Monday, March 31, 2014

Ezekiel 43:1-45:25


Ezekiel's visions of Israel's restoration function, I believe, to draw YHWH's people into a better future. Whether the details of the vision were ever expected to be literally fulfilled, I don't know. I doubt it, but I don't know. What I think is that the visions were meant to guide God's people in their attitudes and actions when they return from exile. The visions are intended to provide hope and impetus for restoration.

In Ezekiel 4-443, the prophet's vision continues as he sees YHWH's glory return to the new, idealized temple. Once the glory has come in, the door is closed behind it.

A problem with the former temple was that the kings (Ezekiel calls them "princes") were too close. Their residences and tombs need to be farther away so that they do not contaminate the Temple's holiness.

I have long thought that Solomon's temple effectively created a religio-political complex of power in which the priests were effectively placed under the king's power. Ezekiel's vision-Temple dismantles the complex. It may even reverse the power structure to favor the (Zadolite) priests. Despite Ezekiel's vision, monarchy was never really re-established in Judea.

Chapter 45 describes the land to be apportioned to the Levites and the king in the restored Israel. Verses 9-17 instruct the king to rule justly. Verses 18-25 describe the celebration of the Passover with emphasis on the king's part.

The image of Ezekiel was borrowed from wiki. Next: Ezekiel 46-48

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ezekiel 40:1-42:20


Remembering that Ezekiel was a priest helps to explain his concern for the Temple. In chapter 10 he described a vision of YHWH's glory leaving the temple. The Lord was offended or driven out by the people's idolatry and injustice. In chapter 33 he received word of Jerusalem's fall and, we may assume, the Temple's destruction. In today's reading the prophet sees a vision of a rebuilt Temple, larger and grander than Solomon's, to which YHWH's glory will return in chapter 43.

Though Ezekiel's temple, its dimensions and decor, are described in detail I don't think the Second Temple (Zerubabel's Temple) was built according to his plan. Herod's expansion of the Second Temple may have approximated the grandeur Ezekiel envisioned.

In chapter 40 Ezekiel sees a "man" with an appearance like bronze. He uses measuring stick to determine the dimensions of the Temple. Verses 45-46 show Ezekiel's support for the Zadokite priests who were the primary priests of the Second Temple for about 350 years.

He said to me, “The room facing south is for the priests who guard the temple, and the room facing north is for the priests who guard the altar. These are the sons of Zadok, who are the only Levites who may draw near to the Lord to minister before him.” 

The tour of Ezekiel's visionary Temple, its outbuildings and environs, with descriptions of its decor, continues through chapter 42.

Next: Ezekiel 43-45

Friday, March 28, 2014

Rules v. Empathy

On March 24, Dr. James McGrath published the picture above as part of a post on his estimable Exploring Our Matrix blog. Click through if you would like to read his thoughts on the subject of Morality and Religion.

By coincidence, on the same day, I received a comment on a four year old post on this blog. The writer, taking exception to what I wrote, accused the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America of redefining sin by moving away from the catholic consensus about homosexuality. I replied to his accusations there.

What occurs to me from all of this is that there are two ways of deriving ethics, one intrinsic, the other extrinsic.

Extrinsic morality is dictated from outside the self. Whether it is from tradition, consensus, Scripture, or some other source, extrinsic morality makes right behavior a matter of following a set of rules. Don't smoke. Don't steal. Don't kill. Don't cross on the red and you're OK.

There is a danger in extrinsic morality. Extrinsic morals can be derived from an immoral source. I've mentioned before that the Nazi regime was not immoral. It was hyper-moral. It had a clear vision of the good and sought to enact that vision. Genocide, slavery, injustice, and acts of terrorism can be justified by extrinsically derived morality.

This is not to say that all rules are bad. Far from it. It does, however, give us leave to question rules.

What I call intrinsically derived morality is called "empathy" in the picture above. In the Bible, I believe, it is called "love." Arguably it is the basis for Jesus' ethics. "Love your neighbor as yourself." "Love your enemies." "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Arguably it is what the Apostle Paul was talking about in Romans 13:10 when he said that "Love is the fulfillment of the Law."

Perhaps empathy, love, is the intrinsic standard by which all extrinsic rules ought to be measured.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-39:29


I cannot read Ezekiel 37:1-14 without hearing the song Dem Bones playing on my mental jukebox. This is Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones which, at his prophecy, take on flesh and come to life. The vision is a simple analogy: the Israelites in exile are metaphorically dead, cut off, dried up. They will be restored. Later Jewish and Christian interpreters saw the resurrection of the dead in this vision but that is almost certainly not what Ezekiel intended. A point to note: Ezekiel  is told to prophesy to "the breath" (NIV, NRSV) or "the wind" (KJV). The Hebrew word ruach bears both meanings and can also be translated "spirit."

Ezekiel 37:15-28 describes a prophetic action/parable. Ezekiel is commanded to take two sticks, mark them with the names of the two nations "Ephraim" (i.e. the northern kingdom, Israel) and "Judah" and hold them together in his hand as one stick. The message, the two kingdoms will be restored and will be ruled by a single king from the line of David. Though at least some of the exiles did return to Jerusalem and Judah the Davidic kingship was never reestablished.

Chapters 38 and 39 contain oracles against "Gog of Magog." Gog, here, is a future general of the armies of Meshek and Tubal in Asia Minor. The book of Revelation (ch. 20) refers to Gog and Magog as if they are two nations. In Ezekiel God will be dragged by YHWH into war (v. 4). He will lead a coalition of nations in what seems to be an end time war against Israel. This war will take place after Israel is reestablished.YHWH will fight on behalf of his people and Gog will be destroyed by earthquakes, the sword, plagues, a rain of sulfur, etc. Chapter 38:11-16 describe the burial of Gog's armies. In verses 17-20 carrion fowl are invited to feast on the carcasses of the enemy dead. The book of Revelation (ch. 19) also picks up this image. (John of Patmos was deeply steeped in the Hebrew prophetic tradition).

