Ezekiel takes us to a river in Chapter 47, a river with curious properties. This river has its origin at the very steps of the temple sanctuary, flows from the south side of the complex. It heads East, winding through the land all the way down to the Dead Sea.
Looking around the region to see what other nations/cultures thought about rivers, we find some nice examples in both Babylon and Greece.
Babylonian justice code had a sacred river test. For the questionable case of a suspected magic practitioner the test was sink or swim. Those that could swim to safety were considered innocent.
The Greeks had the river Styx which was named after their goddess Styx. This goddess was put in charge of all oaths and promises, those made of a sacred nature. The Greek story describes a beautiful land at the end of that river, a rich field of forests and green all fed by the river.
Attempting to draw any type definitive connection between these religion’s representational view of these rivers and the river that flows through Ezekiel’s vision can go no further than speculation. It is not possible to say that Ezekiel’s river corresponds to these other rivers. However, it is interesting to note that in all three cases, the rivers were associated with things of a spiritual nature eg. sacred oaths, tests of innocence, sacred justice and law.
In Ezekiel’s case, the river gets deeper and deeper as it flows forth across the land to the point where no one can cross it. Could that symbolize that justice can not be crossed? Who knows. All that we can say is that this part of his vision takes us away from the methodical measurements and exactness of law, and back into the place setting of symbolism and vision.
It’s part of the icing on the cake as Ezekiel begins to close out his series of visions, and part of the final incentive to his people to embrace the calling to faith that Ezekiel is presenting. A river, flowing through the dessert which brings teaming life where ever it goes. Fruit trees grow on both banks and the waters team with fish. So Ezekiel may be telling his people that life flows from the law which proceeds from the Sanctuary of the Temple, from the practice of the faith as described throughout the entire vision.
It should not be overlooked that further a further metaphor is potentially present in the reference to the fruit trees described as growing on both sides of the river. These trees bear their fruit on a monthly cycle and are ready to harvest regularly. It could be said that these trees represent the various other nations or groups of people that live by the law of the temple and are also fed by this water which flows from the temple. The regular fruit harvest could represent their monthly offerings and sacrifices which they bring. The ability to bring offering and sacrifice before the altar of the Lord has been an indicator of how well the people flourished in the land and is referenced in other circumstances.
Moving away from the topic of the river, Ezekiel switches to a geographic explanation as he draws the boundaries of the lands of Israel to show his people the that fruits to be harvested from the river’s bounty will be sufficient for the whole nation. According to his vision, the richness of existence will provide an inheritance worth having, an inheritance assigned to each family and tribe. It is also an inheritance which is not exclusive but to be shared with others who choose to live by the law.
In a return to Ezekiel’s theme of fairness and social justice, Ezekiel makes a special note about the population in the final verses of the chapter. Verse 22 states: “You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.”
In other words, Ezekiel is anticipating that the benefits of being a faithful people, a people who abide by the law, will attract others to come live in the land of Israel and be part of the community. From the very outset, Ezekiel’s vision was inclusive, not exclusive. In Ezekiel’s view, many would want to come and live according to the faith, to be near the temple and practice Offering, Sacrifice, and Prayer.