So maybe God wasn’t sorry. Last time I wrote that Jeremiah 42:10 is the first time in the Bible that God apologizes. Several readers dispute that, arguing that God isn’t apologetic at all. While my New Revised Standard Bible has the Lord saying “I am sorry” for destroying Judah, other translations render it differently. The Lord isn’t apologizing: He is “relenting” in his punishment—that is, He is agreeing to suspend the punishment, but only if the Judeans obey him. Relenting avoids the major theological problem caused by apologizing. If God is all powerful and all knowing, He can never be wrong, and thus can never make a mistake that He would have to apologize for. But if He’s relenting, He’s not changing His mind but merely giving the Judeans one last shot at redemption. (Readers also point out that God “relents” in a bunch of other Bible books, not just in Jeremiah.)
The Book of Ezekiel
If reading Jeremiah is like being trapped in an elevator with a claustrophobic rageaholic, reading Ezekiel is like riding the Magic Bus. Zeke is trippy, groovy, sometimes paranoid, always Technicolor. I had the munchies by Chapter 2.
Ezekiel—who has clearly been sprinkling something extra on his matzo and brisket—has a vision of winged cherubim with four faces, one human, one lion, one ox, and one eagle. They’re riding on gigantic beryl wheels, and inside each wheel is a “tall and awesome” rim that moves independently from the wheel. (Why do I linger on this detail, you ask? Because these rims are a milestone in automobile and hip-hop history: They are the first spinners!)
Chapter 2 and Chapter 3
Ezekiel’s vision continues. The Lord instructs him to go preach to the “impudent and stubborn” Israelites. A wonderful incident: God gives Ezekiel a scroll containing His words and tells the prophet to eat it. “Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.” This is an even more profound example of the sacredness of the book for Jews. What’s so compelling in the verse is not that Ezekiel eats the scroll, but that it tastes good! The word of God is sweet as honey.
God addresses Zeke differently than He does anyone else in the Bible. He calls him “Mortal”—as in, “Mortal, go to the house of Israel” and “Mortal, eat what is offered to you.” It’s a curious phrase, and I can’t figure out why God has started using it.
Ezekiel’s God is a bit more merciful than Jeremiah and Isaiah’s: He explicitly instructs Ezekiel to allow the wicked an opportunity for redemption. If they honestly repent, God will forgive them. Jeremiah and Isaiah were hazier: They condemned first, asked questions later.
Chapter 4 and Chapter 5
Here’s where the book gets very strange and beguiling. For Isaiah and Jeremiah, prophecy is speech—haranguing, arguing, badgering, indicting. For Ezekiel, prophecy is action. God has him—and forgive me if I’m fuzzy here, because the verses themselves are rather confusing—build a model of Jerusalem from a brick and make a metal plate that represents the Babylonian siege works. Ezekiel then lies on his left side with the brick-and-metal plate resting on him. He stays in this posture for 390 days, representing the 390 years of Israel’s punishment. Then he lies on his right side for 40 days, representing the 40 years of Judah’s punishment.
(During this period of self-mortification, Ezekiel consumes the first macrobiotic diet, eating only bread made from wheat, barley, millet, and spelt, and drinking only water.)
When he finishes his Jerusalem tableau, Ezekiel shaves off his hair and beard—God loves the baldy!—and divides the clippings in three parts. He incinerates one third inside Jerusalem, strikes the second third with a sword outside the city walls, and scatters the last third to the wind. What does this represent? Anyone? Anyone? Yes, one-third of Judeans will die in the city, one-third will be killed in battle, and one-third will be scattered throughout the world.
I don’t know about you, but I’m very moved by Ezekiel’s performance prophecy. In journalism, we are always reminded to “show, don’t tell.” Ezekiel understands this, recognizes that his actions speak louder than other prophets’ words. What’s more, Ezekiel possesses a profound humility. Jeremiah and Isaiah are shrill and smug, giddy with their angry certainty. Ezekiel isn’t like that. He puts his body where his mouth is. Unlike Jeremiah, who thrives under the Babylonian conquest, Ezekiel truly makes himself suffer for his people.
Chapter 8 and Chapter 9
Ezekiel has another vision. This one is very like a dream—or at least very like dreams that I have. It’s a slow-motion tour through a building (the Temple in Zeke’s case; my elementary school, in my case). In each room, Ezekiel discovers something odd and wrong. Here, the Temple is being contaminated with loathsome animals and idols. There, women are worshipping false god Tammuz. Over there, men are bowing east to worship the sun.
Ezekiel and the Lord cannot abide these abominations. The Lord has a servant walk through Jerusalem and mark the head of all “who sigh and groan” at the Temple abominations. Then He summons six executioners and orders them to kill every man, woman, and child who does not have the mark. This slaughter, of course, reminds us of the final plague in Egypt, when the Israelites marked the doors of their houses with blood, so the angel of death would pass over them, and kill only Egyptian children.
Back in Egypt, survival was based on nothing more than genes. It was enough to be an Israelite. That protected you. But now God demands more. The fact that you were born a Jew is not enough. You must believe. You must love God so much that you sorrow at the contamination of His temple. In short, these two mass killings mark a profound shift, the transition of Judaism from an immutable ethnic identity to a freely chosen religion, from blood to belief.
The four-faced cherubim return, riding their pimped-out chariots.
God sends Ezekiel back to the Temple, where he preaches to the sun worshippers. He predicts destruction and exile, followed by God’s forgiveness. There is a magnificent metaphor to describe this redemption. God says, “I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh.” Isn’t it amazing that the idea of the “heart of stone” dates back more than 2,000 years?
Ezekiel tries another performance. This time, he packs a bag as though he is going into exile, then pretends to flee Jerusalem. He does this night after night, in hopes that Jerusalemites will ask him what he’s doing, and he can tell them it’s a warning that they are about to be forced into exile. But the Jerusalemites don’t notice their diligent prophet. They never ask him what he’s doing. They never hear his warning—not that they would heed it if they did.
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