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Monday, January 07, 2013

Ezekiel Act 4: Re-member God's Presence Ezekiel 35-48

We have been studying Ezekiel like a play in four acts. The final act completes the vision of God's place for the community God re-creates.

Act 4: “Re-member God’s Presence” (Ezkiel 37-48)

Now the people are ready to reorient their lives to the future. They have accepted responsibility, they have been cleansed, and they can now acknowledge that the Lord with them as they prepare for what God is building.

Ezekiel's call and vision from the synagogue in Dura Europas Syria. 3rd century
The Lord is not only there in the place he’s creating, but he is here within the midst of the people. In the last act, chapters 37-48, Ezekiel reveals what the people have been longing to hear: a complete vision of the territory and place that God is building. The place will be called “The Lord is There” (Chapter 48). Named after the name that God first announced to Moses, “I am that I am,” Yahweh’s place will be a presence among them that God will design and build.

Instead of moving toward a place like Israelites marching, conquering, and settling a territory, God will builds a territory with no geographical boundaries and a people formed to live as citizens in this place before they arrive. As Ezekiel describes in his famous vision of the valley of dry bones (chapter 37), the Babylonians and their choices dismembered their lives. But God will “re-member” them through a new plan of personal, spiritual, and communal reconstruction.
To inspire them, Ezekiel guides them like a docent through a new wing of a museum, modeling and demonstrating to them what God’s presence can do. The boundaries have changed; the bodies are re-membered and connected; the people have changed; the name on the door and above the threshold has changed.

The secret to the community, however, will be that they will live like citizens of this place before it becomes visible. Where they live and worship shapes how God gives them new hearts, re-membered lives, and a change in their present conditions. They will live simultaneously between two worlds, much as Ezekiel has performed. Their lives will reflect what they see: God’s presence never abandons them. Through their behavior as a community, they can perform as witnesses of the new community. While they await the city’s completion, they can live out the drama on the world’s stage wherever they live, either by the river Chebar, back home in Jerusalem, or at home in our world today.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Ezekiel Act 3: Leaders who shepherd people Ezekiel 25-36

We can study Ezekiel like a play in four acts. Act 3 focuses on the role of leaders and followers who have been scattered away from Jerusalem. 

Act 3: “Shepherd the Exiles” (Ezekiel 25-36)
Ezekiel’s performance now turns to the territories outside Jerusalem, and the audience expands beyond the elders to his fellow exiles in Nippur. Those who left Jerusalem are like lost sheep, refugees seeking temporary dwelling places in hopes that God would allow them to return to Jerusalem quickly. Ezekiel offers them a different kind of hope. Instead of returning to a place now destroyed, the prophet invites them to become the community that the residents of Jerusalem never experienced.

The exiles could have easily blamed the Jerusalemites for their problems and likely did. After all, they are the ones who lost control of the kingdom. Ezekiel reminds the exiled communities that they behave no better than the Jerusalemites. In fact, their leaders act more like greedy Pharaohs (Ezekiel 32) than faithful followers of God. Their greed in commerce and industry and their mistreatment of the aliens and the poor have revealed similar problems as those back home. Even though this behavior has had severe consequences, God has chosen mercifully to save them and recreate the community.
Sheep in a pen

To do so, Ezekiel calls them to recapture their identity as wandering Israelites leaving Egypt. Drawing on memories and parallels with the Exodus generation, the residents of Nippur can reclaim memories and practices as theirs. With no place to return and no capital to call home, their community awaits a promised land. God is going to give them opportunities to repent and change, much as he offered Pharaoh. If they want God to “melt their hearts of stone,” however, new identities and behaviors must emerge.

Their leaders should imagine themselves as Moses-like shepherds (chapter 34) of a wandering people awaiting a new kind of territory to be revealed. They are to be visionary leaders with a new sense of direction and purpose. They reject their old conduct as business leaders who followed the corrupt practices of their former lives (Ezekiel 25:12-36). Instead, they care for and guide the people in their vocations and occupations. The way they conduct their business represents their faithfulness to God as much as their worship on Sabbath.

As sheep under God’s care, their flock  retells the Exodus for their generation, remains faithful to the first commandment, and observes Sabbath. 

The shepherd imagery is a popular one in the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament. How do leaders shepherd people today? What is their responsibility to the flock?

