Ezekiel blog 64: Prose of fidelity

In Ezekiel chapter 44, Ezekiel is told to “…look carefully, listen closely, and give attention….”  where the entrances of the Temple are specifically mentioned.  It’s an odd place to start this chapter, but touches on a theme of this whole second section of Ezekiel’s vision.  That theme is fairness, equality, and justice.  Notice the very first 3 verses speak about the rule which seals the East gate shut at all times, and then notes the one exception in the case of the Prince.  This exception is called out several times in the surrounding chapters.  There are specific rules about this exception meaning that the Prince is not above the law either, which is justice.

In verse 4, Ezekiel shares with us that he finally gets to see the Temple filled with the Glory of the Lord and he falls to the ground. You can only imagine how overcoming it is for Ezekiel to finally see the completion of his vision, to see that place become truly holy.  It is a pure place, an undefiled place of prayer, offering and sacrifice.  And it is in this that we gain clues as to what the next several verses are about.

Ezekiel is called to pay attention to the entrance to the Temple and all of the exits. Recall that in earlier chapters we were given exact measurements and specifications for these doors and that Ezekiel was taken to each gate to verify that each gate was the same.

Why?  What does that say?

As mentioned earlier, it is a theme of fairness. There is no special door. There is no gate that is higher and bigger than another, which means that there isn’t a gate for the privileged and another gate for the not-so-privileged.  There is equal access to the priests and alter of offering.  The exception is the Prince who is given permission to pray from the East gate. But, that being said, the Prince is to enter by either the North gate or South Gate – just like every one else. Additionally, the Prince has specific offerings which are required. In other words, Royalty is not allowed to come in with a boat load of offerings, large and conspicuous, and thereby shame the poor pilgrims bringing their humble offerings as they can afford.

In Ezekiel’s view, fairness and justice are essential elements of purity and holiness.  Now, in verse 7 and 8 we get a direct, no exceptions, diagnosis of what went wrong with the first temple.  “.. In addition to all your other detestable practices, you brought foreigners uncircumcised in heart and flesh into my sanctuary, desecrating my temple while you offered me food, fat and blood, and you broke my covenant. Instead of carrying out your duty in regard to my holy things, you put others in charge of my sanctuary.” 

Stop. Hold it right there. This is one of the most misinterpreted sentiments expressed in prophetic writing. This is not, not, an endorsement of racial purity as a measurement of religious faithfulness. Yet human nature sadly seems to carry people to this conclusion over and over again.  In Ezekiel’s case, he defines foreigners as people who are uncirmcumcised in heart and flesh.  Notice that Ezekiel places ‘heart’ above flesh.

He also defines the act of desecration for us with the line, “…you put others in charge of my sanctuary.”  That’s right, as discussed in earlier chapters, the leadership of the Temple, outsourced the very ministry of the temple. Contracted ministry, rather than the purity of service from the heart. When they did this, they placed the practice of worship on a lower priority than the practice of management.  This opened the door to the deals and contracts that allowed other religions (idol worship) to seep into the hallways and chambers of the original temple. That practice of sidelining sacred duty of enabling offering, sacrifice and prayer of the people is the desecration that Ezekiel is describing.

So this has nothing to do with purity of race – not at all.  It is a pity that the Israelites returning to the demolished city of Jerusalem after 70 years fell back to the base human nature and excluded other peoples  from participating in the reconstruction of the temple as described in Ezra chapter 4.  I write a criticism of human weakness, a decision made by those specific individuals to say, “No, this is only for us.”  Sadly, this mantra is oft repeated in our contemporary society – exclusion comes too easy to us.

Ezekiel foresaw this human weakness and gave specific instruction in Verse 9. This puts to rest any notion that Ezekiel was advocating anything other than faith and purity of heart – not racial or national exclusion.  He reiterates that the laws of faithfulness apply equally to everyone,….including “…the foreigners who live among the Israelites.”  Ezekiel’s vision of a place as holy as the new temple would be a tremendous draw for others seeking their faith.

