February 14, 2013 1

Episode 22 – Ezekiel’s Magical Mystery Tour

By in Blog, Podcast




A classic clip from my favorite Phil LaMarr movie, Pulp Fiction, featuring a direct quote from the prophet Ezekiel – or is it? Welcome to BOOK!


This is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I am Josh Way. Today we continue our look at the “major” prophets and the extraordinary literature produced in their names during the time of Judah’s exile in Babylon. And before we get to know Ezekiel and his extremely trippy visions, it might benefit us to take a moment and explore the history of the exile a little more deeply. So far we’ve observed the chronology of exile, that the empire of Assyria destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the eighth century BCE, and that Babylon conquered Jerusalem in the sixth century and carried the people off into forced relocation. It’s worth our time to talk a little more about the differences between these two giant empires and their approaches to world conquest.

Assyria was perhaps the first “superpower” to set its sights on world domination (the “world” being the extents of the Near Eastern region in which they lived). Their plan was simple: burn everything and kill everyone. Assyria’s ruthless brutality was unstoppable and struck fear into the hearts of small territories like Judah, as we’ve seen in the literary witness of the bible. However, their indiscriminate violence was also their undoing. As they defeated region after region and destroyed every resource, they spread themselves too thin and diluted their own power. This is likely the reason that Isaiah’s forecast came true, and the monstrous empire ran out of steam before it could consume Jerusalem.

Meanwhile Babylon was growing and licking its chops, waiting for its opportunity to take the stage as the ruler of the world. In many ways Babylon was just as brutal as Assyria, but in some very significant ways it was much smarter. Babylon didn’t simply slash and burn their conquests into submission, they actually absorbed the resources of a captured land. And while Assyria may have left some able-bodied subjects alive to serve as slaves, Babylon had a much smarter approach to exile. The leaders and thinkers and culture-makers of the conquered land weren’t slaughtered, they were carried off to Babylon to become subjects of the empire. This is what happened to Jerusalem, in several stages, in the early sixth century BCE, and this is where we meet Ezekiel.

Jeremiah had watched in horror (though perhaps not surprise) as the priests, governors, artists and craftsmen of Judah were led away to Babylon, and among them was Ezekiel. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel was a priest, but unlike the weeping prophet he was an active duty priest, perhaps even the high priest. And while evidence suggests that the words and visions of Isaiah and Jeremiah might have been recorded and preserved by assistants or disciples, Ezekiel’s writings have a much more personal, autobiographical feel to them. His scroll opens in Babylon, “among the exiles by the Chebar River.” Immediately, Ezekiel has a bizarre vision. Chapter 1, verse 4:

4 I looked, and a stormy wind came sweeping out of the north – a huge cloud and flashing fire, surrounded by a radiance, and in the center of it, in the middle of the fire, gleaming like amber. 5 In the center of it were also the figures of four creatures. And this was their appearance: They had the figures of human beings. 6 However, each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. 7 The legs of each were fused into a single rigid leg, and the feet of each were like a single calf’s hoof, and they sparkled like burnished bronze. 8 They had human hands below their wings. The four of them had their faces and their wings on their four sides. 9 Each one’s wings touched those of the other. They did not turn when they moved, each could move in the direction of any of its faces.
10 Each of them had a human face the front; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right; each of the four had the face of an ox on the left; and each of the four had the face of an eagle the back. 11 Such were their faces. As for their wings, they were separated: above, each had two touching those of the others, while the other two covered its body.

Ezekiel then sees a giant contraption in the sky: Four wheels within wheels, covered with eyes, supporting a great platform, and on that platform the throne of Israel’s God. The throne can move in any direction without turning, and blinding light radiates from it, and deafening noise like thunder precedes it.

OK. This is just chapter one and already we need to stop and have a little chat. This vision – or dream, or reverie, or whatever it is – shares some elements with Isaiah’s vision of the seraphim, the winged fire creatures which orbited the throne of Israel’s God. But the bizarre, impossible descriptions of the “creatures” and the throne here in Ezekiel are something unique and innovative for the Hebrew Bible. Over the centuries, this material has been deeply misunderstood and has inspired two extreme reactions: 1) get weirded out and put the book down, or 2) embrace them as literal descriptions of cosmic monsters and build yourself a panic room.

