Monday, June 16, 2014

Ezekiel 8-13: Visions of Jerusalem

Raphael's Ezekiel's Vision, from the early 1500s.  This iconic painting looks nothing
even remotely like the visions of God described in the first 13 books of Ezekiel.
Ezekiel 8, like Ezekiel 1, has a well defined beginning:
In the sixth year, in the sixth month on the fifth day, while I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting before me, the hand of the Sovereign LORD came upon me there.
I am curious about the chronology here, but I think the “sixth year” might be the sixth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin (cf. 1:2, if you are really into this sort of thing). That would make it about a year and two months since Ezekiel's original visions. That means he would have almost exactly enough time to complete the penitential program of lying on his right side and his left side that I talked about last week (I actually come up exactly one day short when I tried the math, but apparently no one is 100% sure how the calendar of the age worked, so we shan’t be too picky.) Although there’s no narrative of Ezekiel spending the 14 months of his ritual, I think we are supposed to assume that he carried it out between Chapters 7 and 8.

So what happens now is a kind of dream sequence. At least, I think it’s a dream sequence. God comes to Ezekiel again, looking much as he did before, and lifts Ezekiel by his hair up between earth and heaven to Jerusalem. He carries him around the temple and shows him Israelites worshipping idols and the sun. Then God summons six soldiers and a secretary. The secretary is sent to go through the city and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it. (9:4) Then the soldiers are sent out to kill everybody without the mark, regardless of age and sex, without showing pity and compassion. (9:5-6)

After this, the “cherubim” – not angels after all, I guess, unless angels and cherubim mean the same thing – reappear. Chapter 10 describes them in detail, with their four faces and four wings and hands hidden underneath. They are covered with eyes, and they ride in a peculiar fashion on some gyroscope-sounding contraptions, which are also covered with eyes. (Sidebar: These may be what people call “Ezekiel’s wheel,” as no other candidate for the phrase has come up yet, but they aren’t really wheels and there are four of them.) Then, still within the vision (if it is a vision), God calls on Ezekiel to prophesy against Jerusalem’s leaders. There is a confusing metaphor involving meat in a cooking pot, the upshot of which is that the Israelites are going to face destruction now, but that remnants of them will be brought back to Jerusalem in the future.

The vision ends, and in Chapter 12 Ezekiel is told to make a similar prophecy to the exiles he is living among. He is supposed to dig through the wall to make his point (5), which is puzzling. The city wall? Of Babylon? Would that be possible? Wouldn’t he get in trouble for trying?

Chapter 13, finally, is a warning against false prophets, and has the inherent problem of warning against false prophets. In essence, Ezekiel is told to say “Don’t believe those other people when they say God talks to them, because God told me he doesn’t, really.” It makes perfect sense as long as you accept that God is talking to Ezekiel, and not the others. He also inveighs here against women who make magic charms and make veils of various lengths for their heads. (18) This last is a cultural reference that is completely lost on me (really this is probably true of almost every sentence of the Bible, if we are honest) as is a very curious sentence back at 8:17, where God is complaining of the idolatry in Jerusalem and exclaims Look at them putting the branch to their nose! The veils of peculiar lengths and the sniffing of branches are apparently out-of-bounds mystical practices; the details probably aren’t important, but they are kind of wistfully intriguing.

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