The temple depicted in this series of Ezekiel’s vision is not to be construed as some kind of end-of-days, millennium temple. That would make the realization of this vision a benefit to people thousands of years in the future, providing little incentive for hope or salve for the immediate needs of his people .  For Ezekiel, this was a vision of a right now Temple – of an achievable dream for his people. It was something to give them hope during their captivity.  Ezekiel’s temple was a place of social justice, a hope for his people enduring an unjust occupation and captivity.

Getting back on track, the remainder of the chapter is used to define the roles and activity of the newly purged priesthood structure. Much of this content reveals a return to simplicity among those responsibilities compared to what was previously described in the Pentateuch.  However, the last major point of this chapter is the reinforcement of the idea that the Levitical priesthood will have no property ownership rights. They are to own nothing of themselves, but live entirely off the offerings of the population.

How does that provide a benefit? Why is that important?  It means that there can be no hierarchy of status based on wealth.  You can’t buy your way into good graces of service, you can’t grant your way into absolution by gifting property. You can’t establish landmarks of ownership and thereby create a sense of importance which could translate into a last legacy.  It prevents the problem of someone having an overriding opinion or viewpoint simply because they are rich and able to “contribute to the cause” more so than someone else.

Ezekiel’s visionary policy prevents another  problem of ministers flashing their accumulated wealth as some kind of validation that they are living correctly, and everyone else is somehow weak in the faith. Ezekiel addressed that decidedly false doctrine back in Ezekiel chapter 11, as discussed in my blog entry: https://inopencountry.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/ezekiel-blog-thats-entitlement-for-ya/

As stated at the beginning, this chapter draws awareness to Ezekiel’s overall insistence on fairness, humanity, humility, social justice and equality.

 

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Ezekiel blog: Dem Bones – seriously – Dem bones

I’ve already touched on Ezekiel chapter 37 in the earlier 4 chapter bundle (chapters 36-39).  Again, there are just a few points I’d like to highlight for this chapter.  First we have to address the obvious reference in the title of this entry. Yes, the famous spiritual song “Dem Bones” was inspired by Ezekiel chapter 37.   (Please see this Wikipedia reference for detail: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dem_Bones ).

This has undoubtedly made this chapter one of the more famous chapters of Ezekiel’s writings.  What is interesting is that as a result of skipping the rest of the entire Book of Ezekiel and jumping to this chapter, some have taken the position that this chapter was intended to justify or validate the Christian theology of Life after Death.  Afterall, the chapter describes dry bones – human remains – being reanimated back to life.

However, this brings me back to one of the fundamental principles of the analysis model I’m using to work through Ezekiel’s writings; it brings me to where the name of this blog actually comes from.  I’m searching for free and open country, a place of thought that isn’t bound by assumptions arising from a pre-fabbed theological approach.  Assuming that this major Prophet, one of the four major prophets, of the Old Testament was concerned with outside or external validation is a critical mistake for any reader of prophetic work.

Ezekiel himself had one, maybe two, purposes for most of what he wrote; to give his people hope while in bondage, and to encourage them to return to their true faith.  This was not an exposition into resurrection theology as that was unknown to the Jews of that time period. It was not part of their religious world.

To presume the scope of this writing pertains to a religion other than that which Ezekiel was most familiar with (his own), would be in err.  For instance, suppose we have a reader of this chapter who believes that anytime winds blow from all four directions at the same time that the beholder is about to receive good fortune.  Then that reader comes across Ezekiel chapter 37 and reads the text about the winds breathing life back into the bones.  That reader could suppose that his personal religious views had just been validated.  A Christian reader would be dubious of that presumption. Even so, Christian readers must be careful not to presume the presence of their own theology.

Therefore, this passage about dry bones nothing to do with Christian theological views on the afterlife.  It has much more to do with justice in the face of persecution, and the eventual restoration of Israel as a unified nation to its sacred ancestral place.

From a ‘return to faith’ perspective this vision reminds the captives in bondage of their origins, the story of Genesis  (something that Priest of the Temple, like Ezekiel, would be trained to teach).  In Genesis, it is the Breath of God, the wind entering the body formed of earth, which brings to life Adam. Similarly, it was the Breath of God, or the wind, which separated the waters of the Red Sea, thereby providing  means of escape to the people of Israel and granting them life.   So Ezekiel draws them back to a remembrance of the power of the Breath of God and how it might pertain to them.

