Ezekiel blog 65: Chapter 45’s fairness failsafe

Ok. I admit it. Ezekiel chapter 45 is definitely boring…unless you happen to be an accountant living in occupied Mesopotamia 586 B.C.

It is exactly this level of minutia that should convince even the most ardent critic that Ezekiel was the master of minutia. This being the case, it is easy to make the argument that Ezekiel’s foremost concern was demonstrating that the visionary ideals could be attained via very practical detail. For example, lets go back to the measurements of the gates and doors.  He measures every single door and reports them to be the same instead of assessing one door and the just telling us they are all the same.  Detail.  Oh, and he tells us exactly what he is using to measure everything and exactly how it is different from normal measuring tools. Detail.  Boring detail, but completely the opposite of some mythological Temple to arrive on its own thousands of years in the future.  Ezekiel was about the here and now, the attainable, and the current hope of his people.

In chapter 45, Ezekiel runs us through an exhausting exposition of a fair weights and measurement system.  This would be the primary tool of exchange for their recovering economy once the captive Israelites were able to return to their homeland.  That being the case, it had to be fair.  No manipulating the system for the benefit of those in power. No cheating some people. No favoring some people. No privileged and less-privileged people.  This is what Ezekiel is hammering out when he states God’s command in verse 10, “…Stop dispossessing my people.” They are to use accurate scales, weights, baths (for measuring liquids), etc.

This chapter is meant to be a failsafe catchall to prevent against a very real human weakness: the corruptibility of power. Power corrupts unless you have the ability to have outside transparency.  And so we have chapter 45.

 

Ezekiel blog: My version of the end of the world, part I

OK, this section won’t be popular with many folks.  But hey, that’s what happens when we dismiss 1000 years of preconceived notions and assumptions, things that have been handed down that you and I are just supposed to accept.   The biggest assumption is that Chapters 38 and 39 are the climax of the book, and that the remaining chapters are just add on material – usually relegated to the category of “boring stuff”.  I have an alternative view of Ezekiel’s message through these chapters which challenges the established assumptions.

Alternative answers come from alternative questions. My questions are:  what was Ezekiel’s main reason for going through all the hassle of being a prophet to a people in bondage?  What was his raison d’etre? What did he think about night and day? What was his central mission?

You might say that it’s a little late in the run through of the Book of Ezekiel to consider these questions, particularly since we are sitting on the door step of Chapter 38 and 39, the description of the supposed final battle.  However, I believe this to be the essential key to the entire book, the entire mass of Ezekiel’s writings, which is why we’ve used this as a framework, the lens through which we’ve examined his work.  It certainly helps explain most of the book up to these two chapters, as well as the remaining 10 chapters that conclude the book, which chapters are the real climax of the story.  I think the question applies clarity to chapters 38 & 39 equally as much, the chapters the tell of Gog and Magog and the Battle of the Lord.

So to set up this discussion, we have a very strong set of NAMEs enter the writings of Ezekiel at chapter 38 and 39: Gog and Magog.  This is supposed to be the great leader of the far northern nations who builds a coalition of surrounding nations with the intent of attacking the newly re-established nation of Israel.  This new threat will succumb to the idea and intention of attacking a place without walls, and taking everything of value.  It is promised that the Lord will prevent their success, rain damaging attacks down on them, and ultimately preserve Israel in order to verify to the world the Holiness of His Name.

Sounds great, huh?!  You might be asking, “What is a Gog?” Excellent question and one the world has been speculating about for the last 1500 years…at least.  There are many, many interpretive theories ranging from practical to resoundingly absurd.  Most of these theories source from the preconceived theological or geo-political preferences of the authors.  A natural tendency, and very hard to overcome.

After reviewing many published viewpoints,  I have come to conclude that the majority of commentaries fall into the trap of believing that the Prophet Ezekiel was writing his oracles from a basis of seeking external validations. The assumption is that we can find some evidence of his prophecies “coming true” by looking at historical events as if the prophet was giving us a preview of upcoming events in news-ticker fashion.   It simply is not so and attempts to interpret from that standpoint fail every time.  It fails because that is not the true job of a prophet.

Take a closer look at  Ezekiel chapter 38 & 39.  Most people conclude that these are failed prophecies since they did not come true, or have not come to pass yet -thereby lending to the mythology that this relates to events far in the future.  In the face of these two accusations, some commentators grasp for the most obvious elements of the chapters in desperate efforts to identify which actual country fits the bill for MaGog based on an ever bewildering set of criteria. There are many, many interpretive theories ranging from practical to resoundingly absurd.  Most of these theories source from the preconceived theological or geo-political preferences of the authors.  A natural tendency, and very hard to overcome. One extreme example of this can be found here: http://trackingbibleprophecy.com/gog_magog.php .  Scary stuff indeed.  Yet, way off and full of bias.  The thinking goes that if the countries can be identified, then theoretically a political leader can be identified who most resembles Gog as described.  This approach will continue to fail and readers will continue to be disillusioned because that is not what Ezekiel is talking about.

