Before I get to Ezekiel, note that I have put up my first post of recommended NT resources, a shortlist of Top Five books. I hope January will bring many positive changes in how we study the New Testament, and I’m trying to do my part.
Up until this point, prophets have largely been “northern” or “southern,” but this post-exile thing is a whole new ballgame. Ezekiel is the first of the classical prophets to be prophesying in Babylon. Ezekiel is a priest or had been before he was forcibly removed to Babylon at age 25, c. 597/6 BCE. After being in Babylon five years, Ezekiel receives his calling as a prophet to preach to the exiles, and the temple is destroyed roughly five years later (587/6 BCE). Ezekiel records it in chapter 24.
In the ninth year, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, write down this date, this very date. The king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem this very day. And utter an allegory to the rebellious house and say to them, Thus says the Lord God…
The history is interesting, and I’ll return to it. More interesting about the book of Ezekiel itself is a later Rabbinic debate. You might think that Isaiah was the absolute height, but you’d be wrong. “Jerome reports that some rabbis prohibited the reading of the beginning and end of the book by anyone under the age of thirty.” (Harper’s Bible Commentary, my emphasis.) Why?
Various reasons. Ezekiel is a challenging book. It’s contradictory, apocalyptic, complex, weird, vulgar, highly sexual, graphic, scatological, and violent, explaining Weird Al’s Amish Paradise reference “Even Ezekiel thinks that my mind is gone!”
Much of that is opaque to us, since a) we tend to read selectively b) in a 600-yr-old translation. We just don’t get much exposure and when we do, we don’t necessarily grasp what’s being said because the language is so opaque. Chapter 23, for example, is an extended usage of the marriage metaphor, which… well. Here’s a sample. The KJV translates v. 20 as “For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses.” A translation which captures the tone of the original would read something like “and she lusted after her Egyptian gigolos, with genitals large as a donkey’s, whose thrusts are like those of stallions.” There’s some uncertainty to the last phrase. It may be more like “ejaculating as violently as stallions” (New Jerusalem Bible) or… you get the idea. This is not a chapter you want to spend time on in Seminary. Ezekiel is full of it, and that’s a challenge to our expectations and assumptions. I spent some time talking about coarse language in the Bible in my translation article, and Jana Riess writes about Ezekiel here.
Now, back to the history and the (relatively) “safe” chapters for today.
Imagine an alternate LDS history: Mexico invades Utah in 1860, completely destroys Salt Lake and the temple, kills all the leaders from the President of the Church on down to all the Seventies. Virtually everyone not killed is hauled off to Mexico for 70 years or so, where, highly confused and wondering “what did we do to deserve this?” “what does this mean for the Gospel? Have we been abandoned?” and “shouldn’t we have known about this?” they put down roots and stay. Roughly 1/3 of the Mormons return to Salt Lake City 70 years later, where God restores the necessary authority, and they start rebuilding the temple and moving on the way they thought they might have 70 years earlier. And yet, 70 years in a different country has changed them, so much so that only 1/3 of the Mormons return “home” to Salt Lake. What would be different? Tortilla chilaquiles instead of funeral potatoes? Spanish instead of English as the primary language of the Church? Would there be heavy Catholic or Maya/Aztec/Toltec influence, perhaps in the music or building design or meeting structure? (My friend Kevin Barney points out that Joseph Smith had virtually no exposure to Catholicism, and wonders how it might have been different.) Would Catholic ideas about Mary influence LDS rhetoric about Mother in Heaven, or prompt divine questioning?
This is more-or-less what happens to the Israelites. As they rubbed shoulders with the Babylonians, Aramaic overtook Hebrew as the primary language, necessitating scribes who knew both languages and could read. Doctrinal ideas and emphases shifted. Some came through necessity:
- the destruction of sacred space (i.e. the Jerusalem temple) meant a shift to emphasis on sacred time (i.e. the Sabbath.)
- Fully 1/3 of the 613 commandments in the Torah have to do with animal sacrifice, which was not practiced in Babylon. There was a shift to prayer and study of the Torah, accompanied by the rise of the synagogue as the locus of these things, standing in for sacrifice and the temple.
- The Israelites ask, Why did this happen to us? Why was God’s temple destroyed? Why is there no longer a Davidic king on the throne? Are God’s promises trustworthy? Chronicles is written to respond to those questions. The doctrines formulated in Genesis 1 are partially a response to Babylonian creation texts and polytheism.