Lets also look at where these bones are….in a valley.  That is a very low place. That is where victorious armies throw the dead and vanquished – it’s not a place of honor. It’s not a battlefield.  These bones are not an army waiting to be returned to life as one commentary stated.   These are the bones of all who have been cast aside, those who have suffered from the injustices of the privileged elite of Jerusalem.  These are the bones of all who were carried far from their homes and find themselves wanderers in a strange land.

Freeing Israel from the bonds of their captivity, the graves into which they have fallen in the distant lands of their exiles is a message of hope to his people, to his fellow captives. It tells them that not only redemption is possible, but that justice is an aspect of God whom they worship. If they would only return to their true faith, then these qualities would reappear in God.  This is entirely consistent with Ezekiel’s overall purpose in writing from the very beginning of his book.

My last note for this chapters is that Ezekiel shows us pure nature of true prophecy: speaking the word of God, telling the mind of God. His examples do not include mystically venturing into forecasting remote events of far distant futures.   Ezekiel’s exact descriptions of his process and of his visions negates most commentaries viewpoints on the following two chapters of Ezekiel 38 & 39. I say ‘negates most commentaries’ because most of the opinions I’ve read have focused on time periods wildly beyond the scope of all of the rest of Ezekiel’s.  Ezekiel’s mission is that of a restorer of faith to a lost people – giving them something to believe in that affects their lives and the lives of their children.

More on this in the next chapter.

 

 

 

 

Ezekiel blog: Vol II – God does not keep score

Ezekiel chapter 33 is about many things. Many people get hung up on the ease of assigning a label to Ezekiel, that of Watchman.  One commentary I read makes that the theme of Ezekiel chapter 33.   If I had to summarize this section down, I’d go with “God is not in the business of keeping score”; more on this later.  As I said before, this chapter has many themes.

In the last blog entry, I stated that the first six verses were about communication and answering the question, “Who is responsible for the state I’m in?”

Moving on to verse 7 and beyond, it would be easy to look at this as simply Ezekiel’s calling being explained – he is the watchman, woe to any and all who do not heed, etc, etc.  However, I read a much more important theme and one that is very relevant to us living our lives in the world.  FAIRNESS.  Fairness is what is happening in this explanation.

Ezekiel is being told, and thus the elders of the Hebrews are being told, that there are no special cases, no instances that what applies to you does not apply to me. Just because a person is a member of the holy elite, does not mean that the same standards are not applied.  It’s clear when Ezekiel writes, “…If I tell you to warn, and you do not, then blood is on your hands”.   God does not play favorites, because God is not a respecter of persons.  This is a difficult concept for humans to get their arms around, but it is a common theme throughout all of Ezekiel’s writings.

We are then presented with an interesting adage making its way around the Israelites living in captivity.  Ezekiel records it like this, “Our offenses and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of  them. How then can we live?”  Elements of depression and self pity are laced through this, but also a hint of disavowal or abandonment of future responsibility.  Almost a resignation of what is as a permanent condition.

But the question, How can we live?  still remains.  And here we come across one of the rarely mentioned gems of the Old Testament, or Biblical scripture as a whole.  God tells Ezekiel something significant: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.”

So firstly, Ezekiel’s insight into the nature of God is that God is not sitting around with a scratch pad gleefully counting up transgressions and just waiting to pull the trigger on furious judgments and penalties.  Instead, God is expecting that people make choices, and continue to choose. God is hoping that people look at their lives and choose a path that leads towards a pattern of living that is consistent with the themes of justice, of fairness, of mercy, of faith.

Secondly, this is an absolutely unmistakable marker for free will and expression of free conscience, that rejects the notion that God is looking for a flock of minions that blindly do His bidding without question nor understanding.  In fact, Ezekiel phrases this as a plea from God’s own mouth asking the question, “Why will you die?…”  This is choice and nothing other than choice.  Ezekiel calls his people to examine their ways for what they are.   Reflect, examine, weigh, discern, judge, and then turn, make a change for the better,… and live. Are we not offered the same expectation, the same opportunity for expression of will, the same portent of our choices?

It is the same for each one, and that is Justice.

The final two points of this section of Ezekiel 33 come back to the idea that God is not an accountant of misdeeds but instead is a God of Justice and Fairness.  For the first point, it is important to keep in mind that God has His own ideas of what is just. The same goes for what is fair.

