The Book of Ezekiel
In the last entry, I mentioned a supposed anomaly in Ezekiel 14:14—the reference to Daniel and Job, whose books come after Ezekiel in the Hebrew Bible. Lots of you countered that this is no anomaly at all. The books of prophets are not in chronological order, and the events in Job and Daniel actually occur before the events of Ezekiel, as reader Jesse Bangs explains deftly here.
Unlike Jeremiah, who was celibate by God’s order (or, more likely, because no woman could stand his foul temper), Ezekiel is a family man—which is why this chapter is so sad. Ezekiel’s wife dies during the siege of Jerusalem. The dreadful part is that God forbids him from mourning or weeping. All Ezekiel may do, God says, is “sigh, but not aloud.” God immediately dispatches the new widower to preach to the Jerusalemites, and Ezekiel obediently does it. If you’re searching for a pleasant interpretation of the story, tell yourself that Ezekiel is a workaholic and perhaps he found solace in returning immediately to prophecy. In any case, this episode is a reminder of what a mensch Ezekiel is. Unlike icy and vengeful Jeremiah and Isaiah, Ezekiel is fully human, and thus a much more tragic figure.
The Lord vows revenge against the Edomites, Moabites, Philistines, and Ammonites. Why is this chapter important in American pop-cultural history? I didn’t know, either, but several readers gave me a heads-up. It’s a key source for Pulp Fiction. Jules Winnfield, the hit man played by Samuel L. Jackson, quotes it as his motto (caution: salty language ahead):
There’s this passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17. “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.” I been sayin’ that shit for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this mornin’ made me think twice. See, now I’m thinkin’, maybe it means you’re the evil man, and I’m the righteous man. And Mr. 9 mm here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or, it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.
Not to be pedantic here, but I feel obliged to point out that most of quote is spurious. Only parts of the last two sentences actually come from Ezekiel.
Chapter 26 and Chapter 27
This episode, the destruction of Tyre, is unusual for public-policy reasons: It is one of the few Bible stories that celebrates capitalism. In mourning Tyre, Ezekiel offers an economist’s-eye view of the city, listing all its trading partners, detailing the various kinds of products it exports and imports, applauding its magnificent harbor and clever merchants. It’s a very enthusiastic and emphatic litany, written by someone who truly seems to admire the free market. Tyre was the Shanghai or New York of its day, the port city that was the economic engine of the world around it. But it couldn’t survive the Babylonian onslaught.
Whoops! I spoke too soon. This chapter reverses all the Adam Smith free-marketeering of Chapter 27. Mercantile success, Ezekiel declares, has made the King of Tyre “haughty” and idolatrous. Tyre’s grand commercial achievements have produced only “lawlessness.” Ezekiel is slightly confusing here: I’m not sure whether Tyre is “lawless” because the worship of profit has made Tyreans pay less attention to God, or whether it’s lawless because Tyre’s merchants cheat their customers. Either way, the free market itself is to blame for Tyre’s disfavor with God.
Chapter 29 through Chapter 32
A four-chapter gore-fest against the Egyptians. Babylon will crush, stomp, obliterate, and humiliate Pharaoh. It’s all standard-issue biblical flamethrowing, except for one puzzling passage. Ezekiel says that slain Egyptian warriors will join dead Assyrians in “the Pit,” which is the “lowest part of the netherworld.” The Pit seems to be where bad uncircumcised people—the ones who, in a strikingly modern phrase, “spread terror”—go when they die. The Pit compounds the mystery of Sheol that has been puzzling me since way back in Numbers. A theology of heaven and hell seems to be developing as the Bible goes on. In the Torah, Sheol was a vague and simple concept. But now the afterlife is getting more complicated. Passages in Isaiah hint at a heaven, and the Pit certainly sounds like a kind of hell. (It sure isn’t Carlsbad Caverns or the Playboy Mansion grotto!)
I forgot to mention that one reason Ezekiel is a prophet of deeds rather than words is that God made him mute back in Chapter 3. (Though he doesn’t seem to have been really mute, since he kept on prophesying …) Anyway, when Jerusalem falls, God releases Ezekiel’s tongue from its spell, and he can talk again.
A long and wonderful analogy compares the rulers of Israel to shepherds and the Israelites to sheep. The shepherds have neglected their flock, exposed them to wild animals, failed to feed them, and never culled the bad animals from the herd. That’s why God is firing the shepherds and doing the job Himself. “I will look for the lost, and I will bring back the strayed; I will bandage the injured, and I will sustain the weak.” This is one of the most loving images of God in the entire Bible. Isn’t that what you want God to be, a kind, nurturing shepherd, protecting poor dumb us from harm?
At least it’s short!
God is upset with His people for an entirely new reason: They are making him look bad. When other nations see that His people worship idols, ignore the Sabbath, and maltreat each other, God’s reputation suffers. He’s embarrassed. He looks like a chump. God vows to restore Israel, but not for our sake. He’s only doing it to restore His divine good name. This is God as aggrieved hip-hop star.
Now we know how God will raise the dead. God leads Ezekiel to a valley filled with desiccated bones. (It’s the source for “Dem Dry Bones“!) God tells him to summon the bones back to life. At the prophet’s words, the bones sew themselves back together, and flesh and skin cover them. Then Ezekiel orders breath into them, and the corpses come alive, a mass reincarnation that symbolizes the restoration of Israel. It’s a very cinematic episode—so cinematic that it has surely been ripped off by some sci-fi or fantasy movie. Help me out, film buffs!
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