But, what if Gog is not a person?  After all, the word Gog is a noun and a noun can be a person, place or thing.  So,what if we change the assumptions and we work from the framework that Ezekiel did not care what we (here in our time, ages beyond Ezekiel)  thought about his unspecific references?  It leads me back to my original hypothesis to use Ezekiel’s core mission as a guide, a compass pointing the way.

Simply put, Ezekiel was a Priest of the temple. His mission was the same as a Rabbi today, which is to strengthen the faith of his people – to bring them to a closer remembrance of their faith through an identification with the story of their past. To do so, and throughout his writings, Ezekiel made references to key components of Jewish history eg. the Exodus story, the commandments, the law, the practices at the temple.  And being a highly educated Priest of the Temple, Ezekiel also used  a typical Hebrew practices of word play within his text.  For detail on that practice, refer to the following link, among many other resources that agree.

http://jewishstudies.rutgers.edu/docman/rendsburg/216-word-play-in-bh/file

Keeping that in mind, lets look at the actual words being used here and then I’ll suggest some other words to add into the mix. Here is the word GOG as written in the original Greek, and below it is the same word written in the original Hebrew.  Both languages are represented here because there are two original versions of Ezekiel, the Masoretic Text of Ezekiel, and the Septuagint version of Ezekiel. Each somewhat different from each other.

γώγ :  Γωγ Γὼγ Gog Gōg Gṑg   – Strongs Greek

גוג – Hebrew

You can see it is a three character word in all of the languages.  Magog is just a derivation of that as shown below.  In one translation, it means belonging of or coming from Gog.

Μαγώγ : Magog

These two words have a murky history – the etymology is not very clear.  Scholars mostly speculate about the meanings/translation because there is no specific origin language.   However, at least one discussion chooses a very simple approach and states that GOG refers to the top or apex of a roof.  Magog is derived from this and refers to that which is not the top of the roof – that which is under the roof or below the apex.   We will come back to this in a moment, this symbology is important. Humans tend to use very basic references to get an idea across.   Here is a link to that discussion:

http://www.abarim-publications.com/Meaning/Gog.html#.V0oyH4-cGM8

Let me now bring my two lines of thinking together, the word play component, the basic translation above, as well as some interesting points from chapter 38 verses 10-15.    Lets start with verse 11 where Gog is portrayed as saying, “…I will invade a land of unwalled villages; I will attack a peaceful and unsuspecting people—all of them living without walls and without gates and bars.”   This is a really strange verse.  It is strange because people, humans, always build walls – especially back then.  In fact, the very first thing the Hebrews did when they actually returned from exile was to start building the wall around Jerusalem.  We know this from reading the Book of Ezra and Book of Nehemiah.  So what was Ezekiel talking about?

To piece that together, we look at another word that originates from that time:

Synagogue : synagogue, also spelled synagog (pronounced /ˈsɪnəɡɒɡ/ from Greek συναγωγή

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synagogue

The translation of synagogue literally means ‘assembly’ or where the people gather, where people come and go freely.  Its a place where the true faith that Ezekiel envisioned would be practiced daily and where the entire community was invited on an equal basis (more on this later). Only a place without bars or gates to keep people out could be considered a place where Ezekiel’s people would be living in peace.

Notice that the word GOG is embedded in the word SynaGOGue.  So in a theological sense (which is what was most important to Ezekiel) these two words are opposites of each other.  Ezekiel’s use of Gog refers to a condition of having a single person elevated above all others eg. the “chief ruler” or “chief prince”,  the other means to have everyone assembling together in faith.  Hierarchy vs. Community, Elite vs. Accessible (no gates or bars), Arbitrary Single Authority pushed down on the masses (Magog) vs.  a Holy People true to the last person to the Justice and Holiness of God.    Chapter 38 verse 16 backs this up this play of opposites when Ezekiel writes, “In days to come, Gog, I will bring you against my land, so that the nations may know me when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.”  As a further reference, Chapter 39 verse 17, Ezekiel even uses the word ‘Assemble’ along with its definition ‘come together’ from the Greek ‘syn’ (in synagogue) when he states “Assemble and come together from all around to the sacrifice I am preparing for you…”

Now lets look at another portion of this chapter which begs the question about identifying Gog as a specific person.   In Verse 17 Ezekiel writes, “You are the one I spoke of in former days by my servants the prophets of Israel.”  Exactly who have the prophets been talking about throughout Israel’s history?  Ezekiel, being a fully trained and educated Priest of the Temple would be intimately familiar with every single prophet that was ever revered within their religion.  However, the evil doer Gog is first mentioned only in Ezekiel’s writings.  Other people have had that name, but they hardly fit the billing as advertised in apocryphal writings, so it would seem that Ezekiel is not describing a specific person in a specific place and time. Yet Ezekiel is clear, this has been spoken of before.

