Ezekiel at the End of the Century

Ralph W. Klein

Most of the essays in this volume were first presented at the Theological Perspectives on the Book of Ezekiel Seminar during the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in 1997 and 1998. Two additional essays, by Baruch Schwartz and Jacqueline E. Lapsely, were invited for inclusion by Margaret S. Odell and John T. Strong, the co-chairs of the Seminar.

North American and other scholars for whom English is their first language can now choose among four massive, multi-volume commentaries on the Book of Ezekiel, all of them published within the last twenty years. The most influential of these is the commentary by Walther Zimmerli, first published in German in the 60s as part of the Biblischer Kommentar and composed within the parameters of historical criticism by one of the exegetical giants at mid-century. Zimmerli controlled the massive secondary literature and was equally adept at the sections in his volumes assigned to Text (translation and textual criticism), form (genre), place (dating), verse-by-verse commentary, and theological goal. He made major contributions to form criticism, tradition history, and redaction criticism, and he assigned, for his day, a surprising amount of the text to the prophet himself. Even later additions were seen to point back to the prophet.

Zimmerli’s opus was a way station and now, for many, a starting point into the world of this prophet’s heritage. But even such a classic is not the last word nor is it impervious to the challenges of subsequent scholarship. The principal criticism of Zimmerli is his propensity to assign large sections of the text to the school of the prophet rather than to the prophet himself. Wholistic or synchronic readings of Ezekiel are now much more common at the end of this century—for literary critical, canonical critical, and even theological reasons. This change, of course, is by no means limited to Ezekiel.

Ezekiel himself has been the object of criticism by many members of the guild in the last generation, partly because his priestly-prophetic proposals seem to be the ideological background of the post-exilic, theocratic and hierocratic party that controlled the temple in the late 6th and 5th centuries, and partly because his book contains violent, some would even say pornographic, accounts dealing with women.

But Ezekiel has also benefited by the scrutiny of many doctoral candidates in the years after Zimmerli, and by the establishment of the SBL Seminar on Ezekiel that was the first Sitz im Leben for most of this book’s essays, and the place where many newly minted doctors tried out their new ideas and their new methods in public.

Ezekiel prophesied at a time of radical change in Israel and his message was radical both in its judgments and in its promises. He may well have been the first "writing prophet"; his predecessors’ words were more likely preserved orally and then collected and redacted. His written legacy is one of the longest in the Hebrew Bible and, like many an ancient text, much will always remain obscure. In the postmodern world one expects many methods, attention to the subjectivity and social location of the interpreter, and a variety of results. There is still much to learn about how Ezekiel related to his contemporary prophets and to the other theological proposals of the exile, to the antecedent biblical traditions, and to the world of the Ancient Near East. Ask new questions, use new and old methodologies, ransack the cultural heritage of the Near East, and do not take previous exegetical results as unquestioned evidence. Such a strategy, used by the Theological Perspectives on the Book of Ezekiel Seminar is bound to lead to new and exciting results. This book started with two questions: What does Ezekiel say about God? What does Ezekiel say about the human condition? These queries have had rich results.


Daniel I. Block, author of one of the four major commentaries mentioned above, interprets Ezekiel’s portrayal of the absence of Yahweh in the light of the antecedent Israelite understanding of the motif of divine abandonment and the Ancient Near Eastern environment from which the prophet’s writings emerge. Ezekiel develops the motif of Yahweh’s abandonment of land and people in ways that do not appear in the "covenant curses" of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. Block investigates a dozen Near Eastern literary accounts of divine abandonment (Esarhaddon’s rebuilding of Babylon is the most helpful) and compares them with Ezekiel’s portrayal of Yahweh’s abandonment of the temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel may have developed the motif of abandonment so fully because he was surrounded in Babylon by images and stories of abandonment. Ezekiel exploited the similarities polemically in order to expose the bankruptcy of Babylonian religious notions: Yahweh will defeat the gods in their own game.

