Ezekiel blog 66: The playground slide

Ezekiel chapter 46 is Ezekiel’s way of showing that God is not an oblivious parent and that selfish behavior, or ‘getting away with it’, is not acceptable.

Ever take a child to the neighborhood playground and watch them climb around on jungle-gym/slide combo equipment?  Seems like as often as not that there is someone’s kid hanging around at the top of the slide making it difficult for the other kids to take a turn at the slide. You know the situation, you’ve seen it before.  The kid goes down the slide and then turns around and walks back up the slide to take another turn. This blocks up the whole pattern and builds frustration with the other kids who are patiently waiting to share the slide. It is a selfish, and self centered behavior that is encouraged every time that child’s parents are oblivious to the actions of their own children.

For the most part, children are still growing and learning, but adults should know better.  That is the point that Ezekiel was making in this chapter, and it is a point that is consistent with themes from his other chapters.

At verse 9, Ezekiel makes an astonishing directive. Anyone who enters the temple through the north door, must leave through the south door – including the Prince. He’s supposed to follow the same path as everyone else.  Anyone who enters the temple through the south door, must leave through the north.

It would seem that Ezekiel’s sense of practicality is surfacing here.  Though this may sound trivial, there is common sense here because it prevents the very scenario I describe in the introduction of this chapter regarding the playground slide. There is no possibility that someone with an inflated sense of self-importance could enter the door to the inner sanctuary and post ‘body-guards’ to block the way for everyone else until they come back out.  This arrangement goes a long way towards discouraging a VIP mindset among the self-described elite.

The other message is that sharing is a two way street.  In a very real sense, Ezekiel envisioned a community of holy worshippers who came to this place of offering, sacrifice, and prayer, all sharing it equally. To that end, sharing requires both giving and receiving. Giving way for others to come before the Lord, receiving a place to worship in turn.  Sharing is always a two way street because it empowers healthy respect for others as well as a healthy self-respect. It can start with one person, one side of sharing, but should spread to the other side, the other person, if it is done with the right spirit.  If it is not doing that, then it is not sharing.

The very end of the chapter 46 is an interesting little bit of functional sharing.  It became more clear when I built the 3D model in minecraft.  Verses 22-24 describe the roasting pits, or outdoor cooking areas placed in each corner of the outer court.  This is the area that has all those equal sized rooms all along the avenue.  In today’s terms, these are Bar-B-Q pits stationed equally around the area where the priests are to cook the people’s offerings. No backlogging here, take it and go please.  But in this way, it emphasizes the point that even among the priesthood that serve the temple, there is enough for all and there are not special areas for some and not for others.

Ezekiel has proven true to his themes yet again in this whole passage: fairness, sharing, equality, justice, service, and consideration.

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 64: Prose of fidelity

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

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

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

Why?  What does that say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ezekiel blog: Temple video – rooms for all the offerings

temple-and-roomsThis is the third video tour of the temple complex described in Ezekiel’s vision as recorded in Ezekiel chapter 42. Animated tour is done using Minecraft to build a 1/4 scale replica (or as close as can be rendered using Minecraft tools.).

Here is the video link: https://youtu.be/bP2f4Ugf33k

In chapter 42 Ezekiel shines a light on what is probably the central most important aspect of building (rebuilding) the temple for his people who are in bondage. What is important to Ezekiel in his vision is the primary function of having a place to bring offerings, make sacrifices, and pray.  That is what the Temple’s primary purpose is – nothing else.  Having the Temple serve other roles is what got the people of Jerusalem into trouble in the first place.

Offerings, sacrifices, and prayer. That is the central focus, the core foundation of the faith to which Ezekiel is calling his people to return.  For us today, one could tag this with the oft repeated axiom, “keep it simple,…”

Everything about the construction of the Temple complex, the layout of the gates, the guards for the gates, the resident priests, the rooms for pilgrimage travelers to stay, rooms for the offerings, and special priests to manage and assist with each of these offerings.  That is the purpose of priesthood. That is the purpose of all of this structure, to assist the people with their personal journey.

