Monday, June 09, 2014

Ezekiel 1-7: "I saw visions of God"

You hear people talk sometimes about “The Bible as Literature.” Now obviously there’s something to this, in that as a massively old and influential set of texts it’s immensely important in the literary tradition.  But let’s face it: it just isn’t really “literary” in the ordinary sense of the word.  It reads like a very old and capriciously edited scrapbook, which is of course what it is.  Despite the occasional appearance of a solid plotline – David and Bathsheba, say – the storytelling has not been particularly artful or moving.  And although people talk about “the poetry of the King James version,” and that translations powerful imprint on the history of the language, I frankly doubt things are much better over there in point of powerful reading.  I for one have always felt like the haths and thines and sayeths add another layer of distance between a modern reader and the ancient texts. 

I say all this just to emphasize what a great opening line the Book of Ezekiel has. 
1 In my thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.
Isn’t that awesome?  The book opens right there in media res, you know exactly where and when the action is happening, you’ve got some information about the person telling the story, and you are definitely, definitely interested in reading the next sentence.  Now that’s literature! 

In Ezekiel 1, the eponymous prophet describes in great detail his vision of God and his attendants -- what I assume we would have to call “angels” although he does not use that word.

Here’s how here, if I'm not mistaken, most people generally think of angels:

Here’s the best rendering I can find of what Ezekiel describes.

by Australian artist Johnathan Edward Guthmann

And here’s what God looks like in Ezekiel’s vision: a man sitting on a sapphire throne, with an upper body that looks like glowing metal and a lower body of fire, complaining about the Israelites.  Seriously.  In his instructions to Ezekiel, God repeats and repeats and REPEATS that the Israelites are a rebellious, obstinate, and generally obnoxious people. 

Ezekiel’s job is to do what he can to talk some sense into them.  At first, he balks at his new responsibilities.  Ezekiel, a very believable narrator, goes to the people he is supposed to bring his message to, And there, where they were living, I sat among them for seven days—overwhelmed. (3:15)  At the end of the week, God comes back to give him a pep talk.  “If you pass on my warnings and they screw up,” says God – I paraphrase broadly – “it’s their fault.  But if you DON’T pass on my warnings and they screw up, it’s your fault.”  This gets Ezekiel’s attention.

God’s specific instructions to Ezekiel are incredibly demanding.  He is to lie down on his right side for 390 days, representing 390 years of a sinful house of Israel; after which he has to lie on his left side for 40 days to represent 40 years of a sinful house of Judah.  Through all of this, he will be allowed about half a pound of food per day.  In the original instructions he must cook the food using human shit as fuel.  He is able to haggle on this point, however, and talks God into letting him use cow manure instead.  Despite this concession, it doesn't seem like Ezekiel is going to have much fun as a prophet.

Ezekiel is also instructed to shave his head and burn some of his hair, cast some of it to the wind, and slash at some of it with a sword.  This, along with the starvation diet, is prophetic of the coming destruction of Jerusalem.  That's is a little confusing in Biblical sequence, since we saw the destruction of Jerusalem at the end of Jeremiah and lamented its destruction in Lamentations, but here at the beginning of Ezekiel we have slipped backwards in time a few years.  Ezekiel is living among the first waves of exiles from Jerusalem, but the city has not yet fallen.  His starvation diet symbolizes the starvation that will grip the city under siege, a few years in the future, and the business with his hair symbolizes the various fates that the Israelites will face as their kingdom is destroyed. 
In Ezekiel 6, God makes it clear that destruction isn’t just of the city folk of Jerusalem; the mountains and rural areas are also in for it, especially the “high places” where people have worshipped idols and performed unauthorized sacrifices.   Ezekiel 7 is given the title “The End Has Come” in the NIV, and it recalls Jeremiah’s predictions of the fall of Judah – except that, again, the style of the text seems a little more engaging, a little more literary.  Here’s the gist, right here:
15 Outside is the sword;
inside are plague and famine.
Those in the country
will die by the sword;
those in the city
will be devoured
by famine and plague.

16 The fugitives who escape
will flee to the mountains.
Like doves of the valleys,
they will all moan,
each for their own sins.
As I skim ahead, it looks from the section headings that this will not be an especially cheerful book.  We’ll find out more next week!

1 comment:

Steve Kimes said...

Excellent, I completely agree.