Verses 25-29 once again promise that Israel will be restored; its people will return from exile.

Gustave Dore's illustration of Ezekiel's vision looks like a scene from a horror movie. Next: Ezekiel 40-42

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ezekiel 34:1-36:38


With news of Jerusalem's fall, a note of hope is introduced into Ezekiel's preaching.

In chapter 38 Judah's kings are called "shepherds," a common metaphor in the ancient near east. That King David is depicted as a literal shepherd during his youth adds a layer of depth to its use in the Bible. As shepherds the kings have failed in their responsibilities to care for their flock. The poor and weak have been ignored or exploited. The kings have ruled for their own enrichment. Compounding injustice with inequity, the rich "fat sheep" have abused the poor. Now YHWH himself will shepherd his people. He will give them "David," which I take to mean a king like David and from David's line, for their ruler.

Ezekiel 35:1-36:15 deal with mountains. Chapter 35 proclaims judgment against Mt. Seir (probably representing Edom) for its ancient enmity against the two nations, Israel and Judah. YHWH is going to make Mt. Seir desolate.

In stark contrast Chapter 36 begins with an oracle of hope for the moutains of Israel. Currently desolate, they will be restored and repopulated.

Verses 16-38 use the image of menstruation to describe Israel's uncleanness. We've seen repeatedly that the Hebrew Scriptures are squeamish about bodily discharges. Basically, YHWH declares that he was embarrassed by  Israel. In an honor/shame culture that is more significant than it might sound. So, Israel was punished with exile. But, the people will be purified and return to their land. The purification is described as sprinkling with water (v. 25) which, I think, does not quite correspond to the ritual bath required to "cleanse" a woman from her menstrual period. Twice, and significantly, YHWH tells the people that their return is "not for your sake" but for YHWH's (vv. 22 and 32). In other words, Israel's restoration will redound to YHWH's honor.

The image of Elizabeth Jane Gardner's painting of David the Shepherd came from wiki. Next: Ezekiel 37-39

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ezekiel 31:1-33:33


Some of Ezekiel's oracles are very precisely dated. The message adressed to the king of Egypt and his hordes in chapter 31 was proclaimed on June 21, 587 BCE. It is a simple allegory. Assyria was a mighty tree. It became proud. YHWH cast it aside and it was cut down by foreign nations. Egypt is next.

Ezekiel 32:1-16 is less precisely dated. It comes from March 585 BCE. In this one the Pharaoh, who was described as a dragon in chapter 29, is now a sea monster. The monster is defeated by YHWH in a story that parallels ancient near eastern creation myths. Babylon is YHWH's chosen weapon for Egypt's defeat. The women of the nations lament for Pharaoh and his hordes.

Verses 17-32 come from the same year but here not even the month is specified. It is a lament for Egypt. Egypt is going down to the pit with the uncircumcised: Assyria, Elam, Meshek, Tubal, Edom, the princes of the north, and the Sidonians.

Chapter 33 rings a change in the book of Ezekiel. Back in chapter 3 the prophet was appointed to be YHWH's watchman. Here that call is renewed. As before Ezekiel is responsible to proclaim YHWH's message but not for its results. Now, in answer to the charge "YHWH is not just" (cf. Chapter 18) he proclaims that repentance will bring forgiveness.

On January 19. 585 BCE Ezekiel receives news that "Jerusalem has fallen." His mouth, as promised, is opened. He declares taht the city and its environs will become desolate. Ezekiel's fellow deportees don't pay him much heed. They dismiss him as a singer of songs but, YHWH says, when the things he proclaims come to pass, "they will know that a prophet has been among them."

Next: Ezekiel 34-36

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Ezekiel 28:1-30:26


Ezekiel's oracles against Tyre continue in chapter 28. In verses 1-19 he specifically targets the king of Tyre. As is typical of Ezekiel, the king is referred to as "prince."

The New International Version translates verse 3 as a pair of questions addressed to the king:

Are you wiser than Daniel?
Is no secret hidden from you?

The New Revised Standard Version translates the same verse as a pair of statements:

You are indeed wiser than Daniel;
no secret is hidden from you...

The consensus opinion expressed in the notes of my various study Bibles is that Ezekiel actually did think that the king of Tyre was wise. Even wiser than Daniel who, as we saw in chapter 14 was probably  a legendary Canaanite ruler, Danel,and not the biblical Daniel.

Wise or not, the Tyrian ruler's pride becomes his downfall and he will die at the hands of foreigners.

Verses 11-19 are a lament over the king of Tyre. Once rich, beautiful, and powerful, he will be reduced to ashes (v. 18).

Verses 20-23 are a short oracle against Sidon. Verses 24-26 express the purpose of all these nations' downfalls. On their return to the land of promise

The house of Israel shall no longer find a pricking brier or a piercing thorn among all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. And they shall know that I am the Lord God.
      (Ezekiel 28:24 NIV)

Chapter 29 begins a series of oracles against Egypt. A note in the New Interpreters Study Bible is helpful:

Egypt had been either a threat or a temptation to Israel for centuries. Isaiah had warned about reliance on Egypt for military help (30:1- 2; 31:1). Although Pharaoh Hophra intervened while Nebuchadnezzar was besieging Jerusalem (Jer 37:5- 8), Jeremiah warned against the dangers of fleeing to Egypt (Jer 42:1- 22) and predicted that Hophra would be captured by Nebuchadnezzar (Jer 44:30).