He explicitly returns to this in Chapter 39: 7-8, writing, “I will make known my holy name among my people Israel. I will no longer let my holy name be profaned, and the nations will know that I the Lord am the Holy One in Israel. It is coming! It will surely take place, declares the Sovereign Lord. This is the day I have spoken of.”

It seems there is another imbedded reference in the paring of Gog and Magog. it has long been established that the Idol worship religions of the entire region used the ‘High Places’ as places of sacrifice.  These are the very same high places that Ezekiel has railed against throughout this entire book.  Idolatry had invaded Hebrew way of life replacing their true religion. To speak of sacrifice in the afore mentioned verse (Chapter 39:17) is a direct reference to that. However, in this context, it is God declaring his victory over false religion and making their demise a sacrifice offering.  In case it isn’t clear, a high place, where the idol stands, where sacrifices are made, would be at the apex of a structure such as a Ziggurat which was a common structure through out the early Mesopotamian region for the Idol based religions – and thus Gog.  Ezekiel then defines Gog as the practice of Idol worship and sacrifice to false Gods, that being the chief ruler or chief prince, standing at the top of all the ruling dynasties of almost every nation surrounding Jersusalem (Magog – that which is not at the top but associated to it).   Ezekiel clearly defines God’s objective back in Chapter 38 vs 16, stating, ” In days to come, Gog, I will bring you against my land, so that the nations may know me when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.”  This is a religious objective, not a military or political objective.

To sum up what we have so far then, Ezekiel’s message is one of hope to his exiled people, a people who are in bondage, a people who are mocked because of their religion. They are a tiny religious minority in a vast dominant culture of idolatry.  Dominant culture seems to have prevailed over their faith.  Ezekiel has gone to great lengths to explain why. He will do yet more explaining in the rest of Chapter 39. But true to the nature of his calling – a Priest of the Temple, a teacher, a religious leader, and a true Prophet of God – he speaks a message of hope, that the true way of Jehovah will overcome, that God’s name will be Holy again, and that only a complete purging of all these other false religions (Idolatry) will open the door to a renewal of their people.

The battle of Gog and Magog isn’t about a political/military conflict at the end of the world.  That would assume that God plays favorites among men and picks this ruler over that ruler and having a person win somehow makes God’s name Holy.  No. That doesn’t even work in highschool football when people pray for victory, etc.   God is interested in faith, faith of the community, and the open and free assembly of His people – those who choose Him.  No bars or gates to keep His people out, no high place to raise one above the many to accumulate human glory.  There is no final world battle – according to Ezekiel – only an accumulation of fervor for the nurturing love of God who has endured centuries of the profaning of His name by His own people.

Part II of my version of the End of the World will focus on Chapter 39 a bit more, and also focus on the How and the Why of the fall of Gog and Magog and how this builds us up to the real climax of the book of Ezekiel.

 

Ezekiel blog: Feuds that go nowhere

Ever have to sit one of your kids down for a time-out and all you hear is, “hey, he did it too!!!”, or “…she started it, blah, blah, blah”?  Yep.  Ezekiel has to deal with exactly that in Ezekiel chapter 35. Of course, that’s not exactly how it reads, but the timing of the chapter implies this quite a bit. So lets chalk that up to my interpretation.

Up to this point, Ezekiel has given us detailed (very long and thoroughly detailed) explanation of why all these judgments have come down on the people of Jerusalem.  There have been objections and extenuating circumstances, etc.   There has been an indepth analysis of all the business deals involving local partner countries which led to corruption.   And there have been the pointed lectures about taking responsibility and giving up on the “me first” attitude.

At this point in Ezekiel’s writings you can just imagine last ditch efforts to deflect some of the responsibility. And who do you deflect too?   Why the neighbors of course!   But what about those so-and-so’s over in Edom? They’ve always hated us and been mean to us, and, and, and….sniff. And to add insult to injury, Edom was useful in the final destruction of Jerusalem when Babylon invaded.

To be fair, the captive Israelites had somewhat of a point, a point which God does address.  It was true that there was deep seated enmity between the people of Jerusalem and the people of Edom. However,  the main objection that Ezekiel addresses is the avarice of the people of Edom. To be sure, this is the exact same criticism that Ezekiel leveled at his own people – the leadership of Jerusalem.   This false doctrine goes like this:  Other people suffering from misfortune and calamity is evidence of our blessed state, evidence of our holiness.     Ezekiel is very clear about this being a framework of sin.