Cause and effect have been reversed for Ezekiel’s audience in the land. Whereas to the Babylonians, a deity’s abandonment of his temple or city was provoked by the sins of the people, the people resident in Judah justified their sins because of Yahweh’s abandoning them (chaps. 8-11). Many of the riddles in the book can be understood only in the light of the cultural and literary contexts from which this written record derives, but the relationship is often one of contrast. Nebuchadnezzar, according to Ezekiel, would not drag Yahweh forcibly from his temple. Instead, Yahweh would leave of his own accord. So long as Yahweh remained in his temple, the city stood. However, once he had left, neither gods nor humans could prevent the mighty Babylonian conqueror from storming in. Block argues for the unity of the book since the return of Yahweh, expected in the corresponding Mesopotamian accounts, appears in passages quite separate from the vision in chaps. 8-11. He also notes that in distinction to the extra-biblical parallels, there is no change of heart in the people prior to Yahweh’s return; Instead, Yahweh gives them a new heart and spirit (11:18-21; 36:16-32).

Baruch J. Schwartz takes a dim view of Israel’s restoration in Ezekiel—and of the God portrayed in Ezekiel. The prophet’s commission to prophesy foresaw lamentation, moaning, and woe so that his mission ought to have ended when he received news in Babylon of the fall of Jerusalem (33:21-22). Neither Israel’s penitence nor Yahweh’s establishment of a new covenant is invoked by Ezekiel to explain the promise of future restoration (Schwartz proposes that in 16:59-60 YHWH transforms the existing, conditional covenant into an everlasting covenant, according to which YHWH will uphold his covenant despite the people’s actions). YHWH’s decision to take unilateral action to maintain his covenant is one of spite, aimed at causing Israel to feel the everlasting remorse that the exile failed to bring about.

Schwartz distinguishes Ezekiel sharply from Jeremiah and Second Isaiah who provide convincing rationales for the coming restoration. He notes the absence from Ezekiel of words such as forgiveness, graciousness, lovingkindness, and compassion. For Ezekiel the future restoration of Israel is a direct outgrowth of YHWH’s punishment of the people. In order to repay his people for their unrelieved sinfulness, YHWH resolves to punish them with utter destruction. YHWH’s resolve to return the Israelites to their land is not a reprieve, but rather part of their sentence. Humiliated by the profanation of his name among the gentiles and unable to tolerate having no subjects to serve him, YHWH resolves to bring the Israelites back to their land, out of sight and out of reach of the nations. YHWH will resurrect his people for his own thoroughly egocentric reasons and in the course of doing so will show them that they are wrong and he is right. In order to make sure that his wishes are carried out to the letter, Yahweh declares his intention to move in with his people for good. Ezekiel sees YHWH’s restoration of Israel’s fortunes as the act of a raging God of justice, who acts out of self-interest and a consuming concern for his reputation.

This dim view may strike some readers as one-sided or as taking Ezekiel’s admittedly tough-minded promises in the worst possible sense. Others may note the absence from his discussion of motifs like the fructifying river in chap 47, that indicates that there is nothing that cannot be changed for the better. Still others might quibble about his interpretation of the everlasting covenant in 16:59-60. But his forceful essay is a brilliant example of Block’s observation that exposition involves a conversation between the text and the reader, and that the disposition of the reader plays a vital role in the establishment of the significance of a passage.