Ezekiel declares that Egypt, which has been a weak prop ("staff of reed" v. 6) to Judah, will be destroyed. As Tyre's downfall was described in imagery of the sea, so Egypt's fate is described in terms appropriate to a desert nation. Egypt's people will be exiled for 40 years. After that time they will return, but the restored nation will be weak.

In verses 17-21 YHWH gives Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon as compensation for an unprofitable campaign against Tyre. A note from the Harper Collins Study Bible says:

Since Nebuchadnezzar had worked for God and without sufficient reward, he will be permitted to attack Egypt instead. Such an attack was launched in 568 bce, again without conclusive results.

This means that neither Ezekiel's oracles against Tyre, nor his oracles against Egypt were fulfilled precisely. This isn't a major concern for me but if it bothers you a note in the New Interpreters Study Bible may help:

Although some think that the failure of the oracle against Tyre may pose a problem for the credibility of the prophet or the divine word, prophetic certainty need not be the issue here. Prophetic announcements regarding the exercise of human power are always contingent. Moreover, the L ord 's radical freedom from human institutions and structures also requires that the divine word cannot be imprisoned in its own fulfillment. The Lord is free to modify an announcement when the situation changes, especially when that word concerns the agent of divine justice, Nebuchadnezzar (v. 20).

In chapter 30 the prophet is commanded to lament over the defeat of Egypt and its allies, Cush (i.e. Ethiopia), Put (Lybia), Lud (Lydia), Arabia, and Cub. No one is exactly sure what "Cub" is supposed to represent. The NIV, following the Septuagint, translates it as "Lybia" (and just transliterates "Put"). Verses 13-19 include some specific Egyptian places by name. The whole of the land is to be conquered.

In verses 20-26 Ezekiel says that Nebuchadnezzar has broken the Pharaoh's arm. The Babylonian king will be back, he says, to break the other one.

We're not quite done with Egypt.

Next: Ezekiel 31-33

Friday, March 14, 2014

Ezekiel 25:1-27:36


Ezekiel now turns his attention to Judah's neighboring nations. In chapter 25 verses 1-7, he prophesies against Ammon. In Jeremiah 40 we read that the Ammonites were responsible for the assassination of the Babylonian appointed governor Gedaliah. Ezekiel says that they rejoiced over the fall of Jerusalem. They will, the prophet says, be laid waste by "people from the east," probably nomadic raiders.

Next Moab falls under Ezekiel's gaze (vv. 8-11). The Moabites assisted the Babylonians against Judah. They will share Ammon's fate.

Next we are told that Edom will be destroyed by YHWH and "my people Israel" (vv. 12-14).

The chapter ends with an oracle against Philistia. Israel's ancient enemies will also fall.

Ezekiel 26:1-28:16 contain a series of oracles against Tyre. The Tyrians gloated over Jerusalem's destruction and saw in it an economic opportunity. The will be laid waste by the Babylonian King Nebuchadrezzar ( whose name the NIV helpfully "corrects" to Nebuchadnezzar). He is described as the "king of kings" (Ezekiel 26:7). Tyre's destruction is described in terms of warfare and, appropriately for a merchant seaport, ocean storms.

Chapter 27 is a mocking "lament" for Tyre. The glories of Tyre's ships, armies, wealth, and trading prowess are described. Tyre's trade partners will mourn its demise.

All who live in the coastlands
    are appalled at you;
their kings shudder with horror
    and their faces are distorted with fear.
The merchants among the nations scoff at you;

    you have come to a horrible end
    and will be no more.
      (Ezekiel 27:35-36 NIV)

That's all for today. We'll get back to Tyre next time.

Next: Ezekiel 28-30

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Ezekiel 23:1-24:27


Yesterday a friend and colleague in ministry phoned to tell me a story. She had not prepared well for her 6th grade Confirmation class. So, when the curriculum materials said to look up Exodus 4:24-26 she had the kids open their Bibles not knowing what was there.

In case you don't remember it, Exodus 4:24-26 is that odd little fragment of a story in which YHWH tries to kill Moses but Zipporah, Moses' wife, circumcises their son and touches the foreskin to Moses' "feet" and YHWH backs off. Zipporah calls Moses her "bridegroom of blood."

I asked my friend if her students wanted her to explain circumcision. Did they know about foreskins? She said their main question was "What's a bridegroom?"

I suppose their are any number of lessons to draw from that anecdote. One of them would concern the importance of preparation. Another would be that not everything in the Bible is suited for children.

It might have been worse. They could have been reading Ezekiel 23. In this chapter the prophet employs a parable that is graphic, pornographic, and a bit heavy-handed. He tells the story of two sisters, prostitutes, named Oholah ("Her Tent") and Oholibah ("My Tent Is In Her"). The allegory is explicit: Oholah is Samaria, the fallen capitol city of the northern kingdom; Oholibah is Jerusalem.

