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Abingdon Old Testament Commentary - Ezekiel
By Nancy R. Bowen
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
A Prophet among the Exiles (1:1–3:27)
Many years ago, in a land far away, lived a man named Ezekiel. He and his people had suffered terribly. After a fierce battle, Ezekiel's home had been conquered. He was among the social elite who were taken captive to their conqueror's country. A few years later, sitting by a river in this foreign land, Ezekiel experienced something almost as terrifying: an encounter with God. The description of this encounter opens the book of Ezekiel. After orienting readers to Ezekiel's time and place (1:1-3), three distinct events are narrated. First, Ezekiel recounts his vision of standing in God's presence (1:4-28). Next, in a series of speeches, God calls Ezekiel to a new role: a prophet who is to bring God's message of "lamentation and ... woe" to the people (2:1–3:15). Finally, Ezekiel undergoes a process that prepares him for this role (3:16-27).
Just as the ordination service of a priest served as an initiation rite into that role (compare Lev 8–9), prophets also experienced an initiation process. Ezekiel's experience both resembles and differs from the experiences of prophets before him (compare Isa 6; Jer 1). The report is longer and more complex than that of any other biblical prophet. Perhaps Ezekiel had more need than other prophets did to prove that YHWH sent him, since his message is so unbelievably disturbing. Each main section of the opening chapters is one more argument to persuade Ezekiel's audience that he is YHWH's true messenger. The purpose of these events was to prepare Ezekiel for his role and to make his claim for legitimacy. Considering how aspects of trauma might illuminate Ezekiel's experience reveals the experience of divine encounter as highly disturbing.
Ezek'el Saw "de Wheel Way Up in de Middle o' de Air" (1:1-28)
Ezekiel claims prophetic authority precisely because he saw "de wheel way up in de middle o' de air." Standing in God's presence is a standard claim for true prophecy. The way Ezekiel saw God is also important. The deity of Ezekiel's vision is creator of the universe, mighty warrior, and almighty king, a God who can kill and make alive. Ezekiel faced the God his people faced—the God who both killed Judah and will make them alive again.
The book of Ezekiel begins as do other prophetic books, with a superscription (1:1-3), a brief indication of author, date, and subject (e.g., Hos 1:1; Amos 1:1). This superscription is more elaborate than the usual terse provision of basic data. The elaboration takes the form of repetition and expansion. Twice a time frame is given (vv. 1, 2). The location "by the river Chebar" is mentioned twice and each time is modified by another descriptor, "among the exiles" (v. 1) and "in the land of the Chaldeans" (v. 3). Three times reference is made to Ezekiel's relationship to God: "I saw visions of God" (v. 1); "the word of YHWH came ... and the hand of YHWH was on him there" (v. 3). Repetition is a standard literary device throughout the book of Ezekiel, providing emphasis or elaborating upon something. Here the repetition emphasizes when the prophet spoke, where Ezekiel prophesied, and who authorized this prophet.
The main body of the chapter (vv. 4-28) is an extended vision report, a characteristic prophetic genre. Significantly, the book of Ezekiel begins with a vision portraying the prophet having an audience with God in the heavenly realm. Throughout the OT one of the tests of the "true" prophet is whether the prophet could claim to have stood in YHWH's presence (1 Kgs 22:19-23; Isa 6:1-3; Jer 23:21-22). The prophet who made this claim was trustworthy. Of all the prophets, Ezekiel is the only one to begin with such a vision. Ezekiel does not wait for his message to be questioned to present his credentials, but starts by authenticating his prophecy. Because Ezekiel's message is in many ways unbelievable, the readers of this message need to know from the very beginning that they can believe it.
The superscription (vv. 1-3) provides two dates. The "thirtieth year" may (or may not) refer to the minimum age one could assume priestly duties (Num 4:30). The second date locates Ezekiel during the time of the exile. Jehoiachin was king when Nebuchadnezzar first attacked Jerusalem and deported some of its population (2 Kgs 24:1-16). To date, his oracles from that moment imply that they define time for Ezekiel, just as contemporary time might be divided "before 9/11" and "after 9/11." There was life "before" Jehoiachin's exile and then there was life "after." Ezekiel's concern is with life "after."
The three identifications of location also firmly anchor Ezekiel in the exile. "Among the exiles" establishes Ezekiel as among the first group of deportees from Jerusalem. According to Babylonian sources "the river Chebar" was a canal that looped off the Euphrates around the city of Nippur in the plains of southern Babylon. "Chaldea" is the biblical name for southern Mesopotamia, the area associated with Babylon (contemporary southern Iraq). Both the time and place accentuate that Ezekiel's life and prophetic work occurred in the context of the Judean exile, and deal with its concerns.
