Ezekiel blog: End of Nations

At long last, Ezekiel has brought us to the end of his vision of the Nations. It is a lament, in Ezekiel chapter 32, much like his other laments. Yet, this one seems a bit dry, almost hollow sounding, like Ezekiel is feeling the effects of having his awareness opened dramatically to the plight of nations and feeling wrung out.

The first half of the chapter reviews in poetic form all the effects of the judgments against Egypt. One of the verses says that the Lord will “…vex the hearts of many people…”  That is an interesting word to use. Vexation, similar to aggravation or affliction. Frustration muddled together with agrievement. I think that must be not only what the people of Egypt and her neighbors were to feel, but the actual emotional state of Ezekiel. His was to see, to suddenly know, to try to warn, but ultimately realize that none of his efforts would avert what was to come.   It is a very bitter pill for a minister to swallow.

As the original story of the book of Judges took us through a role call of nations – soon to feel the affliction of God’s judgment, and as Ezekiel took us through a role call of nations when he began this section of oracles against all the surrounding neighbors of Jerusalem, so he now ends this entire section with another role call of nations. Starting with verse 17, Ezekiel walks us through each nation with a recurring indictment against “…all who had spread terror in the land of the living”.

In each case, the slain are thrown down into the pit.  This is a horrid visualization today with the relative ease of reviewing photographic records from Nazi concentration camps, or historical records of the treatment of North American native americans. Yet to the people of those lands to whom this was addressed, the imagery goes a step further as it addresses an undignified journey into the underworld – there to lie with all of the others who had been slain by their own sword.

Last of all is the same cant for Pharaoh – he and all his army.   And this brings to a close any hope that some of the Jews in captivity might be holding a candle for.  Egypt is no longer a major player, and all of those age old religious practices that some of the Jews and their hierarchy might be holding onto have passed into a great pit. There to be buried.

It is the end of this sequence of visions.  The ground has been cleared, the wreckage will be removed.  There wil be a time of sleep and rest for the land of Jerusalem.

So,……?  You know that Ezekiel’s people, his fellow captives, have to be asking themselves the most logical next question.

Now what?  Where do we go from here then?

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Ezekiel blog: Still following the money trail

Trees, trees, trees.   Cedars of Lebannon. Yep that’s a tree too.
This is about Ezekiel chapter 31.

You have to wonder, just a little bit, about Ezekiel’s intention for writing what he wrote.  Here we are, smack in the middle of a series of oracles about Egypt. However, Ezekiel is sitting in the middle of a desert, under armed guard. Egypt, the subject of his exposition, is over 1000 miles away.  Do you really think that Ezekiel had any expectation that a copy of his newly written prophecy would be instantly carried by Babylonian royal courier across said desert, over the ocean, up the Nile delta and delivered into the eagerly waiting hands of Pharaoh in middle of a massive military campaign?  In other words, is the object of this group of chapters to teach Egypt a lesson, or to convey a lesson to the listeners that Ezekiel had sitting with him right there, under occupation, in the middle of the Babylonian desert?   I think it is the latter case.

As I mentioned in earlier chapters, it is important to consider the economic ecosystem of the entire region when reading Ezekiel’s work.  For that matter, it is also a good practice to keep in mind general geography and topography as well.  They are all connected.  But from a purely financial point of view, there is a very strong reference to the Phoenician trading empire here in Ezekiel chapter 31.  It comes in the image of a tree.

This tree is referred to as “one of the Cedars of Lebanon”.  Lebanon is one and the same as Tyre – the great financial trading nation of the Eastern Mediterranean, of which Israel was a primary trading partner.  Babylon had a goal of taking over that trading federation – I’m not sure empire is the correct word.  The most efficient way to move an army into position to attack the defensive positions of the participants of that trading federation, was to move them along well known water ways rather than trudging across 900 miles of desert.  So up the rivers they went which brought them to the gates of the Assyrian empire to the north of both Tyre and Israel.  It’s not long before their influence is neutralized and Babylon moves south – first to Jerusalem and then to Tyre.

Why is this relevant?  It’s because Assyria was that tree of Lebanon whose roots were fed by the waters of that alliance.  That is the imagery used by Ezekiel to describe its economic power. Animals shelter in its branches, its roots go deep. All very good analogies of expansive economic power which we still use today eg. branch offices, etc.  So Assyria took advantage of sea-bound trade and financed the growth of their empire.  But then they fell hard.

The message to Egypt is that even though you are a strong empire, there is not much difference between you and Assyria. Both of you participated in the same trade with Tyre. Both of you did much to weaken Jerusalem by the introduction of your idol based worship in order to bind Jerusalem to trade agreements (see Ezekiel 16:28 & 23:7).  And, Mr. Pharaoh, when Jerusalem reached out for support, you crumbled under the pressure leaving them vulnerable. So much for contracts as a substitute for real friendships.

