Ezekiel blog: Goin’ down singing

(Lynn Ragan’s continuing blog trek through Ezekiel – trying to find some open country.)
Ezekiel Chapter 19

Anyone who is a U2 fan is able to rip out a few lines of ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’.  Anyone who is a Journey fan can instantly place the line ‘Just a small town girl, living in a lonely world’.  Funny how a song can seal an event, feeling, or situation into the living memory of a cross-section of people.

At last I’ve come to chapter 19 of the Book of Ezekiel, a prophet writing about the fall of his own people. Chapter 19 is a lament and the prophet is instructed to use it as such. A lament, in its most basic form is a poem, a poem that can be used as a chant.  And this chant holds a special place here.

I’ve noticed along the way, that most of the chapters begin with something about the Elders of Israel sitting before me, etc. etc. In other words, the high mucky mucks get to hear the divine pronouncements.  But a chant is something very different. Like a song, it spreads out among the people. So it has to tell a story or capture the emotion. It has to speak to the moment in the life of a person or group.  That is what this chant does.

It simplifies the whole narrative down to about three key elements, which are:
1. The first prince focused on world acclaim and fell victim to Egypt as a just punishment
2. The second prince focused on world acclaim and fell victim to Babylon as a just punishment
3. The source of Israel’s noble lineage is now planted in the middle of a desert and is withering in the heat without water. No chance of royalty coming from that line again.

This is blues if you’ve ever heard blues.  It is sorrow, it is recognition of how bad things became. It is the story of “why we are here, sitting in the middle of this desert”.

Framing prophecy in the form of a song or chant is nothing new. In fact, it was quite common for prophets of old to deliver their entire oracles in song or chant.  This is so well documented that the role of prophets and wandering singers were often interchangeable. For extensive detail on this, please read Weber’s “Sacred Bridge” ….and incredibly detailed analysis of musical development stemming from pre-Babylonian Jewish temple practices.

What’s my point?  I always take note when a prophet specifically breaks into poetry when they have been moving along with basic prose.  It usually means that they are trying to connect with the human element, the emotional element. And not just the prophet, but that God is trying to communicated directly with the heart instead of through the mind alone. And in this regard, we see that God is not ecstatic about the turn of events, or the decision point of judgment that He must now enact.  We are to recognize that there is no joy here, and therefore, the call is to lament, to regret, to give voice to the sorrow.

Even at this point, where destruction is becoming more imminent, a way is provided to begin the path of repentance. The first step of repentance is to acknowledge, to speak the truth about what has been done that is contrary to the way of the Spirit.  What better way, than with a song or a chant.

And this brings us to the end of this entire segment of Ezekiel’s ministry.  He is about to launch into a whole new series that takes us on a different along different themes.  Thanks for sticking with this.

Ezekiel Blog: Being bad

Lynn Ragan’s continuing blog/exploration of Ezekiel – searching for some fresh clean air on this. This time out I’m coming back for a second pass through Ezekiel Chapter 18. But first, have you ever noticed how little time Jesus spends discussing SIN as quoted in the Gospels. In fact, Jesus doesn’t ever use the phrase “…thou shalt not…”, except during his fast in the desert eg. “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord…” which he quotes from the Pentateuch. He does speak critically, as quoted, about various social practices throughout Jerusalem that were common at the time. But all in all, his actions usually flew in the face of those who were schooled in the common thou-shalt-not approach to life.

I find this interesting since so many divisions of Christianity seem to spend most of their time focused on Sin. Sin and Law. Which brings me back to our guy Ezekiel who is sitting in the middle of the Persian desert trying to interpret a series of visions and oracles received from God during the exile of Israel. As I mentioned in my last blog entry on chapter 18, Ezekiel is taking time to address some general concepts of sin. It is very important to observe that he was approaching this from the standpoint of Personal Responsibility. That is key. But as I mentioned last time, there is another dimension to how Ezekiel wrote chapter 18.

Remember, Ezekiel is kind of unique when it comes to prophetic writers. He wasn’t just some guy out in the hills who shows up with some puzzling verses. He was specifically trained as a Priest of the temple. That gave him a very solid foundation in Mosaic law – the “thou shalt not” approach to life. He knew his history. And it is this story of Moses what gave me the idea for the framework of this read-through of the book of Ezekiel. It seems to me that Ezekiel relates most of what he is writing in some fashion back to Moses.

Like what? you might say. Well here in Chapter 18, Ezekiel is specifically tying in to what we call the Ten Commandments. In the Moses story, there is judgment, there are plagues, there is exile (freedom) from former oppressed homeland, there is covenant, and among other things, there is the giving of law…the Ten Commandments. So it is very revealing to see what bubbles to the top of Ezekiel’s list in terms of what is really really bad instead of merely an infraction of some sub-clause of this rule or that. To me what he is about to give lends to the authentic experience of being exiled and under strange circumstances.

???