In Edom’s case, the thought was now that the residents of Jerusalem are taken away captive and out of our hair, we get the spoils, we get the land, we get the houses, WE GET TO PROFIT AT THEIR EXPENSE.     Um, can you say “Self Justified Sense of Entitlement”????   not a good thing.

Ezekiel writes God’s disapproval of this ideology as such:
“Because you harbored an ancient hostility and delivered the Israelites over to the sword at the time of their calamity, the time their punishment reached its climax…….Because you have said, These two nations and countries will be ours and we will take possession of them,” even though I the Lord was there, 11 therefore as surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I will treat you in accordance with the anger and jealousy you showed in your hatred of them and I will make myself known among them when I judge you.”

We are talking about a city/people who harbored ancient hostility. But that can apply to you or me just as well.   Harboring hostility.  Perhaps carrying around ancient grudges isn’t all that healthy at that. Perhaps that leads to desolation in the mountains of the heart.

Perhaps we can do better.

 

 

 

Ezekiel blog: All the shepherds have gone astray

“The Sovereign Lord says: I, myself, will search for my sheep and look after them”.  This line from Ezekiel 34:11 is key to the entire concept of the coming of the Messiah which we celebrate each year at Christmas.  It is behind the whole idea of having a New Testament to compliment that which was written in the former “Old” Testament.  But where did this come from, and why?

Open the door (turn the page) to Ezekiel chapter 34 and you get the most carefully articulated description of the core problem which led to Jerusalem’s fall at the hands of the Babylonians. As always with Ezekiel, there are many layers to what he is trying to get across to his band of survivors in the desert.  But, one of those important tenants is ‘hope’, hope indeed for a people who feel lost, overwhelmed, and abandoned. Those emotions pulse with resonance to many of us today, living in a world of fear and distrust.

In the very first verse of this chapter, God calls out the leadership of the people of Israel – those entrusted with the care and management of the people, those to whom also is given the mantle of religious authority.  And the call out is not good as is stated in Verse 2:  “Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?”

Now today, the word shepherd is applied mostly to religious leaders of some sort.  And given the rate of scandals that we are routinely subjected to from the religious elite, it would seem that this accusation is valid in this day and age, as much as it was valid in the days of the great prophets.  Indeed, the question stands – why are you only taking care of yourself?  Why are you demanding donations from the weak and the needy so you can equip yourself with mansions, cars, and private jets?     It makes you wonder if these people actually have ever read the same Bible from which they preach.   For, in this case, we are not stipulating a line item rule set – which is an incorrect approach to Biblical study.  We are examining a general principle as stated by the Creator in this pragmatic question: Should not the shepherds take care of the flock?

From Ezekiel’s point of view, at the time of his writing, it was common to apply the term shepherd to the governmental figures – often royalty – who were in charge of all aspects of the wellbeing of the people.  Read that again.  Shepherd meant Kings in charge, Government in charge, High Priests in charge. So if we are to examine Ezekiel’s prophetic guidance with an eye towards accuracy, then we must acknowledge that he was highly critical of abuses conducted by those persons in positions of power, who were enabled to work towards the benefit of the people, but chose to only benefit themselves – or worse, directly abuse the people for whom they were entrusted to provide benevolent care.  Again, we see that this human weakness is still among us, and we see the abuses by what we can refer to as the religious elite just as easily as we can observe the abuses by individuals in governmental power or administrative power.  These come under the common heading/category of social injustice for which the prophets held little back in their vocal criticisms.  (If you doubt this claim, take a look at Verse 16, “…I will shepherd the flock with justice.”)

So what were the shepherds supposed to be doing?  What was the primary hallmarks of their responsibility whether governmental, religious, or otherwise?  Ezekiel spares no time clearing that up in verse 4.  Ezekiel’s declares to those in power:

  • You were supposed to strengthen the weak.
  • You were supposed to heal the sick.
  • You were supposed to bind up (provide aid and relief to) the injured.
  • You were supposed to search for, and bring back, those who were lost.
  • You, the shepherds, were supposed to feed my sheep, not yourselves.

Remember Jesus’ admonition to Peter before his ascension?  “Feed my sheep”. He was quoting/referring to this very section of Ezekiel.

Then the accusation from God is stated in the form of a sorrowful lament in verse 6:  My sheep were scattered over the whole earth, and No One searched or looked for them.

That verse resonates with me, and I’m sure resonates with many who read them as well. To have that feeling of having once been part of a community, to have peace in your heart, and then to find yourself lost, lost to the point where you realize that no one is coming to look for you.  Ezekiel vividly describes that feeling with an image that binds words to feeling in verse 12, “…I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.”  Clouds and darkness – how appropriate.

