We are studying Ezekiel 18:1-9 and 30-32 for Sunday, May
30 23. This is the core of Ezekiel’s uncompromising announcement of individuals’ responsibility for their own behavior, one of Ezekiel’s distinctive messages. [Here are some questions about the text.] Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Some general background notes on Ezekiel, exilic era priest and prophet, are here.
The author of the text identifies himself as a priest, Ezekiel son of Buzi, one of the exiles living in Babylonia following the first deportation to Babylonia in 597 BCE. The book begins a little mysteriously “in the thirtieth year” – the majority view is that the reference is to the prophet’s own thirtieth year. The text goes on to relate Ezekiel’s prophetic visions, oracles, and symbolic actions over the next twenty years. There are a couple of deviations from the twenty year timeline that might be evidence of some later editing. On the whole, however, scholars accept the text as being consistent with its claim – that it was composed by a single author, during the exile.
The book opens dramatically with a vision of the spirit of the Almighty, followed by Ezekiel’s preparation for prophetic ministry by eating a scroll. Then there are object lessons related to the siege of Jerusalem: lying on one side next to a brick; cutting off his hair and chopping it up and tossing it around and burning it. Oracles of judgment. A vision of shocking idolatrous worship taking place in the Temple in Jerusalem. A vision of God’s glory leaving the Temple and the city. More warnings of judgment, including condemnations of false prophets, and an articulation of individual responsibility for sinful or righteous behavior (Ezekiel 14:12-23), a distinctive theme of Ezekiel’s. Chapter 16 is a long, explicit, and creepily uncomfortable presentation of Judah’s sin as female sexual promiscuity. Chapter 17 presents an allegory of the geopolitical situation that precipitates the final Babylonian siege and destruction of Jerusalem, with a very practical assessment of the prospects for the success of Judah’s rebellion. [I.e., dismal and foredoomed.]
All that brings us to our text for Sunday, the beginning of chapter 18, and the recitation of the proverb “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” In context, we realize people are using that proverb to disavow their own responsibility for the disasters that are unfolding, and to lay the blame for them onto earlier generations. [We could ask ourselves whether we have practices that function in any similar way.] The chapter is a further and longer articulation of the principle of individual responsibility, and ends with a ringing divine affirmation of life.
The rest of the book proceeds with additional judgments against Jerusalem and its leaders, as well as oracles against Tyre and Egypt. And then, the book ends with a long section detailing the restoration of a new, pure Temple, the source of a life-giving river, and the restoration of a redeemed Israel to the land of promise.
Whenever I read Ezekiel, I cannot help being reminded of the young man who used to travel the subway in Chicago. He was never without a huge piece of poster board on which he had drawn, in ball point pen, in excruciating detail, a scene of the city being policed by helicopters and squad cars and uniformed officers. And he would tell you exactly what it represented, too, if you made eye contact and looked remotely receptive to what he had to say. He wasn’t frightening, in the sense of being threatening or acting like he would hurt you. But he was obviously and unnervingly obsessive.
I cannot help wondering whether Ezekiel’s contemporaries felt at all the same way about Ezekiel.
Part of this text is a lectionary option for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost in year A – in particular if one is reading Old Testament passages that complement the gospel. This makes it not quite one of those things you’d not know about the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary, but not exactly something you’d be guaranteed to know, either.
CLOSER READING: The proverb in verse 2 is literally, according to Robert Alter, “The fathers have eaten unripe fruit, and the children’s teeth are blunt.” The image is more of biting into a piece of fruit that’s still hard as a rock than into something that actually tastes sour. This saying also appears in the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:29-30)
In v4, the “lives” that belong to God are literally souls; the soul that sins shall die. I can’t tell whether English makes that sound more serious than it should, or just about the right degree of serious.
Vv6-8 catalog of exemplary bad behavior that is prohibited in the Torah and that a just and righteous man wouldn’t do. At least some of these acts are distinctly gender-specific, and Ezekiel may well have had a man in view as the exemplary just and righteous person in connection with them all. Nevertheless, there is no good reason to imagine that Ezekiel is not treating the individual responsibility principle articulated here as completely general, regardless of gender.
Specifically, “eating on the mountains” probably violates the injunction not to eat blood (Leviticus 17) and possibly not to worship idols (Exodus 20:4-6; Leviticus 19:4), which is stated more specifically in the next clause.
We might note that the decalogue in Exodus specifically lays out its multigenerational view of rewards and punishments in connection with the practice of idolatry.
The sexual prohibitions against adultery and against sex with menstruants both involve impurity, that stems from improper object choice and that pollutes proper relationship. But both may also point back to unregulated sexual appetite (Leviticus 19:20-22; 20:10; 15:19-24).
“Wronging” anyone carries a connotation of violence, but also of economic oppression (Leviticus 19:13). The restoration of the debtor’s pledge is a specific reference to the compassionate command in Exodus 22:25-27. Not robbing may specifically relate to Leviticus 6:4, which requires restitution. Rules prohibiting usury appear in Exodus (22:25) and Leviticus (25:35-38). Executing “true justice” is also part of the holiness code (Leviticus 19:15-19). I’m not confident this is an exhaustive list of legal references.
At a minimum, we ought to notice the recurrent references to the holiness code of Leviticus 19. But we might well ponder, in light of this list, what it means that we citizens of the 21st century also, still, use sexual slang to describe adverse business practices.
Verse 9 ends with a prophetic formula, much like the liturgical “the word of the LORD.”
Verses 30-32 constitute a beautiful call to repentance and renewal. Sin can be a person’s – people’s – ruin, literally “stumbling block.” [As someone with mobility issues, I can easily imagine stumbling bringing ruin.] But the “casting away” of transgression seems to effect the “getting” of a new heart and new spirit. Death is a consequence of sin; but God prefers life to death. “Turn, and live.”
Image: “Prophet Ezekiel,” Russian Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons