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On Understanding Ezekiel

H. McKeating

 



Symposium: The Old Testament in the Church Today.
The London Quarterly & Holborn Review (January 1965): 36-43. {Reproduced by permission]

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Nobody is quite fair to Ezekiel. This isn't anybody's fault. It just happens that of all the prophets Ezekiel is 'the one who is psychologically most remote from ourselves'.[1] What I want to do in this article is to probe into this state of affairs and suggest one or two reasons why this lack of sympathy, this remoteness, obtains. I shall, in passing, point out how it is that this same lack of sympathy leads to quite a number of wrong conclusions about what Ezekiel is trying to say.

The question of Ezekiel's personality is fundamental to all other questions raised by his book. The critical problems of the book are formidable, and have been discussed ad nauseam for something like seventy years. The odd thing is that these seventy years have produced no unanimity at all. There are no 'assured results of criticism' as far as Ezekiel is concerned. We have not even reached the stage where the chaos of opinion has reduced itself to a small number of competing theories, commanding between them the bulk of critical support. The only thing that is clear is the reason why this extraordinary state of affairs exists. The answers to even these critical problems depend largely on the subjective response of the critic to the personality of the prophet. For example, if the critic rejects the unity of authorship of the book of Ezekiel it is principally because he has decided that the author who could be responsible for such widely divergent kinds of material is not a credible personality. This is not always the avowed reason for his conclusion,

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but it is the real root of the matter.[2] Similarly, if the critic decides that Ezekiel did not spend all his ministry in Babylon and utter all his prophecies from there it is because the man who could have done so, who could be acutely aware of what was going on in Jerusalem, is not a credible personality.

This last matter involves another question which, together with that of the personality of the prophet, is basic to the whole critical issue. Are such phenomena as clairvoyance and telepathy to be taken seriously or not? The answer we give to this question affects our approach to all the Old Testament prophets, but none raises it in so sharp a form as Ezekiel. Many of the answers given to the questions of literary criticism depend directly on the answer given to this prior question. They depend, that is to say, on the answer that the critic has already given to a question which is not itself a literary critical question at all.

There can be no doubt that to the older generation of scholars this was an additional reason for an unsympathetic approach to Ezekiel. As far as most other prophets were concerned, the 'clairvoyant' element was less obtrusive, perhaps easier to explain away. Ezekiel is an unashamed and intractable supernaturalist. Cooke says of Holscher and Herntrich that they 'declare that no scientific person nowadays believes in such a thing' [as second sight]. More recent writers are less inclined to be dogmatic on this point. J. Lindblom, for example, appears to accept these 'supernatural' elements in prophecy virtually at their face value.

I shall not pursue further the matter of the critical problems. I raise it simply to show that the question of Ezekiel's personality is the real Hauptproblem, and that if we solve this one we are well on the way to solving many others that are at first sight unrelated. My chief interest is in the relevance of Ezekiel's personality to the understanding of his theology.

The shortest way to the heart of the matter is to take a quick look at Ezekiel's imagery, and in particular to compare his use of certain key images with the use of the same by some other prophets. There are two images which nearly all the prophets resort to at some point or other, and which make a useful point of comparison. These two are the images of father and child, on the one hand, and husband and wife, on the other.

It is Hosea who first develops these two intimate human relationships as images of the relationship between God and his people. Ephraim is the Lord's son, whom he calls out of Egypt (11[1]). When he was a small child God carried him in his arms, taught him to walk (11[3]). Ephraim, however, has become a rebellious son, a delinquent (11[2]), and yet his father's natural affection for him will not allow him to take the measures which law and custom sanction. 'How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? ... My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender' (11[8]). What the same prophet makes of the husband / wife image is too well known to need recounting.

Jeremiah takes up both figures from Hosea. In 31[20] he speaks in words very strongly reminiscent of Hosea. 'Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy upon him, says the Lord.' Borrowing Hosea's bridal image, Jeremiah speaks of the wilderness

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period of Israel's history, a period which he idealizes, as her honeymoon. He looks back nostalgically to the idyllic past of a marriage now broken (2[2]).