This is why, in verse 10, God says that He is “against the shepherds” and will require an accounting of his flock from the shepherds.  This verse carries a lot of weight and is often overlooked.  This indicates a sentiment that was echoes by many of the prophets. It is the principle that government is authorized on behalf of the people, by God, only as long as it serves the needs of the people.  That government in itself, just as clerical high standing in itself, has no reason to believe that its actions are self-justified.  It’s a slippery concept, but one well worth examining in further detail.  That discussion is beyond the scope of this manuscript.

Moving on from verse 13 we come to another area that is often overlooked, a place where there is some very good theological concepts that Ezekiel is trying to impart to his people who are feeling very lost and forgotten – having been swept away from their city and from the Temple where they were supposed to be practicing their religion. Ezekiel declares that God will feed them, whether on mountains or valleys of Israel, God will feed them in ALL the inhabited places of the country.

What a statement of inclusiveness. In this statement, there is no system of hierarchy or privileged access to the good blessings from God. All the inhabited places are to be fed. And Ezekiel continues in verse 14, “….and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land.”  Take special note of this. Ezekiel is not referring to a specific set of geological ridges here.  The word “heights” or “mountains” more often referred to elevated places of sacrifice and offering. So the image here is that the people are to learn a religious lifestyle of continuously being fed, eg. grazing, by living a life filled continuously with offerings, sacrifices, and prayers. A worthy ambition indeed.

As it has been established up to this point, Ezekiel is a true prophet, and one beyond reproach. He speaks to the truth of the situation and reveals Gods viewpoint.  The woes of Israel that Ezekiel is crunching through do not stop with those in power. There is culpability in the people themselves. We know this because in earlier chapters, the question was essentially raised, Why us? Why do we suffer? So Ezekiel also addresses this here as well.  And the theme is selfishness.  Funny, it’s the same issue Ezekiel had with those in power.

Verse 20 brings us Ezekiel’s explanation.  God will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.  In God’s flock – as was stated above about ALL being fed, there is no hierarchy, no pecking order, no favorites.  So, that being the case, how come some of the sheep are fat, and some of the sheep are skinny??  Hmmmmm????   Ezekiel calls out those with a “me first” attitude. Ezekiel calls out those with a belligerent (shove with flank and shoulder) bullying attitude. Ezekiel calls out those who shove the weak aside.

To fix all this, God declares that he will place His own shepherd over the flock, the one shepherd who He calls David – in other words, of the royal line.  Here we have Ezekiel giving us a reference to the coming of a Messiah, an authorized shepherd, one who will authorize other shepherds. This the same Messiah whom Isaiah named Counselor and the Prince of Peace.  Ezekiel confirms this in verse 25 by telling us that God “…will make a covenant of peace with them”.   All of this so that the people, and everyone around them can become a blessing.

And we close with, “You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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: 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: 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.

Ezekiel blog: Betrayal to the point of losing it all

ProphetWritingImageHere we go into Ezekiel Chapter 22.

Honestly, I think that chapter 22, 23 and 24 of Ezekiel all sort of run together in to one continuous macro-chapter. Chapter 23 is pretty graphic and blunt and is also where Ezekiel comments on the bluntness of chapter 22. Then, chapter 23 brings it all into reality in very grim and sad circumstances.

How do I pull all of this apart? I started by doing what I’ve been doing all along, I read several biblical translations of chapter 22 and then read a bunch of different commentaries. By this point in the book, most of the commentaries are hopelessly lost and not much help and it’s really quite stunning the wide variance of interpretive approaches for those that have stayed in the game.

It is a short chapter, but I find it overlayed with almost a bullet list of thematic morals. I thought I would list these and try to sort through them – in no particular order.

Point 1) Subtle message of hope to the people in exile, the silver is not in the kiln because it has already been taken away (to Babylon).

In working with different ores, the smelting process separates out the impurities making it easier to extract the precious metal. Such is the case with silver and the dross left behind. The narrative of Ezekiel focuses on the dross which is used to describe the people of Jerusalem – something to be discarded and no longer of use to God. Blunt and to the point. The hidden message though, is that the valuable part of the ore has already been taken away in the form of the Israelites in bondage under Babylon’s rule. They didn’t see it that way, but in this way, God has preserved the best part of His people. They are captive, yes, but they are free to follow their faith for the most part and they are allowed to live. Not so for the prideful people of Jerusalem.

Point 2) God’s willingness to profane himself to make his point
Dispersal of His chosen among the nations (fortelling of the upcoming rollcall).

God is willing to send His people away to live out among the nations, knowing full well that they may pick up elements and practices that do not conform to the purest way of life laid out for them from the beginning. In this way, God is willing to profane Himself in order that his people may be saved and redeemed in the future. The mention of the nations here is a prelude to the upcoming chapters in which God gives stern warnings, admonitions, and judgements in a sort of roll call. This roll call of the nations is also an element of the book of Judges which brings us back to the method Ezekiel was using to draw his people into a remembrance of their faith.

