The book of Ezekiel is difficult to understand because Ezekiel uses strange images and odd behaviors. His writing style has been described as “baroque” and “highly ornamented” You may find it confusing.You will be in good company if so. Early church fathers struggled with the book, as early as Jerome (c 340-420 CE). Even pre- Christian Jewish tradition found Ezekiel to be a difficult book. This makes it important to carefully consider the historical and religious context of the book and to recognize Ezekiel’s unusual literary style.
Traditionally, Ezekiel is placed after Isaiah and Jeremiah and thus in roughly chronological order. The book gives us precise dates of the events described, unlike other prophetic books. The book of Ezekiel places Ezekiel’s call to prophecy during the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin of Judah. The latest dated oracle occurs during the 27th year of exile. So Ezekiel was an active prophet from approximately July 597 until April 571 BCE. Ezekiel’s prophecies overlap with some of Jeremiah’s chronologically.
We will briefly review some of the pertinent history of Jeremiah’s time. In 627 BCE the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal died and the Assyrian empire began to weaken. The edges of the empire, particularly Babylon, Egypt and Palestine, asserted their sovereignty. King Josiah of Judah was able to be fairly free from Assyrian control. Recall that Josiah also instituted religious reforms. But Babylon and Egypt were in a struggle for the Assyrian empire at this time. Josiah is killed by Pharoah Neco II. Josiah’s son Jehoahaz becomes king but is deposed by Pharaoh and Jehoiakim is installed as king. Judah becomes a vassal state of Egypt. There is unrest over this status and the heavy taxes that were imposed for tribute to Egypt. At the same time Babylon’s power grew. In 603 BCE Jehoiakim must shift his allegiance to Babylon. Within Judah there are now factions who want to return to Egypt, some are pro-Babylonian and some advocate for independence. In 601 BCE Jehoiakim rebels against Babylon and aligns with Egypt. In 598 BCE Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem. Jehoiakim dies and his son Jehoiachin takes the throne. But he surrenders to Babylon in March 597 BCE. The king and palace and Temple officials are deported to Babylon, including Ezekiel. The Temple treasury is drained. For the people left behind, life continued fairly normally. Babylon installed Zedekiah on the throne but Jehoiachin retains the title “king”. This leads to a dispute among the people about who is the true king. After a few years Zekekiah, with other rulers, tries to break away from Babylon. They were not successful. Never the less, people still agitated for revolt against Babylon and Zedekiah rebels again. In 588 BCE in response to the rebellion, Nebuchadnezzar invades Judah, destroys many cities and laid siege to Jerusalem. Jerusalem fell in the summer of 586 BCE. The king is blinded and taken to Babylon. Jerusalem is destroyed and most of the citizens of Jerusalem were deported. The poorest people were left in Judah. The Temple is burned. Judah remained politically unstable and in 582 BCE there was a third deportation and Judah was made part of the Babylonian province of Samaria.
The political unrest that precipitated the fall of Jerusalem also precipitated several theological problems. As a result of the first deportation, Israel’s religious leaders were split between Jerusalem and Babylon. Both groups tried to provide a theological interpretation of the events but not surprisingly those interpretations did not necessarily always agree.
There were five main theological issues that needed interpretation. First, was the first deportation the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecies of judgment? And was this judgment complete or was there the possibility of more judgment? Secondly, How long was the exile to be and would the people return to the land? Would the exile be short with a quick return home or was the deportation God’s complete rejection of Israel? Also what about the exiles? Were they still part of God’s chosen people? Could they still worship God even in a foreign land? What would worship look like without access to the Temple? Fourth, there were serious differences in perspective between prophets. Recall Jeremiah’s conflicts with fellow prophets. These disagreements resulted in a general suspicion of all prophets, and Jeremiah and Ezekiel had to establish and defend their status as prophets. In particular, Ezekiel was not even in the homeland, could he prophesy accurately from Babylon? Fifth, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was a serious theological problem. Certainly the Temple was important to the priesthood. There was a royal theology which claimed that God elected David and his descendants to be eternal rulers of Jerusalem and the Temple was God’s dwelling place forever. Because God was present in the Temple, both the Temple and Jerusalem were protected. Some prophets claimed that this meant even though there was punishment, Jerusalem would not be completely destroyed and that a Davidic king would always be on the throne.
What did the destruction of the city and Temple mean? Had God broken God’s promises? Was God unable, not powerful enough, to defend Jerusalem against Babylon? These were serious questions which needed answers.
We do not know much about the life of Ezekiel. But we do know that he prophesied only in Babylon where his audience would have been other exiles.These would have been the elite of Jerusalem, government and religious officials. He seems to have had some disicples who preserved his words and work. Sometimes Ezekiel’s oracles are for the people back in Jerusalem. It seems that there was communication between the exiles and those left in Jerusalem.
