Monday, July 07, 2014

Ezekiel 19-24: Prophecy by Analogy, Prophecy by Doom

Ezekiel, from a triptych by Duccio, c. 1310.
As I continue to make my way through Ezekiel, some of the excitement I felt during its cinematic opening passages has really worn off.  Here in the center Chapters, there is no longer much in the way of narrative pulse.  Each Chapter sits more or less unto itself, and shows Ezekiel in what I called last week "doing prophecy," which is to say communicating the messages that he says God has given him.

Prophecy by Analogy is exemplified in Ezekiel 19, which has two stories about "your mother."  In the first, "your mother" is a lioness whose sons, although they are great lions, are eventually captured and taken to Egypt and Babylon.  In the two, "your mother" is a vine that was once very verdant, until the weather changed and withered it.  These stories are introduced as a lament concerning the princes of Israel.

Prophecy by Doom is a reasonable name for Chapters in which the prophet's message is a rebuke coupled with a threat.  I have often heard the Old Testament, or at least the books of prophecy, dismissed as nothing but a relentless threat of imminent woe, and I'd always assumed it was just so much stereotyping.  But no, there is a ton of Doom Prophecy, and it is certainly not entertaining reading.  Ezekiel 20 is a representative example, as Ezekiel, speaking for God, complains through several paragraphs about how the people of Israel worship idols, and don't keep the sabbath, and so he's really going to punish them now.  In isolation -- and perhaps to Ezekiel's listeners -- it might be sobering and disturbing, but in the context of the Bible it is further rehashing of very familiar themes, with an angry, ranting edge that does not always seem entirely stable.  There are of course those who emphasize the fear of God -- the god-fearing -- and, if we are to trust the prophets, they have a much greater weight of scripture on their side than those who celebrate the love, mercy, wisdom, or justice of God.

Chapters 21 and 22 follow in the Prophecy by Doom line, and like most of the Book of Ezekiel they are mostly warning of the impending destruction of Jerusalem.  So, in its way, is Ezekiel 23, but here we are back in the mode of Prophecy by Analogy.  Chapter 23 reprises a metaphor from Chapter 16, which casts Jerusalem and the Israelites as a depraved and sluttish prostitute.  It is a bit much.  The Jerusalem-prostitute (her name is Oholibah) sees pictures of Babylonian men, and gets so hot and bothered that she sends messengers asking them to come to her, to the bed of love (17) and do the obvious thing.  There she lusted after her lovers, we learn, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses. (20)  I believe the Judean leadership is being criticized here for too accommodating a foreign policy; Ezekiel is clearly not one to hesitate over "going negative" with political rhetoric.

There is another analogy in Chapter 24, which claims to be a prophecy from the first day of the final siege of Jerusalem.  It involves cooking a meat stew.  The more interesting part of the Chapter for me is the second half, in which God announces to Ezekiel that he (God) is going to kill his (Ezekiel's) wife, but that he must not grieve or mourn.  So I spoke to the people in the morning, and in the evening my wife died, Ezekiel reports. (18)  Then the people asked me, "Won't you tell us what these things have to do with us?" (19)  Ezekiel tells them that just as God has handed him a terrible loss and will not countenance grieving, God is about to give all of them a terrible loss -- the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple -- and he will not countenance any mourning out of them, either.

So, this is not cheerful stuff.  There is one passage, the end of Chapter 20, that strikes me as quite funny.  It has classic comic timing, and a punchline that subverts a stern and solemn lead-up with an ingenuous (but not unreasonable) question that kind of undermines the mood.  But is it supposed to be funny?  I certainly doubt it.  But here, you be the judge:
45 The word of the Lord came to me: 46 “Son of man, set your face toward the south; preach against the south and prophesy against the forest of the southland. 47 Say to the southern forest: ‘Hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to set fire to you, and it will consume all your trees, both green and dry. The blazing flame will not be quenched, and every face from south to north will be scorched by it. 48 Everyone will see that I the Lord have kindled it; it will not be quenched.’”

49 Then I said, “Sovereign Lord, they are saying of me, ‘Isn’t he just telling parables?’”

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