If we look at verse 12,  at first blush this seems to be a bewildering formula that borders on unfair, especially to those who view scripture as a line-by-line codex of laws and better-does. How can this be fair?  Someone who does good their entire life, and then makes one slip-up and they are condemned?  Oh, and someone spends an entire life living the high-life without regard to anyone else and then gets a free pass just because they turn over a new leaf at the very end?  That’s not right.  (This is also the specific root of the Last Rites, incantation – an attempt to wedge someone into heaven on the last open seat ticket).    Whaaaatt!!?

But that is not what Ezekiel is trying to convey because, it would imply that God is a score keeper, a craggy accountant sitting somewhere up in heaven with a clipboard making little checkmarks for every little action we do. Instead, Ezekiel is trying to point his people towards a state of living, a condition of community, where choices make a difference, and the value of another soul matters, a place where everyone has a stake in the balance of good and evil. Notice the examples that Ezekiel trots out to demonstrate a turning from bad choices:  the returning of unfair collateral for a loan, the return of stolen property of funds are the top two on his list. Fairness.

This mental/spiritual framework leads us to a conclusion that it is a state of living that God is trying to elevate his people, all of his creation for that matter, towards.  This is what Ezekiel refers to as “the decrees of life”.   In this sense, then, if you are living in the good way, and deviate away, then you detach from that state of holiness, that flow of the decrees of life, and are now on a path away from life as described earlier.  If you are not living in a good way, and turn, then you attach to that state of holiness, that flow of the decrees of life and are now on a path towards life as described earlier.  In this framework, it is all fairness as it applies equally to all people as God sees them.

And as for Justice?  Well, this is God’s own complaint.  As Ezekiel informs us, the Hebrew people that are in Babylonian captivity seem prone to expressing their frustration in the form of blame: God is not Just.   Verses 17 -20 are God’s rebuttal against that charge and a very direct explanation of the process of judgment from on high. It ends with a promise that God will indeed reserve judgment to Himself, and that He will keep on judging in His own Just way, ….according to our own actions.

So in the end, it comes down to our choices, our agency, our sense of living in a good way.  Who is responsible for my situation?  I guess I am.

We’ll finish up with Chapter 33 next time.  Lots of stuff in here, but it’s all good. Hang in there.

Ezekiel blog: Purple trilogy part II

Ezekiel 27:  “For what it’s worth”….

Imagine that you grow vegetables and have a produce stand.  You are producing more vegetable stock than you can sell.  What’s more, your gardens are more than slightly vulnerable to the neighbors who like to run their ATV’s through your fields on occassion.  You think you could really make a lot more money than you are pulling in right now because of your abundant produce.  What do you do?

I asked this question to a friend of mine who specializes in business to business consulting.  After a few moments of consideration, he said the strategy mostly likely to be successful was to find a partner to help expand your markets. BINGO!!! It turns out that is exactly what Israel and Judah, and specifically the rulers of Jerusalem had done.

They found a partner, a business partner, in the form of Tyre who we recognize today as the Phoenicians.  There is ample documentation of this business relationship whithin Biblical scripture going all the way back to King David who recieved a shipment of fine wood from Tyre.  Solomon continued the relationship.  We have documentation of Queen Jezebel who was a daughter of Phoenician royalty married to a Prince of Jerusalem.

There is not a lot of detail about the specifics of the Trade Agreement between Jerusalem and Tyre.  Historians make note of the access to Hebrew markets(Note 1 below)  for Tyre’s trade goods as a result of the partnership. This is where Ezekiel steps in (Ezekiel chapter 27) to provide some valuable insight and it is from there that we begin to learn exactly why Ezekiel is mentioning Tyre at all in his writings. It turns out that the situation is more significant that would appear on the surface.  But first, back to our vegetable stand….

I asked my friend, the business to business consultant, how would one go about finding a partner and establishing the partnership? The answer was, “Raise Capital”, capital to attract investors, capital to finance expansion, capital as collateral against investment risk.  Hmmm.  So Tyre, at the time had the greatest trading network in that part of the world.   Ezekiel chapter 27 gives an extensive list of the kind of trade volume that they handled and an explicit list of trade inventory.  It also mentions the types of goods and products being received from both Judah and Israel VS. 17 “Judah and Israel traded with you; they exchanged wheat from Minnith and confections,[e] honey, olive oil and balm for your wares.”

