Exegetical Exercise (Ezekiel 3 1-11)

Michelangelo's Ezekiel
Ezekiel as depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, July 23, is Ezekiel 3:1-11. Here is the text (including a couple of verses from chapter 2; version: Inclusive Bible), along with my exegetical notes:

2:8 But you, mere mortal, heed what I say to you and don’t rebel like them. Open your mouth and eat what I feed you.”
9 Then I looked and I saw a hand stretched to me, holding a scroll. 10 The scroll, unrolled for me so that I would see the writing front and back, held words of lament, mourning and woe.
3:1 Then the Voice said to me, “Mere mortal, eat what is before you. Eat this scroll and then go and speak to the House of Israel.”
2 So I opened my mouth and was given the scroll to eat, 3 as the Voice said, “Mere mortal, eat this scroll I hand you and fill your stomach with it.” I swallowed it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.
4 The Voice said to me, “Mere mortal, go to the Israelites and declare my words to them. 5 I am sending you not to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the House of Israel. 6 I send you not to big nations that speak a foreign and difficult tongue, whose words you cannot understand – though if I were to send you to them, they would listen to you! 7 But the House of Israel is unwilling to listen to you because its people are unwilling to listen to me, for the whole House of Israel is hard-headed and obstinate. 8 But I will make you as hard-headed and obstinate as they are! 9 I will give you a resolve that is as hard as a diamond, for a diamond is harder than flint. Don’t fear them. Don’t be terrified by them; for they are a rebellious house.
10 “Mere mortal, listen carefully to all that I say to you. Take it to heart. 11 Now go to your exiled sisters and brothers and say to them, ‘Thus says Sovereign YHWH!’ – whether they listen or choose not to listen.”

First reading: The full episode really spans the first three chapters of the book of Ezekiel, and includes Ezekiel’s vision by the River Chebar; the passage for Sunday focuses on a small part of the whole event, the presentation and eating of the scroll. The scroll sounds like it ought to be bitter or sour, since it contains lamentations, mourning and woe, but instead it’s sweet – why? What’s the purpose of the scroll, which presumably contains or represents the Word of YHWH? Why does E. need to eat the word, not just hear it?

Like Isaiah, and unlike Moses and some others, Ezekiel doesn’t voice any objections or stalling; later, though, he does say he goes to Tel-aviv “in bitterness in the heat of [his] spirit” (Ezekiel 3:14), so not voicing hesitation might not mean he is happy, precisely, about the assignment.

What is it about “hardness” that links it to rebelliousness and refusal to listen to God, and how is hardness going to protect Ezekiel in his mission?

Background: The Talmud says the Men of the Great Assembly wrote the book of Ezekiel; presumably this means they edited it; most everyone seems to agree that Ezekiel himself wrote most of the text. E. is accepted as a historical figure, a priest – or rather, someone who would have served as a priest if he had still been in Jerusalem, which he wasn’t, because he was one of those relatively elite citizens deported to Babylonia in 597 BCE along with King Jehoiakim – as well as a prophet. The events described in the book take place over a twenty-year period, which assuming “in the thirtieth year” (Ezekiel 1:1) refers to Ezekiel’s thirtieth year would correspond to the time Ezekiel would have been eligible for priestly service (the twenty years from age 30 to 50). Many of his visions take place in Babylonia – surprising and perhaps scandalous, since revelation is associated with the land of Israel. A lot is made of the book of Ezekiel being controversial; having had a hard time making it into the canon, and only after Rabbi Hananiah ben Hezekiah burned 300 barrels of oil in the project of resolving the discrepancies between Ezekiel and the Torah; and being dangerous to read. One of the most helpful comments is that Ezekiel unites the roles of priest and prophet – with a simultaneous emphasis on justice and on ritual. (See the introduction to the book of Ezekiel at MyJewishLearning.com) In contrast to most of the prophetic literature, Ezekiel is mostly prose rather than poetry.

Features in the text: God addresses Ezekiel repeatedly as “mortal” (ben adam, literally “son of adam” or we could say “earth-child”) – God is overwhelmingly, magnificently holy, and – although not stated explicitly, we probably know this – eternal; E. is strictly temporary. There is similar repetition of the identity of Ezekiel’s audience, “the House of Israel” – emphasis on its family identity? Until 3:11, when the audience becomes the exiles, Ezekiel’s “people”. “The House of Israel” seems to distance Ezekiel from this group, which are depicted as rebels against God; but then at the end, Ezekiel is identified with the group, they are his family. [This might be part of the priestly aspect of his career, since part of the essence of priestly function is representing the people before God; to represent them, the priest has to be one of them.]

In terms of verbs, God is doing most of the talking, and the overwhelming tone of God’s speech is command; God issues 15 imperative verbs between 2:8 and 3:11. A pair of commands to “hear what I say” bookend this passage (2:8, 3:10); within that, there’s a progression of four commands concerning the scroll (2:8 “eat what I give you”; 3:1 “eat what is before you”; 3:1 “eat this scroll”; 3:3 “eat this scroll I give you”) getting progressively more specific and demonstrative. And there are a series of commands to “go and speak” – “go and speak to the House of Israel” (3:1), “go to the Israelites and declare my words” (3:4), “go to your people … and speak” (3:11). Ezekiel will be speaking God’s words – either words eaten, that he has “filled his stomach” with, or words received into his heart by hearing (3:10).

There is an interlude in 3:5-9 in which God describes the hardness of the house of Israel, its effect on their listening – they won’t listen to you because they won’t listen to me, they are too hard – and God’s assurance that God will make Ezekiel at least as “hard” as the people to whom he will need to speak. The “hard” quality may evoke being “impenetrable,” that the hard and stubborn people won’t let God’s words “in.” This would be a contrast with Ezekiel, who actually eats God’s words, an extreme form of letting them “in.” If so, this hardness proves ironic; because they haven’t allowed God’s words in, the House of Israel will be forced to allow the besieging forces of the Babylonians “in” to the fortified city – so the Babylonians will break down the people’s defenses, which in turn, ultimately, will “soften up” the exiles to be able to listen to God’s message, maybe. Still, God is explicit that Ezekiel’s task will not be easy or pleasant and won’t have overwhelming positive results.

Despite the woeful content of the scroll, it tastes sweet. Other readers give various explanations for this: it’s God’s word, so it has to be sweet; it represents God’s presence, albeit in suffering, and God’s presence is sweet. If people become what they consume, does the eating of the scroll possibly make Ezekiel, in some sense, become the words he takes in? Could that have something to do with the way Ezekiel will become a prophetic performance artist in the service of this message, lying on his side to represent the siege, eating limited rations to represent the starvation, shaving off and destroying his hair, etc. – ways of becoming the message?

Concluding observations/questions: God is still communicating with the “House of Israel” – through Ezekiel. That says something. Because certainly God wouldn’t have to do that.

It is disturbing to think that there might be parallels between Ezekiel’s time and our own, for all their many differences. But if we thought there were any parallels between Ezekiel’s time and our own, what would they be? And what would the implications of those parallels be?

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