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 lonely Cherub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: A new trilogy of Purple

These next three chapters of Ezekiel provide profound insight into the question of why the Book of Ezekiel in the first place.  These chapters beginning with Ezekiel 26 touch on some very contemporary issues that we face globally today. At the same time, we get some explanation as to why the judgments are pronounced so completely across the population of Judah and Jerusalem specifically during the Babylonian conquest.  Lets set the stage.

Three years after the beginning of the final siege on Jerusalem by Babylon, Ezekiel is given a new oracle regarding the fate of a nation very close to Israel and Judah. It’s not good news either.  Ezekiel chapter 26 begins a small trilogy section on the nation of Tyre.   It goes sort of like this:

Chapter 26 (The brief and blunt pronouncement of Tyre’s fate) –> Chapter 27 (Poetic lament illustrating the finer points of the destruction of Tyre, and just why it is so sad) –> Chapter 28 ( A chapter pretty much dedicated to why the Israelites should care, and what message should they get out of this).

The phrase “like waves of the sea” is used to describe how destruction will come to the nation of Tyre. Now, in historical terms, Tyre is known to us as Phoenicia, the great trading nation of the Mediterranean Sea. So the ocean metaphor is appropriate, but it seems that there is a more practical intention for using that analogy of destruction.  It is often said that no man is an island; meaning that one who stands alone is very vulnerable. Phoenicia was no different and relied upon its extensive trading agreements and alliances to fuel its economic power, and ensure that it had strength to maintain its established domain. More importantly, because of its exuberant prosperity, other nations actively pursued a stable relationship with them. We could say it was a popular thing to do to foster a normalized trading relationship.  Therefore, it would seem that political and military threats were minimized.   To quote Billy Squire:  “….Everybody wants you”.

For destruction to be complete then, Phoenicia would have to become isolated and everyone turn away from them.  To coin another phrase, “…the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”  Phoenicia’s fall (Tyre’s fall) is great indeed. Over time they are invaded by Babylon for 12 years. Alexander the Great’s campaign burns the city and isolates what’s left of them onto their last remaining island.  Egypt and Rome battle over what remains of the area until there is no more Tyre and eventually we are left with what is today’s Lebanon.  So, there are your waves of the sea, one invasion come sweeping in after another.

But why should Ezekiel care?  He’s sitting in the middle of the Babylonian desert along with the thousands of other Jewish captives…over 550 miles away as the crow flies. Not to mention that his entire focus is pretty much on the spiritual condition of his own people and the dire warnings about his own nation’s impending collapse.

Further, why should we care that Ezekiel cared?

The answer to these questions is indeed critical.  It brings perspective to much of what Ezekiel spends so much of his time criticizing the Jerusalem government about.  In the next three blog entries, I’ll go further into this impactful section of the Book of Ezekiel where we will discover a range of socio-economic factors that can be traced directly to the conditions of social injustice that ultimately lead to the downfall of Jerusalem.  It will become painfully obvious as well that, because of these three chapters in Ezekiel, the content and warning of the Book of Ezekiel, is extremely contemporary and revealing into the nature of our culture today.

Next up, What’s it like “getting in bed” with neighboring sailors/businessmen and the ultimate example of “fair weather friends”.     Stay tuned.