Along with a healthy trade agreement would come responsibility on the part of both parties to safeguard and protect the investment while goods were in route and payment was being collected and banked upon.  From Jerusalem’s point of view, this would require yet more capital and a commit of military presence for security.

So, it should be striking as more and more apparent that “raising capital” in Bronze Age times (as much as at any point in history) by a ruling aristocracy would come in the form of raising taxes or increasing the burden carried by its people.  Perhaps longer work was required. Perhaps a higher amount of product was required by the state leaving less for the actual population. Perhaps less services were spared for the people of Israel and Judah by their own princes in order to finance and maintain this lucrative trade agreement.  The important thing to meditate upon, here in Ezekiel’s lament, is what it means to raise capital to a landlocked, desert bound country.  What does raising capital mean to a corporation today? How far should one go? When is enough, enough?

In all of these speculative perhap’s, it would be the children who suffered most.  And this is the point that Ezekiel hammered on the most when condemning the atrocities of the rulers of Jersusalem.  Ezekiel called them out graphically for sacrificing their children, children who may have been deprived of food or adequate policing in the streets, children whose parents had to work longer hours to provide food for the table but remained in poverty, and children who grew to young men and inducted into security forces of the state and stationed with the forces of Tyre.  In any regard it is clear that at least  three prominent kings of Israel had extensive dealings with Tyre, and as there was a royal presence, it is plausible that there was a royal guard as well to protect the royal investment.  Funny how times change, but the governmental/business situations do not.

Ezekiel doesn’t tell us in Chapter 27 too much about Tyre’s actions that deserved punishment – though many commentators focus on the wealth and the nature of the trade.  We know from other narratives that Elijah chastised the married queen Jezebel for polluting the faith of the temple, but more on that in the next blog.  All we get to consider here is that Tyre considered herself “Perfect in beauty” on the high sees – a very popular friend to be had.

Yet at the end of this lament, we see that all of those friends who are mentioned verse 33,  “When your merchandise went out on the seas, you satisfied many nations;…”, they all abandon Tyre to her fate of being invaded over and over again.  Ezekiels states that all the kings “…shudder with horror…” at Tyre’s downfall, but do nothing but hide their faces. No one comes to Tyre’s aid as no one came to Jerusalem’s aid.

It would appear that fair weather friends are easy to find, but hard to keep at your side. Ezekiel writes:

“Who was ever silenced like Tyre, surround by the sea?”

CHICAGO STYLE CITATION

As Footnote/Endnote:
1. Joshua J. Mark, “Tyre,” Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified September 02, 2009, http://www.ancient.eu /Tyre/.

2. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0016_0_15729.html

Ezekiel blog: The story moves forward

Lynn Ragan’s fresh look through writings of Ezekiel.

You know, it’s with more than a little trepidation that I’m launching into this next section of prophetic chapters from Ezekiel. There are several challenging concepts at work here, and some theological as well as spiritual territory that can be intimidating and downright confusing. There are some very significant things going on here, and I’ve been frankly dragging my heels starting this up again until I felt I had made some sense from this. In fact, in order to make any sense out this, I had to update my overall concept map – so to speak. My research took me out of the book of Ezekiel, through several disappointing commentaries, and finally to the Book of Judges – of all places.  But, first things first….

To bring you up to speed, I’ve been framing this exploration so far as Ezekiel working to draw parallel’s between the spiritual state of the people of Israel and the original Exodus story – the Moses narrative – as a way to bring reason to the disillusionment and dismay of the people now carried away to captivity in Babylon.   And now I’ve reached the very challenging set of chapters beginning with Ezekiel chapter 20.   

It’s now 2 years later – two years since the beginning of the first visions in the desert. Firstly, that is significant in itself. Too often people look at the prophetic writings as if they just magically appeared, all in once instance.  But Ezekiel clears that up for us by stating specific dates of his writing. So we can see the development of his thinking as he works hard to come to grips with the visions and oracles he is being given. It’s a good reminder that this was written down by someone who is just as human as you or me.

