Ezekiel blog: The end of a crocodile

Ezekiel has moved on. He’s over Tyre. Now he’s following the money trail down to Egypt – an admittedly touchy subject for the leadership of Jerusalem.  It’s important to keep in mind that these sections on Egypt are not in chronilogical order.

There’s a lot of content here, “lotta history” as they say. So Ezekiel has to break this up into sections, much like he had to do with Tyre/Phoenicia. Seven sections to be exact.  There were six prophetic sections against six other nations leading up to this point, so Egypt becomes the seventh – finishing the cycle, and as noted earlier, seven chapters are dedicated to this purpose.  It is well documented that the number seven represented perfection in Hebrew writing.  So we can infer from this that this completes a Perfect cycle of judgements by God.

There are many reasons given in Ezekiel chapter 29 as to why Ezekiel is the object of judgement. In fact, this chapter reads as a general summary of all the other chapters dealing with Egypt.  We have two different accusations about Pharoah, we have promises of invasion by Babylon, 40 years of tribulation, the scattering of Egypt, and the general restoration of its people.  It’s a whole smorgassbord of of topics.

Is this just an old grudge against Egypt resurfacing in Ezekiel’s writing?  The content we have examined from Ezekiel indicates that he was reinterpreting Israel’s past to understand current events and more importantly, look to the future. Ezekiel’s purpose here is to show how Egypt is linked to the decision structure that led to the current state of captivity for the people of Israel.  This will become more clear in Ezekiel chapter 31,  however there are some clues in this first chapter.  More on this later.

Pharoah is compared with a dragon, or water monster, of which almost all commentaries relate to the crocodile which inhabits the Nile river.  An appropos analogy.  But, basically verses 4-5 give us the impression that God is about to make Pharoah a “fish out of water”, hooked and then discarded in a field in the wilderness.  What is important here is the reference to all the “little fish” that will be drawn up with the big fish,…little fish attached to the scales of the Dragon.  That same kind of reference is used by police to decribe nefarious activity, being willing to make deals with the little fish in order to catch the big fish.  So, who could these little fish be?

As in crime, it is the kind of People Who Enable the larger culprit to succeed, and at the same time profit along the way.  For Pharoah, it probably was the high priests, the financial brokers, the politicians and diplomats on the take, etc.  It’s the same type of human behavior that leaves us modern type people feeling – well, just as betrayed as Pharoah.  And once again, it is the people who suffer and have to be redeemed.

Verse six gives us a clue that ties this section of prophecy together with the previous oracles against Tyre.  Here, Egypt is compared to a “Staff of Reed” for Israel.   In other words, an unreliable tool that looks like it would do the job, but ultimately crumbles or collapses under pressure.  Why would Egypt need a reliable tool in the case of Egypt?   This will be covered later during the exploration of Ezekiel chapter 31.  But, the relationship between Jerusalem and Tyre are key to understanding this verse.

Again, there is the usual condemnation of the over self-congratulatory statements of the rulers of Egypt – comparing themselves to a God, and worse, claiming to have made the Nile.  It is to this that God declares that a sword is coming for Egypt, a sword that is the special tool of God. To say it differently, the fall of Egypt’s current leadership is an ordained event by God.

Now, as mentioned before, these chapters are not in chronological order.   Verse 17, is literally 17 years later than verse 1.   Seventeen years of effort by Babylon to bring Jerusalem and Tyre under control.  As a reward for the effort, Babylon’s army’s will revel in the plunder of Egypt.  So, after failing to bring down Tyre, the war weary army turns its attention to Egypt and will succeed, indicating that Egypt was not so very strong from a military point of view; a Staff of reed indeed.

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Ezekiel blog: The lonely Cherub

This winds up the trilogy of chapters dedicated to the fall of the nation-state of Tyre/Sidon, what we know as Phoenicia, as described by the prophet Ezekiel in chapter 28.  The people of who make all the best purple cloth in the world, and who have the greatest trading empire that everybody is just dying to be part of is about to come under serious attack.  Ezekiel has spent the last two chapters talking about the “waves” of destruction coming, washing against Tyre’s defenses and wearing them down slowly like waves against the stone of a beachhead.  He has also talked about the lonely state they will endure because all of their friendly relations abandon them to the onslaught of invading armies.   We also see, from looking through Ezekiel’s poetic laments, as well as through the chronologies of King David and Solomon, that there was more to the relationship between Israel/Judah and Tyre than meets the eye.

With Ezekiel chapter 28, we get a summation of WHY these things happened, explained out to the people of Jerusalem held in captivity out in the deserts of Babylon. Why should they care what is happening out on the coast?  Why is this significant? 

At the heart of the problem is the very close relationship between the two governments of Jerusalem and Tyre.  Ezekiel defines this to his people in a very poetic way that takes us all the way back to the Exodus story all over again – as I’ve been exploring through this entire process.  He describes Phoenicia as a “Cherub” ordained by God for the protection of Israel/Judah.  A cherub!?  Did you know that every other biblical reference to Cherubs indicates that they ALWAYS come in pairs.  Of specifc note were the two cherubs mounted on the Ark of the Covenant lid, the throne from which God would speak.  Here, Tyre is compared to one of those angelic guards protecting the Throne of God.   