What we’re encountering here for the first time is a unique and fascinating literary genre called “Apocalyptic.” Now, and I can’t stress this enough, “apocalypse” does NOT mean “the end of the world” or even “an event which changes the world.” “Apocalypse” is a Greek word meaning “hidden,” or “mysterious,” and in this case it refers to a cosmic mystery which could not be explained in mundane language, but which is revealed through strange symbols and metaphors. Understanding how apocalyptic texts work is one of the essential keys to accessing some of the most divisive and problematic texts in the bible.

This can be very hard for us as modern, western readers. We have to forget everything we think we know about “the apocalypse,” and “the end times,” and zombies and Kirk Cameron, and allow history and literature to guide our thinking more than popular culture. There are two other major apocalyptic texts in the bible – a series of strange dreams in the book of Daniel and a first century apocalypse written by the apostle John in the Greek New Testament. Those will take us even deeper into this crazy genre, but Ezekiel gives us a perfect entry point to discover the history and literature behind “apocalypse.”

First, the history: It makes good sense that our first, full-fledged “apocalypse” text comes out of the Babylonian exile. Because, at risk of reduction and oversimplification, it was in Babylon that Israel was exposed to literary traditions which bear a striking resemblance to biblical apocalyptic. Now, I say “at risk of reduction” because it’s really more complicated than that. There are traces, as we saw, of apocalyptic elements in earlier Hebrew texts, and these may have had other influences, such as Canaanite religion. Still, the overall point is this: these texts, strange as they are to us, were familiar and even prevalent in the world which produced the bible. We must assume that the original recipients of these texts would have recognized and understood the rich symbolism immediately.

And speaking of symbolism, this is the literary bread and butter of apocalyptic. The strange, creepy, lurid, often impossible imagery of apocalyptic writing is what makes it unique and powerful. The insistence upon so-called “literal” interpretations of apocalyptic has left many confused and exasperated with the bible. The message of apocalyptic depends on audacious (and usually mixed) metaphors. In this way, these texts are the political cartoons of the ancient world. By insisting that the cartoons must be “real” and one-dimensional, we miss the urgent and relevant message of the text.

And this is perhaps the most important point I can make about apocalyptic: the message of a text like Ezekiel, Daniel, and even Revelation, despite how recent generations have insisted upon reading them, is ALWAYS a message of HOPE. I’ll say that another way: While people today often read apocalyptic texts as warnings of doom disturbing the peaceful status quo of our time, they were in truth originally intended as messages of light and hope in times of extreme turmoil.

And so, back to Ezekiel. Here’s the big picture: Ezekiel, the de facto leader of the people of Judah in exile, must find new words and ways to express the madness and hope of the present crisis. Of course there’s the full, rich tradition of Israel: the Torah, the wisdom books, the Psalms… They are precious, they are the fuel that keeps the people going, but they need something new, something to address and make sense of the chaos of exile. Ezekiel latches onto something outrageous, something that speaks to the present problem, and something which turns the rhetorical weapons of the enemy back on themselves.

Now let’s look at this first vision again: Ezekiel sees four humanoid “creatures,” each with four wings and four faces. One face is human, one is lion, one is ox, and one is eagle. Their wings are spread out, touching at the tip, and they move through the air on a grid – they do not turn when they change direction. Their movement will make more sense in a moment, but about those faces. The human face is, of course, human. The lion is supreme among the wild beasts, and the ox is the most powerful of the domesticated animals. And eagles are the kings of the sky. In some way these beings seem to represent the full company of creatures, man and beast, and in this way they represent the totality of creation itself. They fly ahead of the throne of Israel’s God, proclaiming his sovereignty over the created order and announcing his arrival. Then comes the strange mobile contraption which bears his throne. Beneath it are wheels within wheels, moving in all directions and covered with eyes – whatever this thing is, it is omniscient, it sees all, and it can go anywhere.