It is as Ezekiel says, to create a divide between the common and the sacred, this place was created.  So that the people can come away from the common, it was to be a place to approach the sacred, and to pray.

Notice that ultimately, it is the prayer, sacrifice, and offering of the people who have come that is enshrined, not those who hold office or title.

 

 

Ezekiel blog: My version of the end of the world Part II

PhoenixFireEzekiel 39.  In this chapter, Ezekiel, the Prophet of a subjected people,  brings us full circle back to the primary thought of his entire 25 years of prophetic experience.  This is the chapter that is supposed to describe the final battle of Gog and Magog.  A battle that is supposedly referenced in other apocalyptic works such as Revelations.  However, reading this chapter reveals that Ezekiel’s primary focus was on a completely different goal, something other than a triumphant play-by-play of a sensational battle.  In fact, the true goal of the chapter, and the previous chapter 38, is clearly stated in Verse 7 where Ezekiel writes, “I will make known my holy name among my people Israel. I will no longer let my holy name be profaned.”  Interesting that it is verse 7 no less – more on that later on.

“How can you say that?!”, you protest.  After all, the very first verse of the chapter 39 is directing Ezekiel to prophesy against Gog, saying that God was against him….whoever he was, chief prince of this land and that. That must mean that an actual literal person was being described. Which also means that a literal actual battle is being described, right?

Um, no. Not quite. Looking at verse 17, Ezekiel is also directed to prophesy to all the birds of the air and wild beasts, calling them to a feast.  In fact, Ezekiel uses the key word of ‘assemble together’ which was discussed in my last blog entry as being the functional opposite of the word Gog.   This is a poetic analog to let the people of Israel, who were currently in bondage in Babylon, that they would be free to gather, coming together in a sacred way, to ‘assemble’, which is the key to the word ‘synagogue’.   In other words, the call was to go out to all the people both free and bond that it was time to come back to the faith. That resurgence of faith, the return to the practice of the true religion, would have very prominent sacred demarcations.

Firstly thought, lets deal with Ezekiel Chapter 39, verse 2.  This verse corresponds to verse 4 in chapter 38.  Both of these verses refer to a very brutal, old world way of steering horses by use of a primitive bridal.  Hooks in the mouth are effective and unmerciful ways of controlling an animal such as a horse.  The imagery here is that there was no choice about the matter on the part of the ‘hordes of nations’ that were being gathered.  Everything that had happened and was about to happen were at the discretion, permission, and direction of God.

Now this flies in the face of the prominent theories today about these chapters of Ezekiel where is it considered a description of the final battle for mankind.  Embedded in that theory is the idea that this bad and awful army will assemble of their own accord, out of the hatred I their hearts and come for the sacred people who will be surrounded.  These people will be outnumbered, but react (be reactive) to the impending threat. This motivates them to a righteous battle (whatever that is supposed to be) where God comes swooping in and makes them all invincible mega-warriors that end up dominating the scene resulting in an almost total annihilation of consummate bloodshed. Somehow this slaughter is looked up with glee and joy by God as a validation of holiness.

At this point you should be scratching your head and wondering how any of that could possibly make any sense as it is completely inconsistent with anything written in the gospels, the writings of the apostles, the Psalms, the Proverbs, Jeremiah, or the Torah.  A Christian reader should immediately spot the contradiction of the supposed necessity of a great sacrifice of blood on the mountain of Israel, a sacrifice by God, to be made after the advent of a risen Christ, who was to be the ultimate sacrifice of blood for the whole world. It does not make sense. Sorry, this entire book is not a foretelling of an impending zombie apocalypse.

No.  Quite the contrary, God is allowing the nations to come with their religions, just like they did the first time when the temple was polluted with idolatry.  He’s drawing them all to a first row seat where his holiness will be validated by a return to faith by his people. They will abstain from their unfaithful practices of the past even though the nations have come to lure them, and the religions of these nations will fall in defeat on the mountain of Israel (otherwise known as places of sacrifice within the temple).   In Ezekiel’s message, God wants to confront the false religions of the world, the ones that lead his people away with idol worship, so that He can make his name Holy in the eyes of Israel, and before the world as well.    It is a message that is much more consistent with the message of all these other sacred and prophetic writings.

