Prophet or Madman?
Posted by foryourfaith on January 12, 2010
According to religious tradition, Ezekiel was a holy man whose revelations penetrated mysteries of the cosmos. Thus, the very grotesqueness of his visions testify to extraordinary prophetic gifts. Ezekiel’s uniqueness as a prophet will strike the reader at the very outset of the book, which describes his consecration as a prophet. Standing by a canal in Babylonia, Ezekiel sensed “the hand of the Lord” upon him and saw “a great cloud, with brightness round it, and fire slashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming bronze” (1:3-4).
Then there appeared to him four creatures, each of which had four faces and four wings. There were hands under the wings, and, of the four faces, one was human, another that of al ion, the third that of an ox, and the fourth that of an eagle. Hovering above these strange forms was “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (1:28). Since the meaning of Ezekiel’s vision is unintelligible in any literal sense, it has formed the basis for mystical speculation for centuries, with each textual detail interpreted symbolically.
Ezekiel’s career and teachings are rooted in the historical context in which he lived. Since he gives specific dates for many of his prophecies, it is not difficult to trace the general connection between his career and the events of his time.
In 605 BC Nebuchadnezzar ascended to the throne of Babylonia and eventually established control over much of the Near East. In 597 BC the Babylonians took Jerusalem after a long siege and deported the king and much of the aristocracy. Ezekiel, a learned member of a priestly family, was presumably among those exiled to Babylonia. Both the plain sense of the biblical text and the weight of current scholarly opinion hold that Ezekiel did not begin to prophesy until his arrival in Babylonia. His career, then, was probably confined entirely to the conditions of exile.
The first half of the Book of Ezekiel consists of pessimistic prophecies warning that the remnant still living in Judah would soon be overwhelmed and captured. Ezekiel sought to counter the assumptions of many, in the homeland and in Babylonia, that there would be a quick restoration of Judean sovereignty. And he was right: the Judean revolt against Nebuchadnezzar brought not victory but utter calamity. In 587 BC the Babylonian forces captured Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and exiled many of the residents. The Kingdom of Judah had come to an end.
The rest of the Book of Ezekiel contains post-destruction prophecies of a more optimistic sort. Despite the sins that led to this catastrophe, the prophet taught, the Jews would be restored to their homeland, and the nations guilty of aiding in their downfall punished. The last several chapters of the book relate utopian visions of a regenerated Jewish people living an idyllic spiritual life in a united kingdom blessed by the presence of a new Temple in Jerusalem.
The Book of Ezekiel also contains visionary descriptions of events happening hundreds of miles from Babylonia, which may actually have taken place only in the prophet’s imagination. He relates being transported to the Jerusalem Temple, where he sees unspeakable abominations: 70 Jewish elders burn incense before pictures of “all kinds of creeping things, and loathsome beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel,” women believe in the Babylonian god Tammuz, and men worship the sun.
To Ezekiel all of this indicates the utter depravity of the Judeans and presages their imminent downfall, though other biblical accounts of this time do not record these activities. In all likelihood, Ezekiel, who was probably far away from the events he describes, was speaking about his own internal reality, rather than the actual Jerusalem.
One of Ezekiel’s most important theological explanations was his challenge to the concept of inherited guilt. In his day, the exiled Jews, seeking an explanation for their bad fortune, commonly asserted that they were being punished for the accumulated sins of past generations. Ezekiel denied this, “the soul that sins shall die” (18:4). Similarly, the sinning child of righteous forebears will not be protected from punishment by the good deeds of ancestors. The prophet applied the same formula to the stages of an individual’s life. A wicked person who repents has his early sins forgiven, while a good person who turns evil gets no benefit from the good deeds of his youth. Ezekiel, then, is a great prophet of repentance.
Ezekiel advanced the doctrine of individual responsibility in the development of Judaism. “If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right . . . does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of impurity, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any increase . . . . he is righteous, he shall surely live, says the Lord God.”
With the end of Judean sovereignty on its own land and the reality of life in exile, the idea that all members of the nation, past and present, bear a corporate responsibility for the fate of the group lost much of its meaning. Ezekiel’s stress on reward and punishment on an individual basis helped shape a relevant theology for Jews living as isolated minorities in non-Jewish lands.
Among his prophecies of consolation, Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones is surely the best known. Doubtless responding to the lament of the exiled Jews that national revival is impossible – Ezekiel described himself set down in a valley full of bones. He prophesied in response to God’s command: “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and breath in you, and you shall live” (37:5-6). The prophet’s message was explicit; the bones were the exiled Jews. “And I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.” This vivid evocation of life’s triumph over death has helped generations of Jews keep faith in the ultimate regeneration of their people.
In another vision, the prophet foretold that there would come a time when the Jews, restored to their land, would be invaded from the north by a plundering army led by “Gog of the land of Magog” (38:2). After a time, however, God himself would appear in all his awesome glory and rout Gog’s forces: “So I will show my greatness and my holiness,” says God.
Was the man who produced such extraordinary descriptions a religious genius or an unbalanced fanatic? To a great extent the answer depends on the reader’s assumptions about the reality or illusion of a world of the spirit apart from our world of the everyday.