- The strong Zoroastrian dualism of Cyrus the Persian (who sends the Israelites home from Babylon) probably influences a shift in understanding ha-satan as the embodiment of evil and opposition to God or Satan, instead of a position filled by one of the divine council, “the accuser.”
the development of a celestial enemy was heavily influenced by the Jews’ experience under Babylonian and Persian rule. Exposure to Zoroastrianism with its emphases on cosmic dualism played a fundamental role in the expansion of the good versus evil dichotomy found in early Judaism. Similar to the rival gods in Persian literature, Jewish tradition never gives Satan equal status with God. YHWH alone is God, with no evil equivalent.- Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism, “Satan”
When Cyrus the Persian conquers Babylon, he sends the Israelites home to Israel with royal funds to rebuild…. but only 1/3 of them want to go. (Babylon actually becomes a great Jewish center of learning and culture, so that nearly one thousand years later, the Talmud is compiled by the Jews there.) But that comes later. The reading today covers three chapters, 18, 34, and 37.Ezekiel 18 is largely about personal responsibility. The examples Ezekiel uses seem banal, but can easily be applied to recent Israelite history, with righteous kings followed by wicked kings, and may also apply to the Israelites in Babylon themselves. (“Hey, your parents may have screwed up, but you can be different.”) He talks about how the righteous shall “live” and the wicked shall “die.” A righteous man who turns wicked dies, a wicked man who becomes righteous lives. A righteous man who has a wicked son? The father bears no blame for the son, and the son no merit from the father. And so on. It seems fairly straightforward to us, but the Israelites don’t like it. Among other things, it’s hard to square with the 10 Commandments, which include the asymmetrical promises of punishment to the 4th generation of the wicked, but blessings to the 1000th generation of the righteous.
Exodus 20:5 I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
This is a case where the Bible argues against the Bible, undermining the absolutist ideas that scripture represents only one viewpoint, and is entirely consistent on every point.
Ezekiel 34 takes up the argument against Israel’s leaders, further developing the same shepherd/flock metaphor of Jeremiah 23. (It follows and contrasts chapter 33’s discussion of responsible watchmen on the tower). Ezekiel argues that the leaders have been wolves in shepherds’ clothing, fleecing the flock. It is because of the leaders’ wickedness that the flock (Israel) has been scattered all over the Near East.
34 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 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. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them. 7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.
He goes on to explain how God himself will be The Shepherd, and gather his scattered sheep, which we can read as immediate (in the context of Cyrus the Persian), future/Millennial, or both. This passage, Jeremiah 23, and Psalm 23 are general sources of The Good Shepherd motif in the New Testament. Several things are interesting here. First, note that Jeremiah and Ezekiel connect the literal geographic dispersion of Israel and eventual gathering with the “scattered sheep” motif and “gathering shepherd” motif. This lends support to the LDS interpretation of John 10:14-16 ( Cf. 3 Ne. 15:21 and 16:1), that when Jesus says he has other sheep of another fold, he’s referring back to scattered Israel and speaking geographically. Second, years ago I wrote a speculative paper about this theme in the Book of Mormon. I connected Ammon’s gathering of the flocks (very unlikely to be sheep, btw) to the assumption of the king and his servants that Ammon was divine. Ammon was The Good Shepherd.
Ezekiel 37 contains two metaphors that, for Ezekiel, represent the same thing: Israel is dead, scattered, separated. God is going to gather and reunite it, thus bringing it back to life. The first metaphor is a vision of dry bones, which are then reclothed with flesh and skin, coming back to life. It’s very easy for us to focus on the physical resurrection aspect instead of the resurrection-of-Israel aspect, simply because that’s what seems more pertinent to us. However, it’s not clear that the Israelites had a good doctrine or understanding of resurrection. The very Old Testament passages we tend to point to beyond this one, such as Job 19:26 (discussion) or Isaiah 26:19 (isn’t that a funny set of chapter/verse numbers between those two?), tend to have serious problems with the Hebrew. Resurrection may be implied, but it’s not taught as clearly as in the Book of Mormon or New Testament. Later Judaism would indeed have a doctrine of resurrection (although some, such as Sadducees, rejected it as non-scriptural), and we see this in e.g. Dan. 12:2-3, and in the New Testament. No one in the NT or Rabbinic records ever points back to Ezekiel 37 as a basis for it, though.
It is also important to note that the NT writers never use the vision of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37 as a symbol for Jesus’ resurrection or for the resurrection of believers in him, with the possible exception of John 5:25–28, which mentions the final resurrection of those who believe in Jesus (Manning, 160–65). Likewise, rabbinic Judaism never uses Ezekiel 37 as a prooftext to support the belief in a general eschatological resurrection.- Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets “Ezekiel, Book of”
The second metaphor, Ezekiel’s two sticks (one for Ephraim and one for Judah) being united as one in his hand, has traditionally been read as a prophecy of the Book of Mormon. (The manual does suggest it is a dual prophecy.) As you might suspect, I think that interpretation is more of a “applying it to ourselves” than a formal prophecy. I believe it, but wouldn’t use it in a scholarly conference or as some kind of missionary “proof.” There’s a good bit of literature on it, and once again, Kevin Barney provides a good summary, as does Jim Falconer, a BYU Philosophy prof, and Robert Boylan.
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