the robust nature of his own spiritual life!
Indeed, it appears that there were some who had been able to remain in Judah who maintained that the exiles had forfeited their place within the people of God, for “they have gone far from the Lord; to us this land is given for a possession” (11:15). Ezekiel disputes this, stating that the Lord God has said, “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” (11:16). The promise is that God will not abandon the people in exile, nor regard them as no longer his people.
As a sign of his confidence that God will maintain his commitment to Israel, Ezekiel tells in detail his vision of the new temple that would, he believed, be built in the land (40:1–43:27), as well as the role of the Levitical priests in that temple (44:15–31) and various provisions that would be in force after the return to the land (45:1–46:24).
The priests in this temple would be charged with the range of expected duties relating to the sacrifices and offerings, but Ezekiel also indicates that “they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean; in a controversy they shall act as judges, and they shall decide it according to my judgments” (44:23–24).
This detail is quite telling; it shows that Ezekiel considered priests to be learned in Torah and to have judicial responsibilities, making decisions about adherence to holiness prescriptions. This is the role that prophets took to themselves, instructing the people about the ways that they keep God’s justice and the ways that they fail in this; it is also the role that the scribes and Pharisees exercise when we encounter them in the New Testament. In the opinion of Ezekiel, the law of the Lord continues to be completely relevant and vitally important, through all the trials of the times in which he lives.
A final vision details the water flowing from the temple, the abundant trees growing beside the river, and the food sources for the people (47:1–12). The portrayal of the river evokes the scenes of Eden, where “a stream would rise from earth, and water the whole face of the ground” (Gen 2:6; cf. Ezek 47:1), providing fertile ground for the Garden of Eden, in which “the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9; cf. Ezek 47:7–12), and from which four rivers flow in abundance (Gen 2:10–14). The vision of Ezekiel offers a wonderful ecologically vibrant scene!
This vision ends with an affirmation that Israel will be a broad, inclusive society: “the aliens who reside among you … shall be to you as citizens of Israel … in whatever tribe aliens reside, there you shall assign them their inheritance” (47:21–23). Ezekiel ends by reporting how the land will be divided schematically amongst the twelve tribes (48:1–35), in the way that the book of Numbers provided a systematic allocation of the land prior to the conquest of Canaan (Num 34:1–15). And so, from the first verse to the last chapter, Ezekiel’s book provides careful, schematic, detailed information, as befits a prophet who is a priest.