Oholah sold her favors to the Assyrians. YHWH gave her up. Her lovers raped and abused her:
They stripped her naked, took away her sons and daughters and killed her with the sword. She became a byword among women, and punishment was inflicted on her.
     (Ezekiel 23:10 NIV) 

Oholibah didn't learn from her big sister's example. She prostituted herself to Assyrians, Babylonians (called "Chaldeans" here), and enormously well-endowed Egyptians. She will fare worse than her sister:

They will come against you with weapons, chariots and wagons and with a throng of people; they will take up positions against you on every side with large and small shields and with helmets. I will turn you over to them for punishment, and they will punish you according to their standards. I will direct my jealous anger against you, and they will deal with you in fury. They will cut off your noses and your ears, and those of you who are left will fall by the sword. They will take away your sons and daughters, and those of you who are left will be consumed by fire. They will also strip you of your clothes and take your fine jewelry. So I will put a stop to the lewdness and prostitution you began in Egypt. You will not look on these things with longing or remember Egypt anymore.
      (Ezekiel 23:24-27 NIV)

The first oracle of chapter 26, a prophetic act/parable is precisely dated to the 10th day of Tevet in 588 BCE (January 15). This was the day Nebuchadnezzar began the siege of Jerusalem. The city is compared to a stew pot full of cooking meat. The pot is corroded and corrupt. It will be purified by fire.

The second part of this chapter (verses 15-27) tells how Ezekiel's beloved wife dies. At YHWH's command the prophet does not engage in any of the traditional signs of mourning. This is how the people are to behave when their beloved temple is destroyed.

When he hears of the temple's destruction, Ezekiel's "mouth will be opened." He will no longer be constrained to speak only words of doom.

Illustrating this post is Two Prostitutes, a digital painting by Cellar-FCP which I found here. I think it is an impressive piece of work and give all props to the artist. I have borrowed the image without permission and will remove it at the artist's request.  Next: Ezekiel 25-27

Ezekiel 21:1-22:31


In Ezekiel 21:1-17, the prophet is told to prophesy against the Temple and the land of Israel. YHWH is going to "cut off" both the wicked and the righteous (v. 3). This oracle is poetic in form and, according to the New Interpreters Study Bible there are "difficulties in the Hebrew text." Those difficulties must account for the differences in translation between the New Revised Standard Version and the New International Version. Here, for example, is verse 10 in both versions:

[A sword is] sharpened for the slaughter,
    polished to flash like lightning!
Shall we rejoice in the scepter of my royal son? The sword despises every such stick.

[A sword] is sharpened for slaughter,
   honed to flash like lightning!
How can we make merry?
   You have despised the rod
   and all discipline.

Again, here is verse 13:

Testing will surely come. And what if even the scepter, which the sword despises, does not continue? declares the Sovereign Lord.

For consider: What! If you despise the rod, will it not happen? says the Lord God.  

In verses 18-24 the sword, which represents Babylon, comes to a fork in the road. Directed by divination, the sword bypasses Ammon and comes to destroy Judah and Jerusalem. Ammon will get its comeuppance later (vv. 28-29).

Verses 25-27 are directly addressed to a ruler, probably Zedekiah. His crown will be taken from him and reserved for a good king. Though Ezekiel probably expected it, kingship was never re-established in Jerusalem. For later readers verse 27 takes on a messianic tone.

In verses 30-32 the sword is returned to its sheath. Having served as YHWH's instrument of judgment, the sword itself will be judged.

Chapter 22 consists of three oracles against Jerusalem. That city has been full of idolatry, violence, and violation of the Torah (vv. 1-16). It has become dross, the impurities that are refined out of silver, and will be dealt with accordingly (vv.  17-22). The city's leaders have been complicit and bear responsibility:

So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.      (Ezekiel 22:31, NIV)

The photo of the Exterminating Angel came from this website. I don't know enough Spanish to recommend or pan it. Next: Ezekiel 23-24

The Next Thing I Say Will Be True. The Last Thing I Said Was A Lie.


Evening was falling. There was a chill in the air. I was handing out candles to a group of university students. They had gathered to commemorate their fellow students who had been killed by a deranged gunman. Their loss, their fear, and their hope were palpable. I offered a candle to a young man standing at the edge of the crowd. He looked at my collar and said, "Pastor, I can't believe in God any more."

"I'm sorry," I said.

I should have said more. I should have said, "You can still light a candle" or "Please stay and talk with me after the service." I should have said something. But I was gobsmacked, at a loss for words.

The young man turned and walked away into the cold night.

The doctrine of inerrancy has long been my personal bugbear. An honest reading of the Scriptures undermines the idea that the Bible is without error or contradiction. Inerrancy, meant to provide a firm foundation for  faith, becomes a stumbling block to faith. Maintaining a doctrine of inerrancy in the face of the Bible's contradictions and outright errors of fact requires a huge amount of intellectual juggling and tap dancing. There are better, more honest, ways to read the Bible.

I've been thinking about inerrancy recently, at least partly because I've read a fascinating three-part series on Peter Enns's blog by Randy Hardman. In these blog posts Hardman describes his exodus out of inerrancy and Christian apologetics.

It seems to me that no one arrives at a doctrine of inerrancy by first reading the Bible. The teaching that the Bible contains no contradictions or errors of fact is based, rather, on certain philosophical presuppositions which then color one's reading of Scripture. I know the proof-texts cited to support the notion of inerrancy but, in my estimation, those texts only constitute proof if inerrancy is first assumed. The argument is circular.

The first assumption underlying the teaching of inerrancy is that the Bible is, in some way, directly inspired by God. The crassest form of this assumption is that God dictated the Bible to God's secretaries. A subtler and probably more common form of this idea has God telling the biblical writers what to write but allowing them to use their own words. The Christian Scriptures then become The Holy Bible, by God, as told to the Prophets, Evangelists, and Apostles. God is the Author; Moses et al are the (holy) Ghost Writers.

A second assumption is that God does not deceive.

Using these assumptions as premises the argument for inerrancy goes like this:

  • The Bible is the directly inspired word of God.
  • God does not lie.
  • Therefore, the Bible is true in all of its particulars. It contains no errors or contradictions, and is factual in its accounts of history.
 There are some presuppositions about the nature of truth involved in the conclusion to this tautology but it is outside of my scope to examine them here.