And this is the bottom line of Ezekiel’s throne vision: Israel’s God is not – as he had been imagined for generations – contained within the boundaries of Jerusalem, tethered to Zion, trapped in the Temple. If the remnant of Judah is going to find any kind of hope in exile, they have to believe that their God is mobile, that his dominion is not interrupted by their relocation. This vision isn’t meant to reveal something physical and literal about this God, it’s meant to inspire and reassure a people whose entire worldview had been shattered. This is a true apocalypse. It has nothing to do with the “end of the world,” and everything to do with hope for hurting people here, right now, in Babylon by the Chebar River.

Well, now that we’ve taken the time to examine the history and literature behind Ezekiel, let’s take a “greatest hits” look at the rest of his writing. After the throne vision Ezekiel receives his calling, not unlike Samuel and Isaiah and Jeremiah before him. In chapter 2 he hears the voice of God calling him to be a prophet to the exiles:

1 And he said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet that I may speak to you.”
2 As he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me upon my feet, and I heard what was being said to me.
3 He said to me, “Son of man, I am sending you to the people of Israel, that nation of rebels, who have rebelled against me. — They as well as their fathers have defied me to this very day.
4 For the sons are brazen of face and stubborn of heart. I send you to them, and you shall say to them: ‘Thus said the Lord GOD…’ 5 whether they listen or not, for they are a rebellious breed, that they may know that there was a prophet among them.

God refers to Ezekiel throughout the scroll as “son of man,” a contentious phrase in some schools of biblical interpretation, but which is simply a Hebrew idiom meaning “human being” or “mortal person.” It’s God’s way of keeping Ezekiel in his place, reminding him of his lowly station. In this vision God gives Ezekiel a scroll filled with his words and commands him to eat it, and he obeys. Now the words of God are “inside” the prophet. But before he can go forth and speak the words to the people, God puts Ezekiel through several symbolic experiences. First, the prophet is struck mute and his body is bound so he cannot leave his house and address the people before the appointed time. Then, in chapter four, Ezekiel sits outside in view of his fellow Israelites and enacts the destruction of Jerusalem with bricks, dirt, and household objects. (The timeline can be a little confusing, but Ezekiel and his colleagues were taken into captivity in several stages, and the siege of Jerusalem would not occur for a few more years.) Ezekiel lies on his left side for over a year, and his right side for forty days, symbolizing the punishments of Israel and Judah.

Now, the bread thing. If you’ve been to the grocery store in the few years, you may have noticed an entire line of food products based on Ezekiel 4:9, in which God gives these instructions to the prophet:

[9] “And now, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and emmer, and put them into a single vessel and make your bread from them.”

“Hey,” said some well-meaning Christians, “there’s a recipe for bread in the Bible! This must be some kind of magical holy God bread. Let’s make it and sell it!” This leads me to wonder whether they ever kept reading and made it to verse 12:

[12] And you shall eat it as a barley cake, baking it in their sight on human dung.”

Yum! The point of the bread is that it is made out of sparse ingredients and cooked over a last-resort fuel by Ezekiel as he lie on his side, a symbol of Israel’s desperation as their resources are cut off. (By the way, Ezekiel negotiates with God and they settle on ox dung. Dodged a bullet there.) The point of all of this is: soon Jerusalem will fall, and there will be no home to go back to. Exile is not a momentary challenge to be overcome, it is a new reality.

In chapter 8 Ezekiel has a vision of the Temple back in Jerusalem. The prophet walks through the various courts of the temple complex and sees the place trashed, taken over by pagan gods, cults, and sun worship. This is the answer to the unspoken question, “how could Israel’s God allow this calamity to befall the people?” In chapter 9, Ezekiel sees the idolaters in the Temple executed for their crimes, and in chapter 10 the “glory of YHWH” leaves the Temple. The center of Israel’s political AND religious life is symbolically drained of its power. This is the dark b-side to the opening vision of the book.

Then in chapter 11 the tone of Ezekiel’s message changes, not unlike that of Jeremiah, or Isaiah. When the hammer falls and the warnings have been borne out, it’s time for more hopeful words. Verse 17:

[17] 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.’ [18] And when they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations. [19] And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, [20] that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.

