Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Difficult Prophet in Difficult Times
"In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of
the fourth month, while I was among the exiles by the river Chebar,
the heavens opened, and I saw divine visions" (Ez 1:1). So opens
the Book of Ezekiel and already there are problems! What does
"thirtieth year" mean? Is it the thirtieth year of his life (the
most common explanation)? Or does he refer to the finding of the
book of the Law (the heart of Deuteronomy) in the Temple in 622
B.C., thirty years earlier? We do know that the year is 593 B.C.
("the fifth year of King Jehoiachin's exile") and that Ezekiel
is in Babylon.
The beginning of the sixth century B.C. was a difficult
time for the people of Judah. A little over a century earlier,
the northern part of the country (called Israel, because it represented
ten of the twelve tribes) had been taken captive by the Assyrians
from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Now the Babylonians, the new major
power in Mesopotamia, were threatening the tiny country of Judah.
In 597 B.C. the Babylonians swept in and carried off
all the leaderspolitical, economic and religious. King Jehoiachin
was also taken to Babylon in this deportation and his uncle, Zedekiah,
was made king of Judah.
The Babylonians thought that Zedekiah would be their
puppet, doing whatever they wished. But in 589 Zedekiah, encouraged
by ambitious advisers, stopped paying tribute. The Babylonian
response was swift and devastating. Nebuchadnezzar invaded the
country and laid seige to Jerusalem. In August 587, he took the
city, burning the Temple, killing many of the inhabitants and
destroying whatever lay in his path. Many of the survivors were
exiled to Babylon and the country lay in ruins.
The Babylonian exile was not only a political and
economic crisis for God's people, it was a religious crisis as
well. God had promised Abraham that his descendants would inherit
the land that became the territories of Israel and Judah (Genesis
God, who formed them as a people through the experience
of exodus and desert sojourn, had made a covenant with them at
Sinai (Exodus 19:3-8) and promised to be "their God." God had
promised David that a descendent of his would sit on the throne
forever (2 Samuel 7:12-16).
What had happened to the covenant and the promises?
Had God now abandoned them? Had their sins been so terrible that
God had finally given up on them? Or were the gods of the Babylonians
stronger than Israel's God? Were they lost forever?
Ezekiel, a young priest who was probably taken into
exile with Jehoiachin in 597, had the difficult task of bringing
God's word to the people through this period of disaster.
His call to prophesy came in 593, the fifth year of
Jehoiachin's captivity. The last date mentioned in the Book of
Ezekiel is 571, 16 years after the second group of exiles arrived
in Babylon and 32 years before Cyrus would give them permission
to return to their own land.
The Prophet and His Message
Ezekeiel's experience of God's call is striking for
several reasons. There is a standard pattern for the telling of
these "call" stories: an encounter with God, a commission, an
objection by the prophet-to-be, reassurance and a sign from God
(see, for example, Jeremiah 1:4-10).
Ezekiel wins the prize for encounters with God (see
Ez 1:1-28)! First there is a storm wind, a huge cloud with lightning.
Then four living creatures arrive with four faces and four wings
each, and each has wheels with eyes! Their whirring wings roar
like the roar of mighty waters.
Only after this startling introduction does Ezekiel
become aware of the presence of God. He sees a human-like figure
seated on a throne who gleams like fire. Words fail him in describing
his vision, which reminds him of the splendor of the rainbow.
He retreats into statements of likeness: "Such was the vision
of the likeness of the glory of the Lord" (Ez 1:28).
After this amazing encounter with God, Ezekiel hears
a daunting commission: "Son of Man, I am sending you to the Israelites,
rebels who have rebelled against me....Whether they heed or resist...they
shall know that a prophet has been among them" (2:3, 5). He makes
no objection. Is he too overwhelmed? But God reassures him and
gives him a sign anyway. He is to eat a scroll that says, "Lamentation
and wailing and woe!" (Ez 2:103:3).
Why does Ezekiel experience such a dramatic encounter
with God? He needs to know that God will be with him even in Babylon.
Why does he eat the scroll? A prophet is a messenger of God. Ezekiel
has internalized the message thoroughly.
The message Ezekiel ingests is "lamentation and wailing
and woe." God has not been defeated by the Babylonian gods, but
rather has been deeply offended by the idolatry and injustice
of the people. As a consequence they will be driven from their
The people still in Judah cannot remain complacent
in their guilt. The people already in exile cannot expect to return
any time soon. The vision of the four living creatures returns,
this time with devastating news: God is leaving Jerusalem. The
glory of God, riding upon the living creatures (the "cherubim")
leaves the temple and takes up a stand on the Mount of Olives
(Ez 811). Now Ezekiel knows for certain that the city is
doomed. God has left it to the terrors of the Babylonians and
will go with the people into exile.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Ezekiel delivers his message not only in word and
story, but in a series of symbolic actions. He lies on his side
for many days with an iron griddle set up in front of him and
eats repulsive food to represent the siege of Jerusalem (Ez 4).