Now, back to the reference points we need to keep in our back pocket to find the way through these writings. As I said, Ezekiel formed his ministry in terms of the original story of the nations of Israel – as a people led into the desert to receive the law of God eg. The Moses story. So we have, references to plagues and judgements, to visions in the desert, to a view of God not tied to a temple location, etc. Ezekiel is trying to shake the people from their fixation on belief that things will return to what was familiar and at the snap of God’s fingers all will suddenly be well. Not going to happen.

But the leaders of the Jews in captivity – for they are all now in Babylon, have some ideas of their own about how things will be going forward. Ezekiel is faced with themes of stuborness, manipulation, and political control. Yep, two years into this, and he’s faced with an even bigger mountain of work. So, Ezekiel takes the people even further into their national story – it’s the same story that we read about in Judges. Believe me, Ezekiel is just as focused on the same messages faith, accessibility of faith to all, and social justice issues as he’s been all along up to this point.

Ezekiel will use elements from the time of the Judges to throw the expectations of the Elders of Israel back in their faces. He will use repetition of their own words, repetition of earlier themes and images, and best of all some of the role reversals from the beginning of the book. And, at the end of it all, we get an interesting roll call of nations (also a theme from Judges) which ties in with the messages of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel and many others. It’s all great stuff, but can leave the reader a bit out of breath.

My next blog will dive right into Ezekiel and the Judges of Israel. See you soon.

 

 

 

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: 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.

 

Ezekiel Blog: Time for a gardening story

Looking back over the flow of the Book of Ezekiel so far, there has been motion away from the presumed home base of Jerusalem for the children of Israel.  My framework of approach has been to see these observations by Ezekiel through the eyes of one who was trained specifically in the ways and traditions of Moses.  And then we come to Ezekiel chapter 17, where apparently it is now story time:  Two Eagles and a vine.

The reality is that we’re at the end of a 2 year time period in which Ezekiel has been experiencing these visions. With this being the case, we are treated to sort of a summary of conclusions and reiterations of cause and effect.

Getting back to Chapter 17 and our parable, as in the case of every parable, there is always the action, and then the observations about that action; the morale of the story.  Since Ezekiel is a true prophet, there are several points that can be inferred from this story.  As usual, he is speaking at several levels at once.

Chapter 17 is actually broken into 4 distinct sections.
Vs 1-8   The actual Parable complete with study/discussion questions in verses 9 & 10.  Isn’t  that nice?
Vs 12-15 The Explanation, again complete with study/discussion questions
Vs 16-21 Prophecy of what God’s actions will be and what the results from poor choices will yield
Vs. 22-24 Prophecy of the restoration of the purity of Faith

Rather than retell the parable and summarize – which is what all the commentaries seem to do, I thought I’d remark on some interesting connections and conclusions that Ezekiel seems to be spoonfeeding us. As I mentioned earlier, Ezekiel seems to be speaking at several levels. So, in bullet point fashion, here is what I see that Ezekiel is most concerned about:

1. The point that jumps right off the page first is clearly about “Commitment” or the act of breaking a covenant. Covenant is a topic that starts in Genesis and is prominent throughout all the books of Moses, what is also referred to as the Torah. In short, breaking one is not cool. If you are going to break a simple covenant with one person, how will God know that you intend to keep the covenant you make with him in sacred space.

2. Transplanting is a well-known method, even then, for preserving the good core of a plant, while removing it from a bad or unproductive environment. This parable is a way of portraying God as a caring gardener trying to preserve the precious nature of Israel’s faith but clear out all the negative factors. In other words, this entire book of Ezekiel is not just about retribution, judgement and punishment. This is the answer to the question: Why??

3. Babylon – the city of Merchants – is portrayed as a lesser of two evils when compared to Egypt at the time. God’s message to Ezekiel was that, at least during captivity, they would be allowed to return to basics of their faith and renew what was started when Moses led them forth from Egypt. This would not always be so, of course, but God would provide a way forward when faith would eventually be penalized.

4. Ding, Ding, Ding –Spoiler Alert– This very section of Ezekiel must have been what Jesus was referring to when he made the speech about “A house divided” wherein either you serve one master, or you serve the other master. Yet another link between the ministry of Jesus, his very teachings, and the message of the prophets of the Old Testament.

