Summary and Analysis
The Book of Ezekiel has the most logical arrangement of any of the prophetic books. It contains three sections, each of which addresses a different subject matter. Chapters 1–24 concern the fall of Jerusalem. Chapters 25–39 contain a series of oracles addressed to foreign nations, concluding with a section in which the future of Israel is contrasted with that of the foreign nations. The third section, Chapters 40–48, presents a plan for rebuilding the Temple and reorganizing the restored state of Israel.
Ezekiel was one of the younger men taken to Babylon in the first captivity, which occurred in 597 B.C. He served as a kind of religious counselor to the Hebrew exiles who were allowed to live in a colony by themselves near the banks of the Kebar River. Scholars generally assume that most of what is contained in Ezekiel was written by the prophet himself. For some time, they believed that he wrote practically the entire book while living in the colony of exiles. However, more recent scholarship has pointed out several reasons for thinking that at least a portion of the chapters included in the first section contains speeches personally delivered by the prophet to the people who remained in Jerusalem until the city fell in 586 B.C.
The book opens with an account of the vision that summoned Ezekiel to his prophetic calling. Ezekiel describes his vision as an elaborate and complex image that symbolizes the majesty of Yahweh and proclaims Yahweh's sovereignty over all the nations of the earth. The prophet is so overcome by the vision that he falls on his face. A voice calls to him, saying "Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me. . . . And whether they listen or fail to listen — for they are a rebellious house — they will know that a prophet has been among them." Ezekiel is then handed a scroll, on which is written "words of lament and mourning and woe." Told to eat the scroll, when he does so he finds that it tastes as sweet as honey. Evidently, Ezekiel knows that the message he is to proclaim portends impending disaster, yet he thoroughly enjoys the task given to him.
The people who were left in Jerusalem after the first captivity consoled themselves with the idea that they were better off than their brethren who were taken to Babylon. They believed that Yahweh would protect them from any foreign power and that neither the city of Jerusalem nor the Judean kingdom would ever be overthrown. Ezekiel's task was to disillusion them with reference to this hope, to make clear to them that the city would be destroyed and also the reasons why it would be overthrown. To accomplish these tasks, the prophet performed a number of symbolic acts. For example, on a piece of tile, he drew a picture of Jerusalem under siege and placed the tile in a prominent place, where it could be seen plainly by all those who walked along the street. He lay on his left side for a period of time each day for three hundred and ninety days, and then he lay on his right side in a similar manner for forty days. Ezekiel explained that for each day he lay on his left side, northern Israel would be in captivity for one year, and for each day he lay on his right side, the southern kingdom — Judah — would spend a year in captivity. He cut off his hair, dividing it into three parts that symbolized northern Israel, the Judeans left in Jerusalem, and those in captivity in Babylon. He rationed his food, carried furniture out of his house, and did various other things to represent the disaster that would soon overtake the city of Jerusalem.
According to the prophet, the reason for the captivities that had already occurred, as well as for the one in store for the people left in Jerusalem, is the people's defiance of Yahweh's laws. Because Ezekiel believes that Yahweh rules supreme over all the nations of the earth, any violation of Yahweh's commands without appropriate punishment constitutes an infringement upon the deity's honor. Such violations are serious matters to Ezekiel, evidenced by the fact that his references to punishments are usually followed by the words "Then you will know that I am the Lord."
Jerusalem must be destroyed because of its sins. In his enumeration of these sins, Ezekiel includes both moral and ceremonial transgressions, but he noticeably places the greater emphasis on matters pertaining to the ceremonial. He condemns the worship of idols that represent foreign deities, and he severely censures people who eat forbidden meat or violate any of the other rules having to do with the conduct of worship. Coming into direct contact with that which is unclean contaminates Yahweh's sanctuary and profanes his holy name, which Yahweh will not tolerate.
Ezekiel, no less than Jeremiah, sees the significance of the individual in his relationship to Yahweh. Rejecting the ideas that fathers may be punished for the sins of their sons and the sons punished for the sins of their fathers, he boldly states that the soul that sins shall die. Furthermore, he carries this idea to the extreme position of maintaining that a person's entire life will be judged in terms of that individual's last act. Concerning the man who has lived wickedly all of his life but turns from his wickedness and does that which is lawful and right immediately before he dies, all of his wickedness will not be remembered: He will be judged as a righteous man. The reverse is true of the man who has lived righteously all of his life but turns to wickedness just before he dies: All of his righteousness will not be remembered.
