Monday, July 14, 2014

Ezekiel 25-32: Bad News for the Neighbors

Starting at Ezekiel 25, we return to a theme that we have seen with our earlier prophets: the Israelites are doomed, but all of the peoples are around them are too. (see eg. Isaiah 17-24)  Ezekiel delivers the bad news to the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Edomites, and the Philistines (25); to Tyre, (26-28); to Sidon (28); and to Egypt (29-32). The section on Tyre includes a “lament” (27) with an interesting section describing all of the merchandise that flowed through that port, and where it came from, which amounts to a little economic geography of the contemporary Levant. Cool! Chapter 31 is an allegory that, in the NIV, is incorrectly titled “Pharoah as a Felled Cedar of Lebanon.” The Felled Cedar of Lebanon actually represents Assyria, in a story meant to unnerve Pharoah. (Read Verses 3 and 18 if you don’t believe me.) It’s kind of surprising to find this kind of editorial mistake in a text as thoroughly-studied as the Bible, for crying out loud, but maybe the scatteredness of the “Lebanese cedar, Assyrian state, Egyptian king” passage threw the NIV committee off their game.

Anyway. With prophecy, it is always reasonable to ask “did it come true.” With the Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, Philistines, Tyrians (?), and Sidonites (??), the answer is of course “maybe! Who knows?” There don’t seem to be many folks around these days who describe themselves as Moabites, for instance. Egyptians are of another stripe altogether, however, and although of course the nation has had its ups and downs over the millennia, there has always been an Egypt. The extravagant capacity of the Nile Valley to produce food has made it a global center of population since before the first harvest. And this makes many of the specifics about Egypt (e.g. “Egypt will become a desolate wasteland” (29:9)) essentially wrong. (If you are into forensic climatology, and who isn’t really, there is a counterargument that could be made here based on the historical aridification of the Sahara.  But, the rightness of that argument is pretty thin relative to the entire prophecy’s wrongness.)

The most famous quotation from Ezekiel in many circles. Not, however, an actual quotation from
Ezekiel.  The verse in question, with the King James language, reads "And I will execute
great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the
LORD, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them." Ezekiel 25:16, the preceding verse, goes
"Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will stretch out mine hand upon the Philistines,
and I will cut off the Cherethims, and destroy the remnant of the sea coast."  Tarantino
got the first three sentences from a kung-fu movie, which should surprise no one.
 I haven’t mentioned this before, but there is a catchphrase that shows up again and again in Ezekiel, and I wince every time I see it. It shows up after almost every prophecy of doom. Here it is in reference to what’s coming for the Philistines: “Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I take vengeance on them.” (17) Why the wince? Well, it’s just such a sulking, childish thing to say. It boils down to “Ha, THAT will show them!” When a fellow adult human talks like that, you’re embarrassed for them, both for their vindictiveness and for their failure to understand human psychology. So, it’s pretty uncomfortable having that language placed in God’s mouth. I understand that God is said to surpass human understanding, and it’s even a logical proposition, but I also recognize petty ignorance when I see it, and so do you.

Honestly, I’m feeling a little bit let down by Ezekiel. He got off to such a great start! And now he’s just another pessimistic political commentator with a conservative agenda and a passion for bringing bad news. One suspects that, then as now, such folks are a shekel a dozen.

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