In my Year of Blogging Biblically series I am currently in the midst of the book of Ezekiel and have only recently finished Jeremiah. Both of those prophets say that God does, in fact, deceive. Jeremiah complains that the Lord has deceived him personally:

Why is my pain unceasing,
   my wound incurable,
   refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
   like waters that fail.
      (Jeremiah 15:18)

In Ezekiel the Lord, speaking through the prophet, admits to deceiving the idolators of Judah:

 Moreover, I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live.
      (Ezekiel 20:25)

In short, God acted decptively. I recall also the Lord's actions in 1 Kings 22:22 (and its parallel in 2 Chronicles 18:21). In this incident, if the Lord is not directly deceptive then, at the least, the Lord is a participant in a conspiracy to deceive.

Then Micaiah said, ‘Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him. And the Lord said, “Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” Then one said one thing, and another said another, until a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, “I will entice him.” “How?” the Lord asked him. He replied, “I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” Then the Lord said, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.” So you see, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has decreed disaster for you.’ 

I suppose that one could justify the Lord's actions here and explain away God's duplicity. Doing so would, however, involve the kind of mental gymnastics that make the doctrine of inerrancy untenable.

So here is the problem for inerrantists. The Bible is supposed to be inerrant because God does not deceive, but the Bible depicts God as acting deceptively.

I am not saying that I believe God is a deceiver. I think that the Chronicler and the author of Kings believed God to be capable of deception. I think that Jeremiah and Ezekiel believed God to be capable of deception. Frankly, if I were sitting in Babylon, exiled from my home, if I had seen my city besieged, witnessed the horrors of warfare, famine, and disease, if I had seen mothers reduced to eating their own children, if I had lost my university friends to a deranged gunman, I too might believe that God could be a deceiver, untrustworthy, or even non-existence.

What is fascinating to me is the fact that Jeremiah and Ezekiel continued to trust in their Lord. They could have turned and walked away.

Quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ezekiel 18:1-20:49


Ezekiel 18 quotes the same proverb about the parents eating sour grapes and the children's teeth getting set on edge that we encountered in Jeremiah 31:29. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel says that this will no longer hold true. Everyone will be held accountable for their own actions. For exiles who believed that they were bearing the punishment for the sins of previous generations this would have been good news. Evildoers will also be given opportunity to repent.

Chapter 19 begins with a lament for Israel's princes. Ezekiel avoids calling Israel's rulers "kings." I don't know why. Verses 1-9 tell of a lioness who has two cubs. The first is taken captive to Egypt; the second to Babylon. Notes in the Jewish Study Bible point out that the lion is the symbol of the tribe of Judah. The first cub is identified as Jehoahaz; the second as Jehoiachin. The New Interpreters Study Bible says that the second cub might also be Jehoiakim or Zedekiah.

Verses 10-19 use the image of a vine and it shoot which, the Jewish Study Bible points out, refers to Jacob's blessing of Judah in Genesis 49:8-12. The identity of the shoot is uncertain though Zedekiah, the last of the davidic kings is a good possibility.  This much is clear: the davidic dynasty is dead.

In chapter 20 some of Israel's elders come to Ezekiel once more seeking an oracle from YHWH. YHWH doesn't really want to talk to them. Rather than an oracle, he gives them a history lecture. Their ancestors were idolators in Egypt. They were idolators in the wilderness. They were idolators in Canaan. If the elders want an oracle, they have to give up their ancestors' idolatrous ways. YHWH says that he will purge the idolators from Israel. Then Israel will be restored to its homeland.

Verses 25-26 are difficult:

So I gave them other statutes that were not good and laws through which they could not live; I defiled them through their gifts—the sacrifice of every firstborn—that I might fill them with horror so they would know that I am the Lord

A note in the CEB Study Bible points out that elsewhere "Ezekiel's theology allowed for God to sabotage the nation." That seems to be what's going on here. Did YHWH really command "the sacrifice of every firtsborn?"  A note in the Jewish Study Bible says:

Since the people disobeyed God's good laws, He gave them bad laws instead, exemplified by child sacrifice. Whether this is the way some Israelites interpreted Exod. 22. 28; 34. 19, and whether at an early point in Israelite religion sacrifice of the first- born was regularly practiced, is unclear. It seems, however, that some believed that God approved of child sacrifice.

In verses 45-48 Ezekiel pronounces an oracle against "the south" which I take to mean Judah. In verse 49 he complains that he is being dismissed as a "metaphor-maker."

Next: Ezekiel 21-22

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ezekiel 16:1-17:24


Ezekiel16 is an extended analogy, a sexually explicit oracle of judgment against Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the unwanted child of pagan parents. Exposed to die, she was rescued by YHWH (vv.1-5). She grew to sexual maturity without clothes (vv. 6-7). YHWH dressed her in finery, married her, and fed her with sumptuous fare. She became a queen, a famous beauty (vv. 8-14). But she became a prostitute, explicily a metaphor for idolatry. Worse, she commits child sacrifice. (vv.15-22). Jerusalem's idolatry and foreign alliances are described in pornograpic terms:

At every street corner you built your lofty shrines and degraded your beauty, spreading your legs with increasing promiscuity to anyone who passed by. You engaged in prostitution with the Egyptians, your neighbors with large genitals, and aroused my anger with your increasing promiscuity.
      (Ezekiel 16:25-26 NIV)

Jerusalem has committed adultery with the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians. Even the Philistines are shocked at her behavior (v. 27). She has been worse than a prostitute. She didn't even take payments; she gave them! (I assume this refers to the payment of tribute to conquering nations.

