Ezekiel Blog: Beyond reproach

One of the things that drew me to the Book of Ezekiel is that his writing comes from a very unique situation and viewpoint in terms of the credentials of his office.  I’ve touched on this before, but here in Chapter 20, this becomes critically important.  To put it  simply, Ezekiel breaks the mold, but in such a way that is completely verifiable.  As a result, we get taken into some very uncharted waters.    Let me show you…

As I mentioned in the last blog, Ezekiel has expanded his prophetic theme to include not just a re-interpretation of the Exodus story, but also an extension into the period of the Judges – the next step in the growth of Israel.  One of the evidences of this is the retelling of Israel pre-history.  Book of Judges chapter 6 tells the story of one Gideon who was a Judge of Israel. When the elders of Israel came to him to complain about the overall situation of life, Gideon launches into the following Oracle from God:

“When the Israelites cried out to the Lord because of Midian, he sent them a prophet, who said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians. And I delivered you from the hand of all your oppressors; I drove them out before you and gave you their land. 10 I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’ But you have not listened to me.”

So far, that jives with what we know from the Book of Exodus.   However, when the elders of Israel in captivity come before Ezekiel to complain about the overall situation of life, Ezekiel delivers the following:

‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: On the day I chose Israel, I swore with uplifted hand to the descendants of Jacob and revealed myself to them in Egypt. With uplifted hand I said to them, “I am the Lord your God.” On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of Egypt into a land I had searched out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most beautiful of all lands. And I said to them, “Each of you, get rid of the vile images you have set your eyes on, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

“‘But they rebelled against me and would not listen to me; they did not get rid of the vile images they had set their eyes on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt.

This is a very different account of the days of Exodus.  In what way is it different?

1.  Ezekiel says that God revealed himself to the Israelites before he began the work of the plagues.  The Book of Exodus maintains that God revealed himself through the plagues and then called Israel out to the desert so that he could meet with His people.

2 Ezekiel says that Israel was told not to worship the Idols of Egypt.  Gideon says they were told not to worship the Idols of the Amorites.  Exodus does not mention it.

3. Ezekiel says that the people rebelled and held tight to their idols (“…nor did they forsake the idols…”), the ones they were already worshipping in Egypt.  Gideon does not mention this, and version we have from Exodus maintains the purity of Israel – which is why they were spared the Angel of Death.

What does this give us then?   It gives us three different versions of the Exodus story, plainly printed for all to read.  Two of these versions begin with the phrase “This is what the Lord says…”.   This should immediately present a problem to those who hold to the argument that the Bible was literally “dictated” by God in it’s current form.   You can see in the two examples above where God is “dictating” two different stories.

Before I go any further, I want to explicitly state that this is not an attack on the authenticity of the scripture that we find in the library we know today as the Bible; more specifically the Old Testament. On the contrary, having somewhat of a mystical streak myself, I find this is actually more engaging to my soul – a more fertile ground upon which to meditate on the wonders of the works of God.   To me, because it is not exact, means that man had to struggle and still must struggle to understand what God is about. But I digress….

So, why did I name this blog entry “Beyond Reproach” ??   Well, to put it bluntly, Ezekiel wasn’t some hairbrained maniac come down from the hills, he wasn’t a country hick, or worse yet, a lesser prophet.  This man was a fully trained and practicing priest decended from the proper families of priesthood. This means that he was fully apprenticed, studied and versed in ALL scripture and books of the law …..especially including the Torah (the first five books of the Bible).  Ezekiel, like all priests, was trained to memorize the Torah and pass it down from generation to generation orally. The oral tradition is an established fact.

In short, Ezekiel is a very unique prophet, with an impressive set of credentials that are absolutely beyond reproach.  So how could he get this wrong?  I don’t think he did get this wrong.  Once again, it is the job of the prophet to speak to the truth of the situation and to reveal a deeper, more complete picture of what God is doing that man may or may not be aware of.  From Ezekiel’s perspective, or any true prophet, it is God who must be worshipped with faith, not a book or a statue or a building, etc. Faith needs no monuments to itself and neither does God.

And, I daresay, neither does this book, for it is a work of faith as well.

As I read through this amazing sacred text, I am struck again and again by the fact that so much of Ezekiel gets swept under the rug or dismissed outright. It’s a wonder that it remains in the Bible canon as we have it today instead of being edited out like so many other sacred books.  Honestly, several of the commentaries dismiss most of these chapters from 18-22 as mere repetitions of judgments pronounced earlier.  But you have to ask yourself, why would Ezekiel (or his followers and scribes) do that. It’s not like resources were easy to come by while in captivity and the law of minimums says that you do what ever it takes to complete the task, but only what it takes. So repetition for repetition’s sake, to me, seems like a lightweight way to blow off this content without really digging in to see what God is about.  Faith takes work, discipleship takes diligence.  Either that, or many feel the message is just too obscure to make out, so they head on to easier works.

I submit that the messages contained here in Ezekiel chapter 20 are neither repetitious nor irrelevant to the object of our current social conditions. They are here and now the same issues faced by Ezekiel’s own people.  The spirit of vision which lifted Ezekiel’s stylus to papyrus or tablet is quite different from the effort of today’s man to stifle and contain that same spirit of prophecy by heralding the merits of a one size fits all interpretation of scripture.  We, today’s people are not Moses, and therefore should not have the expectation that God will dictate scripture to us, just for our benefit alone, and hand it to us in a single bound volume known as the Bible. That would just be arrogant.  It shows a startling lack of faith if scriptural exactness is the test-of-the-day in order to justify a daily belief in the concept of a just God.