The fall of the city of Jerusalem presented something of a problem, especially to those who believed that Yahweh's presence in the most holy place in the Temple was a sure guarantee that the place would never be overthrown. They remembered Isaiah's words uttered more than a century before, when he declared that Jerusalem was Zion's city and must stand forever. For Jeremiah, these words meant very little: Yahweh's dwelling place is in human hearts rather than in a specific place in the Temple. While this idea is not entirely absent in the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet nevertheless believes that Yahweh's presence is located in the Temple more than in any other place. How then could the Temple be destroyed so long as Yahweh's presence was in it? According to Ezekiel, Yahweh's presence went up out of the Temple and rested on a hill outside; then the Temple fell.
In the chapters dealing with foreign nations, Ezekiel has one predominant message: These nations are subject to Yahweh's laws, the same as the Hebrew people. That foreign powers have not recognized Yahweh's sovereignty does not alter their fate in the least. Ultimately, they will be destroyed, which will take place in order that "they will know that I am the Lord." Although Yahweh is, in Ezekiel's mind, a universal God, this universality does not mean that Yahweh stands in the same relationship to the foreign nations as he does to the people of Israel. In this respect, Ezekiel's views are decidedly nationalistic. Yahweh punishes the Israelites in order to teach them a lesson that they have refused to learn in any other way. But in the case of foreign nations, punishment is not meant to teach a lesson that will bring about their conversion. With them, the coming destruction is to be final and does not anticipate any reformation on their part. With reference to the Israelites, something quite different will happen: Yahweh will transform them by putting his own spirit into their hearts. This restoration will include both the people of the northern kingdom and the people of Judah. In the vision of the valley of dry bones, Ezekiel proclaims a complete restoration of the whole house of Israel. The Israelites will return to their own land and rebuild the kingdom that was overthrown, and Yahweh will dwell in their midst forever. The final destruction of all foreign nations is described as an event that will take place when the vast armies under the leadership of Gog and Magog attempt to capture the restored city of Jerusalem. At the crucial moment when victory appears near for the invaders, Yahweh will intervene and completely destroy all of their forces.
The last eight chapters of Ezekiel contain a description of the restored state as envisioned by the prophet. The Temple will be built outside the main part of Jerusalem, constructed in such a manner that will make it possible to keep out those persons and objects that might contaminate the holy place in which Yahweh will dwell. At this point in the text, Ezekiel introduces a distinction between priests and Levites in order that only qualified persons should enter the Temple, even for the purpose of keeping it clean. The highest official no longer will be the king but rather the high priest, thus indicating that political affairs shall always be made subordinate to religious considerations.
Ezekiel has often been called the father of Judaism. His influence on the future development of Israel's religion was, at least for several centuries, greater than that of any of the other prophets. His conception of holiness, which stands in sharp contrast to Isaiah's, became dominant in the period that followed his people's return from Babylonian exile. For Ezekiel, holiness was a quality present in both things and people. Holy objects would be profaned whenever anything common or unclean was brought into direct contact with them, a belief that led to a sharp distinction between the secular and the holy and gave new meanings to such items as the observance of dietary laws, payment of tithes, and observance of the Sabbath. Violation of any of these rules would constitute a profanation of that which was holy or sacred. This interpretation of rules and regulations pertaining only to the Israelite religion served to strengthen the spirit of nationalism and thus to increase the antagonism that already existed between Jews and non-Jews.
Ezekiel's conception of the final triumph of the Israelite people over all of their enemies and the complete destruction of foreign nations contributed much toward the development of the religious doctrines that played such prominent roles in the religion of post-exilic Judaism. The idea that the whole human race is divided into two classes, known as the righteous and the wicked, and that the righteous can be identified as the ones who live in strict conformity with all of Yahweh's laws, while the wicked are those who do not obey these laws, is derived from Ezekiel's teachings. Although this position was not accepted by all of the post-exilic Jews (some parts of the Old Testament were written for the specific purpose of refuting it), nevertheless this doctrine appealed to a large number of people and served to characterize in a general way the attitude of late Judaism.
Ezekiel's plans for rebuilding the Temple and reorganizing the state were carried out to a considerable extent when the exiles returned to their own land. The high priest, rather than a king, assumed the greatest responsibility in political and religious affairs. The use of servants and foreign slaves to do menial tasks in the Temple was discontinued; only those people who belonged to the tribe of Levi were permitted to enter the Temple for this purpose. In earlier times, the entire tribe was regarded as having been set apart for the priesthood, but now only a select group within this tribe was allowed to officiate in the Temple's services.
The spirit of Ezekiel's work determined to a very great extent the character of the religious life of the people during the centuries that followed his teachings. His influence is notable in the code of laws known as the Holiness Code, found in Leviticus, Chapters 17–26, and in the lengthy and detailed set of laws known as the Priests Code, now regarded as one of the four main narratives included in the Pentateuch — the first five books of the Old Testament.