What sacred demarkations would herald such an movement then?   Where do we find these clues in Ezekiel’s writings?

In Verse 3, Ezekiel states that God, not God’s army, will strike the bow and the arrow from the right and left hands of Gog – who has become God’s horse temporarily. In other words, God had turned Gog into a tool to be used and the impressive instruments of intimidation have been knocked to the ground. Why? Because true faith can not be spread by oppression and intimidation.  Following this, there is a reference to fire in Verse 6. Fire is an analogue of prayer and sacrifice as sacrifices are burned.  This is confirmed in verses 18 and 19 where the defeated hosts of the oppressive false religions are consumed as sacrifices. Incidentally, this is also a confirmation of a non-literal aspect of this entire chapter for no true Prophet of God would condone or encourage cannibalism as this does not glorify God. Yet that is what these verses would indicate. Clearly, these are again poetic analogies, images used to convey a spiritual overtone to the conflict.

It is a well documented historical fact that Hebrew culture embraced elements of numerology – the practice of ascribing significance and meaning to various key numbers. In other words, numbers were used to convey shades of color about places, people, points in time.  It is a vast topic beyond the scope of this paper. However, at the risk of over-simplification, two very prominent numbers are well known in Prophetic writing: the number 6 and the number 7.  The number 6 is meant to represent that which is the opposite of perfect, what western culture describes as evil. The number 7 is used to describe perfection or holiness, western culture calls this good. Terms such as “Seventh Heaven” are derived from ancient beliefs of an ascendancy to greater levels of perfection defined as heavens until the 7th level of ultimate perfection is reached.

“Seven” is all over the 39th Chapter of Ezekiel, starting with Verse 7, as mentioned above, where Ezekiel declares the purpose of the chapter, which is to make known God’s holy name. The number seven is used to indicate that knowledge of God’s name is a sign of perfection.

Verse 9 continues with a statement that it will take Seven years to burn up all of the weapons that are gathered from the defeated conglomeration of Gog and Magog.  And, once again the reference to fire, things being burned in the fire, is a reference to sacrifices being burned on the alter.  Seven years of ridding the land of every tool that was used to advance the false religions which had overrun the land of the Hebrews.  Not so unimaginable as all that since by the time the Israelites returned from their captivity in Babylon, it would have been 70 years absence.  Nevertheless, seven years of purification of the land, another sign of perfection – that God’s redemption of the people and the land is perfect.

Ezekiel continues this theme in Verse 12 by saying it will take Seven Months to bury all the bodies of the fallen.  He indicates they will do this ‘to make the land clean again’.   So the number seven (months) used to indicate a process of cleansing, for according to the books of the Torah, it was unclean to leave bodies laying about. Are these real human remains, possibly. In some cases, very likely. But everything else has been symbolic, why should not the reference of human remains be symbolic as well, just as the story of the Valley of the Bones was also symbolic?

To me, God’s battle has always been against false religions that steal away truth, that pervert justice, that enslave hearts and souls, and lead his cherished people to dark areas of idolatry. That is the wolf he warns of encircling his flock. God has never cared about this general or that. God never advised that a King be appointed in Israel in the first place, much less anywhere else.  Ezekiel speaks to this in Verse 11 with a single eloquent sentence, “ Gog, at that time I will bury you in a grave in Israel.” It is one of the more remarkable times that God is characterized as speaking directly to something or someone other than the prophet. God wants to bury unbelief in a grave in the newly consecrated ground of Israel, a place made holy, as Holy as His name.

It’s easy, when reading this chapter to think that these verses are about retribution, or even vengeance. But that has not been the way of God, nor the intent of His wishes during this message.  Ezekiel reveals a truer look into the mind of God  in verse 22 and 23. To summarize, (My) People of Israel will know me AND the Nations will know.  Verse 23 & 24 answers WHY this was all done: They (Israel) were not faithful to God. They were unclean. They did many things which were wrong. So God turned his face away.   This is key.  The message embedded in all this imagery is directed FIRST at the Hebrew people so that they can understand their choices had consequences that were being played out. Those consequences were designed to bring them back to a remembrance of their true faith, so that they would know God and keep His name Holy.  It was directed at them. This is the core of Ezekiel’s mission, which is why these two chapters are so intensively tied to Ezekiel’s core message and not to some trendy and fashionable super-army-takes-on-the-world fantasy.  Ezekiel could care less about that.