5. A glimmer of hope at the very end – or perhaps a foretelling of the Messiah. After all, a tree grows up, not down. Therefore, a lineage of Kings would be represented as growing up through the generations. The very tippy-tip-top of the tree would be the tenderest, most vulnerable, most recent version of the lineage of kings.

From the perspective of the people of Jerusalem, they were being taken away from everything that was good, everything that they knew. From God’s perspective, He was taking them away from a toxic environment and transplanting them to some clear soil for temporary holding in order to let the plant heal.

Are you being transplanted? Was I? When I thought things were really good, was it really a toxic situation in disguise? Was it not health for my growth, and just maybe God new better? Did I resist, did I fight?

 

Ezekiel blog: Little gems

Ezekiel chapter 16 – final stretch

My wife is a big fan of watching the BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice”.  Over the years of watching that production with her, I’ve also developed an appreciation for period pieces like that story.  One of the things that made watching that mini-series so fascinating was observing how every time we followed the story, my wife would recognize some new gem of insight about the motivation of the characters, or extract some new connection between events.  She would express such excitement about these discoveries and insist that I get it too.   Yes, guys, real men can watch chick-flicks.

What does this have to do with the end of Ezekiel though?   In many ways, verses 35-63 are like reading a very complicated story over and over again.  The same context is repeated eg.  Israel had a bad history, current practices were terrible, and God enacts judgment followed swiftly by punishment.  Ezekiel takes us through this as if he’s trying to be sure that we get the circumstances. No disrespect intended, but he seems to have been very anal that way.

But along the way, we are treated to little bits of gained insight that Ezekiel has prized from the narrative.  Here are some of them that stand out to me:

1. It is because Israel did not remember her humble origins that God brings it all down on her head.  So: remember where you come from.

2. “Hey, you wanted all these lovers and all this attention?  Then I’m not going to step in and stop it when things get totally out of control.  Maybe an overdose will scare you enough.  ”  Yikes, hope I don’t need an intervention like this in my life.

3. God really doesn’t like proverb quoters.   I’m not talking about the book of Proverbs, but those annoying little platitudes that really don’t express any kind of real theology or faith, but are used as pseudo-religious bandaids of the moment.  Proverb-quoters….you know who you are.  Pay attention to this chapter for real.

4. Crimes of Sodom:   Arrogant, over-fed, and unconcerned.  Haughty and unresponsive to the poor and needy.   We all know what happened there.  Uh-huh, ‘nough said.

5. Ok, I know I said ‘nough said, but Sodom only measured up to HALF of how bad Israel was being at this point. That’s HALF as bad, and they got blown off the map.  What were you saying about God’s patience?

6. “Israel ! You broke our covenant! ”   God takes covenants very seriously.  It’s a big deal….and something God will work very hard to create, protect, rebuild, and recreate when necessary.

7. More on covenants, this is the one thing that God believes can actually be healed with Israel.  It’s the one thing in the entire chapter that is discussed in future tense.  God says He “will remember” and He “will establish”.   The object here?!  If he can find hope in such a disaster of a situation, then he can find hope for each one of us.

8. My anger will END. I will turn away my anger and be jealous no longer. When I make atonement for all that you have done…. etc. etc.

Can you imagine what a boost this must have been to Ezekiel who is still sitting out there in the desert wondering what is to become of his people who have been chased from their ancestral home and away from their spiritual center place? To hear that there will be a time when the covenant will be renewed and a time when anger will be turned away. At last some good news and something to hope for.

I’ve heard again and again how the Old Testament seems to be focused on an “Angry” and “Vengeful” God. In this chapter, I see quite the opposite. This story is about a long suffering and patient beyond patient God. He wants to bring His anger to an END. And can anyone doubt what He has in mind for the phrase “atonement for all that you have done”? There is a group within the Christian community who dismiss and ignore the Old Testament because it appears to have little to do with the New Testament message. From my perspective, I find a rich connection between the two collections of written scripture….as did the original believers in the message of Hope.

And now, I am done with Chapter 16. Thanks for hanging in there with me if you are reading along.