When you travel, or when there is an emergency, or stressful circumstances, people tend to strip away all the excess and focus down on absolute essentials. Lets take a look – I’ll show you what I mean.

During the three specific examples of who is guilty of sin and how punishment will be assigned according to personal responsibility, Ezekiel presents us with a very specific list, a complete character profile, in a repeating line by line check-list. So I looked at that in comparison to the Ten Commandments (Everything about Ezekiel relates back to Moses – it was his way of making sense of what was going on at the time. ) If you look closely at his list you begin to see some interesting things. Here we go:

At the top of his list is the worshiping of other Gods, a very common theme throughout most of Ezekiel as the reason for their situation. This ties directly back to Commandment #1 eg. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me. This is followed up with Idols as in the worship of them. Commandment #2 speaks of Idolatry and graven images. If you recall, one of my earlier entry focused on human variations of idolatry and how this is directly called out during the visions of Ezekiel walking through the Temple.

So these two are paired under the category of covenant with God. The question to ask is what have I committed to God – what is my personal agreement?

Up next, Ezekiel skips ahead to commandment #7 -no adultery –  and refers to defiling your neighbor’s wife.  First of all, throughout all of Christian history, and the history of some other prominent religions, for situations of adultery, the woman is always blamed and punished more than the man.  From Ezekiel’s statement here we see that he is condemning the person who actively messes with someone who is in a committed and wedded relationship. That person is the adulterer.  It is harmful to the community, it is harmful to the family being targeted, it causes division to a people on the move who can not afford the wasted energy on internal disputes that can be far reaching as this. Covenant is challenged and therefore a sin.

Now matters turn to property, wealth, power and money.  Ezekiel starts with Commandment #8 by describing people who use blackmail to oppress, people who steel what is not theirs.  He has included elements of extortion, deceit, as well as outright theft in his concept of steeling.  All of these stem from the root of coveting something that someone else has. It’s not good for the community.

However, at this point, Ezekiel goes beyond the Ten Commandments and gets into some extended concepts.  I’m talking about leverage here. It’s not that lending (at interest) is particularly bad.  As long as all terms are clearly explained and are equally available, that seems to fall within Ezekiel’s boundaries of acceptable behavior.  What was not good, but considered sinful, was placing burdensome obligations on people – things that could never be worked off, debts that carried from one generation to the next.  In addition, it seemed common to add extra fees and costs – it was called usury then.  This was not good for the community and could cause people to be forced into desperate conditions where choices were limited. In short, because of a loan, a person could end up becoming enslaved, or beaten, or whipped in public disgrace, or forced to sell their children.  All of these practices were common even into the Renaissance era, even in Britain and France, who considered themselves the height of civilization.

If you read further into the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, you will also find condemnation against the Jews remaining in the destroyed Jerusalem for continuing to pursue loans at great interest against families returning from seventy years of captivity. Usury indeed. What is the sin?  Where is their charity, where is the sense of community?  Why were covenants broken by changing the terms of the debt.

Not to be left out, the list of things that a good person does in relation to money, loans, etc is the quality of “Judging Fairly” between parties.  I think this would have much to do in the loan collection aspect.  In Ezekiel’s view, it is incumbent upon the lender to have an attitude of leniency when it comes to unforeseen circumstances that affect payback of obligations.

Making the connection back to Jesus teachings, we find the same themes:  Concern for community, a focus on caring and compassionate neighbors, and a firm line against the money lenders in the temple who placed burdens on the people why they were in the very act of prayer.

These are the things that were at the top of Ezekiel’s list in terms of what the worst sins were that a person could be measured against.  So on the third time through the list of sins, we get these concise two verses Ezekiel 18:16-17

He does not oppress anyone
    or require a pledge for a loan.
He does not commit robbery
    but gives his food to the hungry
    and provides clothing for the naked.
17 He withholds his hand from mistreating the poor
    and takes no interest or profit from them.
He keeps my laws and follows my decrees.

I love that line, “He does not oppress anyone…”

Well now that we are down here towards the end of this entry, and perhaps some have dropped off the reading of this, there is just one other aspect of this that becomes apparent.  This list of behaviors that affect our state of grace does not seem to mention some other areas of life.  There is not one mention of what a person eats or drinks, no mention of daily scripture reading or not, no mention of weekly attendance at this synagogue or that.  There is no mention of lifestyles or socio-economic status indicators to stratify the population into the holy elite and the poor sinful rabble (the rest of us).

From my point of view, I see that contemplating my relationship with my creator in terms that I can understand and committing to sticking with that is my covenant. That approach should carry over into how I look at my neighbors – all my neighbors – where ever I might find them throughout life.

As for all the rest of the so-called rules that are wrung from the shreds of half verses of scriptures here and there, I’ll leave that up to the people who need a box to put God into, the people who seem to need to live in the thou-shalt-not framework, rather than the Blessed-are-those framework.