Now look at what Ezekiel does with these same two themes. In a remarkable chapter (c. 16) he manages to synthesize them and treat them as different phases of the same relationship. Israel began, he says, as a foundling. The Lord discovered her, new-born and abandoned, and he took her and brought her up. Immediately we have a drastic change from Hosea and Jeremiah. The child for Ezekiel is an adopted child. She had no natural claim on God at all. She was not his. She was foreign to him, of suspect parentage. 'Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite' (16[3]). The Lord found her spurned, loathsome, and helpless. 'On the day you were born your navel string was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor swathed in bands. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you: but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born' (16[4-5]).

One important fact to note about this passage is that it does not make on us the impression that it is designed to make. Ezekiel's description of the baby does not move us with the disgust which it evidently aroused in its author. The feelings of physical revulsion were strongly developed in Ezekiel and he resorts with characteristic frequency to metaphors involving filth, dirt, and loathsome matter. These feelings were clearly aroused in him by his own picture of the foundling.

Ezekiel is trying to convey to us a sense of the utter worthlessness of Israel and of the amazing generosity which God has shown her. Here is a baby, found in a field, still attached to its afterbirth, and with the mucous and blood of its birth upon it. The man who found it touched this repulsive thing. Not only rescued her (a girl, at that) but adopted her. He actually treated her as his own child and not as a slave. To Ezekiel this action from start to finish is remarkable. To us, any other action would be unthinkable.

Thus, in one of the few passages in which Ezekiel does manage to make a real emotional impact it is for the twentieth-century reader the wrong impact, not the one that Ezekiel hoped to make. He has in any case drastically reworked his predecessors' picture of the relationship between God the father and Israel the child.

Even having thus radically revised the picture Ezekiel is evidently not quite happy with it. He soon transmutes Israel the abandoned baby into Israel the promiscuous adolescent. Again we find him emphasizing her lack of native charm. If the adolescent Israel had any beauty to commend her it was only because of what her foster father had done for her. 'And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendour which I had bestowed upon you' (16[4]).

Again it might be noted in passing that we have a statement that does not carry conviction in the twentieth century. In the days when all women can afford cosmetics and pretty clothes we are well aware that cosmetics and pretty clothes do not make beauty. But in ancient times the beautiful women were those who could afford to be beautiful. Beauty was less a matter of natural endowment than of opportunity. It is really quite logical that in

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fairy stories princesses are always beautiful, because once upon a time only princesses had the leisure for such things.

The other passage in which Ezekiel develops the theme of the adulterous wife is chapter 23, the tale of Oholah and Oholibah. He is again unfortunate in getting off on the wrong foot with his modern readers. The precise relationship between God and the two sisters is not clear. We do not know whether they are envisaged as having the status of wives or that of concubines. Ezekiel simply puts into God's mouth the words 'They became mine, and they bore sons and daughters' (23[4]). But whichever way it is, we are immediately put off by the fact that there are two of them. We are so conditioned to thinking of sexual love as something that only operates ideally between one man and one woman, that when Ezekiel asks us to accept that here is someone in a genuine and legitimate emotional relationship with two women we simply are not able to respond to him.

There are therefore some quite accidental reasons why Ezekiel's use of the two images, father / child and husband / wife, does not make the impression on our minds which it is intended to do. These are exacerbating factors, but they are not the only ones. Even if these accidents are allowed for, Ezekiel's use of these two figures contrasts strongly with that of his predecessors in one important respect. There is some quality of feeling that Ezekiel lacks. His words have far less emotional force than those of Hosea or Jeremiah.

