Monday, August 04, 2014

Ezekiel 33-39: Justice, Sheep and Shepherds, Bright Futures, and... Reanimated Skeletons

In the first twenty verses of Ezekiel 33, God lays out a theory of justice to the “son of man.” First, through a “watchman” metaphor, he says that a person who allows someone else to do wrong out of ignorance is themselves culpable of the wrongdoing. Secondly, he indicates that righteousness is not entirely cumulative. If you’ve done a lot of bad stuff, in other words, you can still get credit for cleaning up your act. If you’ve been very good, on the other hand, you can’t coast; you have to keep up the good work to stay in God’s good graces. Finally, God judges everyone individually, “according to his own ways.” (20)

At Verse 21, Ezekiel 33 changes course and talks about what will happen to the Judeans remaining in Jerusalem. Because they violated dietary laws, worshipped idols, shed blood, and slept with their neighbors’ wives, they are out of favor. “As surely as I live, those who are left in the ruins will fall by the sword, those out in the country I will give to the wild animals to be devoured, and those in strongholds and caves will die of a plague.” (28) Now it must be said that when God talks like this, it doesn’t really sound like everyone is being judged individually, according to his own ways. But perhaps it’s a kind of shorthand, or generalization: “those left in the ruins who are unrighteous, which is an awful lot of them, will fall by the sword,” etc.

Ezekiel 34 is a long analogy involving shepherds and sheep, which eventually gives up and admits that it is about the ruling class and the general citizenry. God holds “shepherds” accountable for the well-being of the “sheep,” and will treat them accordingly. Moreover, big powerful sheep are not to bully small, weaker sheep. And from Verse 25 to the end of the Chapter, God indicates that he is going to set up a lovely agricultural paradise for the House of Israel to live in again.

In Chapter 35, Ezekiel is told to prophecy doom against Edom (again, I think) for opportunistic occupation of the territory of the Israelites after their kingdoms had been uprooted by larger neighbors. In Chapter 36, he speaks to the mountains of Israel, assuring them that the Israelites will return to their land to rebuild, saved from their uncleanliness.

Then we get to Ezekiel 37, which is seriously strange. God takes the prophet to a valley that is littered with human bones. There is a rattling noise, and the bones reassemble into skeletons, attach together, and are covered with skin. Then God has Ezekiel speak some words, and the skeletons come to life and stand up, a great host of the risen.
13Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’ ”

Whether this is just an analogy for the return from exile, or something much more supernatural, I’m at a loss to say. Then, in the second half of the chapter, Ezekiel is to bind together sticks representing Judah and Israel to indicate that this split of the chosen people is no longer relevant. There will never be two kingdoms again, but only a single king. Oddly, the text specifies (twice) that from now on, all the Israelites will be ruled by King David, who has been dead for many, many generations. Again, I’m not sure if this is meant to be read as literal and supernatural, or as some sort of metaphor.

Chapters 38 and 39 are prophecies against a warlord named Gog of Magog. God, through Ezekiel, declares that he will cause Gog to try to invade the land of the Israelites while they are away, but then cause them to be crushed utterly for doing so. The mass grave of the dead invaders will make a barrier to travelers. Indeed, it will take seven months to get all of Gog’s dead buried, and the folks living around will be able to use the wood of their weapons as cooking fuel for seven years. Birds and wild animals are promised a great feast of blood and human flesh. This is all very bad news for the Magog troops, of course, but at the end we see that here, too, the ultimate message is the forgiveness and rehabilitation of the Israelites:
25“Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will now bring Jacob back from captivity and will have compassion on all the people of Israel, and I will be zealous for my holy name. 26They will forget their shame and all the unfaithfulness they showed toward me when they lived in safety in their land with no one to make them afraid. 27When I have brought them back from the nations and have gathered them from the countries of their enemies, I will be proved holy through them in the sight of many nations. 28Then they will know that I am the Lord their God, for though I sent them into exile among the nations, I will gather them to their own land, not leaving any behind. 29I will no longer hide my face from them, for I will pour out my Spirit on the people of Israel, declares the Sovereign Lord.”

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