So, angry husband YHWH plans to give Jerusalem over to her lovers to be abused.

Then I will deliver you into the hands of your lovers, and they will tear down your mounds and destroy your lofty shrines. They will strip you of your clothes and take your fine jewelry and leave you stark naked. They will bring a mob against you, who will stone you and hack you to pieces with their swords. They will burn down your houses and inflict punishment on you in the sight of many women. I will put a stop to your prostitution, and you will no longer pay your lovers.
      (Ezekiel 16:39-40 NIV)

Then, YHWH says, he will quit being angry.

Verses 44-52 repeat Jerusalem's ignoble parentage and introduce her two sisters: Samaria (capitol, you will recall of the nothern kingdom) and Sodom. Both of these sister cities now lie in ruins. Sodom's sins are detailed in verses 49-50:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.

We may note that, in this sexually explicit chapter, the sins of Sodom do not explicitly include homosexuality.

Verses 53-62 promise that Sodom, Samaria, and Jerusalem will be restored. YHWH will make an everlasting covenant with Jerusalem. She will not, however, get over being ashamed.

It is interesting that my go-to translation, the New Revised Standard Version, is less explicit than the NIV in chapter 16. 

Chapter 17 brings us another oracle in the form of an allegory. Here, Judah is a lofty sprig from the high branches of a noble cedar. An eagle representing Babylon carries it away and plants it in a distant land where it becomes a vine. The vine llooks to another eagle, Egypt, for help. Egypt is of no use. But, YHWH will plant a cedar sprig on a high mountain where it will flourish and become a tree. In other words, Jerusalem will be restored.

Next: Ezekiel 18-20

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Ezekiel 13:1-15:8


Ezekiel 13 is an oracle against false prophets, male and female, who speak their own words and not the words of YHWH. The male prophets build a metaphorical flimsy wall, covered with whitewash which will be destroyed by a metaphorical storm of YHWH's very real anger. The female prophets practice some kind of magical divination involving wristbands and veils.

 The book of Ezekiel gives us some hints as to what life was like for the Judahites living in exile in Babylon. They apparently had a community with elders as their recognized leaders. At least some of them had private dwellings. The elders of Israel visited Ezekiel in his home in chapter 8. They come for another visit in chapter 14. They seem to want to consult YHWH through the prophet. YHWH is not interested in talking to them, however, as they have "set up idols in their hearts." Verses 1-11 take up the theme of false prophets once again. YHWH says that he intentionally deceives the false prophets so that they will be destroyed. This is not the first time we've seen YHWH behave deceitfully toward his enemies (see, for example, 1 Kings 22:22).

Verses 12-20 discuss, hypothetically, what would happen if YHWH sent famine, or wild beasts, or the sword, or a plague against a nation. Not even the intercessions of Daniel, Noah, and Job, three exemplars of righteousness, sould save that nation. Verses 21-23 make it clear that this isn't hypothetical after all. YHWH is sending famine, wild beasts, the sword, and plagues against Jerusalem.

My more academic sources say that Ezekiel's references to "Daniel" probably mean Danel (with variant spellings), a king of Ugarit renowned for his righteousness. The biblical book of Daniel, which may owe something to the Ugaritic Danel, is set in the time of the Babylonian exile, but was written at a much later date. Even the rather"conservative" NIV Study Bible, which would date the composition of the book of Daniel to the Babylonian period, recognizes that "the Biblical Daniel's righteousness probably had not become proverbial so soon." Only my most "conservative" study Bibles, the Apologetics Study Bible and Concordia's The Lutheran Study Bible, defend the idea that Ezekiel is refering to the biblical Daniel.

Chapter 15 is a short parable comparing the people of Jerusalem to a vine the wood of which is only valuable for burning.

The picture of Noah, Job, and Daniel is from a window in Canterbury Cathedral. The scare quotes around "conservative" reflect the fact that a doctrine of biblical inerrancy does not actually conserve a traditional reading of Scripture.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ezekiel 9:1-12:28


I started this year of blogging biblically on March 1, 2013. I said at the time that it would probably take more than a year. It is now March 7, 2014. I have 121 days left in my year. All things considered, I have to say I'm satisfied with the pace I've kept.

The vison begun in Ezekiel 8 continues in chapter 9. Still in the temple, Ezekiel's heavenly guide shows him 6 "men" with weapons. The come from the north, the direction of Babylon. A senventh, dressed in linen (like a priest?) carries a writing kit. He is sent into the city to mark an '"X" (Hebrew letter Tau) on the foreheads of those who mourn the abominations committed in the temple. The 6 with weapons are then sent out to kill anyone who does not bear the mark. The corpses are to be piled in the temple, a deliberate defilement. The prophet seems quite distressed by all of this.

In chapter 10, the man in linen is then commanded to spread hot coals in Jerusalem. I think this could symbolic of destruction. Or purification. Or both.

It becomes clear in today's reading that YHWH's throne on wheels, attended by the 4 living creatures is the same as Ezekiel saw in chapter 1. Now, however, the four living creatures are refered to as "cherubim." They each have the same 4 faces described earlier, only now the face of the ox is called a "cherub's face" (v. 14). Clearly a cherub here is not the baby angels that Raphael painted. 

YHWH's glory begins to leave the temple.

In chapter 11 Ezekiel is told to prophecy to the 25 civic elders gathered at the temple's east gate. While he is speaking one of them, Pelatiah son of Benaiah dies. The New Interpreter's Study Bible points out the irony of the name. Pelatiah means "YHWH has delivered." Beniah means "YHWH has built up."

