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The Book of Ezekiel is a book of the Hebrew Bible named after the prophet Ezekiel. The book records a number of visions and prophecies, purportedly proclaimed by Ezekiel during the first stages of the Babylonian exile in the early sixth century B.C.E.
Ezekiel taught that people of Judah must not resist the Babylonian power, but should submit to captivity in obedience to God. He also encouraged his people with the hope that God had not abandoned them, and that they would ultimately be redeemed from captivity by God and ruled again by a king of the Davidic line, the Messiah. He engaged in a number of symbolic acts, often involving severe personal suffering, as a sign concerning God's attitude toward his people and what their response should be. The book also contains several dramatic visions, which have been influential in the development of both Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature, as well as in the Jewish mystical tradition.
Various theories have been set forth regarding the authorship and transmission of Ezekiel, although it is generally agreed that many of the prophecies, visions, and other writings contained in the book originate from the prophet himself.
The Book of Ezekiel was written for the people of the former kingdom of Judah who were living in exile in Babylon. The exile raised important theological and existential questions: Had God abandoned the children of Israel? How could they worship God in a distant land, where the Temple of Jerusalem, so central to their religious life, was no longer available? Was it an act of justice that they be punished for the sins of the their ancestors? What attitude should they take toward the destruction of the Temple, which occurred during the period of Ezekiel's ministry? The Book of Ezekiel speaks to these problems and others.
The book teaches that the exile was indeed a punishment for the collective disobedience of God's people, but it also offers hope, suggesting that the exile will be reversed once the Israelites return to God. Moreover, Ezekiel emphasized (chapter 18) that the "sins of the fathers" will not be visited on the children, and that each person will be judged by God on the basis of his or her own righteousness or sin.
The prophet Jeremiah, whose ministry in Jerusalem overlapped Ezekiel, told the exiles that they should become part of the Babylonian culture and even pray for King Nebuchadnezzar II, who had conquered them. Other prophets speaking in Yahweh's name, both in Jerusalem and in Babylon insisted that the Babylonian power must be resisted. "Do not listen to the words of the prophets who say to you, 'You will not serve the king of Babylon,'" Jeremiah prophesied, "for they are prophesying lies to you" (Jer. 27:14). Ezekiel agreed with Jeremiah, and he also emphasized that the Jews of Babylon must keep their national and religious identity, rather than becoming assimilated into Babylonian culture. His ministry marks the transition from the "Israelite" identity to that of the Jewish people, deprived of the the Temple of Jerusalem yet bound together by their religious culture, more than by their ties to the land of Israel per se. At the same time, as a priest himself, he longed for the Temple's restoration, and indeed predicted that a glorious new one would one day be built, even giving detailed instructions regarding its construction.
The Book of Ezekiel gives few details about Ezekiel's life, but it nevertheless reveals much about him. Ezekiel states that he is a priest, the son of Buzi, and his name means "God will strengthen." He was one of the Israelite exiles, who settled at a place called Tel-aviv, on the banks of the River Chebar, "in the land of the Chaldeans." The modern Israeli city of Tel Aviv is named after this place. He was probably carried away as captive with King Jehoiachin (1:2; 2 Kings 24:14-16) about 590 to 597 B.C.E.
Ezekiel participated viscerally in his prophetic pronouncements through fasts and other mortifications of the flesh. He states that God asked him to "bear the sin of the house of Israel" (Ezek. 4:5). Even his beloved wife was suddenly taken by God, who commanded Ezekiel not to mourn for her, just as the Jews must not mourn destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Ezekiel was also an ecstatic visionary, whose revelations transported him several times to a spiritual realm populated by angelic beings. He is one of the few prophets who reports even having seen God (Ezek. 1:26-28).
The exiled elders of Judah reportedly consulted Ezekiel for guidance, although it is debatable how unified or organized the Jewish community was at this time, and thus whether his prophecies could have had much immediate impact on the wider exilic community. Nevertheless, Ezekiel's teachings certainly became very important in later Jewish life, as well as both Jewish and Christian apocalypticism. The Bible does not report how Ezekiel died, but an apocryhal story in the Lives of the Prophets (not considered authoritative by either Jewish or Christian authorities) reports he was slain by members of one of the tribes of Dan and Gad, who blamed him for cursing them and causing their cattle and children to die.
The first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel preserves a description of Ezekiel's visionary encounter with the Lord who appears to him upon a magnificent chariot composed of four winged "living creatures" each having four faces—"each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle." This vehicle moves by means of unusual beryl-colored wheels which are also described in considerable detail. Following this visionary introduction, the Book of Ezekiel contains three distinct sections.