Point 3)  God’s remorse at not being able to find even one (a tossback to Abraham) who would do the work.

What’s a good narrative without drawing on the imagery of founding fathers, great leaders of the past, pinnacles of faith that everyone knows well. Ezekiel, being a priest of the Temple, knows well the history of his people and especially the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was Abraham who pleaded on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Gamorah negotiating in terms of a certain number of righteous people among the inhabitants. God is saying, “…don’t even go there. I’ve already checked and can not even find one who will do the work.”

Point 4) Condemnation of the Prophets who whitewash and tear at the people like lions

Following up on the previous point, Ezekiel pens condemnation of the self-named prophets who have provided false validation to the leadership of Jerusalem. These are the people who blandly downplay the social injustices that are committed in the streets of Jerusalem, who stomp out dissent with false oracles, and who give the leadership a free pass for each offense as a divine right to oppress.

Point 5)  Confusion of translations of Ezekiel source texts / confusion of commentators.

As a personal observation, there is a lot of confusion over these verses in the various translation. Going to the source documents does not make this task any easier – though the translations have become for fluid and consistent over the centuries. Many of the earlier commentaries struggled with the concepts here and later commentaries sort of drifted over the context by using general terms such as “further judgments of Israel”. For me, I looked back at earlier chapters and saw the themes that Ezekiel himself had forwarded and we see here a return to those same themes: a prioritization of sin, a condemnation of social injustices, a calling out of the false self-named prophets, and an overarching call to a return to faith.

I found this to be enlightening in many ways. Firstly, to see how some of modern theology has been derived from faulty old translations of Ezekiel and then been layed down like veneer on the newer translations without actually reviewing the texts themselves. For instance, I read one commentary who inferred references to the anti-christ as described by John in Revelations. While there are connections between the book of Revelations, because John assuredly derived some of his imagery from Ezekiel and Daniel, this isn’t one of them. A careful reading of more modern translations reveals that Ezekiel was focused on the existing so-called prophets who validated the abuses that the leadership of Jerusalem were committing – something I’ve mentioned earlier.

In a simplistic approach to reading biblical scripture, it’s often the tendency to look for rules to follow in order to establish a qualification checklist as to whether a person is “good” or “bad”.  This is not really the purpose of scripture as a whole, and even less so for apocalyptic writers of the Old Testament period.  Yes, prophets like Ezekiel and Isaiah and Daniel and Jeremiah were very aware of what we call Talmudic law. Much of the Mishnah had been figured out by then – though codified later.

But, the prophets, at least the four major prophets of the Old Testament era, were focused more on the spiritual condition of the people as well as the spiritual condition of the ruling elite (or lack thereof).  By the way, did you ever notice that their are four main prophets of the Old Testament which balance out the four Gospels of the New Testament? Hmmmm. So when reading through prophetic writing, it is important to keep firmly in mind that the prophet has a multi-layered message going on that speaks to the reality of the situation – that is the definition of revelation eg. to reveal.

Now when Ezekiel begins listing out the sins of Jerusalem, I am struck by a couple of things. Firstly, the list greatly resembles the earlier list we are provided when Ezekiel is defining personal responsibility when it comes to sin. Secondly, The prioritization of these “greater” sins over the minutia offenses that populate much of Leviticus and especially the Mishna. Third and lastly, is is amazing clear that each of these sins in some way represents a betrayal of trust and/or a failure to live up to commitment. Lets walk through them, starting in verse 7:

  • Treated father and mother with contempt
  • Oppressed the foreigner
  • Mistreated the fatherless and the widow
  • Despised the Holy things and desecrated the Lord’s Sabbath
  • Slanderers (false accusers)
  • Idol worship by eating at mountain shrines and participating in cult  related “lewd” acts
  • Dishonored their father’s bed (intrude on parent’s privacy or marriage – also incest)
  • Violate women during their period
  • Seduce and have sex with neighbor’s wife
  • Seduce and have sex with daughter-in-law, or his sister (the word violate is also used which can mean to abuse)
  • Accepting bribes to commit murder
  • Taking interest and making profit from the poor  (social injustice)
  • Extorting unjust gain from your neighbors
    – All proof that you have forgotten the Lord says Ezekiel.

This is a very interesting list, don’t you think. These are the top priority “sin” items that Ezekiel, a fully trained and authorized Priest of the Temple as well as a Prophet of the Lord was concerned about. Most of these sins can be traced back to either the Ten Commandments section of scripture, or to various passages in Leviticus.  All of these sins have something in common. They all deal with various forms of betrayal of trust and breaking of covenants. Sometimes this betrayal takes the form of taking advantage of the powerless and vulnerable which is a familiar theme for anyone who has seriously read through Ezekiel.   It is for these sins that God is launching the destruction of Jerusalem in Chapters 22-24.