In Ezekiel 11:14-21 YHWH promises that Israelites will return to Jerusalem and they will be faithful. In verses 22-25 YHWH's throne completes its departure from the Temple. The vision ends. Ezekiel finds himself back in Babylon where he tells his fellow exiles what he has seen.

In chapter 12 Ezekiel acts out the exile from Jerusalem. At YHWH's instruction he packs his bags in the daylight and digs through the wall to leave at dusk. The purpose of the exile? "They will know that I am YHWH."

In verses 21-28 YHWH, through Ezekiel replies to two sayings that were current in Jerusalem. First, the people were saying, "Days go by but the (prophets') visions amount to nothing." YHWH's answer: "Every vision will be fullfilled." Second they were saying, "The vision is for the distant future." Wrong-O, says the Lord. There will be no more delay.

Next: Ezekiel 13-15

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Ezekiel 5:1-8:18


YHWH repeatedly addresses Ezekiel as "Son of man," a Hebrew idiom that simply means "human being." In Daniel the term will be used to describe a heavenly figure, as contrasted to a series of beasts. By the time we get to the New Testament "Son of Man" will be a title for the Messiah. The NRSV renders the phrase in Ezekiel as "Mortal" which is not a bad translation.

In chapter 5, YHWH commands Ezekiel to perform another prophetic act. He shaves his head and face with a sharp sword. I don't care how sharp or how short the sword, I'll stick to a razor, thank you. Ezekiel divides his hair into thirds, apparently by weight. One third will be chopped up with the sword, one third burned, one third scattered. A few hairs are saved. So it will be for Israel (which I must assume refers here to Judah). A remnant will be saved. The rest are going to die by famine, wild beasts, plagues, and bloodshed (v. 17).

Chapter 6 tells us that YHWH is really, really angry about Israel's idolatry (vv. 1-7). The people will be destroyed but a remnant will be left to remember that YHWH caused the devastation (vv. 8-10). Verses 11-14 invoke the triumvirate of Judah's destruction: sword, famine, and plague. The chapter ends (v. 14) with a statement of the purpose of all this bloodshed: "Then they will know that I am YHWH."

Chapter 7 turns to poetry. The prophet foretells the end of Israel. There will be doom, disaster, wrath, judgment, violence, sword, plague, and famine. When they see it coming down the people will wet themselves:

Every hand will go limp;
    every leg will be wet with urine.
      (Ezekiel 7:17 NIV)

Again, the cause of all this horror is Israel's idolatry (vv. 19-22). The purpose: "They will know that I am YHWH."

Ezekiel isn't one to sugarcoat his message. Chapter 7 may be poetry but it is not pretty.

In chapter 8 the prophet relates another vision. This one takes place 14 months after the inaugural vision of chapter 1, that is, in 592 BCE. In this vision something that looks human transports Ezekiel to Jerusalem where he sees an idol set up in YHWH's temple. (Did such an idol ever actually stand in the temple)? Ezekiel sees 70 of Israel's elders, including a member of a prominent family, worshiping idols in the dark; the women of Israel performing ritual mourning for a Mesopotamian diety, Tammuz; and 25 men, their backs to the sanctuary, worshiping the sun. And if that weren't enough:

Then he said to me, "Have you seen this, O mortal? Is it not bad enough that the house of Judah commits the abominations done here? Must they fill the land with violence, and provoke my anger still further? See, they are putting the branch to their nose"
      (Ezekiel 8:17 NRSV)

On top of idolatry, the land is full of violence!

The significance of "putting the branch to their nose" is  no longer known. The New Interpreters Study Bible says that it "may be a vulgar or insulting gesture that epitomizes rejection of the LORD." The Jewish Study Bible suggests that it is "some noxious idolatrous practice." Whatever it is, YHWH doesn't like it.

Next: Ezekiel 9-12

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ezekiel 1:1-4:17


Like his older contemporary Jeremiah, the prophet Ezekiel was a priest. Unlike the other major prophets, Ezekiel's oracles are mostly related in prose. His visions are, if anything, more bizarre than what we have yet seen. (Daniel's visions, though more directly analogical, rival Ezekiel's for weirdness). His prophetic acts are more outrageous than Jeremiah's.

Ezekiel was probably taken into exile along with KIng Jehoiachin in 597 BCE.His prophetic activity began in 593 and continued through at least 571, according to the introduction in Augsburg Fortress's Lutheran Study Bible. 

Ezekiel's inaugural vison occured when he was 30 years of age, the age at which, according to Numbers 4:3 he would have begun priestly service. (Numbers 8:23-25 sets the age at 25). The notes in the Jewish Study Bible say that Ezekiel's prophetic ministry ended when he was 50, the age at which priests were retired.

At any rate, Ezekiel's first vision is dated to the fifth day of Tamuz (sometime in August), 593. It came to him by the river Kebar in Babylon (Ezekiel 1:1-3).

What a vision! Ezekiel describes four living creatures, each with four faces. The faces of the eagle, lion, ox, and human were later used as symbols of the New Testament's four evangelists: Matthew, Mark Luke, and John. Beside each of these creatures is a "wheel within a wheel" which can, apparently, move in any direction without turning. Above the wheels is a "firmament" ("vault" in the NIV) on which sits the throne of YHWH. There is a tradition of Merkabah mysticism in Judaism in which the individual seeks to ascend to God by contemplation on Ezekiel's vison.

The visionary experience continues in chapter 2 as YHWH commissions Ezekiel to be his mouthpiece. God gives the prophet a scroll that is covered on both sides with "lament, mourning, and woe" (v. 9).