Like all the Hebrew prophets, Ezekiel's main concern was to bring God's people back into alignment with the principles of monotheism and the commandments of the Torah. He was particularly concerned with this countrymen's lapses into idolatry, which he equated with the sin of fornication. He decried their moral and sexual corruption, the defilement of the Sabbath day, the oppression of the weak, bribery and usury, and the practice of infant sacrifice (Ezek. 20-22).
The Book of Ezekiel's imagery, used to depict the sin of Israel and Judah, is sometimes shocking in its violence:
"I handed her over to her lovers, the Assyrians, for whom she lusted. They stripped her naked, took away her sons and daughters, and killed her with the sword" (Ezek. 23:9-10).
Ultimately, however, Ezekiel's God is not the above-described male chauvinist husband who turns his wife over to a bloodthirsty mob, but a father who chastises his people as a matter of loving discipline:
I will now bring Jacob back from captivity and will have compassion on all the people of Israel… They will forget their shame and all the unfaithfulness they showed toward me… Then they will know that I am the Lord their God, for though I sent them into exile among the nations, I will gather them to their own land, not leaving any behind. I will no longer hide my face from them… (Ezek. 39:25-29).
The Book of Ezekiel follows the line of the prophet Jeremiah in presenting Babylon not as an enemy to be resisted, but as the instrument of God's wrath against Judah on account of her sins. God's people must not attempt to break the yoke of their captivity, but must submit, knowing that only repentance and obedience to God's laws would win their redemption. The book speaks of redemption as involving Israel's liberation from captivity, the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem, and the coming of the Davidic Messiah, who is described in very clear terms:
I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. And I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David a prince among them; I the Lord have spoken it (Ezek 34:23-24).
When these prophecies were composed, it must be recalled, the Davidic line of kings had only very recently been dethroned by the Babylonian power. Indeed, a Davidic king—Zedekiah—still reigned in Jerusalem during the period described by Ezekiel's early prophecies and was living as a blinded captive in Babylon during the period described in the book's later chapters. For Ezekiel and his contemporaries, the idea of a revived Davidic monarchy was not, by any means, a supernatural one.
Even though the nation of Judah is held collectively responsible for its sin, the Book of Ezekiel strongly emphasizes the idea of individual responsibility and rejects the idea of personal punishment for ancestral sin. It rejects the teaching that God punishes the sons for the sins of their fathers for several generations (Deut. 5:9), while upholding the teaching that "children shall not be put to death for their fathers" (Deut. 24:16).
The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him (Ezek 18:19-21).
The book also preserves numerous vehement prophecies against the non-Israelite peoples, such as the inhabitants of Ammon, Edom, Tyre, Sidon, and Egypt (Ezek. 25-32). It also deals with priestly tradition, which Ezekiel had inherited, but could not practice while in exile. Several of the book's prophecies deal with priestly concerns, especially the rebuilding of the Temple, which is described in minute architectural detail. It envisions the liberation of Israel from its Babylonian captivity and the redemption of her people to holy lives under the guidance of priestly teachers (Ezek. 40-47). It concludes with instructions for the division of the land of Israel after the exiles return (Ezek. 48).
The Book of Ezekiel is notable for its vivid descriptions of the prophet's visions and symbolic acts. Indeed, it contains some of the first known examples of apocalyptic literature. The revelation described in the book's first chapter is remarkable in that it describes not only the appearance of majestic angelic beings but even of God Himself:
I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord (Ezek. 1:27-28).
Chapter 4 describes God as commanding the prophet to build a scale model of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and to lie on his side before it for 390 days, to "bear the sin of the house of Israel" (Ezek. 4:5). God commands Ezekiel to eat a scanty diet of bread cooked over a fire fueled with human dung. The prophet objects, on the grounds that to do so would violate his commitment to ritual purity. God then relents, saying, "Very well. I will let you bake your bread over cow manure instead of human excrement" (4:15).
Another vision describes an experience of being spiritually transported to Jerusalem, where Ezekiel witnesses idolatry and pagan worship being practiced in the Temple (Ezek 9-10). This revelation also includes another famous vision of the supernatural vehicle described in chapter 1, with its awe-inspiring angelic riders:
I looked, and I saw beside the cherubim four wheels, one beside each of the cherubim; the wheels sparkled like chrysolite. As for their appearance, the four of them looked alike; each was like a wheel intersecting a wheel… Their entire bodies, including their backs, their hands and their wings, were completely full of eyes, as were their four wheels… (Ezek. 10:9-14).