What is also interesting is what is not on this list. For example, there is no mention of things like:

  • pre-marital sex
  • abstaining from various foods
  • abstaining from various beverages or wines
  • failure to maintain dress code
  • intermarriage of races or among foreigners
  • failure to regularly attend a synagogue or church
  • failure to read scriptures regularly
  • homosexual relationships
  • requirements for public display of faith (faith for show)
  • Swearing or course language
  • Dancing
  • Getting tattoos
  • Piercings
  • Listening to the wrong music
  • wearing the wrong kind of clothing
  • being poor
  • being one of ‘those’ people

Top of the list of reasons, then, as to why God is sending destruction upon Jerusalem is no that He is an angry vengeful God who is going through a minutia checklist of sins and adding them up like a score card. No, instead the top reasons have to do with betrayal of faith, betrayal of trust, lack of mercy, and social injustice against the vulnerable and poor of their own population on a mass scale as perpetrated at an institutional level by the leadership of Jerusalem.   This dysfunctional civic eco-system has been building up for generations. It has been warned against for generations.  This is a pivotal point in time when everything is about to change.

Take this anyway you like. But like I said before, this is from a Prophet beyond reproach with every credential possible, and this is what he wrote.  He was concerned about character, not rules, commitment and abiding by covenants instead of choosing betrayal, and he was concerned about faith.

Later y’all.

 

 

 

 

Ezekiel blog: What’s with the signpost?

More of me blogging my way through Ezekiel – trying to find some fresh air and some open country.  Wrapping up some final thoughts on Ezekiel 21.

I can’t let this chapter go without commenting on some other drama that is going on in Chapter 21.  It seems our exasperated prophet is required to go back to his earlier method from way at the beginning of the entire book. Remember all his symbolic acts and signs which were designed to draw attention to overlooked truths of his people’s current situation?  Yeah, so here we go again.

Ezekiel is told to draw out roads to both Jerusalem and to the Ammonites (and their insults).  There is supposed to be a fork in the road and at that point Ezekiel is supposed to put a sign post pointing the way to Jerusalem so that the King of Babylon can speedily move on to his appointed conquest.

Ok. Pretty sure that the King had his own scouts and had a fairly good idea of where the major city of Jerusalem was. So what’s with the sign post?

Firstly, I’d like to draw attention to the fact that we are told explicitly who the players are here. We know that the “Sword” is the King of Babylon, because it plainly is written in those terms. Ezekiel is all about very clear and plain explanations and identifications.  This assertion I’m making here flies fully in the face of common attempts of interpretation for the four major prophets of the Old Testament. Usually we readers are treated to mystical descriptions and sound bytes on the History channel about how the prophets hid secret messages in their writings, or how it’s hard to identify who they are talking about in their oracles. Rubbish. It only requires the proper framework – a signpost – at the right point to help follow the narrative.  Ezekiel, along with the other prophets was not concerned in the least about leaving clues to help identify explicit historical events. He, and the other prophets, were trying to minister to their people and restore their faith. That was the goal and that was the message.

In the case of Babylon, we are given some behind the scenes information here.  It’s not an accident.  A road is being prepared and it’s a road that is meant to be traveled. What’s more, God will use the language and methods of the Babylonian tradition to send a message. God speaks to the King in a way he can understand, and by this the King chooses to complete the work of subduing Jerusalem.

Now, here we are given a taste of something unusual.  Notice that God is clearly choosing a non-Jew, a non-Priesthood person, to convey His work.  Babylon is the instrument of action in delivering the judgment. Here, at this point, the Temple is to be destroyed. It is no longer the place of God’s habitation. We’ve already established this when Ezekiel was called out into open country in the middle of the desert. It is to be a perfect destruction lasting 70 years. And at the end of that time, another man “Cyrus, King of Persia” is chosen by the Lord to pave the way for the people of Israel to return and rebuild the Temple.  Again, the instrument of the Lord’s work is someone not of the Holy People, someone from outside the establishment of their faith.

Do we get the message here that Ezekiel is trying to portray?  God established back in Judges that if the people abandoned their faith and followed other gods and idols, that He would destroy their places of power and might. The people have lost their faith. Ezekiel is saying, “…see, God is doing what He said He would, when we have not done what we said we would do.”  So the trick is to then get God to say something else that he would do and stick to our side of the covenant this time – to have faith. And, it is 70 years later that Daniel repents on behalf of all Israel and asks if they can go home and rebuild the covenant.   Book of Ezra – great stuff – go read it.

