Monday, August 11, 2014

Ezekiel 40-48: The Vision of the Future Temple

Ezekiel 40 through 48 are our last nine chapters with the “son of man,” and make up one continuous narrative sequence. It’s a vision. In it, God plucks Ezekiel up from Babylon, carries him back to Israel, and shows him the plan for the temple, city, and country that he wants the Israelites to build, once they return. It’s a little bit like a return to the books of Moses, because we once again see god as architect and social engineer, explaining how he wants everything laid out.

When Ezekiel is first set down, he meets “a man whose appearance was like bronze” (3), which unfortunately made me visualize… well, I won’t say, why should I pass it on to you? Anyway, the bronze guy gives Ezekiel a detailed, measured tour of a new temple. This, with some digressions, takes up four full chapters, with passages like:

Now the upper rooms were narrower, for the galleries took more space from them than from the rooms on the lower and middle floors of the building. The rooms on the third floor had no pillars, as the courts had; so they were smaller in floor space than those on the lower and middle floors. There was an outer wall parallel to the rooms and the outer court; it extended in front of the rooms for fifty cubits. (42:5-7) 
And so on. It would be kind of fun to map out the temple from this verbal description, but then a lot of things would be fun, and I’m sure plenty of folks have beaten us to the punch anyway. Chapter 44 lays out the rules for the priests of the temple, including how they are supposed to dress, what their duties are, and whom they may marry. It also mentions that the east-facing gate of the temple sanctuary is to remain permanently closed. That’s the door God came in through, and nobody gets to use it but him. After a few digressions, Chapters 45 and 46 return to use of the temple, particularly the matter of sacrifices and how much of which animals and crops are to be sacrificed.

The digressions are interesting, too. One is an earnest plea for a well-regulated system of weights and measures, something we have seen intermittently throughout the Bible. Then, Ezekiel 46: 16-18 segregates the wealth of “the prince” – the prince, presumably representing a new or re-established line of kings, is mentioned repeatedly throughout this vision – from that of the people. The prince is not allowed to give gifts out of his own fortune, nor is he allowed to take from the possessions of the people. (If that sounds like a terrific tax holiday, keep in mind that the sacrifice system takes a great deal of wealth from everybody, and although the sacrifices are given to God, they are eaten by the priestly class.)

At the beginning of Chapter 45, then continuing from the middle of Chapter 47 to the conclusion, the geography of the new Israel is drawn out. Anticipating Thomas Jefferson by I do not know how many centuries, Ezekiel divides out the land is suspiciously tidy squares and rectangles. There’s a rectangle about 3 by 7 miles centered on the temple, and given over to the use of the priests. Next to that, there is a smaller square for the city, which I suppose must be Jerusalem (although the final line of the Book of Ezekiel is “And the name of the city from that time on will be: The Lord is There.” It would not surprise me if Jerusalem is a pun on this phrase; that’s how place names tend to work in the Old Testament.)

The prince is given a fat chunk of land around this core; that’s where his wealth is going to come from, and why he is not supposed to need to raise levies from the people. Around this, the territory of the twelve tribes is laid out in a rough five by two grid, and the boundaries of the country specified in surprising detail. It is all very exact and geometric, and this makes me wonder if it ever could have been put into practice in even its most general rudiments. I’m thinking probably not.

I’ve left out only the river from Chapter 47. The bronze man shows Ezekiel a little stream coming out from under the temple. They walk a few kilometers and it rapidly deepens into a substantial river. The bronze man tells him that this river will flow down to the Dead Sea and make the salt water fresh, that it will be abundant with many kinds of fish, and that fruit trees will grow abundantly on its banks. It’s quite a lovely vision of life-giving water in the desert, and I’m uncertain about what it is supposed to mean. Whether it is meant to represent a literal river, or some sort of metaphorical river, I am quite unsure.

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