Like many Hebrew names, "Ezekiel" is a compound name. Two elements are combined to form a descriptive phrase or a complete sentence. The first element in the name (Ezeki-) is a verbal form and the second element (-el) is derived from a divine name. The verb generally means "to be or grow strong." In another form it means "to make strong, strengthen." The same verb is used in Exodus to describe the hardening, or strengthening, of Pharaoh's heart. The second element, "El," is the generic Hebrew word for "god" as well as the proper name of Canaan's chief deity. Thus, Ezekiel means "May God (El) make strong" or "God strengthens (or hardens)" or "God will be strong." Several interpretations are possible: God will strengthen Ezekiel in his prophetic mission; or since God is strong, God is someone on whom Ezekiel can rely for support; or God will be strong and firm in carrying out the divine intention of punishing the people.
Ezekiel (and/or his father) is identified as a priest. According to the grammar of the sentence, the identification, "priest," can refer either to Ezekiel or to his father, making Ezekiel's priestly status ambiguous. Nonetheless, the priestly orientation of the book is clear from the attention to such typical priestly concerns as dating, purity/impurity, the layout of the Temple, worship practices, God's holiness, as well as specific connections with the priestly Holiness Code in Lev 17–26. Whether or not Ezekiel was himself a priest, he used the priestly worldview to explain to the exiles how and why they suffered deportation and what their future might be.
For good reasons, there are few artistic representations of Ezekiel's vision; attempting to draw it results in frustration. There are several reasons why it is so difficult to grasp its content and meaning.
First, the vision itself claims to represent only vaguely what Ezekiel saw, using words "something like," "appearance," "like," "looked like," and "likeness." The closer one gets to the center of the vision, the vaguer the description:
And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form. Upward from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all around; and downward from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire. (vv. 26-27, emphasis added)
Second, the convoluted syntax or even lack of syntax in the Hebrew, obscured in translation, is problematic. Some verses simply lack verbs. Verse 8 is literally, "and the hands of a human beneath their wings by their four sides and their faces and their wings to four of them." Then there is the notoriously inconsistent use of masculine and feminine endings. Hebrew is a gendered language and pronouns are to agree with their antecedent in both gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural). But not here. Verse 10 offers an example of this. "As for the likeness of their [masc.] faces, the face of a human [designating either or both sexes] and the face of a lion to the right to the four of them [masc.] and the face of an ox from the left side of the four of them [fem.] and the face of an eagle to the four of them [fem.]" (author's translation).
A third problem is the use of obscure vocabulary. This vision employs words such as "amber," which only occurs here in the entire OT. Moreover, words are defined differently from traditional usage. For example, the word translated as "gleaming, sparkled, shining" (ên) (vv. 4, 7, 16, 22, 27) everywhere else in the OT means "eye" (e.g., Deut 19:21; Ps 94:9; Ezek 1:18; 7:4). Numerous other words used in the passage occur less than ten times in the entire OT. It is as if Ezekiel had to make up language for this vision.
Finally, what Ezekiel sees is bizarre. Perhaps the reason the rabbis forbade making any representation of and were reluctant to interpret the vision may simply be that they could not figure it out. There are four living creatures that look sort of human, but each has four faces and four wings and their wings are somehow touching one another. Each walks straight, and there is some kind of glowing fire in/around/among them, with a wheel beside the living creatures (or are the living creatures on the wheel?). There is also a wheel within the wheel (is this the same wheel?) and its rim is full of eyes (are there four wheels or only one?). When the creatures go, so do the wheels. There is a firmament above them, and the appearance of a likeness of another humanlike being also gleams brightly.
As difficult as it might be to envision this, a number of images from Israel's traditions help in understanding it. The "stormy wind" (v. 4), the "sound of tumult like ... an army" (v. 24), the images of fire and lightning (vv. 13-14, 27), the image of a chariot evoked by the wheels, and the bow (an instrument of war) in the cloud (v. 28) are associated with various traditions of YHWH as warrior (Eichrodt 1970, 56; Lind 1996, 29–31).
The wings of the living creatures that spread out, touch one another, and cover their bodies evoke both the seraphim of Isaiah's vision (Isa 6:2) and the winged cherubim associated with the ark of the covenant (Exod 25:18-22), YHWH's throne (1 Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2), YHWH's chariot (Ps 18:10), and the guardian of the garden of Eden (Gen 3:24). Yet only in 10:1 does the word cherubim appear. It is not used here, not even to say that Ezekiel saw "something like" cherubim. Still, the associations evoke a royal court or royal throne and thus YHWH as a royal figure.
The "dome" in verses 22, 23, 25, 26 is the same "dome" of the creation account in Gen 1. But the emphasis is not on God creating the dome but rather on God as present or residing above the dome. In an imprecise, confusing, and ambiguous manner the language evokes Israel's main imagery for God as Warrior, King, and Creator. The images of God described here are encountered throughout the book. Readers should consider their significance for understanding Ezekiel's message.