John T. Strong argues that Ezekiel sought to maintain Zion theology through the use of certain tenets surrounding Yahweh’s kābōd. Starting from the positions of Von Rad and Mettinger, he proposes that kābōd was a hypostasis of God and that Yahweh was never dethroned. He seeks a pre Ezekiel locus for kābōd as hypostasis in First Isaiah and in Psalm 106 and proposes that the function of the kābōd was to represent the holy and distant Yahweh in the profane realm where it confronted all opposing forces. In this view, Ezekiel’s vision of the Glory of Yahweh was not a reformulation of the royal theology of the Jerusalem temple, but, rather, Glory was the means by which Yahweh had always manifested himself outside of the temple. Strong further proposes that chaps. 8-11 depict the kābōd marching out to battle Chaos and to purify the land while chaps. 40-43 report his victorious return. Within the confines of the Zion traditions, Ezekiel’s vision of the kābōd presents a conceptual parallel to Baal’s victorious return to El. He sees two functions for the man clothed in linen in chaps. 9-10, representing two layers in the text. The man in chap. 10 is sent to purify Yahweh's base camp, while the figure putting a mark on foreheads in order to preserve a remnant is deemed secondary. Strong also sees the oracles against Tyre as a defense of Zion theology. If Tyre would have succeeded where Jerusalem failed, and if it had prospered were Zion languished, then it would have appeared to the exiles that the seat of the great king was not Jerusalem, but in fact Tyre. Tyre seems to anticipate being filled by the Glory as part of becoming the seat of the divine king. Others will have to judge whether divine warrior imagery is as prevalent in chaps. 8-11 and 40-43 as Strong thinks. It seems to me, however, that the "dethronement of Sabaoth" of which Mettinger has written may refer to the temporary replacement of terminology dealing with Yahweh’s enthronement rather than to Yahweh actually being dethroned during the exile and later reinstalled as king.

Steven S. Tuell distinguishes between earlier and later editions of the book of Ezekiel, with a clear preference for the earlier form. Ezekiel offered a dramatic rethinking of the divine presence in which text had replaced temple as the locus of divine presence. The kabod in P is fixed and appears only in sacred space; in Ezekiel kabod comes to the prophet in exile and not in sacred space. Divine presence is not mediated by cult image or iconography, but God himself becomes "a small sanctuary" for God’s people. Far from abandoning the exiles, Yhwh has abandoned Jerusalem. Ezekiel’s words provide the point of contact between Yhwh and the exilic community; the written text is the means of divine presence among the exiles.

The temple Ezekiel describes in chaps. 40-42 is the original, archetypal dwelling of God, something Ezekiel saw in a heavenly ascent. His temple description functions as a verbal icon, by which a people who had thought themselves separated from God could experience and celebrate the divine presence. The composers of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice from Qumran also understood Ezekiel 40-42 as a description of the heavenly world. Hence Ezekiel’s final vision did not originally deal with temple rebuilding, but with the assurance that the true home of Yhwh in heaven remained intact, unpolluted by Israel’s sin. The original final vision in 40:1-43:7a and 48:30-35 formed a chiasm centering on the divine promise of eternal presence. The final redaction of chaps.40-48 forms a new chiastic structure, centering on the divine word as legislation. In the final form, right cult and right priesthood were necessary.

Tuell’s diachronic reading of the text swims against the stream of wide reaches of contemporary biblical scholarship on Ezekiel, including most of the authors of the essays included in this book. This does not, of course, mean it is wrong. His proposals that the words of Ezekiel be considered as a verbal icon and that the temple envisioned in chaps. 40-42 was Yhwh’s heavenly sanctuary deserve careful consideration in any case.


John F. Kutsko argues that Ezekiel applies the concept of human likeness in God’s image negatively to denounce foreign gods and positively to describe the divine-human relationship. Ezekiel’s theology is radically theocentric and monotheistic. In Ezekiel, idolatry is the most pervasive explanation for the exile, and Ezekiel is one of monotheism’s loudest voices.

Ezekiel contrasted the Mesopotamian concept of a divine statue as the image of god with the Priestly theology that humans are made in the image of God. According to Phyllis Bird, the Priestly source democratized the Near Eastern royal usage, broadening to all humans what in other sources had been just the king or a priest as God’s representative on earth. Ezekiel aligned himself with this Priestly theology, contradicted Mesopotamian ideology, and refrained from language that would explicitly legitimize the notion of other gods. While Ezekiel does not use the technical term "image of God" for humans, it is implied through his anthropomorphic descriptions of God in chaps 1 and 8, and his description of idols as merely images of humans.

If humanity is the image of God, then violence against humanity indirectly affects God. The Priestly tradition condemned violence and bloodshed because humans are created in God’s image. Idolatry itself is a heinous offense for it is an illegitimate representation of the image of God.

Ezekiel’s monotheism and his use of the image of God contribute to a moral appeal against violence. Several recent studies (Renita J. Weems, Regina M. Schwartz, and Carol Delaney) have argued the opposite, namely, a direct connection between biblical monotheism and human violence. Ezekiel unites his polemic against other gods with a moral indictment, both of which are grounded in an anthropological proposition. When Ezekiel is read in the context of exile, an easy correlation between monotheism and violence is harder to establish. Hence theology, anthropology, and ethics interact and build upon one another in the book of Ezekiel. Kutsko finds two powerful propositions in Ezekiel: In spite of all appearances, Yahweh alone is God; The people remain the image of God. Idols have no merit as images of God, since humans are the image of God. And since humans are the image of God, violence directly affects God.

Dexter E. Callender gives his attention to the lament on the prince of Tyre in Ezek 28:11-19. The bulk of his discussion is given over to the interpretation of two words translated "signet of perfection" in the NRSV. The NRSV translation revocalized the first word as a construct singular noun instead of a Qal participle as in the MT. Callender goes one step farther and vocalizes it as an absolute singular noun. In neither case is there any change in consonants. The second word is more difficult, but Callender proposes a slight consonantal emendation, from tknyt to tbnyt, primarily on the basis of the ancient versions. Hence he suggests two nouns in apposition: "You were a seal, a likeness." This clause is best understood in view of the reference to the creation of the first human in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26). The picture is that of an authoritative, royal representative of Yahweh. The figurative use in Gen 1:26 and Ezek 28:11-19 is taken more literally in descriptions of royal statues in the Tell el-Fakhariyeh inscription and the Tukulti Ninurta Epic.

Hence the king of Tyre and all other foreign kings were considered executors of the divine will as manifested in Yahweh. Analogous usage can be found in Jeremiah’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar and Second Isaiah’s understanding of Cyrus. The King of Tyre also displays characteristics of the Primal Human, and Ezekiel therefore adumbrates the kinship of humanity. The papers of Kutsko and Callender need to be seen together since Kutsko concludes that the concept of the image of God, while not appearing in so many words in Ezekiel, is implied through his anthropomorphic descriptions of God in chaps. 1 and 8, and his description of idols as merely images of humans.

Jacqueline E. Lapsley describes the positive role of shame in Ezekiel’s vision of the moral life. The moral self Ezekiel envisions finds its origin in God and its form is knowledge as opposed to action. Knowledge of God and of self are crucial to Ezekiel’s vision of a new human moral identity. Shame in this essay deals more with inner, psychological experience than with the social sanction implied in many current discussions of honor/shame societies. The shame we experience before an act, that is similar to modesty and keeps us from doing something, is called discretion-shame; the shame after an act, that creates a painful break in the self’s relationship with itself, is called disgrace-shame.

In a number of cases in Ezekiel forgiveness or an act of deliverance precedes a feeling of shame. Shame is something bestowed from an external source; the very capacity to experience shame is a gift of God. This disgrace-shame paves the way for the people’s identity to be shaped in a new way. A lengthy discussion of chap. 16 leads to a similar conclusion: Yahweh’s deliverance of the people somehow opens the possibility of a new moral identity for the people based on an appropriate sense of shame leading to self-knowledge. The women and the whole people in chap. 23 feel disgrace-shame over their political alliances and religious practices in the past, and only then can they move forward to possessing a sense of discretion-shame. This is the basis of a human moral identity in which the people can successfully orient themselves to the good. In this move away from action toward embracing knowledge as primary in the moral life, Ezekiel largely abandons the traditional view of moral selfhood he had inherited.

