This week we are treating you to some original content from Ezekiel specialist Professor Paul Joyce. Paul is Samuel Davidson Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at KCL, London, and author of Ezekiel: A Commentary (T&T Clark, 2009). In the past year, T&T Clark have published The God Ezekiel Creates, co-edited by Paul Joyce and Dalit Rom-Shiloni (November, 2014), as well as An Introduction to the Study of Ezekiel (May, 2015) by Michael A. Lyons in the past year, so we thought we should spend some time getting more in-depth with this 'weird and wonderful' book.
Weird and Wonderful: Ezekiel, his Book and his God
By Paul M. Joyce
In a chapter of his remarkable work Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), Julian Barnes mounts ‘The Case Against’ Flaubert, listing fifteen charges against the great author before proceeding to defend him. Quite a lengthy charge-sheet of this kind can be drawn up against Ezekiel. Indeed the book has a popular reputation as a text that is bad for you, one that should carry a health warning.
A major problem that confronts the reader of Ezekiel concerns the theology of history implied by the book. Ezekiel’s God uses war as an instrument to punish his own people and other nations, and to control world events. Which of us today really believes such things? The fact that Ezekiel shares this feature with the Israelite prophetic tradition as a whole does little to make it less problematic. The vindictive, merciless and bloody tone of Ezekiel 1-24 is notorious. Does this not show Ezekiel - and his God - to be nothing less than sadistic, acting for the sake of the vindication of the deity’s reputation before the nations?
It is hardly surprising that a dominant cultural association of the word ‘Ezekiel’ for many in our own time has been the repeated adaptation of the vengeful words of 25:17 in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction: ‘I will execute great vengeance on them with wrathful punishments. Then they shall know that I am the LORD, when I lay my vengeance on them.’
Much praised is Ezekiel’s insistence that the generation of his own day must forget the past and must take responsibility for its own plight, rejecting the proverb ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’ (Ezekiel 18). Indeed this is frequently regarded as one of his great contributions to the theology of the Hebrew Bible. But is not this failure to acknowledge the intergenerational effects of sin grossly simplistic, in psychological and sociological terms? For in a world in which dysfunctional family relationships, alcoholism, sexual abuse and so many other blights cast their shadow from one generation to another, it is plain naive to imagine that ‘children’s teeth’ are not in some sense ‘set on edge’ by their parents’ deeds.
Ezekiel, it can be argued, is not strong on social justice, when compared with his predecessors, the great prophets of the eighth century. He seems rather to be obsessed with cultic purity and the legalistic enforcement of it. Then there is the very strangeness of Ezekiel himself as presented in the book - this man who sits stunned for seven days (3:15), who lies on his left side for 390 days, and then on his right side for 40 days (4:4-8). And yet at the same time Ezekiel appears a cold fish, who does not mourn the death of his own wife (ch. 24). Indeed he seems such an odd and eccentric character that many have judged him mad, an old diagnosis revived by David Halperin in 1993.
Other charges can and have been laid at Ezekiel’s door. He is sometimes dubbed the ‘Father of Apocalyptic’, but this path led to what some have regarded as in many ways an obscure and esoteric cultural dead-end in Apocalypticism, a phenomenon certainly rejected by mainstream Judaism. Closely related is the tradition of Merkabah mysticism, taking its starting point from Ezekiel’s opening vision, which can be seen as a dangerous opportunity for self-indulgent escapism, from which the rabbis rightly warned off the young and vulnerable. Again, Ezekiel is notorious for his patriarchy, misogyny and sexism; these features are particularly marked in chs. 16 and 23, which descend to the downright pornographic.