Further, if this supposed end-of-all-things battle was really the climax of the book of Ezekiel’s writings, then logically, the book should end right there. If this was the final message, there would be no need to continue on. But in the larger scheme of Ezekiel’s writings, the story of Gog and Magog are really only a small blip – two rather average chapters.  Ezekiel spent more time describing the relationship between Israel and Tyre. The book of Ezekiel continues on beyond this segment to his real climactic ending in the final 10 chapters. (that’s ten whole chapters) following this segment.  That’s where the fulfillment of his vision is described in exacting detail.

Just as wonderfully, the message of Ezekiel in this immediate chapter, 39, goes way beyond redemption of Israel. It goes beyond simple recovery of a piece of land.  Also included in the idealized statements of the state of holiness and perfection that has been worked upon the recovered people of Israel is a missional statement.  Verse 27 holds this additional value to the entire effort when God states, “And I will use them to prove to many nations how holy I am.”   Ah, the many nations. They have seen that their ways do not last and have no power. In Ezekiel’s mind, they will also see the truth and come to wonder.

As I said before, these chapters are about sacredness, purity of faith, redemption, and most of all Hope.

My version of the end of the world has no end. Just hearts trying to learn something new and giving up on stuff that just doesn’t do anybody any good.

 

 

 

Ezekiel blog: Dem Bones – seriously – Dem bones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on this in the next chapter.

 

 

 

 

Ezekiel blog: whiplash

The thing about coming to grips with Ezekiel chapters 36-39 as a set – so to speak – is to go back to the original foundation for this framework of understanding Ezekiel.  It is essential to remember that of all the Great Prophets, Ezekiel is unique, and as earlier established, well beyond reproach.  He is unique because he was formally trained to be a Priest of the Temple. That means he was able to recite from memory the entire Torah (first five books of today’s modern Bible).  He was extensively versed in all law (what eventually became the Mishnah) as well as completely familiar with the entire history of Kings and High Priests of Israel/Judah.  Ezekiel would have been intimately familiar with all temple practice, orthodox or otherwise, and would have also a pretty standard working knowledge of all “business” transactions, contracts, and covenants made within the walls of the temple and their impact on the government of Jerusalem.   Today, Ezekiel would be  PHD in Theology, with a double minor in political history and business law.  Quite a guy.

Why is that important when considering Chapters 36-39?  In order to answer that question, another question must be posed:  What would be the primary question that a formally trained Priest of the Temple be most interested in answering – especially to his people under armed occupation so far from their homeland and holy Temple?  What question would Ezekiel want to answer most of all?

In my mind, Ezekiel’s most challenging question to answer would be: What kind of God do we worship?

Think about it for a minute.  First of all, his people are held prisoner under armed guard and those guards worship a completely different god – or pantheon of gods. And they came to Jerusalem and conquered. It would appear that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was powerless to stop it.  Worse, it would seem from Ezekiel’s own words that the God they worshipped – those that did keep the faith – seemed to bent on their absolute destruction. So, why should these people put in the effort?  Why not change religions and go with the flow in Babylon? Afterall, Jeremiah had recommended that the people just go with Babylon, submit to their rule. Why hold the line on religion? Who is God and what can he do?

A priest of the temple would relish this question and answer it by telling a story, by painting a picture of hope.   This is key to understand chapters 36-39 because if we fall into lockstep with the majority of commentaries, we are faced with some very puzzling problems with the texts as written.  The problems become so evident, that many authors are forced into large circular paths of apologetics, or fall into a synchronized tactical narrative which portrays the prophet as as A.D.D. afflicted fortune teller crouched eagerly over his crystal ball.   This has the unfortunate side effect of  casting God – especially as described in the Old Testament – as capricious, fickle, and subject to whims of on-again-off-again affections much like a precocious preadolescent child.  In fact, it sounds very much like the type of god-like behavior we become accustomed to when studying classic Greek mythology.