Hosea's descriptions, as they have come down to us, of his relations with women, are full of gaps and anomalies. They are so lacking in precision that we are still arguing such fundamental questions as: were there two women, or only one? Was Gomer really unfaithful to her husband or not? Did Hosea marry a woman whom he knew to be immoral before he married her, or did he only find out afterwards? Are Hosea's descriptions fact or fiction? Yet despite the vagueness, the anomalies and the loose ends, Hosea's involvement with his theme carries the day, and through even the vicissitudes of translation and textual corruption conveys across twenty-seven centuries the feelings of the man for the woman and hence of God for his folk.

Jeremiah, though he does not sustain or develop the imagery of sexual unfaithfulness as either Hosea or Ezekiel do, but uses it rather as a brief lightning flash to illuminate the scene, also betrays a degree of involvement with his imagery. Possibly the frustrations of Jeremiah's bachelorhood had the same effect as the disappointments of Hosea's marriage, in sharpening his appreciation of imagery of this kind.

Where Ezekiel is employing the same images as his predecessors we miss in him just this involvement which is so characteristic of them. The feelings of Yahweh for the foundling are less those of the father than of the social worker. His attitude to Oholah and Oholibah is less that of the husband than of the probation officer. These are profound enough, but they are not the same.

Ezekiel fails to convey emotion. This is the most important fact to grasp if we wish to understand him at all. This deficiency is not without parallel, Ezekiel simply does not feel strongly. It is not likely that he is incapable of and some of the parallels suggest that we would be unwise to conclude that

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emotion. His failure may not really be a failure of sympathy, but a failure of expression, a literary failure. He feels, but does not know how to move us to feel with him.[3]

To take just one parallel example, let us look at the case of Mr John Wesley. It appears to me that Mr Wesley would be just as worthy of the accusation I have just levelled at Ezekiel as is Ezekiel himself.

Wesley's sermons are not now read at all, except by Methodist preachers strictly for examination purposes. They are not without admirers, and yet even their admirers would scarcely say that they appeal much to the affections. The sermons are orderly, well argued (if one accepts their premises), inclined to be pedantic. They are theologically very instructive, but they do not move us much at all.

Do we conclude that Mr Wesley was a man of straitened emotions? We can hardly do that. The early Methodism which he founded was heavily criticized because it appealed too much to the emotions. It was the religion of the 'warmed heart'. Moreover, not only must Wesley have been capable of feeling, he must have been capable on some occasions of conveying feeling. The evangelical revival is a little difficult to account for otherwise. Nevertheless, he certainly does not succeed in communicating feeling in print. The failure in his case is certainly a literary failure. The same may well be true of Ezekiel.

It is relevant here to mention Ezekiel's interest in the cultus. Even if we ignore the last nine chapters of his book, there is enough evidence in the rest of it of his disposition to use cultic phraseology and imagery. This disposition is not merely the result of his being a priest. Jeremiah too had priestly antecedents, yet ritual seems to have had little meaning for him, though it must have been familiar. For Ezekiel the cultic ritual is not only familiar but meaningful. It is possible that it is the dramatic activity of the cultus that most readily moves him.

Now it is true that there are in any age men who are simply not moved by ritual enactment; men who belong to a species of congenital protestant. And to such men the high drama of cultic action is not drama at all, but a series of mechanical and unfeeling gestures. Such men, if they speak of ritual at all, invariably characterize it as 'mere ritual', thus revealing their assumption that all ritual is of course meaningless. Jeremiah and Amos may both have been men of this type.

Ezekiel clearly is not. And if it is in the realm of ritual action that Ezekiel's emotions are most naturally engaged, this would help to explain why so little of his feelings are conveyable on the flat page. What Ezekiel needs in order to express himself is action, not words. The two do not necessarily exclude each other, of course, but not all of us express ourselves equally readily in all media. The written word may be the medium that Ezekiel is least adept at using. Perhaps he is a dramatist mangué. The Israelite cultural tradition had no place for drama, except in the cult, and to the cult Ezekiel turns. If he had been a Greek he would have put his theology into a play. He cannot do this, so he attempts the next best thing, an essay in the writing of liturgy.