Later, God instructs Ezekiel to pack his things, blindfold himself, and dig through the wall of his house as a sign pertaining to the future captivity of the remaining citizens of Jerusalem and their king, Zedekiah, who would later be blinded and brought in chains to Babylon (Ezek 12).
The book shockingly reports God caused the sudden death of the prophet's wife.
The word of the Lord came to me: "Son of man, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes. Yet do not lament or weep or shed any tears. Groan quietly; do not mourn for the dead…" So I spoke to the people in the morning, and in the evening my wife died (Ezek. 24:16-18).
The reason for God's seemingly cruel treatment of his prophet is that Ezekiel is to act again as a sign for God's people. As Ezekiel is to refrain from mourning for his wife, so the people are to refrain from mourning for the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. In both cases it is "the sovereign Lord" who brings the destruction.
The most famous vision preserved in the Book of Ezekiel is that of the Valley of Dry Bones. Here the prophet envisions an entire valley of bones reassembling and coming back to life. God explains the vision as being symbolic of Israel's redemption:
These bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, "Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off." …I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel (Ezek. 37:11-12).
Chapters 38 and 39 predict an invasion that will occur after the Jews return to their land, called the Battle of Gog and Magog, in which God directly intervenes to protect Israel from its enemies.
Ezekiel's final vision is a long prophecy concerning the rebuilding of the Temple. It includes a detailed description, including architectural plans, dimensions, building materials, rooms for priests, ritual practices, festivals, priestly traditions, holy days, and the division of the land among the Israelites tribes (Ezek. 40-48).
The Book of Ezekiel was an important influence on post-exile Judaism, in which it played a role in the evolution of the maturing Jewish identity. Jews of the diaspora have often looked to this book for inspiration about how to cope with life outside of Israel and away from its Temple. The book took on renewed immediacy after the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., and the vast majority of Jews again came to live outside of the land of Israel.
Ezekiel also came to be an influential font of Jewish mysticism, centering on the contemplation of Ezekiel's visions of the heavenly chariot. Known as Merkabah mysticism, this speculative spirituality formed an important foundation of the larger corpus of Jewish mysticism known as the Kabbalah. The less mystical Talmudic tradition also contains a wealth of stories, legends, and debates based on Ezekiel's life.
The Book of Ezekiel has also influenced Christian tradition in several ways. In addition to its prophecies concerning the Messiah, Ezekiel was the first prophet to make extensive use of the term "son of man" (ben adam) to refer to his own role. Jesus also used this term to describe himself. The apocalyptic sayings of Jesus also may have been influenced by Ezekiel's visions. Moreover, Ezekiel's vision of the Valley of Dry Bones is sometimes cited as Old Testament support for the Christian doctrine of the resurrection.
The Book of Revelation was strongly influenced by the Book of Ezekiel's apocalypticism. For example, it describes a scene similar to one mentioned by Ezekiel—a vision in which the prophet eats a scroll given to him by a heavenly being (Ezekiel 1; Rev. 10:9). Ezekiel's vision of Gog and Magog is taken up in Revelation 20:8, where it is interpreted as referring to the time after Christ's 1000-year reign is ended and Satan is once again loosed on the earth. Revelation also contains a description of the New Jerusalem and its Temple, both of which themes Ezekiel developed in detail. A major difference between the two is that Ezekiel's Jerusalem and its temple are clearly physical in nature, while John's are usually understood to exist in the heavenly realm only.
In 1924, German biblical scholar Gustav Hölscher questioned the authorship of Ezekiel, challenging the conventional wisdom that the book was written by one person and expresses one train of thought and style. He argued instead that over a thousand of the verses in Ezekiel were added at a later date. Since then, the academic community has been split into a number of different camps over the authorship of the book.
One theory is that Ezekiel's original messages were edited and added to by a later prophetic school that compiled the book as we have it today. A related analysis points out that the writing contained in the Book of Ezekiel often has a three-part form, consisting of an oracle, a narrative continuation, and then a closing oracle. The first two are related in their writing style and are both attributed to Ezekiel himself. The third is attributed to others who were interested in preserving and updating his work.
Nevertheless, many scholars, both of the critical and literalist camps, see much of the book as preserving the words of Ezekiel himself, while admitting that some later additions and redactions may also be present.
All links retrieved December 19, 2016.
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