Monday, June 23, 2014

Ezekiel 14-18: Doing Prophecy

Our first two installments of Ezekiel were kicked off  by strong narrative passages where the first-person author talked about his experience of receiving visions from God.  At this point in the Book, however, Ezekiel has moved on to actual prophecy, in the sense of delivering messages from God.  These messages don't necessarily involve predictions or revelations about what is going to happen in the future; I'm calling them "prophecy" because their delivery is the function of the prophet, Ezekiel.

There are six discrete messages in this section (which I should make clear is arbitrarily defined by how far I read tonight before I got tired.  Chapters 14 to 18 don't necessarily have a logical unity).

Ezekiel 14:1-11 -- Message: God says that anyone who worships idols may not consult with his prophets, and his prophets may not deliver his messages to them.

Ezekiel 14:12-23 -- Message: God says that the presence of good individual men within a community -- his examples are Noah, Daniel, and Job -- will not save that community from his judgement or vengeance.  An individual's righteousness will save only himself.  Or perhaps herself; it's not specified.

Ezekiel 15 -- Message: In this very short Chapter, God compares the people of Jerusalem to the wood of a vine.  To wit, both are pretty useless.

Ezekiel 16 -- Message: In this very long Chapter, God compares the people of Jerusalem to a child that is lovingly brought up by a doting parent, himself, but who then becomes wayward and wildly promiscuous.  You will bear the consequences of your lewdness and your detestable practices, declares the Lord. (58)  The people will be punished for breaking the covenant, God says, but the covenant will be made again.

Ezekiel 17 -- Message: Son of man, says God to Ezekiel ("son of man" is what God always calls Ezekiel), set forth an allegory and tell the house of Israel a parable. (2)  The parable is a puzzling one involving eagles and vines, and would not make a lick of sense if the second half of the chapter didn't explain it.  It turns out it's kind of a political cartoon, criticizing the last king of Judah, the one put in place after Babylon claimed the first wave of exiles, for trying to set up an alliance with Egypt. 

Ezekiel 18 -- Message: God wants you people to stop saying that in Israel "The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." (2)  That sounds very cryptic, but it's explained in detail and is actually quite interesting.  What people have apparently been saying is that in Israel people are always paying -- probably through God's judgement on the nation as a whole -- for the mistakes of the previous generations.  And no, says God, it doesn't work like that.  The children of a good man are not immune from punishment, and the children of a bad man will not be punished for that man's misdeeds: everyone is judged and punished only for their own behavior, virtue, and righteousness as an individual.

It's a very clear and definitive statement of how God's justice works.  Having said that, it is very puzzling to read it two-thirds of the way into the Bible, after dozens and dozens of instances where whole communities are explicitly punished for sins of individuals, and where communities are punished for things done or at least begun in the times of their parents or grandparents.  The Second Commandment, to take a high-profile example, goes like this:

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Is Ezekiel 18 supposed to be understood as a change of policy, then?  As in, ~henceforth~ everyone will be judged on an individual basis?  Because otherwise, it seems to fit very uncomfortably with God's conception of justice in the rest of the Old Testament to this point.

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