So by the time Babylon marched to the borders of Egypt and initiated warfare against Pharaoh, the entire economic ecosystem of the region had been demolished – which inadvertently opened the gates for Alexander the Great to come sweeping in at a later time.

Message to the exiles Israelites then under Ezekiel’s care?   Egypt is not coming to save you.  They physically can not, they geographically can not, they economically can not.  Jerusalem was supposed to be a light on a hill, for all to see, to lead the way. Instead, Jerusalem followed and succumbed to pressure, and turned its back on justice for its own people.

In each of the prophecies. NOTICE that there is no condemnation of the actual trade agreement or the practice of fair trade.  Tyre is compared with being in the Garden of Eden. Assyria is compared with a tall Cedar of Lebanon.

The question goes to Egypt, Which tree of Eden do you resemble?  Because, if I can do this to Tyre, and to Assyria, I can do this to you.

Back to the message to Israel, financial power is not eternal power, financial strength is mercurial and volatile.   Where is your faith? Where is your sense of brotherhood?  Where is your hunger for fairness? Where is your justice for the marginalize parts of your society?

 

Ezekiel blog: broken arms and tough knocks

Finally.  I’ve made it to Ezekiel Chapter 30.  This chapter is proving problematic for me in some respects.   The commentaries keep drawing out implied references to Assyria – the likening of Egypt through imagery in the verses to Assyrian symbolism.  Yep.  We’ll get to that in a minute.

So this prophecy by Ezekiel jumps back to the 10th year, then jumps forward to the eleventh year.  Within this text, there are 4 poetic verse segments of prophetic doom.  As usual, when ever Ezekiel, or any other of the major prophets, lapses into poetic form, there is a high content of emotional conveyance.  We get words like “anguish”, “frighten”, “agony”, “a day of clouds”. Very gloomy stuff.

As an experiment, I grabbed the first line of each of the four sections and strung them together into a single sentence/phrase.  Surprisingly, this provides a fairly accurate summary of the main point of each verse, and the point of the section all together.

Here is what  that looks like:
Wail and Alas,  The allies will fall,  by the hand of Babylon, I will destroy the idols

This entire section up to this point seems more like a detailed impact to the entire ecosystem of Egypt: her allies and outlying cities, if you look at it form an economic point of view. To that point, it is important to remember that Ezekiel was trained in the Temple which was functioning at time both a religious center and as an economic center.  Therefore, it is not that surprising that Ezekiel draws a link between all the components of the Egypt’s empire – willing or otherwise – and the anguish and despair described above.  In fact, in verse 12, God declares that he will dry up the Nile (the very life blood of Egyptian economy) and “SELL the land “.  This is a direct fiscal reference smack in the heart of all the military oriented speak of the rest of the verses.  To get real about it all, there are very few reasons why whole armies lace up sandals and march 900 miles across desert terrain. Financial gain is right at the top of the list. And reaction to impending financial upset, even in today’s market, is always described with words like “doom”, “crash”, “hysteria”, “fear”, “anxious”, etc.  My favorite is “..it’s a gloomy forecast for blue chip today…”

Commentaries focus on verse 21 as relating to the historical event of Babylon’s initial defeat of Pharaoh.  However,  the flow of the verse, as well as the preceding chapter,  suggests an implication along economic lines following the long assault on Tyre.  It doesn’t make sense to say that an arm is broken, and then say God is going to break it again if it is taken as a literal physical asset of Egypt.  The verse does go on to say that the broken arm is not bound up, that it can not be healed so that it can become strong again. That sounds more like a critical resource has been taken away, much like the State Department is the diplomatic arm of the US government as differentiated from the Military arm.

If an arm is broken and can not grow strong, then the relationship once pursued is now beyond repair and can not be rehabilitated via treaty or trade. That would be the state between Egypt and Tyre/Phoenicia.  This would be a stronger candidate rather than the proposed Assyrian connection based on imagery alone (of a great Cypress tree)  as offered by some of the commentaries.  This Egypt/Tyre connection becomes very clear in Ezekiel Chapter 31 as Ezekiel continues his thoughts  So the verse goes on to say that God will break both arms, both good and already broken. How?  The answer is in the preceding verses, earlier in the chapter,  that detail the impact on all the allies and outlying cities of the Egyptian empire.  Pharoah will not be able to draw upon other resource in order to shore up his dwindling influence. And, because Egypt’s economic ties rely heavily on the Nile and the Nile delta, that becomes a bottleneck to him both from a military sense and from that of commerce.

The point to me is that the judgments pronounced against Egypt have everything to do with participating in a system that benefits you, without acting as reliable and trustworthy neighbors.  Jerusalem falls under attack, Tyre does nothing. Tyre falls under attack, no one including Egypt does anything.  Jerusalem calls out to Egypt, but Egypt fails them as well. Egypt falls under attack as “Payment” to Babylon.

All nice and tidy.