Consider the following sequence of chapter 36-39 as told by Ezekiel:

  • Tomorrow – the mountains of Israel will grow again
  • Some time in the far future – an army of bones will rise into a real army
  • In a short while – the people will be restored to Jerusalem and Israel will be one
  • Some time way in the future – a great coalition of evil nations will rise and threaten Jerusalem
  • Once all that is done – the fortunes of Israel will be restored.EzekielTimeline

Did anyone besides me get whiplash from that?   Yeah, even with the pretty colors, this just doesn’t make any sense – especially to a bunch of displaced Hebrew civilians living under armed guard.

……….Unless you ask the right question….such as “What kind of God do we worship?”

Here we have Ezekiel, a priest of the temple, answering to his people

we worship a God who can heal the land back to a place of milk and honey – give food to his people like the manna of Moses time.
We worship a God who is capable of defeating death itself and raising the strength of his people
We worship a God who can restore his people, who will go searching for those that are lost and remembers each one
We worship the same God who defeated Pharaoh, and who defeated all the combined nations across the Jordan. He is the same God who will defeat the very worst we can imagine, if……if we stay true to our faith.
And…According to chapter 36, We worship a God who does all of this for His own reasons and for His own Namesake – which is a very interesting concept.

It was always Ezekiel’s mission to call his people back to a remembrance of their origins, to return back to their faith, and to send a message of hope. Chapters 36 through 39 provide answers to desperate questions arising from a crisis of faith.

In addition, these four chapters set up the finale of the book of Ezekiel which moves away from the troubles at hand to Ezekiel’s vision of religious perfection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus

Lost sheep

Lazarus

Prodigal son

 

 

 

 

 

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: Last installment for chapter 33

Today’s naughty word: Entitlement.

Ezekiel has lead us, the questing reader, through a series of concepts in chapter 33.  These themes addressed taking responsibility for one’s situation, recognizing God’s view of justice, and owning the task of making choices that affect our lives and the lives of everyone in the community.  Now, finally, Ezekiel addresses another one of his recurring themes throughout the book:  having an inappropriate sense of entitlement.   As in, “I deserve this, because I am {insert self-justification here}”, or “This is mine because I claimed it in the name of…myself”,  or more simply Might-makes-right.  God, through Ezekiel takes this head on.

The sword had come through and devestated the entire area, but there were many who survived. It seems that those people who were left living in the hills surrounding Jerusalem, following its conquest by Babylon, were carried away by a sense of having survived the worst automatically entitled them to the spoils of defaulted property rights of those that didn’t, or who were in no position to stand up for their rights.    And they gathered together and reasoned together, as reasonable human beings do.

This is what they came up with.  Since Abraham, our father possessed this land All By Himself – ’cause he was just one man – How much more right is it to possess all of this land, divided amongst those of us who are left remaining.  For our numbers are so much more than one, so that makes us approved to just appropriate the holdings of those less fortunate.

Ezekiel’s stance was firm as he voiced God’s disapproval of this social / mental framework. This was a bad attitude to take in the face of the mercy recently shown by being spared. To receive mercy and patience, but not to share it on with neighbors, friends, relatives?  That doesn’t fly.

To believe that because of a relatively high headcount you have strength to make a claim, and might makes right?  Ezekiel, one of the Four Great Prophets of the Bible, he says No. That is not right, not ethically, not morally, not spiritually.

And where was the gratitude to God for being spared? Hmmm.  Where were the burnt offerings, where were the peace offerings, where were the sin offerings?  Why was no one fasting and kneeling down in what remained of their fields to offer humble prayers of thanks.

God speaks out here, at the end of Chapter 33, because the focus of the community was on the gain of the individual at the expense of the victims.  That is a way of life that is not consistent with any of Ezekiel’s teachings. It is not the way of a people of true faith or true Humility.  Entitlement is not a value that God looked upon with favor.  See my earlier posts on Ezekiel regarding ‘Jerusalem is the pot, and we are the meat’.