If I’m hanging close to the words of a prophet who has had over two years of continuous visionary experience at this point in the book of Ezekiel, and if much of that narrative aligns with the narrative of Moses, and if the overall moral of the story syncs up with much of what Jesus specifically addressed as quoted in the Gospels, then I can’t be that far into the rough, at least for the time being.

Blessings and thanks for hanging through this very long exploration of Chapter 18.

Ezekiel Blog: Um, Ok, here we go….justice

So, Ezekiel Chapter 18.  Yep, um…I think will have to break this into two separate posts.  There are some real attention grabbers in this chapter – once you peal away the over attention to detail.  Ezekiel really wanted this to be crystal clear.  And, it’s that clarity that gives one a feeling of trepidation when you consider the full impact of what he’s saying.  Some folks might find some of this just a bit unsettling.  Today we’re digging into the justice of God.

For those of you who have been following along with this blog, you will recognize the key touch points that link to the original framework I’ve been developing to find my way through this very intriguing book.  If you are just joining me, no need to be alarmed. I’m just trying to find my way into some clear, un-obstructed fresh air, some real open country when reading this book of prophetic writing by Ezekiel.  Yes, I’m also reading a number of commentaries along the way, but I keep finding them running into dead-ends and unconvincing explanations of how various verses relate to a scattering of historic events.  Much of it is theoretical and in many cases, the commentators just throw their hands up, give a Reader’s Digest summary of what was literally written in the paragraph and just move on. I’ve even heard it said that Ezekiel is closed book, that Christians just aren’t meant to understand it.

I disagree.  The very nature of prophecy is to give illumination, to bring a clearer picture of what God sees in a particular situation.  Ezekiel wanted like everything for the reader to understand, clearly, and he wanted the reader to have no doubt as to his conviction about what he is writing.

So to tackle Ezekiel chapter 18, there are two separate things that really need consideration. Today I’ll tackle the first, ….warning: it’s a biggee.   The chapter is titled “The one who sins will die”.

Seems intuitive enough, you say. So do I. Ezekiel takes on a very specific cycle of circumstances in the form of example 1, then example 2, then example 3.  Ezekiel is about to use these to help us understand the Lord’s outrage over a commonly quoted proverb about sour grapes and how that effect is passed on to the next generation.

We are about to be given prophetic insight, clarity into how God sees justice.

Exhibit 1 starts with a person who by all appearances is a perfect saint – never does anything wrong.  This guy gets saved. He will live we are to understand.  But, what about his son?

Exhibit 2 is the son, the guy who breaks all the rules. He sins and sins heavy despite his father’s teaching.  He will not be saved. God says that this person will surely die for his sins.

Now for the wrinkle:

Exhibit 3 is the son of the bad guy we were just reading about.  What if, says Ezekiel. What if, what if this man turns out to be good, despite his evil father. What then?

According to the common proverb, this very good hearted child should expect to also feel the wrath of God, to feel God’s judgment, condemnation, and punishment.  In fact, we see this all around us today when something bad happens to a given demographic, it’s not all that uncommon to hear that “those people have had it coming”.   Hurricane Katrina was blamed on the “historical sinfulness” of the city of New Orleans.

Ezekiel writes otherwise though. God is very specifically interested in the actions of the direct person in question. What are their choices, how do their choices reflect their commitments, God is very interested in our commitments and dedication to covenants. His judgment matches the circumstances.  This is justice – even by our limited human standards.

Everybody agreed here.  This is good stuff.  So to recap, You sin, you are the guilty one, not your parents, and not your kids. You, you and me, we are responsible for our own actions and choices. This is agency as is specifically called out in Numbers eg. Choose this day to serve the Lord. Like I said, good stuff.

But.

The corollaries are also true.  If you are responsible only for your own slip-ups, then so was Cain when he killed his brother. This was not traced back to the choices of his father Adam. Therefore, there is no such thing as ‘Original Sin’ as sin can not be transferred from one generation to another. Go back and read this chapter top to bottom again and you will see that this is exactly what Ezekiel is talking about.   In fact, the concept of the fall of man really isn’t a Jewish concept; that was more of a Greek mythology concept that was adopted by the Roman thinkers, and as such, adopted by early church leaders as they focused their organization in Rome.

Going back to our agency and our choices, the other corollary is that it is impossible for a small baby to be a sinner. According to the definition we just received from a prophet of God, sin is a direct result of choices we make, not the choices of our parents.  So give me a break when we talk about all children are sinners and need to be saved. Enough already.

I told you this was some unsettling stuff. But that is the nature of prophecy, to take us to uncomfortable places.

Ok,  time to breath, digest, consider.  It’s a bumpy road – this path of being a disciple and things get murky sometimes.  It’s about what you choose.

What you choose and what you commit to. What is your covenant? What is my covenant? How do I live my life in relation to the people around me and what does that say about my choices? More on this in the next blog.

Come back for the second half of this blog pair about chapter 18.