Scholars believe that Ezekiel did write much of the book of Ezekiel. There likely was later revisions and editing but in general scholars regard the book as one literary work. Before Ezekiel, the later disciples of a prophet recorded his words. The book of Ezekiel may have been originally a written text rather than a transcription of spoken prophecy. Ezekiel is sort of a transitional figure in prophetic literature. He retains some of the older prophetic traditions, for example using standard prophetic formulas. (Thus said the Lord…) He also uses the pattern of oracles. But he also developed new literary forms. His work is very metaphorical, almost what we would consider allegory. The images are very complex. He also developed what is called the “disputation oracle”. In these oracles a common saying in the community is cited and then refuted. Ezekiel also uses proof sayings which use the phrase, “and you will know that I am Yahweh”.
One of the unique aspects of the book is that it is in first person narrative. Ezekiel tells his own story, his encounters with God. Sometimes Ezekiel writes literally what happened but sometimes he writes symbolically.Sometimes is appears that Ezekiel, in his descriptions and allegories seems to ramble and seems to be logically inconsistent. When reading the book we need to remember the Ezekiel had a very unique and distinctive writing style. Because Ezekiel was a priest you will notice the book has priestly vocabulary and there are close ties with the priestly Holiness Code from Leviticus 18-26.
Ezekiel is a complex and difficult book.Perhaps Ezekiel is so difficult and bizarre because the times required a massive rethinking of the relationship between God and God’s people. Radical change is needed and radical language and images are used to move the reader into new ways of thinking. Fortunately there are some markers to help us with our reading.
The structure of the book is relatively straight forward. Ezekiel uses dates to help organize the text. Chapters 1-24 occur before the fall of Jerusalem and are mostly prophecies of doom. Chapters 1-3 tell of Ezekiel’s call to prophesy. Chapters 25-32 are prophecies against foreign nations and function as a bridge between the first sections (1-24) and the last section when Ezekiel delivers a message of hope. Chapters 33-48 date from the time of Jerusalem’s fall but now Ezekiel offers the hope of restoration. Chapters 38-39 have an apocalyptic passage. Chapters 40-48 include a blueprint for the restoration of the Temple and land.
Ezekiel’s message is also moderately straightforward. The people of Judah and Jerusalem will be punished for their sins which were religious and social. Any righteous people could not save the rest of them. But after punishment and destruction, God will bring the exiles back to the land and the Temple will be restored. The return will not be because the people did something to deserve it, rather the return is an act of grace. God’s restoration is to preserve the holiness of God’s name. After the restoration the people will recognize what God has done for them and then repent and live faithfully.
Ezekiel offers answers to the theological questions described earlier. God deserted the Temple so that Jerusalem could fall. The fall was the result of God’s actions not human politics. But God did not abandon God’s people. God’s departure from the Temple was temporary and God would return to the rebuilt Temple. Ezekiel believed that the exiles were the true Israelites and they would return and rebuild.The people who remained on the land were not part of the community and did not have a role in Israel’s future. This view resulted in theological conflicts after the return from exile. Ezekiel claims to be a true authoritative prophet and thus he should be listened to.
An Outline (based on Wilson)
I. 1:1-3:27 Introduction to the Prophet and Prophecy
II. 4:1-24:27 Prophecies and Judgment against Judah and Jerusalem
A. 4:1-5:17 Symbolic Acts of Judgment
B. 6:1-7:27 Oracles against Land and People
C. 8:1-11:25 Vision of Jerusalem
D. 12:1-20 Symbols and Oracles of Exile
E. 12:21-14:11 Oracles on Prophets and Prophesy
F. 14:12-23 Individual Salvation and God’s Justice
G. 15:1-8 Meditation on the Vine
H. 16:1-63 Allegory of the Adulterous Wife
I. 18:1-32 Questions about God’s Justice
J. 19:1-14 Laments over the Monarchy
K. 20:1-44 The History of Rebellious Israel
L. 20:45-21:32 Oracles of the Sword
M. 22:1-31 Oracles against the Uncleanness of Jerusalem
N. 23:1-49 Allegory of the Two Sisters
O. 24:1-14 Allegory of the Pot
P. 24:15-27 The Death of Ezekiel’s Wife
III. 25:1-32 Oracles against Foreign Nations
A. 25:1-17 Oracles against Israel’s Neighbors
B.26:1-28:26 Oracles against Phoenicia
C. 29:1-32:32 Oracles against Egypt
IV. 33:1-33 The Fall of Jerusalem
V. 34:1-39:29 Oracles of Hope and Restoration
A. 34:1-31 Israel and its Leaders
B.35:1-36:15 Edom and Israel
C. 36:16-38 The Vindication of God’s Holiness
D. 37:1-28 Israel’s Restoration
E. 38:1-39:29 Oracles Against Gog
VI. 40:1-48:35 Vision of the Restored Jerusalem
Read More About It:
Here are several good sources to aid your reading of Ezekiel.
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
Pfisterer Darr, Katheryne, “Ezekiel” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol 6, Keck, Leander E. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 2001.
Cook, Stephen L. “Ezekiel” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version.Coogan, Michael D.; Brettler, Marc Z.; Perkins, Pheme; Newsom, Carol A. (2010-01-20) Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Wilson, Robert R. “Ezekiel” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary Mays, James L. ed.(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.