I saw an image with a quote, which I’ll include here.  To summarize, it may be human to look for opportunities of entitlement, but that is not the path to healthy relationships, or to healthy community. It certainly does not draw the soul into appreciation, nor does it work in any way to strengthen, defend or purify the spirit.

Ezekiel’s messages? We can do better.

Ezekiel blog: Vol. II: cliff notes for a stressed out refugee

When I ended my last blog entry – after wrapping up Ezekiel 32 – I mentioned that we had come to the end of the first half of Ezekiel.  Conventional thought breaks his writings into a first half and second half. However, I think I was wrong to position it that way, to go along with the crowd. After all, this blog is about finding my way out into open country, to breathe fresh theological and spritual air, and to cut through the artificial super-imposed noise collected over the centuries  – as it comes to this book, the writings of Ezekiel the Prophet. (It may be helpful to go back to the beginning of this blog to find out what all this is about and how I am exploring a new framework as applied to Ezekiel’s writing.)

After taking a break from the steady pace of progressing through the last seven chapters, I read and reread the next section and was struck by the idea that Ezekiel really cares that anyone who reads his stuff actually understands his stuff.  Quite remarkable really, when you consider the company of the other three great prophets of Biblical scripture and how much symbolism is integrated into each prophetic oracle – it doesn’t seem like it was very fashionable to take a moment to explain yourself or make sure your readers weren’t totally lost.  

Coming into chapter 33, Ezekiel breaks that mode of operation. The result is sort of a cliff notes, a distillation down, of the major themes represented throughout the first 32 chapters.  Over the next few blog entries, it seems appropriate to sample through these thematic messages and meditate over their central meaning, not only to the people of Israel captive in Babylon, but how it relates to us as modern readers.

As an example of this summation approach, consider the first 6 verses of Ezekiel chapter 33.  As I have mentioned before, it is the job of a prophet to speak to the truth of the situation as it exists in the hearts and attitudes of the people to whom God is choosing to provide ministry and guidance. A true prophet really isn’t interested in external validation – after all,….why would he/she? The prophet is plugged into a direct conduit of information and insight. (and this appears to be the trap that so many of the commentaries I’ve read fall dreadfully into – believing that the prophet is at the mercy of external validation or correllation.)

But in these six verse we get a step by step examination of theology which addresses the most basic of all questions for people who are experiencing a crisis of faith:  “Who is responsible for my current condition?” ….Who is responsible?

So the summary that God gives to Ezekiel goes like this:

If I alert you to something, you are supposed to pass it on. So if you don’t pass it on, and something untoward happens to the people I was trying to reach, then it is your fault and you are responsible even though they are the ones who may have been misguided in their choices.  It is your fault.

However, if you do pass it on (help me connect) and the message is disregarded by these people, you are not responsible, not at fault, if something happens to them.  It is their fault. 

It would be tempting to stop right there and determine that these six verses are about fault, that they are about ascribing blame.  But there is a much more significant meaning to be found and it is right in the first sentence of my summation which went, “If I alert you…” to restate.  Now some could argue that my summation has put in different meaning than what is actually written in the scriptural verse.  Well then, Ezekiel 33:1 begins with “The word of the Lord came to me…”

The verse is about communication from a God that cares. Ezekiel is saying that this should not be discounted out of hand. It should be held in esteem and carried forward.  I say carried forward because the Spirit is always in motion, moving throughout all the Earth – every part.  It is not for us as humans to try to thwart, restrain, or deflect.   And even though these verses refer to “the sword” and “the trumpet” speak to most people as images of war, it still remains that imagery is the most basic form of communication.  

It’s also of note that the Trumpet was a tool for signaling alarm along with calling people to praise at the temple, rattling the walls of Jericho, and even the sound accompanying the voice giving the law as it originated on the heights of Mount Sinai.  This was the exact image that Ezekiel wanted his people to remember, especially since every essence of his writings for the first 32 chapters were a call to rememberance of the national and spiritual origins of a people truly re-lost in the desert, in with wilderness of Babylon, so very far from home, and wondering who is responsible.

There is more to be found in the next verses, but,…next time.