The only other outlet for dramatic talent in Israel was indulgence in the

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so-called 'prophetic symbolism'. And Ezekiel makes freer use of this medium than any other prophet.

Thus Ezekiel, when he wishes to convey his message to his contemporaries, chooses for preference two methods of expression. He 'acts out' his message in front of them and leaves to us the mere flat record of what he did; and he writes a liturgical drama which we shall never seen enacted. The delivery of oracular poetry is the method he fell back on only as a last resort, and the one for which he probably had the least talent. It would do none of our great dramatists justice if we knew them only from their non-dramatic works. This is not quite our situation in regard to Ezekiel but something approximating to it.

There are several reasons, then, for the failure of communication between Ezekiel and ourselves, and what gets lost in transit is in the first instance the feelings of the prophet. What moves him may not easily move us, and the ways in which he most naturally and ably expresses himself are ways which circumstances will not allow to operate. We thus have a defective picture of the prophet's personality. It is a picture that lacks warmth and humanity.

Now this has more serious results yet, for the failure to communicate the emotional force of the prophet's utterances means that we do not succeed in grasping accurately even the intellectual content of what he is saying. Since our picture of Ezekiel is harsh and repellent the prophet seems to be speaking of a harsh and repellent God. We are conditioned by the apparent remoteness and severity of the prophet into seeing in his God these same qualities.[4]

Let us take one or two key phrases of Ezekiel and see how they are generally interpreted. One that the commentators have made much of is the phrase 'for my name's sake' or 'for my own sake'. God acts for his own sake and not for the sake of Israel (20[9], 14[22], 36[22]). Most interpreters say that this means that God is only interested in defending his own reputation, and does not act out of any love for Israel herself. A typical comment is 'He could never conceive of Yahweh forgiving his people through motives of compassion or love.'[5]

If this is true it is indeed a repellent idea, but does Ezekiel mean this? It is interesting to note that Deutero-Isaiah uses precisely the same phrases and almost as frequently as Ezekiel does (43[25], 48[9, 11]) yet no one seems to interpret them when they come from his mouth as harshly as when they come from Ezekiel's. Why is this? It can only be that the total impression made by this prophet's writings is different from that made by Ezekiel's, and this total impression imparts radically different colouring to the critic's exegesis of the individual phrase.

If God saves 'for his own sake' or 'for his name's sake' it is because only this saving action is in keeping with his character. He saves because of what he is, not because of what Israel is. There is nothing repulsive about this doctrine if it is sympathetically stated.

Ezekiel also employs the phrase 'that they may know that I am the Lord'. This has been interpreted on the same lines as 'for my name's sake'. God is concerned, they say, whether in judgement or salvation, simply to demonstrate his power. But again, what the Lord is demonstrating is not simply

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his power, but his name, his character. Everything turns on what sort of character it is that is being demonstrated. And unfortunately Ezekiel has not succeeded in conveying to us the warmth and tenderness which he sees in the character of God.

Finally, we look at the phrase with which Ezekiel justifies his own activities as watchman. He speaks the word God gives him in order that he might 'deliver his own soul', or, as we might more accurately translate it, 'to save his own life'. Once more, these words have been taken unfavourably to mean that Ezekiel is not interested in the people to whom he speaks, but is concerned simply to earn his own salvation. The words have been interpreted as yet another expression of his excessive individualism.