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Ezekiel Act 2: Riddles as release and renewal

In this series, we are studying Ezekiel like a street theater play performed in four acts.  We'll be studying this book during our January Bible Study.

Overview of Act 2: “Perform the Message” (Ezekiel 12-24)

Chapters 12-24, “Perform the Message,” describe Ezekiel’s verbal performances on the street. As news of Jerusalem’s destruction reaches the exiles in Nippur, Ezekiel interprets the event as a sign to the people. The prophet moves to a dramatic verbal performance, using parables, dialogue, and ongoing conversations. 

The elders of the community are his audience. He speaks in ancient riddles using the image of the eagle and the transplanted vine (17) culminating with a living parable or sign-act of calloused grief. In order to show the people the way they have treated God, he refuses to grieve the death of his wife (24).  

God has remained faithful to the covenant, but the people have behaved like an unfaithful spouse that has not yet recognized his or her infidelity. The riddle of the eagle and the vine opens their ears to understand their treachery and their opportunity to be cleansed and changed. 

The city's destruction serves as a sign of their infidelity as well as an invitation to obedience. Their political and spiritual capital has been destroyed, but God's people have not. The people no longer need to focus on replacing the city. If they are willing to allow their lives to be restored by Ezekiel's message, God's presence will be among the people because God's presence has always remained with them. 

The riddles function as release and renewal. They are released from the punishment of atoning for the sins of previous generations (Exodus 34:6-7). They no longer bear any responsibility for the mistakes, shame or guilt of others. They must now take the message of renewal personally (Ezekiel 18:20). By doing so, they accept their responsibility for their actions, vow to remain faithful to the covenant and to learn through the suffering they experience. There is an opportunity for people to return, repent, and be restored no matter where they are located.

In the next post, we'll look at the practices that Ezekiel prescribed for the exiled community to follow. But before we do, have you released yourself from responsibility for the shame and guilt that you have tried to carry for others' actions? God already has.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Act 1: Watch, Listen, and Gesture, Ezekiel as a Performance

Studying Ezekiel

In my last post, we discussed how we are influenced by previous studies of Ezekiel. In this study, however, we will study the book the way Ezekiel is written: as a performance of a street-corner prophet.
Street Pantomime in Cologne, Germany, credit: Mariamel's Fotothing.com
Because Ezekiel delivers most of his message on the street, using gesture, pantomime, and parable, we will study the book like a four-act play, dividing primarily along the lines of a rhetorical outline of the book, visions (1-11), parables (12-24), exiles (25-36), and the new territory and city (37-48)Rather than trying to understand the mind of the prophet, we will focus primarily on the way the book is written and delivered orally. We are assuming that no matter what sources Ezekiel had they have now been gathered in one final form as a book. We are not sure if the historical Ezekiel wrote the book nor does it particularly matter for this study. Ezekiel moves from first-person autobiographer to third-person narrator in the book. We are primarily interested in how these four acts affect the way the listeners are going to behave after watching the performance. We read along with the book’s exiled audience who are along the River Chebar, near the ancient city of Nippur in modern-day Iraq. Their precise location is not nearly as important as their circumstances in exile. Living away from Jerusalem when their capital falls, these refugees hear the report of its fall. Like the audience, we watch Ezekiel’s movements, imagining the future and following the prophet’s instructions.

Act 1: “Watch, Listen, and Gesture”

 “Watch, Listen and Gesture” (Act 1, Chapters 1-11) is the (re)calling of the prophet to pantomime  God’s message as a sentinel would warn a town of an oncoming enemy. As the community hears that Jerusalem will soon fall at the Babylonian invaders’ hands, Ezekiel accepts a new calling in ministry.

With a vision of spinning wheels framing chapters 1 and 11, Ezekiel becomes mute and paralyzed to receive God’s word. Then in chapter 4, the prophet uses sign-acts, a series of nonverbal gestures and pantomimes, to mirror back to the people the condition of Jerusalem and the temple system.

Despite the community’s denial that this kind of event would ever happen, and the hope that the community  could one day return to a place they loved, Ezekiel shows them that this hope is not only unrealistic but also disobedient. Jerusalem and the temple need to be cleansed and replaced.

Ezekiel accepts God’s call to be quiet and to demonstrate how the people should watch the destruction of their city and accept God’s new vision for them. In some cases, they will suffer through these experiences. Their suffering will prepare them for something new on the horizon.

When is silence just as important as speech? What can body language tell you about a person's message?

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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