In chapter 3 Ezekiel eats the scroll which tastes sweet (v. 3). He is now, presumably, full of YHWH's words. In verse 14 Ezekiel expresses anger, though whether this is his personal feeling or whether he is angry on YHWH's behalf is hard to say. The vision ends and Ezekiel finds himself back at the Kebar where he sits, stunned or distressed, for 7 days.

In verses 16-27 YHWH tells Ezekiel that he is to serve as a watchman. He reiterates that Ezekiel is responsible to speak his words, but not responsible for the results (vv. 19-21). YHWH instructs Ezekiel to live in isolation (vv. 24-25). The prophet's life is a lonely one.

In chapter 4 (vv. 1-8) we read of Ezekiel's first prophetic acts.The New Interpreters Study Bible uses the felicitious description "street theater." Ezekiel builds a little model of Jerusalem and then, like a child playing with toy soldiers, lays siege to it. He lies on his left side for 390 days for the sins of Israel, then on his right side 40 days for Judah. Each day represents a year. A note in the Jewish Study Bible mentions a tradition that it was 390 years from the time that Israel entered Canaan under Joshua until the destruction of the Northern Kingdom.

In verses 9-17 Ezekiel is instructed to eat bread made of mixed grains cooked over human excrement as a symbol of the hardship of the pending siege and the impurity that will be incurred during its rigors. When Ezekiel balks, YHWH backs off on the human excrement (Thank you, Lord) and allows Ezekiel to use cow dung instead. I have read about America's westward pioneers using buffalo chips for cooking fuel so, really, this doesn't sound so bad.

There is a brand of bread made from various sprouted grains and legumes based on the "recipe" in Ezekial 4:9. You can buy it in health food stores. I'm sure it is delicious as well as nutritous. The stuff that Ezekiel ate, on the other hand, was supposed to be disgusting.

Like many of my favorite illustrations for this blog, the picture of Ezekiel's vision came from the Pitts Theology Library Digital Image Collection, here. The picture of Ezekiel 4:9 bread came from the Food for Life Baking Company website.

Next: Ezekiel 5-8

Monday, March 3, 2014

Lamentations 3:1-5:22


Chiasmus is a literary technique that was common in ancient Greek writings, including the New Testament. Basically, chiasmus takes the form ABBA. An example in English is a familiar nursery rhyme:

   A: The itsy-bitsy spider went up the water spout.
      B: Down came the rain and washed the spider out.
      B: Up came the sun and dried up all the rain.
   A: And the itsy-bitsy spider went up the spout again.

Chiasms can be much larger and have more elements. Entire literary works sometimes take the form of a chiasm. The chiastic structure may have been an aid to memorization. Sometimes a chiasm may have been intended to emphasize its central element. The form ABCBA puts emphasis on C. The elements A and B form a frame.

I know a lot more about Greek than I do about Hebrew, but I think that chiasms may also be found in ancient Hebrew literature.

If you are looking for hope in the book of Lamentations, it is only to be found in the central verses of chapter 3, the central chapter. Whether this is intended to emphasize the message of hope, I'm not in a position to say. The rest of the book may frame this expression of hope or, alternatively, they may bury it. The New Interpreters Study Bible suggests that this chapter may serve as "a kind of abstract reflection on the catastrophe" of Jerusalem's fall and the exile.

Lamentations 3:22-23 is the inspiration for the favorite old hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;

    great is your faithfulness.

The words sound very different in their original context than on most of the Sunday mornings when we sing them.

Verses 32-33 are, for this book, a powerful statement of faith:

Though [YHWH] brings grief, he will show compassion,
    so great is his unfailing love.
For he does not willingly bring affliction

    or grief to anyone.

There might be a little bit of the victim's self-blame in that. But to say, while remembering the horrors of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem,  God "does not willingly afflict anyone" is remarkable.

Counting on YHWH's good will and faithfulness, verses 40-42 counsel repentance:

Let us examine our ways and test them,
    and let us return to the Lord.
Let us lift up our hearts and our hands
    to God in heaven, and say:
“We have sinned and rebelled
    and you have not forgiven.”

Chapter 3 ends with a plea for vengeance (v.v. 64-66):

Pay them back what they deserve, Lord,
    for what their hands have done.
Put a veil over their hearts,

    and may your curse be on them!
Pursue them in anger and destroy them
    from under the heavens of the Lord.

Chapter 4 bemoans the state to which Jerusalem's noble people were reduced: 

With their own hands compassionate women
    have cooked their own children,
who became their food
    when my people were destroyed.
      (Lamentation 4:10)

Once again responsibility is laid squarely on YHWH's shoulders:

The Lord has given full vent to his wrath;
    he has poured out his fierce anger.
He kindled a fire in Zion
    that consumed her foundations.

      (Lamentations 4:11) 

Verse 13 explains, once more, the reason for YHWH's anger:

But it happened because of the sins of her prophets
    and the iniquities of her priests,
who shed within her
    the blood of the righteous.

Verses 21-22 warn Judah's neighbor Edom not to gloat. Jerusalem will be restored but Edom will go down.

Chapter 5 is the only poem of Lamentations which is not structured as an alphabetic acrostic. It catalogs the degradations suffered by Judah's people including rape and torture:

Women have been violated in Zion,
    and virgins in the towns of Judah. 

Princes have been hung up by their hands....  
      (Lamentations 5:11-12a)

The book ends with a plea for the eternal God to remember Zion and restore his people (vv. 19-21). Its final verse plays with the haunting possibility that this may never be:

...unless you have utterly rejected us
    and are angry with us beyond measure.
      (Lamentations 5:22) 

Cool vid:

Biblical quotations are from the New International Version. Next: Ezekiel 1-4