He scatters his shorn hair to show how the people will be scattered
(Ez 5). He acts out the packing and departure from the city (Ez
12). He has become the message that he ate. What must his neighbors
After a series of oracles against the other nations
(Ez 2532), the book returns to the central story with the
news that a fugitive from Jerusalem had arrived in Babylon reporting
the fall of the city (33:21). From this point on, the message
of the prophet turns to encouragement.
The people are in exile through their own fault; it
is for their own sins that they suffer (Ez 18, Ez 33). But God
has not abandoned them forever. God, the good shepherd, will lead
the flock back to their own land (Ez 34). God will reunite the
tribes of north and south and make them one people with a descendent
of David to rule them (27:15-28). Even though they think they
are dry bones, God will again breathe life into them (37:1-14).
Once more the four living creatures return, now bearing
a message of hope. God will return to Jerusalem and live there
with the people forever (43:1-9). So Ezekiel describes in great
detail how the new temple should be built and who may enter it
Flowing from the Temple will be the river of life
that makes the waters of the Dead Sea fresh (47:1-12). On the
banks of this wonderful stream will grow trees whose fruit will
serve for food and whose leaves will be medicine. There will not
be just one tree of life growing in Eden, but life-giving trees
all along the banks of the river. Exile in Babylon is dreadful,
but a great future still awaits God's people. Ezekiel's final
word of hope is this: "The name of the City shall henceforth be
'The Lord is here'" (48:35).
The Book of Ezekiel Through the Centuries
As one can imagine, the Book of Ezekiel has not been
easy for the believing community to accept and interpret. The
bizarre imagery of the four living creatures and the strange actions
of the prophet himself have led to all sorts of speculation ranging
from the suspicion that Ezekiel was on drugs to a suggestion that
he had seen visitors from another planet.
Some of the Jewish rabbis were afraid that unstable
people might attempt to recreate the prophet's mystical visions
for themselves. Indeed a merkabah (chariot) spirituality
based on the opening vision did arise around the 14th century
A.D. Kabbalah mysticism is also rooted in this vision. The Talmud
even prohibits the reading of Chapter One in the synagogue although
it was later allowed for the first day of the Jewish feast of
Contradictions between Ezekiel's interpretation of
the law and the Pentateuch also caused much debate. Hananiah ben
Hezekiah stayed up nights, burning 300 jars of oil for light,
trying to reconcile the contradictions. A rabbinic regulation
stated that no one under 30 years of age could read the book and
that it should not be read without a teacher.
Some of Ezekiel's images are found in the New Testament:
God as the good shepherd (John 10) and God's people as the vine
(John 15). But it is the Book of Revelation that borrows most
heavily, with its vision of Christ (Rev 1:12-16), Gog and Magog
(Rev 20:8), the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:2, 10-21) and the river
of life (Rev 22:1-2).
Only a few early Christian writers took up the Book
of Ezekiel: Origen, Jerome and Gregory the Great. Most other discussions
clustered around only two passages. The dry bones passage (37:1-14)
was interpreted as a symbol for Christ's resurrection and of the
resurrection of the righteous at the end of time. In the fourth
century this was one of the readings for the celebration of Easter.
In today's lectionary a few verses of this passage are read along
with the story of the raising of Lazarus on the Fifth Sunday of
Lent, Year A. The great river (47:1-12) was seen as a symbol of
baptism and is still used today in baptismal liturgies.
The Book of Ezekiel Today
So what should we make of this strange book? How can
we understand it? First, it is helpful to read Ezekiel in conjunction
with two other biblical stories: the exodus from Egypt and the
tales of the prophets Elijah and Elisha.
The situation of the exiles in Ezekiel's time is similar
to that of the people enslaved in Egypt. They are in a foreign
land. God seems distant. They need a dramatic message of hope.
Moses tells them with plague after plague that "thus
you will know that this is the Lord" (for example, Ex 7:17; 8:18).
Ezekiel supports his vivid message with the same assurance. "The
trees of the field shall bear their fruits, and the land its crops,
and they shall dwell securely on their own soil. Thus they shall
know that I am the LORD, when I break the bonds of their yoke
and free them from the power of those who enslaved them"
The prophets Elijah and Elisha stand at the beginning
of Israel's prophetic tradition. Sometimes their actions seem
bizarre. Images of chariots, the whirlwind and possession by the
spirit of God fill their stories. They continue to declare to
the people, "You shall know the Lord" (for example, 1 Kings 18:37).
Ezekiel's ministry is modeled on these two foundational moments
in the history of God's people.
Second, even as we read Ezekiel in the context of
his disastrous times, we must also consider our own moment in
history. Some questions raised by Ezekiel are still pertinent
How complacent are we when unjust economic, political
and religous systems oppress the powerless? Are we willing to
take up the prophetic task, to speak out against injustice? When
disaster comes, where do we find hope that God has come with us,
even into our tragic exile? Most of all, how can we learn to treasure
above all else the wonder of God's presence with us?
Next: Historical Criticism (by Alan Mitchell)