This is very similar to the “New Covenant” passage in Jeremiah 31, looking forward to a new exodus, the new thing that will have to happen if Israel is ever going to be restored. For Jeremiah, a new Torah would be written on the hearts of the people. Meanwhile, many miles away, Ezekiel confronts the same hope: the Israelites’ hard hearts, bent on easy idolatry and defaming the old covenant, will somehow be cleansed and made new. Then and only then can they return to the land.

Ezekiel predicts the ongoing deportation of more and more Judahites, and condemns the false prophets – those who continued to insist that this was all just a minor bump in the road, and that God’s rescue would come at any moment. After some parables which explore the political treachery at the heart of the Babylonian exile (chapters 17-18, 23), we come to chapter 24 and two juxtaposed accounts of tragic loss, as the final siege of Jerusalem begins back in Judah, and Ezekiel’s wife dies in Babylon. Ezekiel says that God forbids him to mourn, which is a “sign” to the other exiles not to mourn the loss of Jerusalem. To mourn a loss is to ponder its pointlessness, and God has made it clear through the prophet that the death of Jerusalem is not random or unexpected.

The next eight chapters consist of fairly standard “oracles” against Israel’s enemies, words of warning and condemnation that usually wind up being ironically aimed right back at Israel. And here, as a point of trivia, is where Tarantino borrowed a bit from the prophet. Here’s the real Ezekiel 25:17:

I will wreak frightful vengeance upon them by furious punishment; and when I inflict My vengeance upon them, they shall know that I am YHWH.

This comes from an oracle against the Philistines, the great enemy of Israel during the reigns of Saul and David. As you heard Tarantino added a lot of cool sounding stuff about the shepherd and weak, though there are some grammar issues in that line that always bugged me.

After his oracles against the nations, Ezekiel rants a little more about the fall of Jerusalem, and in chapter 34 offers another word of hope, the dream of a “covenant of peace” which will restore the land and the people and bring them back into a relationship with YHWH. This hopeful restoration is envisioned in an extraordinary way in chapter 37. Ezekiel imagines himself in a valley full of dry, brittle bones. God commands the prophet to speak the “word of God” to the bones, which proceed to reconstitute and come back to life. The message of the book is made clear: Israel had to die, but God can and will bring it back to life.

Ezekiel’s next oracle is against a ruler named Gog from a place called Magog. History is unsure who this is a reference to. Is Magog lost to history, or is this a symbolic enemy constructed for the purposes of this vision? No one is sure. But the point of the oracle is clear: this enemy is seen rising up against Israel and suffering a spectacular defeat. Whether this is a future, literal battle or a visionary construct, it stands in stark contrast to the battle with Babylon which ended in disaster.

The rest of Ezekiel’s scroll focuses on the restoration of Israel, specifically a detailed vision of the design and building of a new Temple. The “glory of YHWH” returns to inhabit the new Temple, and a mysterious “prince” appears to rule over New Israel. All of the feasts and traditions are reestablished, and the last few chapters of the book read like a new version of Leviticus or Deuteronomy, as the duties of priests and leaders are described in detail. Of course this makes sense as the way that Ezekiel, himself once the high priest, would explore and anticipate the salvation of Israel.

The final vision of the book (chapter 47-48) sees fresh water flowing out from the New Temple, distributing the central power of the presence of YHWH throughout the restored nation. The land is then portioned out among the twelve tribes of Israel, as it was in the Torah. This makes for a rather boring final chapter (to our eyes), but once again the message is crystal clear: God has not abandoned this family, and just as Israel received its identity and inheritance from the Torah, so again will God deliver and rebuild this nation. What look like technical details to us were words of joy and comfort to the Babylonian exiles.

And so end the words of Ezekiel, the priest without a temple, the leader of a people without a home. The three so-called “major prophets” had very unique voices, but ultimately one message: just as Israel’s punishment in the form of exile was inevitable, so is her ultimate restoration. But how and when will it come about? That hopeful question looms over the rest of the bible. In the coming weeks we’ll continue our examination of the exile literature and the amazing experiences of some other displaced Israelites. But first, next time, I think we’ll deal with a short and strange book called Jonah, which is full of odd surprises.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I encourage you to share, like, tweet, tweep, kreep, blog, tumbl, stumble, chumble, crackle, frackle, spackle and flooz it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at book@joshway.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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