God chooses his servants where ever they may be. They are known by their response – they hearken and obey the call. That servant may not be one of the fold. That servant may not fit the standard image established by the majority.  That servant may not be of the pure people. But that servant belongs to God. Who are we to say otherwise against the Lord’s appointed.

And God draws roads and pathways through the desert and mountains so that the work may somehow be accomplished. God sends prophets to set up sign posts that point the way.   And sometimes, there is more than one objective to what God is trying to accomplish.  In this case, guess who’s next.  Take a number, Ammonites….and all your insults.

It appears that God does not take well to name calling and insults.  Words to the wise listener.

 

 

Ezekiel blog: Sword song

My continuing exploration of Ezekiel as I blog my way though a new framework for understanding his writings.

I know I said I was done with Chapter 20, but that wasn’t entirely true. There are a couple of things that lead us into Ezekiel chapter 21.

The first, is this section:
Ezekiel 20:34-35New International Version (NIV)

34 I will bring you from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered—with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath. 35 I will bring you into the wilderness of the nations and there, face to face, I will execute judgment upon you.

Modern English editors have put the chapter divisions and chapter descriptors in modern Bible’s, but the writing wasn’t always divided this way. However, in it’s current format, the section above is a bit of foreshadowing of the next whole chapter, while at the same time continues to tie into the original Exodus-Judges retelling that Ezekiel is working through.

The key term from verses 34 and 35 is “nations”, and specifically “wilderness of nations”. Ezekiel has been exploring the national origins story with the captive people of Israel – now living in Babylon. Part of that story is of them wandering in the wilderness extremely vulnerable to any and all of the surrounding nations….literally a wilderness of nations. God is saying to them now that He recognizes that they are pretty much in the same situation. And when they did wander, as described in the Pentateuch, God was able to speak to His people “face to face” as it were by way of the Ark of the Covenant. Which brings us fully back to the central theme of Ezekiel’s message: Returning to the faithfulness to the covenant with God. ****

On on the banks of the Jordan river, the people looked across and knew that a number of nations awaited them, already in possession of the promised land. In both Deuteronomy 7 and Judges**** there is sort of a role call of nations.

At the end of chapter 20, we see the beginning of that attention to the nations at large when Ezekiel is called to prophecy against the forests of the South. Forests have always been interpreted as referring to large groups of people. Starting from the South simply points out that often the leaders of Israel had dubious relationships with Egypt and other southern countries. But God had commanded that the people go quietly into Babylon and not look to Egypt for salvation.

Instead, Chapter 21 starts with a Bank! All the waiting and warning is over, armies are on the mover, and events are beginning to unfold. Ezekiel is told to prophecy against the sanctuary. Now, just a few paragraphs ago, back in chapter 20 God was saying that He would gather His people to worship at his sacred mountain and there he would accept their offerings. Apparently, His sacred mountain, and the sanctuary in Jerusalem are two different things. And the sanctuary was definitely part of the temple, which means that in one sense, Ezekiel was being asked to speak against the church. Given previous exhaustive descriptions, we can conclude that the church had descended into a fallen state of disgrace.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Ezekiel says that the Lord’s judgement will sweep from South to North, which is an expression of completeness where everyone will be affected. I guess sometimes God likes to do things in a big way.

Then Ezekiel gives us a sword song, a blunt piece of poetry about the sword that God will use to enact his justice. Historically, sword songs were used as part of preparatory ritual combat preluding to actual war. Sort of like charging up in the locker room. But that is really not the importance here.

The significance of this sword poem is two-fold. Primarily it is a device that is sort of like that scene in Lord of the Rings where the signal goes up from Mordor announcing that the enemy army is moving out to war in full force.  Something as significant as an imperial army bringing the actual ruin of Jerusalem and the formerly holy Temple of Jerusalem, and that such an act is aligned with God’s will, deserves some fanfare. Much more effective than saying something like: And then God destroyed the city,…just like we’ve been saying. ‘nough said.

The second significance of this poem is that it reminds us of the Song of Deborah, back in the book of Judges. It is yet another parallel in this method of understanding Ezekiel’s imagery. In both cases, the will of God was being expressed in times of war and the poem/song was being used to bring the people back to a state of remembrance.

As always, I try to find little bits an pieces that I can grab ahold of at a personal level. The one phrase that keeps coming back to me is something that was stated in verse 34. There is a sentiment there, even though the overall picture is grim.  “I will gather you from where you have been scattered” (paraphrased).  Specifically, this is referring to the political reality of those people in that time. But part of me also responds to the condition of being scattered where-ever.  To have that hope that it is possible to be gathered back together, even if it is to be judged according to my own actions, it means that all is not lost – all the pieces of me are not lost and can be gathered together again.  At the end of all the chaos, there is a point to come to the truth of matters with God. Is that not, in the smallest, most private sense,….prophecy?