But is Ezekiel doing or saying here anything that is not done or said or implied by virtually all other prophets? Every prophet must come to terms with the fact that the majority of people ignore as irrelevant the word that seems to him so authoritative and compelling. Amos and Jeremiah are both incredulous that people should deny or fail to see what seems to them, the prophets, so obvious, that Israel is deep in sin and judgement is imminent. Isaiah is so amazed at the unresponsiveness of Israel that he can only draw the conclusion that God himself must have hardened the people's hearts and made them incapable of responding. The prophets each in his own way raise the human question: Why must I be 'a man of strife and contention to the whole earth'? How long must I go on preaching when nobody is listening? What is the use of going on sowing this seed when most of it demonstrably falls by the wayside, or on rocky ground, or among thorns? And the answer arrived at, though expressed in different words, is always the same. It is not the prophet's job to worry about results, which the Lord has set in his own hand. It is his to sow and perhaps to water but God will take care of any increase. He must patiently give his back to the smiters and his cheeks to those who pluck out the hair, and go on to the end though all men forsake him and flee. And if in the far future God wills to appoint him a portion with the great and allow him to divide the spoil with the strong, then that is a matter for God alone.

Ezekiel is facing the question common to prophets, and he arrives at a similar answer to the rest. He must do the job which God has given him, 'whether they will hear or whether they forbear'. It is not his job to inquire further, but it is his job to do what God has given him to do. Do the words le-hail 'eth-naphsho mean any more than 'to discharge his own responsibility'? Ezekiel, here as elsewhere, says what the other prophets say, only he is unfortunate enough, here as elsewhere, in choosing to say it in phrases that his critics can turn against him.

Finally, we ought to note that what Ezekiel is trying to say is in any case something very difficult to communicate without giving rise to misunderstanding. Ezekiel's emphasis is all on grace, and it is difficult to emphasize strongly the grace of God without facing the accusation that one's presentation is grossly one-sided, one's picture of God inhuman and mechanical, and that one has an exaggerated notion of divine transcendence. A strong doctrine of grace is nearly always found repulsive by the majority. Few theologians have such a bad 'public image' as Calvin. Those who know

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nothing else about him have heard of his doctrine of election, and regard it as damnable. Yet virtually all the most detested features of Calvinism spring directly from Calvin's extreme desire to emphasize grace. St Augustine has fallen to some extent under the same condemnation, and largely for the same reasons. Fortunately in his case some pleasanter aspects of his theology are also widely appreciated.

It would be interesting to explore the reasons why it is so difficult to express a strong doctrine of grace in acceptable terms, but for the present let it suffice to observe the fact that it is so.

We may summarize, then, as follows. An understanding of Ezekiel's personality is fundamental to the understanding of his book. This understanding is made difficult by a number of peculiar factors. One of these is that Ezekiel fails to communicate emotion readily. This is perhaps largely a literary failure. He finds it easier to express feeling and ideas in dramatic action and in ritual than in the written word. But the failure to 'put across' his own personality results in a failure to present adequately his conception of the personality of God, and this in turn leads to a serious misunderstanding of his message.


Notes

[1] e.g., Weiser, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 223.

[2] Lofthouse, Clarendon Bible, Vol. IV, p. 67f., and H. Knight, Expository Times, 59 (1947-8), pp. 115ff, both perceive this quite clearly.

[3] Many interpreters assume that the weakness is in the prophet's personality itself. e.g., Th. H. Robinson, Prophecy and the Prophets, p. 151. 'There is a harshness, almost a brutality, about Ezekiel, which contrasts unfavourably with the tenderness of his great predecessors.' H. W. Robinson, Two Hebrew Prophets, p. 95. 'I cannot conceive of Ezekiel as feeling sorrow in the same way as his more sensitive contemporary, much less as revealing the struggle within him.' Henshaw, The Latter Prophets, p. 207. 'There was, however, something about him that was harsh and forbidding.... We feel that he was never deeply moved at the thought of human suffering.'

[4] Th. H. Robinson, op. cit., pp. 151-4. Robinson's whole treatment of Ezekiel's personality and theology is very typical of the unsympathetic approach I have in mind. 'There is in his presentation [of God] something that suggests the rigidity of the machine.' Cf. Weiser, op. cit., p. 229. 'He presents a conception of God that is harshly theocentric and contains no comfort.'

[5] Henshaw, op. cit., p.207.


Reproduced by kind permission of Methodist Publishing House.
Prepared for the web in February 2006 by Robert I. Bradshaw.