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Friday, January 04, 2013

Approaching Ezekiel, understanding its influence

A Sentinel in the Watchtower

Approaching Ezekiel

In my last post, I introduced a January study of Ezekiel at First Baptist. The book's influence has been felt for years.
Preachers, scholars, and politicians alike have looked to world events over the years to justify their interpretations of Ezekiel. Placed in the center of the Bible, the book is a treasury of literary forms, pictures, parables, sermons, and geopolitical maps to fill a library full of speculations.

We cannot approach Ezekiel without admitting a bit of our own biases and hearing voices of previous interpretations.

This book is a product of the period between 589 B.C. - 539 B.C. from the time before the fall of Jerusalem in 586 and the season after the destruction. On the global stage, Zedekiah is the last king of Judah, and Nebuchadnezzar rules over the Babylonian empire. The center of the world as the Jerusalemites knew it shifted from Jerusalem to ancient Nippur in modern-day Iraq. In the biblical record, Ezekiel is a contemporary with Jeremiah, who writes from the view of those leaving Jerusalem. Ezekiel prophesies as one who has already left Jerusalem and hears of its fall.

Much like other prophetic books, we read a script that explains God’s word to the people. Just as the priest represents the people to God, a prophet re-presents God to the people using words, stories, and traditions that his contemporaries understand. Ezekiel draws from biblical and nonbiblical stories and traditions popular during the time of the exile. We hear echoes of the accounts of Noah from the book of Genesis; the Exodus story of Moses and the Israelites; the story of Job; and “The Tale of Aqhat,” featuring a character named Daniel, not to be confused with the biblical one (Ezekiel 14).

Ezekiel has influenced generations. Place in the middle of the canon, the book fits scripture’s overarching message to redeem people from their sin and restore them in light of God’s plan. For example, the book is heard in the Johannine literature (Vine and shepherds: John 10), “marks on the foreheads” and the cities of Gog and Magog (Revelation), and Paul’s Corinthian correspondence (hearts of stone). Scholars, artists, and musicians have been also influenced by its imagery and majesty. Spirituals such as “Ezekiel Saw de Wheel” and “Dem Dry Bones” encouraged and motivated slaves during crises Christians have walked the aisle to say yes to a God who through Jesus Christ “melts the heart of stone.” The “wheel in a wheel” served as a visual for William Blake’s series of paintings. Some have gone to such extremes to assemble battlefield plans for the mythical Gog and Magog on today’s world stage.

For artists, the book evokes images and illustrations. For prophets, the book invites interpretation. For musicians, Ezekiel provides wonderful lyrics for spirituals. For actors and audience, the book begs to be performed.

Ezekiel is a book about a prophet who performs a message using pantomimes, gestures, parables, and images in a public setting for a people whose lives are changing before their eyes. God calls people to communicate his message and forms them around his word. In so doing, he forms a new community of people who embody and live out the future he is shaping for them. We know very little about the historical life of the prophet Ezekiel, other than he was a married priest who served in Jerusalem and was deported to Babylon. We know much more about the ways he communicated God’s message and the ways that this book was heard by exiles for generations to come.

Ezekiel invites us to watch a world that must be seen and heard in order to live. The audience joins with the village elders  to watch this street-corner prophet equip them to carry out God’s message in their lives. A former priest who has been called to a prophetic life, the main character Ezekiel embodies this message through a series of techniques: sign-acts, gestures, street theater, paralysis, and lack of grief over his deceased wife. He preaches the message rhetorically through riddles and parables that awakens the people to their issues. He casts a vision of a new city and temple that God is creating for the people to live in as well as to orient their lives toward.

For the purposes of this study, we will be influenced by rhetorical and performance criticisms of the Old Testament. We will do very little to try to recreate the historical circumstances around the book. Ezekiel never saw the completion of the city he imagined. The closing chapters are not designed to give architectural renderings of a place somewhere in the Middle East. Ezekiel’s message is much deeper and more meaningful. Ezekiel’s performance tears people away from their longings for a place on this earth to a palace being built in time through the Sabbath, a new community, and a city that God crafts.

By using its rhetorical structure and by studying key passages that move Ezekiel’s argument forward, we will discover a message for people of all times living “in the meantime.” Caught between the way life used to be, but not fully certain of the way life is going to turn out, they hear, watch, and pay attention to a person who shows them how to live. They not commissioned to resist the powers that be, to relive past traditions or to forecast the future. Ezekiel is a book for a generation that waits for the future to open. As they wait, people listen to the Word, accept responsibility for infidelity, repent through a series of cleansing rituals, observe the Sabbath, and live faithfully to the first commandment. In so doing, God does his part as well by melting the hearts of stone. He teaches leaders how to shepherd the people. Ezekiel proclaims so that “others may know that “The Lord is There.”

For the community to be changed, the people must accept that the destruction of their city and worship center in Jerusalem and Israel are direct results of their disobedience to God. They must hear that even the nations where they are living in exile are excluded. This is a tough message to stomach (literally). Yet by digesting the message first in silence and eventually through communication, Ezekiel and the people realize something new. Although God brings the destruction, the devastation is a consequence of the people’s action, not God’s capricious behavior. No one is spared, not even those with marks on their foreheads or those living in exile. Israel and the other nations are responsible.

Secondly, God must act because God understands that the people’s actions have calloused toward his presence. They do not recognize where he is. God’s goal is simple: through Ezekiel and the message he embodies, people will see that “The Lord is There” (48:35). God sends his word to call out a model prophet who will demonstrate to them what they have done, what he is doing, and what the plan is for the future. God transforms hearts of stone into new hearts. God then forms new leaders who will shepherd the people, re-members the community of dead dried bones, and then designs a place for the community to live.

Third, the people must respond. Presumably they did since we are still reading and studying this fascinating book today. Today’s audience is challenged to follow their lead. 

In my next post, we'll outline an approach to studying the book.

How do you approach Ezekiel? What have you heard about this book that influences your interpretation?

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