 

 

Ezekiel blog: the small matter of four horseman of the Apocalypse…

Before we dive into a section that gets really gloomy, please go back and ready the blog entry before this on the first half of Ezekiel chapter 14. It’s all about hope.

The second half of Ezekiel chapter 14 takes a sudden turn into more ominous territory.  Anyone who has even heard of the Book of Revelations knows about a certain reference to the Dark Horseman.  This image has become so iconic as to almost become archetypal in western thought. In fact, most of us including myself, are too horrified at the thought of these matters that we just avoid sections of scripture like this.

But reading through what Ezekiel has written here sends my thoughts along two different tracks at the same time.  The first is the consistent use of a very important word: “IF”.   The second track is the huge similarity to of imagery to what John wrote in the Book of Revelations – commonly referred to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  The same four dreadful judgments are introduced here in Ezekiel almost a thousand years before Revelations was written. But what does it mean?  And more importantly, what does it mean to you and me trying to figure things out in our lives?

I’m pretty sure I do not possess all the answers, but there are some things that come across.  These judgments come in a certain order for Israel. 1) Hunger and Famine 2) Wild beasts wandering through 3) the sword  4) disease and pestilence otherwise known as plague.  I don’t think this is accidental.  Many commentators think that the wild beasts represent the invading armies wandering unhindered through Israel, going about defiling everything.  This is nothing to God since everything is defiled already by what the people of Jerusalem were already doing. If this is true, then the Hunger and Famine are due to siege conditions with food supplies being “cut off” as is mentioned in verse 13.   The sword falls on those who resist the free movement of the invading “Beasts” in much the same way that any invading army usually makes examples out of the presumed “ring leaders” in every village.  This leaves those who are vulnerable whether by age, or affliction, or injury, or poverty.  These are the ones who have no means to do much more than survive, often having no choice but to exist in the shackles of starvation and poor health conditions.  We see this even today – just by turning on the news.

These are “dreadful judgments” indeed, to use the expression from the verse. But always the work of the prophet is to point out the truth of a situation, and at the same time speak to the spiritual life of a people too.  And we see this by Ezekiel’s reference to Daniel, Job, and Noah; one prophet who led the faithful to life beyond utter destruction, one iconic person of history who endured much tribulation in the name of faith, and one prophet who was with the people right now in captivity.

So when I look at these four judgments, I have to ask myself if I have given my heart to something that leads away from true faith that I now find myself feeling surrounded, walled in, under siege where my spiritual food is cut off and I feel hungered.  Am I letting fads, fashions, pop-culture pear pressure run through my existence like wild beasts.  Do my principles and ethics fall to the sword of the weekly paycheck.  Is my family life withering under the plague of obliterated communication and impatience.  What are we doing to ourselves? Where is our humanity?  Where is our patience and sense of mercy?  Has fairness been permanently evicted from our souls?

Wait.  Wait a minute.  What if there was still room in our perspectives for a sense of community?  What if we heard and responded to a call for justice?   There is that key word I mentioned earlier?     **** IF ****   if, if, if, if

God says that at the beginning of each of the examples of judgment eg. IF I decide to do this, you can not avoid this, etc.   If. Which tells me there is reluctance to take that step if at all possible to avoid.  It now feels like God is begging please, please don’t take things this far. Please don’t make it necessary for me to decide that there is no other alternative way to deal with you.

And that, once again, highlights that we have choice. We have agency. “Choose this day to serve the Lord” is how the scripture goes.  It means choose today, choose tomorrow, think about it again and again and each time choose the path of the disciple.  Choose the path of faith, which is a path of bravery and exploration of things God has yet to share.  Ezekiel had to be brave to meet God out in the middle of the desert – out in open country – to receive the concept that Faith travels, that God is continually with his people. He had to face whole new concepts, pass through boundaries previously imposed by society and religious tradition. It was hard, it was uncomfortable.

Finally, at the end of the chapter, we are directed to observe the children.  God tells Israel in captivity to watch the children and see why the judgments have fallen as they have. We do need to think of our children, of the next generation. We need to pass on the value of Charity, Mercy, Justice, Compassion and inclusive community. Are we doing a very good job?   I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Thanks for checking in on this blog – my travelogue through Ezekiel.