Thomas Renz (Rhetorical Function of the Book of Ezekiel) argues that “The first twenty-four chapters of the book present a loosely structured movement in cycles with ever greater involvement of the readers.”
Each cycle is “marked by a narrative portion which includes either a date (1:1-3) or a notice about elders approaching the prophet (14:1) or both (8:1; 20:1). No notice about elders who approach the prophet and, apart from 24:1 . . . no date formula occurs anywhere else in this first part of the book.” Thus, “the two elements have deliberately been reserved to indicate the major breaks in the narrative and to mark the beginning of separate cycles which contain similar material (announcement of the fall of Jerusalem), but with different emphases” (61).
In the first cycle, Ezekiel presents his case against Judah: “Judah’s and Jerusalem’s sin will lead to its downfall. It comes to a climax and is concluded in chap. 7 which speaks most forcefully about ‘the end’ that comes to Judah.” The second cycle (chapters 8-13) address objections to the prophet’s message. Some claim that God couldn’t abandon His people; Ezekiel answers in chapters 8-11 that Yahweh “has already chosen the exiles to continue the history of Israel.” Others claim that judgment is off in the distant future, and that it will not fall on Jerusalem, but Ezekiel’s description of the whitewashed walls of Jerusalem refutes both. The second cycle comes to an end “with the assertion that the distinction between death and life is one for Yahweh to make.” In the third cycle (chapters 14-19), Ezekiel “outlines more precisely what the response of the exiles should be to this disaster. This section finds its climax in chap. 19 in a (prophetic adaptation of a) dirge over Israel’s leader” (62).
There’s a progression through these cycles: “the first cycle proclaims the end, the second affirms the certainty of the end, and the third heightens the involvement of the readers. The last section, chaps. 20-24, summarises the first three cycles and brings the narrative close to Jerusalem’s fall itself” (61-2). Renz sees the four cycles as falling into a pattern of 2 + 2. The first two cycles follow a similar pattern: visions, sign-acts, prophecies, death/end. The second two cycles progress differently, but are parallel to one another: confrontation with elders, metaphors, judgment, death.
One of Renz’s overall points is that Ezekiel is rhetorically structured to involve the reader more and more in the prophecy. Chapter 17, the parable of the eagles, the cedar, and the vine, illustrates the point.
The chapter presents a mashal, an allegorical riddle, to Israel. That “genre” itself accomplishes the rhetorical goal: “Being more enigmatic than the previous parables, this parable involves its readers even more than the previous ones, as the challenge of bringing together figurative and real reference is greater, even though the application of the parable is given in some detail in w. 16ff, where the root mashal is again taken up (cf. 14:13; 15:8) to underline that the disaster has its root in unfaithfulness” (78).
Renz suggests that there are two levels to the parable: “on the political level, Zedekiah’s disloyalty to king Nebuchadnezzar must lead to a punitive action from the Babylonian overlord, on the theological level, Zedekiah’s disloyalty to Yahweh calls forth a response from Yahweh” (78). That complexity again requires more involvement from the hearer or reader, as he seeks to disentangle the levels of meaning.
The conclusion of the parable also intensifies the reader’s involvement, since it points to the new beginning that Yahweh is preparing for Israel: “While Yahweh will act in a continuity of purpose (the actions described are similar to those Yahweh did in the past), the future does not continue from what has taken place in the past. In the image of the metaphor: The vine has withered and will not be revived, Yahweh will take another shoot from the cedar. The imagery is not interpreted in this case and thus leaves the readers to fill the gap. . . . the parable does not describe the future in terms of a restoration of the vine stock, but in terms of the exaltation of the cedar shoot. This emphatically underlines that the promise was not seen as applying to the dynasty of Zedekiah, but to the family of the one deported in 597 BC. The exiles are to expect a new act of Yahweh focusing on the exilic community, not some sort of continuation from the past (cf. v. 24b)” (78-9).
The exiles (especially the second generation that Renz thinks is being addressed) are engaged personally not only as readers and interpreters, but as subjects of fulfillment. As with Jesus’ parables, if they read well, they recognize that the mashal is speaking of them.