Time and time again we are brought back to the problems posed by the God Ezekiel presents. Half way through the book (chapter 33 is to be seen as the key turning point), the theme switches from absolute punishment, where there could be no mercy, through a complete disjunction, to the extreme opposite, in which all is mercy, and in which human freedom and responsibility are drastically under-defended. It emerges that this is again for the sake of an ulterior theological motive, the vindication of the divine reputation before the nations. And there are major knock-on effects of all this in Ezekiel’s theology. There is no adequate place for repentance in Ezekiel, either before the fall of Jerusalem, where the references are few and arguably merely rhetorical (14:6; 18:30-31), or after the fall, where obedience is freely given by God to his still recalcitrant people (a theology expounded especially in chapter 36). Much is made of Ezekiel’s theology of grace (above all the gift of a new heart and a new spirit), but does this not threaten to cut the nerve of ethical endeavour, marking a retreat from the real prophetic task of ethical proclamation, to the ‘internalization’ of religion? And all for the purposes of God rather than his people, lest they again disgrace his holy name. Like the prophet himself,
Ezekiel’s God seems a forbidding and distant figure. He appears a selfish deity, using Israel and the other nations for his own ends. We do not find here the warmth of the God portrayed in, say, Hosea or Jeremiah.
It can seem that Ezekiel’s God cares above all about his own status and own his holiness (36:21: ‘But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned’). Strangest of all, he even gives to his people statutes that were not good, ‘in order that I might horrify them, so that they might know that I am the LORD’ (20:25-26). A damning indictment. What, if anything, may be said in defence of Ezekiel, his book, and above all his God?
There can be few, if any, books of the Bible that have a more distinctive presentation of the deity than the book of Ezekiel, or are more dominated by the central place taken by the divine figure. This is indeed a radical theocentricity. Thus, the focus on this intriguing theme is paramount in the volume The God Ezekiel Creates.
The articles problematize and illuminate the divine in Ezekiel, and a rich variety of readings is presented along the spectrum between, on the one hand, Darr’s ‘harsh, judgmental, and punitive deity’ and, on the other, Block’s perspective on the God who balances his fury with his mercy, not only in Israel’s past and future but even in the nation’s present, showing grace to a remnant. Presentations of divine sovereignty over Israel, the nations, and the cosmos run through many of the essays as they highlight negative qualities of divine violence, terror and fear (Darr, Strong, Nevader, van Wolde). And yet that divine sovereignty is the focus also of more positive depictions of the deity’s powers in portraits of restoration (Callender, Carvalho, Cook, Block), extending to a divine pity over Israel (Carvalho). Divine presence and absence, in Jerusalem and in Babylon, are explored in various ways throughout the volume.
Noteworthy is the title, The God Ezekiel Creates, which seems to imply that we are dealing with a construction, the God-figure as Ezekiel shapes him. While this is indeed the approach of many of the essays, which work in the conviction that God-talk is a human activity, and what Ezekiel's God says is in fact a reflection of Ezekiel himself, still a couple of the essays in the volume challenge this implication of the title. Marvin Sweeney inverts the title in a piece called ‘The Ezekiel that G-d Creates’ while Daniel Block writes of ‘The God Ezekiel Wants Us to Meet.’
The God of Ezekiel is indeed a complex character of divergent qualities and contrasting images, and the topic seems inexhaustible. The intention is that this collection will generate many starting points for further explorations of the fascinating book of Ezekiel. The overriding impression that I form is that the book of Ezekiel in fact provides a challenge and a corrective to the many theologies that present God as we ourselves might like him to be. From the beginning of the book (where the deity, seated on a moving throne, is witnessed by the prophet in alien Babylonia) through to its culmination (with a vision of a river flowing from the Jerusalem temple to bring life to the wilderness), this holy and austere God acts consistently for his own purposes whether in judgment or in deliverance, giving statutes that are not good in order to horrify his people and also delivering those who remain undeserving.
Strange, uncongenial, forbidding …, but this is a God worthy of the name, and it comes as no surprise that Ezekiel exercised a profound influence on Calvin, who was indeed lecturing on the book at the end of his life.
If Ezekiel is not well known to you, then I recommend that you spend some time with this weird book that is also a treasure trove. There is no better way than to explore the text for yourself of course, but if you seek a companion I warmly commend the excellent new Introduction to the Study of Ezekiel written by Michael A. Lyons.