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 9: A little off the side

So finally we have arrived (Ezekiel 5) at the final sign of the four signs of the judgment of Jerusalem. It’s interesting that this chapter is entirely dedicated to the one sign and all the ramifications of it.  Not surprisingly, most people move right on through the beginning to get to the good stuff – you know how we all love a big finish complete with action sequences.  And we get it all, right?  Judgment, angel of death type stuff, old time vengeance, slaughter among the population left, right, and center.

Except.   What is with the whole haircut thing to begin with?  Everything we’ve seen so far with these signs tells us there are things to understand about each representation. Each sign has told us something about God – what God is like. This is the true nature of prophecy after all, to speak to the truth of the situation, to bring our own relationship with God into clearer focus, and to help reveal glimpses of God’s nature. Reveal = Revelation.

So hit rewind and lets go back to the beginning of the chapter and remember clearly that orthodox Jewish religious practice had very specific rules about hair. This goes all the way back to Leviticus chapter 21 where God made direct commandments about about priests not shaving their heads, etc.

What is surprising here is the direct commandment by God to go against those very rules. Why would God do that? What is the meaning of the haircut, and the sword, and making Ezekiel parade all over the place to dispense his locks of hair?  (I’m sure Ezekiel was thinking to himself, “and I thought the food rules were strange!”)  I want to emphasize again, in this same paragraph, that here we see God commanding something that is in direct contradiction to something commanded earlier, and in the context of direct revelation.   In any regard, this adds dimension to the conversation which scripture really is.

Some may write that off as a one-off, it was just Ezekiel.   But consider, how many times has some single statement by the Apostle Paul been pulled out of context and used as a prototype for emulation? Whole monasteries were created, whole orders of priests were organized, etc. Think about it.  Going further, a more faithful spiritual quest into scripture allows for a conversation with God, asking God, what did you mean by this?  How am I to understand what you are trying to do here?   Now, moving on…

Ezekiel has to somehow get a sword, shave his head!!!….We’ll deal with dispensing of his hair later.  The priests of other religions in the region often shaved their heads, one need only look at Egyptian historical art to verify this.  This means that God intends Ezekiel to become iconic in view of his people. He’s going to stand out.

Yeah, this could be interpreted as rubbing Israel’s own religious promiscuity in their face, highlighting that it was the importing of other nations idolatry into the temple which has brought all of this impending doom.  Really, though?  Do we read through all of this to conclude that God is spiteful and capriciously pretty?

There’s another clue at the end of the chapter though. It comes in the form of God’s true accusation against Jerusalem: “…You did not even hold to the standards of the nations around you…”   It seems that the original expectation was for the nation of Israel to become a conduit of blessing and instruction to the nations around her.  Jesus himself refers to this later in history by asking the question, “Do you hide a light under a bushel? No, you place it high….so that all can see its light”.   But that’s not how things appear to have been working out in practice.

Think of it this way. Suppose all members of the priesthood were suddenly commanded to become part-time bartenders, or bar owners in order to qualify for continued status as a minister.  Well, it’s pretty hard to look down your nose at people who drink socially, if you are the one required to serve them their drinks.  In fact, there would not be anything external to distinguish you from your clientele.  It’s just an example, and I can think of many more. But the point is, it is hard to hold yourself aloft, elevated above people you think beneath you if you are in their exact circumstances.  Maintaining that posture leaves you with very little credibility.

This is where we pick things back up with our guy Ezekiel who is now being commanded to make himself look exactly like the local clergy of their captors. “Shave your head, Ezekiel” goes the command.  Perhaps it is a call for Israel to recognize their infidelity of faith. More likely, it is a prototype for Israel to see that the exterior form of ministry does not matter so much as the inner faith.

Lets examine the progression of the four signs up to this point.  A picture of Jerusalem is drawn showing it in warfare and conflict.  A siege is put up around it to highlight its growing isolation. Ezekiel must sleep for so many days, in a specific way to show the length of time that Israel has been incurring debt against God’s good will…to the tune of hundreds of years. The signs include warnings that the conflict will escalate and the people will suffer long days of torment.  Ezekiel demonstrates this by cooking his food as if it was a prisoners ration.   And the warning continues that those who survive will eat the food of the captors from the land into which they are driven.

So we see two paths here.  The first being the fate of those who cling to what was the old Jerusalem way of doing things. The second being the groups who do leave all that behind and allow themselves to be driven.  They are to eat their captors food. They are to submit to their captors. They are to live and have families. They are commanded to heal and to prosper (words of Jeremiah).

And as for the hair which Ezekiel disperses?  Can we get any more classic than Broadway to understand that reference?  God wants to get this mess out of his hair. Just cut it off, cut it all off.  Burn it in the fire, scatter it in the winds, whatever.  Shave it to the skin and lets start all over.

A people humbled by captivity, brought again to a remembrance of true faith and belief.  A ministry that understands the concept that God can not be bought, bribed or fooled. An understanding that God is in all of his creation, out among the nations, even out here in the middle of the desert – just like the freed Hebrew slaves which Moses led.  God’s majesty and kingdom is not tied to a specific building, place or rock.  He is the fire that walks daily with His people.

Just like Jesus said, “the Kingdom is at hand.”