In addition to these inexact uses of various traditions, there are unique elements to the vision. The image of the heavens being opened (v. 1) is unique in the OT as is the wheel within a wheel with its rim full of eyes. The part human, part animal image of a creature will emerge later in the apocalyptic visions of Daniel, but the four faces (human, lion, ox, eagle) are a unique occurrence in the OT (though they appear later in Rev 4:6-8). The uniqueness of these images means that their precise meaning in the vision can only be guessed at. The most important of these unique images are the wheels. While in the opening vision they do little except add a level of complexity, in another vision they will serve an important theological function (see p. 57).
Although aspects of the image may be unclear, it is clear that Ezekiel claimed to see the "glory of YHWH," an important concept in the priestly traditions, which Ezekiel adapted. In priestly traditions, the "glory" occurs in connection with God's appearance in the tabernacle (Exod 40:34-35; Num 14:10; 16:42 [17:7]; 20:6). The "glory" also takes the form of a consuming fire and cloud (Exod 16:10; 24:16-17; Num 16:42 [17:7]). Instead of the tabernacle, Ezekiel locates the "glory" in Jerusalem's Temple (compare 1 Kgs 8:11). Ezekiel also describes the "glory" as blazing fire and cloud (1:4, 13; 8:2; 10:4). In both the priestly traditions and Ezekiel, the "glory" was the visible, constant presence of God. God's "glory" dwelled perpetually, first in the tabernacle, then in the Temple, and so was associated with God's dwelling place. The "glory" is also a theological attempt to speak about God as both present and transcendent. The transcendent God can be present and known to the people through the "glory." Perhaps this is why the "glory" is associated with both fire and cloud. The fire signifies divine otherness and majesty. People must keep their distance lest they be burned. The cloud offers protection by preventing the people from getting too close to the fire. As a sign of divine presence, the "glory" underscores that Ezekiel saw God.
In summary, Ezekiel's vision is not nearly as clear as English translations would have readers believe. The echoes that resound of God as Creator, Warrior, and King, however, as well as the identification of the likeness of the glory of YHWH, emphasize the fact that Ezekiel claimed to stand in the presence of the God of Israel and no other. Ezekiel's audience can know, beyond all doubt, that "the word of YHWH" came to Ezekiel. Even if it is not possible to draw a precise picture, Ezekiel offers the proper response to the vision. "When I saw it, I fell on my face" (v. 28).
Theological and Ethical Analysis
(1) Although the vision is difficult, later traditions will find meaning in parts of it. In Judaism the wheel imagery became a chariot (Merkavah) that bears the Throne of Glory. Because the Merkavah is connected with God, the study of the Merkavah became equated with the study of the Divine and thus played a significant role in sectarian Jewish mysticism. In Christianity, the four faces of the living creatures became the basis of the iconography of the four Gospel evangelists; Matthew was identified with the human face, Mark with the lion, Luke with the bull, and John with the eagle. For Irenaeus the four faces in Ezekiel's and John's revelations explained why there are four Gospels and neither five nor three. African American slaves sang about Ezekiel's wheel as a metaphor of human faith and divine grace. Just as Ezekiel borrowed aspects of his tradition in creating the vision, later communities borrowed aspects of Ezekiel's vision.
Finding meaning in this vision for today is difficult. This is evident in the popular belief that Ezekiel saw a UFO. The classic exposition of this is by Erich von Däniken (1968, 55–57). A Google search of "Ezekiel and UFO" yields thousands of Web sites making the same claim. As outlandish as this view sounds, it suggestsviewing this vision as something "alien." Ezekiel claims he experienced a direct encounter with God, but how does one describe such an experience? He is trying to describe something that is essentially indescribable. Language itself breaks down. While other commentators see the fractured language of this chapter as evidence of multiple and inept redactors, it is possible to consider the fractured language as evidence that human language cannot convey the experience of God's presence. Divine encounter is something alien to normal human discourse. It should not be surprising that there are obscure words, no verbs, wrong endings, and convoluted syntax. Translations obscure the fractured nature of the language of the vision by "smoothing" out the language so it makes "sense," but part of the point is that it is impossible to make "sense" of God. If one is so (un)fortunate as Ezekiel as to have a direct experience of God, how does one convey that in mere language? The vision report demonstrates the limits of language for such a task. It is the primary way humans communicate with one another, and yet it is an inadequate vehicle.
(2) The language may also convey more than the inability to describe God in human terms. Ezekiel may have experienced this divine encounter as a traumatic experience. Studies show that the overwhelming emotions of trauma can wreak havoc on memory.
Traumatic memories are likely to be stored in a form that works against meaningful recall. Memories may be stored ... in bits and pieces.... Memories of such fragmented experience may take the form of isolated images.... These images, feelings, and memory fragments do not occur in sequence, and they do not add up to a coherent event. (Allen 1995, 104, emphasis added)
Excerpted from Abingdon Old Testament Commentary - Ezekiel by Nancy R. Bowen. Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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