That’s quite a statement.  Many of the commentaries I have studied brush by this as “unclear” what the Hebrew text means.  One commentary was adamant that this could not possibly be referring to a human, but that it ultimately was describing the “anti-christ”.  Ezekiel, never mentions the Christ or Messiah. So I am fairly sure that faced with the anxiety and astonishment of his captive people, end of the world Christian archtypes were the last thing on his agenda.   Rather, he was describing the best of what the Phoenician/Judean interaction was supposed to be…..supposed being the key word.  

Now Ezekiel lets helps us look at what was really going on behind the scenes.  The chapter begins with a voice of scorn and derision about Tyre’s so-called wisdom.  The message is directed specifically at the King of Tyre who declares himself a god.  However – Please NOTE – that right in verse 4 there is a direct financial and economic element to charges leveled at Tyre.  This is one of the messages that Ezekiel needed to communicate to his fellow survivors in captivity.  It wasn’t necessarily bad to be prosperous, that wasn’t what brought the destruction.   It was the Pride that came after the fact that brought the hammer of justice down.  

Today we might call it economic smugness.  This topic has been brought up previously by Ezekiel where he directly condems those who declare themselves blessed and holy just because they are not experiencing the same misfortune and hardships that others may be enduring.  The “I am well off, so God must favor me”  line of false doctrine.  It is false and Ezekiel does not put up with it.   Tyre’s King took it an extra step and declared himself divine which only served to further dig his own grave.  

Notice how there is a line of connection between verses 4-5 and verse 16.  Here is the greatest mention of social injustice.   Phoenicia goes from just being profitable traders, to being smug in their success, to being “filled with violence” in the pursuit of their trade.   This is not as far fetched as it may appear.  Violence has always followed business – it’s called playing hardball in some circles.  In other circles, it’s called exploitation of the weak. We find in both international news sources as well as American domestic news.  From a business perspective, they use the phrase, “what is good for the business” as the only rudder to determine direction.   There is no room for mercy in a statment like that.  

I have personally worked for businesses that portrayed that very smugness and self-satisfaction at their own sense of self-entitlement eg. offering and selling services they are not equiped or staffed to actually render, but betting on being able to get away with it for long enough to generate a profit and then purchase barely minimal tools to justify the service offerings.  This type of policy plays on the desperation and weak position of the employees that must work long nights, weekends and holidays away from their families to make up the difference.  Hysterically, at least one of those companies was known for offering “invocations” at their holiday parties just before opening up the full service bar incidentally stocked with hard liquore.  That is smugness. It’s in business today just as it was in Ezekiel’s time.  

Ezekiel spent time on this because the leadership of Jerusalem had also plunged ahead into some very dangerous territory in the all consuming pursuit of a better business deal.  Consider, in verse 14 Ezekiel says that Tyre was “blameless in your ways”  and as a result they walked on the Holy mountain of God.  That is the term used to refer to the Temple Mount.  And, to dwell among the firey stones meant they were right there where the sacrficial rites were performed.  This makes sense, as foreigners and visitors were allowed to present offerings, by proxy if nothing else. And this would have appeased the local Theocratic heirarchy – the foreign partners seeking God’s blessing and approval on business ventures, etc. 

But think for a moment about how long standing business relationships work.  Over time, there is always a refreshing of the deal process.  In many instances, the host party feels the need to sweeten the pot, or the remote partner feels the need to challenge the status quo in order to “keep everybody honest”.  So, how might Jerusalem have sweetened the deal?  Perhaps by marriage?  There was a queen Jezebel who was from Tyre.  Perhaps by allowing the partners from Tyre certain religious privileges, such as the right to perform their own religions on the very grounds of the Temple mount?  Reviewing Chapter 8 of Ezekiel, we see a pretty graphic portrayal of secret religious practices being performed on the Temple grounds such that God must abandon that place as completely unholy.

Wait a minute, you say.  Ezekiel just refered to  Phoenicia as blameless in their ways. Here we see true justice from God’s point of view.  The people of Tyre had never been presented with the Law, the Torah, so how could they be held accountable for the dictates of that law? Just ass Jesus did not condemn the Roman Centurian even though he was not a Jew, Ezekiel does not condemn a Phoenician for being a Phoenian. As long as they were focused on the good of their own people, though they were of a different belief, they were described as “Blameless” by a major prophet of the Bible, one who is absolutely beyond reproach.  

The lesson here for Ezekiel’s people in captivity isn’t that those people in Tyre were bad because they were different and of a different faith.  Instead, it is about the prioritizing of profit, of elevating the business deal, into the purvue of the Temple.  They had made the placed dedicated as a house of prayer for all people (Isaiah) into a bargen chip for future economic enterprise and in doing so had marginalized the vulnerable elements of their own people. 

It is to this very point that Jeremiah pronounced condemnation on the Temple. It is also this very same point that Jesus focused his condemnation of Temple business practices when he decried them as having “made it a house of thieves.”  

Is it really worth it to ignore the principles of social justice, charity, mercy, compassion, prayer, repentence and forgiveness for the sake of obtaining an economic advantage?  Is it realistic, given the repeated history of destruction of God’s own Temple, to make the church a focus of business enterprise?  Where is the balance between maintaining a financial partnership and forsaking principles of business ethics?

It is for these questions that Ezekiel included this mini-triology about a foreign power in his detailing of the judgments against Jerusalem.  It had everything to do with God choosing to abandon the Temple, and thereby withdrawing favor and protection. It no longer served his purposes. It was just another board room, a place where the bottom line was Lord and Master.