Ezekiel

The most shattering divine visitation in the entire Bible turns a priest at a loose end into the grimmest prophet in the OId Testament.

Like other prophetic books, Ezekiel is named after the prophet who, it claims (1:3), received the revelations which it records. More detail is given about this man than about any other of the prophets who have books named after them. If the information in the book is to be relied on, he was a priest of Jerusalem who was taken into exile after the first capture of the city by the Babylonians in 597 BCE (2 Kgs 24:12-16), lived in a settlement of Judaean exiles in the Babylonian countryside called Tel Abib (or Tel Aviv, the origin of the name of the modern city in Israel; Ezek 3:15) and ‘saw divine visions’ (1:1) for the first time in 593, the 5th year of his exile (1:2), when he was 30 years old, if that is the meaning of ‘in the 30th year’ in 1:1. In this vision he feels himself compelled by YHWH to become a prophet but is warned that the people will not listen.

The entire book is written in the first person, apart from the note in 1:3 giving Ezekiel’s name, thus it claims to be written by Ezekiel, who relates his experiences with YHWH and the revelations that YHWH gave him. In keeping with this, most of the book is in prose, often very wordy. But there are some oracles—prophetic messages—from God that are poetic. Besides oracles from God, Ezekiel relates a number of visions, all of them long and elaborate, beginning with the long call vision, which leaves him ‘stunned’ (3:15). He also tells how he obeys commands from God to perform symbolic actions (e.g., 4:1-14). Sometimes he performs the actions in a vision, e.g., in the well-known vision of the valley of dry bones (37:1-14).

There is a pattern of dates running through the book, which follow almost in chronological order (only the two dates in ch. 32 seem to be out of order, both with each other and with 33:21). The point from which the dates are calculated is the day on which king Jehoiachin and the other exiles including Ezekiel left Jerusalem in early 597. They begin with the date in 1:1-2, and end 20 years later (573 BCE) in 40:1, which dates Ezekiel’s great vision of the new temple (40-48).

The key date is that in 33:21, the 5th day of the 10th month of the 12th year (Dec 586 or Jan 585), when Ezekiel hears of the fall of Jerusalem to the second Babylonian attack five months after it has happened (2 Kgs 25:8). The tone and purpose of Ezekiel’s prophecy are transformed after this date.

This results in a simple structure for the book.

1–3 Introduction: Ezekiel’s call to be a prophet; and general instructions.
4–24 Prophecies of judgment against Jerusalem. Jerusalem is doomed!
25–32 Prophecies against foreign nations, which the Judaeans had hoped to have as allies.
33:1-20 Interlude: the purpose and effect of prophecy.
33:21–39:29 Prophecies of comfort and restoration for the exiles.
40-48 Vision of the new temple, and instructions for the constitution of a new Israel.

Date and authorship

If the information in the text, detailed above, is relied on, nothing more need be said.

However, most modern scholars have in one way or another queried its reliability. Many believe that the book as we have it is the result of a process of editing and addition of material to a core coming from Ezekiel himself, extending perhaps to the end of the 6th century. But there is no agreement on which parts are secondary. There is certainly a very distinctive mind at work in the book, and it is reasonable to suppose it is that of Ezekiel himself, even if the text has been expanded, and even if, as is likely, the actual writing of the book was done by others after his death.

It has also been questioned whether Ezekiel was active as a prophet only in Babylonia, as the book claims. Some scenes (in visions) are set in Jerusalem (chs. 8-11), or in the land of Israel vaguely (40:2), and some scholars have argued that Ezekiel may have had a period of ministry in Jerusalem before being deported. However, these scenes are clearly said to be in visions, and there is no sufficient reason to question the claim that Ezekiel had visions of events in Jerusalem.

Interpretation

This long book raises many interesting issues. Only a few can be mentioned here.

Priestly theology

According to 1:3 Ezekiel was a priest. It is interesting that much of the language of the book is related to priestly interests or follows priestly formulas, e.g., 18:5, 9: ‘If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right… follows my statutes and is careful to obey my ordinances, acting faithfully—such a one is righteous; he shall surely live.’ And the list of sins in that passage is typical of the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26), which is generally thought to originate from priestly writers. The great visions of chs. 1-2, 8-10, and 40-43 are centred on the glory of God, a theme of the priestly document in the Pentatreuch, and the temple.

Psychology

Some of the actions that Ezekiel is asked to carry out, and does so, are quite bizarre: e.g., lying on his left side for 390 days and 40 days on his right (4:4-7). So are some of his experiences, especially being made dumb except when prophesying (3:26-27) until the day he hears of the fall of Jerusalem (33:22). Some have asked whether he was psychologically abnormal, or even suffered from a psychosis such as schizophrenia. But we must take into account first that this is a stylised literary narrative, which may present real events in an exaggerated form, and secondly that prophets and shamans in the modern world do really have strange experiences and do strange things. Ezekiel seems closer to this world than some of the other prophets.

In chs. 16 and 23 Ezekiel employs imagery similar in some ways to the ‘marriage metaphor’ found in Hosea 1-3, Jeremiah 2-3, or Isaiah 54, 57, 62. Jerusalem is presented as a prostitute who eagerly seeks lovers, But these chapters stand out for their obscenity, violence, and contempt for the female figures who stand for Jerusalem and Samaria. Their meaning cannot be summed up in what they want to say about Jerusalem’s foreign entanglements: they also have a message for real women, that they should not choose how they express their sexuality. This is actually stated in 23:48.

Reception history

Generally speaking, Ezekiel has not had as much influence on Jewish and Christian thought and writing as Isaiah (especially) and Jeremiah. There are exceptions, however.

The rabbis restricted the study of the ‘chariot vision’ of Ezekiel 1 to those who were already wise, because of fear that the simple might be misled; but this restriction did not prevent an intensively cultivated mystical theology based on this chapter developing in late antiquity (after ca. 200 CE), the so-called ‘merkabah mysticism’ (Heb. merkabah, ‘chariot’), with the central object of attaining the vision of God by ascent to heaven.

Most New Testament books do not refer to Ezekiel. Revelation is the one exception: its language is heavily steeped in Ezekiel, and it can hardly be a coincidence that this is the one New Testament book that speaks of the vision of the throne of God.

Further reading

Joyce, Paul M. Ezekiel: A Commentary. London; New York: T & T Clark International, 2007.
McKeating, Henry. Ezekiel. OTG. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993.
Moughtin-Mumby, Sharon. Sexual and Marital Metaphors in Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Wevers, John W. Ezekiel. NCBC. London: Nelson, 1969.