Margaret Odell pushes form criticism to a higher level of sophistication in her discussion of Ezekiel’s anthropology. Prohibitions against mourning in the Bible reflect an attempt to disassociate from the deceased. Previous discussions of Ezekiel’s being forbidden to mourn for his wife (Ezek 24:15-24) have ignored the use of this genre elsewhere. Form critical study also shows that putting on a turban or sandals is not elsewhere the reversal of mourning, but such acts are designed to show the acquisition of a new status such as marriage. The symbolic action associated with the death of Ezekiel’s wife, therefore, implies that God has chosen the exilic community over Jerusalem. Ezekiel’s actions are a sign of this election. Yahweh’s wife Jerusalem is dead, as is Ezekiel’s unnamed spouse. Nevertheless, Ezekiel dons the attire of a bridegroom. Although he and the exiles have lost everything, he and they look forward to a future as the betrothed of God. Mourning is prohibited, but this is not evidence of emotional paralysis. Instead, it signifies the exiles’ anticipation of a new life as the elect of God.

Odell also asks about the genre of the book as a whole, which does not match exactly other prophetic books. She believes Ezekiel has made a studied, literate, and imitative appropriation of the Mesopotamian building inscription genre. The Babylonian inscriptions resemble Ezekiel in that they record the account of a city, a king’s attempt to restore order, and an eschatological program of restoration. Ezekiel has modified the genre by writing his work on a scroll instead of engraving it on a monument, and the central figure of his composition is Yahweh, not the human king or even Ezekiel himself. Ezekiel has appropriated a genre that extols the deeds of human kings but has used it to assert the opposite. Ezekiel’s role is that of "son of man," a term which designates Ezekiel’s humanness and the proper status of subjection before the divine king. This focus on Ezekiel as "son of man" enhances human responsibility. Humans are to recognize that they are "adam" and thus subject to God; as a consequence of this fact, they act in obedience to the laws and commandments of the Great King.

Corrine Patton enters the current lively discussion of the sexual violence in Ezekiel 23 and proposes that the historical setting of the original text is more central to its meaning than previous gender analyses have allowed. She attempts to show how the text subverts gender assumptions, both masculine and feminine, as part of the original rhetoric of defeat. The text addresses the audience as women in vv 10 and 48, explicitly saying, you men are in fact the topic of this oracle. The text does not portray sexual violence against women as a good thing, for the metaphor would not work if the male audience were not shocked. They are the whore, and should be treated as one. Ezekiel tells the male audience that they are the agents of the rapes of their own wives, sisters, and mothers. The metaphor in Ezekiel 23 works precisely because men like Ezekiel understood the image of sexual violence at a gut level—there may well have been male sexual abuse or castration in the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem. This text does not mean that men were insensitive to abuse, but that they had actually experienced it. God did this to us (the audience) because we were nothing but whores. The anthropological insight of the passage is that Ezekiel experienced the reality of sexual and physical atrocities in war, not as something outside of God’s view, but as intrinsically revelatory of the transcendence of God. The power of the text lies in its use of a metaphor that still offends its audience, that still gets its audience to rethink its own assumptions about gender definition. The theological aim of the passage is to save Yahweh from the scandal of being a cuckolded husband, that is, of being a defeated, powerless, or ineffective God. So where are we at the end of this collection of essays? This volume contains a wide variety of methods and results:

This bulleted list does not exhaust the number of categories, nor does it mean to restrict the methods or conclusions just to those scholars listed in parentheses—even here there is surely room for subjectivity of interpretation.

This century began with R. Kraetzschmar detecting two parallel recensions of an original text in Ezekiel; by 1924 G. Hölscher concluded that only 144 of the book’s 1,273 verses contained the words of the prophet himself. C. C. Torrey, in 1930, claimed that the book was a pseudepigraph from Jerusalem of the third or second century BCE, that originally purported to have been written under Manasseh but was subsequently rewritten in Judah with a Babylonian setting. Looking back at the end of the century, we note how much our fine predecessors were captives of their own presuppositions, and we are no doubt only imperfectly aware of our own captivity. The continued, even renewed excitement about this good and problematical prophet and the flurry of new angles of investigation promise a prominent role for scholarship on Ezekiel in the twenty-first century. No one would dare imagine how a similar collection of essays would read a century from now.