Ezekiel wasn’t hung up on scriptural exactness, and he was a person really hung up on precision and detail. He was beyond reproach.  So  maybe, if an in-exact scripture was OK for this prophet, this priest, this man of God beyond reproach, maybe we can ease up and not be so hung up on the manmade need for an inerrant scripture.

I am almost done with Chapter 20 of Ezekiel. There are just a couple more points to touch on next time and then I can move on to Chapter 21.

Peace.

 

 

 

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.”

Ezekiel blog 6: Now to get things going…

This blog entry will be a little longer than the others because we are dealing with a transition from Ezekiel encountering whole new concepts about God at a personal level into his new role of watchman for Israel and to the immediate tasks at hand. All of this relates to the end of Chapter 3 and the beginning of chapter 4 of the book of Ezekiel.

We start with our guy face down on the plain or open desert country – literally face down.  It must have been overwhelming to Ezekiel to come face to face with the Glory of God and to be taught whole new concepts in a religion Ezekiel thought he knew pretty well to begin with.

We are told that the Spirit came in, the Spirit raised him up, and then the Spirit spoke to him.  That is an interesting progression of perception and so vastly different from the get well quick and everything will be fixed for you right now mentality of some subsections of modern Christian programming.  I’m speaking about the type of belief subset where a person experiences an inconvenience, makes a bland statement about general belief or maybe says a quick formula prayer, cleverly seizes an opportunity to overcome the inconvenience and then states that “God must be blessing me today”.

That is worlds different than Ezekiel being pushed to the end of his strength and endurance to where his brain overloads and he collapses.  And then, right there, at that point, the Spirit comes in.  Why?   Because there is room for the Spirit of God now. Ezekiel is empty and has become a possible sacred vessel for the Holy Spirit.  Vessel, not a possessed mannequin,…a vessel – big difference.

Now Ezekiel has seen his visions, he has heard the Word of righteousness, judgment, and warning. He has so much to tell, Ezekiel must have been bursting at the seams to get started.  Except for one thing…

God’s first task to Ezekiel is to go lock himself in his house and not say a word.  Not only that, he will be bound with ropes, probably by his own people so that he will not be able to openly share what he has seen.  Those in religious authority over the community would have good reason to fear a new voice, for there is much power to be held when people live in fear and are looking for some kind of direction.

For that matter, this isn’t exactly news.  Ask any new minister wanting to try a fresh approach and you will hear the same thing. There are always walls of resistance immediately built.  Colleagues will begin to say things like, “You can’t say that -it’s not the way we do things around here”, “I know you want to change things, but maybe you should listen to wiser heads”, or “This is not the mainstream message we’ve always worked with.” etc.  You know the drill.   Jesus faced this, Moses, faced this, John the Baptist faced this.  It’s nothing new and God was telling Ezekiel that the same would happen to him.

But the timing was all in God’s favor anyway.  Let them bind Ezekiel to prevent him from rocking the boat. And if they wanted to preview Ezekiel’s message first – and in private – God would bind up Ezekiel’s mouth.  In other words, God was going to speak, when He was good and ready to,  and not until all his current judgments had been completed on Israel’s sorry state.

God had a message for the people, a message of change in thinking.  This message had begun with Jeremiah.  It was a message that would challenge the status quo mentality of the established clergy who was wholly focused on the supposed glory days of the Temple.

I think that Ezekiel must have been reflecting on the story of Moses’ inability to talk and being bound and brought before Pharoah.  How absurd that the role of Egypt was being fulfilled by his own people.  This must have crystallized the belief of Ezekiel that God was right.

And that brings us to the first sign.  Now most of the prophets that we read about in the Old Testament had a format of writing down their visions, sometimes in prose, and sometimes in poetry/song. In any event, there was the presentation of the message, the pronouncement in the courts of the rulers of Israel, etc.

Ezekiel – not so much.   He is told to get a clay tablet and draw a picture of Israel on it so that he can symbolically lay siege to the city and portray the actuality of Israel’s total isolation – of being completely cut off.  Now, how do you draw a picture of a city on a 6×9 clay tablet so that anyone can tell what it is?   If you think about tourist maps, the kind you get in most costal towns, city areas are always represted by some kind of landmark.  San Francisco is always  represented by the Golden Gate Bridge and that Pyramid sky scraper. I imagine that Ezekiel represented Jerusalem by its pinnacle landmark, the Temple – the very place that has God so upset – the place that epitomizes the very corruption of faith which caused this whole mess in the first place.

In a way, it kind of reminds me of some other forms of representational imagery used in religious circumstances.  For instance, Navajo tribal elders will spend days creating a beautiful sandpainting which contains images that lead tribal members to meditate on specific elements of their faith.  Thoses images are the focus until the end of the ceremony at which time, the painting is destroyed and the sands cast to the wind.

Same thing going on here with Ezekiel.  On this image of Jerusalem will he focus his attention for over one year of time.  I imagine it was quite the conversation piece for anyone who stopped by to visit.  And if you think about it, the warning for the coming events did last for well over a year. It’s not as if God was acting like some sleeping giant who suddenly came to to life in anger and inexplicably destroyed Jerusalem.  This had been coming on for a good long time and Jerusalem had been warned many times over by a God who is very patient.

And this transition for Ezekiel from observer of vision, to focal point of the attention of Israel must have been a heavy burden for Ezekiel.  It is plain to see at this point, that the stage had been set and the very first element of Ezekiel’s message will carry us through the rest of the connected actions of warning and judgment.  It is not obscure as in so many other areas of prophetic writing. This is as clear as a whiteboard drawing in one of today’s business briefing rooms. God is pointing to this simple drawing of a city on a hill and saying “This, this right here. This is the problem. It has been the problem and it’s still the problem.”