Lecture: Ezekiel’s My Cup of Tea!

Note: Here is an excerpt from a lecture I presented on 23.12.2012 in the Sunday School of my church (Goettingen Chinese Christian Congregation). I am most grateful to the senior pastor and his wife for having allowed me to co-teach this ongoing lecture series on Introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. By their own examples, both of them have shown me what great teachers could be like! And I heartily thank my brothers and sisters in the fellowship for their genuine interest and laughter in listening to this lecture. The original version is in Chinese Mandarin and the following excerpt is only a small part of the original lecture and has been greatly expanded and modified considerably. I try to be more detailed yet not technical to fit it into a blog context. 🙂

Introduction

During these few years in Germany, my parents and some of my close friends frequently ask if I have found somebody to fall in love with (I guess it’s a question fair enough for my age). And of course, in the most romantic continent in the world – Europe, I have fallen in love! And I have fallen in love with — the prophet Ezekiel!! 😀 Our dating place is either in the office or in the library. At first, I was struggling with my choices between Isaiah or Jeremiah. But right now, I know my Mr. Right should be Ezekiel! 😉

Ok, now you might think that I am crazy! How can I fall in love with someone who no longer (or never, as from a lecture I heard in the Doktorandenkolloquium two semesters ago) exists?! Some say that all we know about the prophets are from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and that only very little from the books were written by the prophets themselves (Think about B. Duhm’s proposal that there were 3 Isaiahs! He also happened to think that only less than a quarter of the book of Jeremiah had been written by the “authentic” Jeremiah! Another person, Hölscher, thought that only a few per cents of the verses belonged to the “real” Ezekiel, etc…) Well, just for the moment, I don’t care!  For me, even if the whole of the book was not written by any of these prophets, the Bible still presents them in a way that they exist. And even if they were not responsible to write the whole of the books, these prophetic books, in my opinion, can still be used to reflect the characteristics of the prophets as configured or imagined by later editors. Anyway, one’s identity, in my opinion, is always constructed by oneself as well as defined and influenced by others. The question, as always, is how to draw the boundary. Between historical reality and literary texts. Between self and others. Between the biblical canon and other literary materials. Let me for once loosen that boundary to draw from a wide range of literary sources, and I will use my own “literary imagination” to (re)construct what I know of these three prophets. Then I will tell you why Ezekiel is my beloved.

Isaiah

To know the best of Ezekiel, you really need to compare him with Isaiah. As the name of Isaiah (which means “God is salvation” in Hebrew) suggests, you can be pretty sure that Isaiah is a smooth-talking guy who knows how to chat in a way that makes everyone happy. Looking at his book, one finds a lot of beautiful poetic speeches. You will rarely find action-orientated prose accounts (exceptions include Isaiah 7-8 and 36-39). Hence you know that his job is just to talk. He can talk about anything from heavens to earth, from the creation to the end, covering the major historical periods from Assyria, Babylon, to Persia. While he seems to be very open-minded, trying to share the blessings of Israel on par with both Egypt and Assyria (cf. Isaiah 19:23-24), he can also stab the Gentiles behind their back in front of the king of Judah (cf. Isaiah 37:29). Recent biblical scholars also question if the texts from Deutero-Isaiah are really that universalistic in our modern sense (cf. Isaiah 49:23, 26). You can never be sure whether Isaiah means what he says. But precisely due to his skills as a smooth-talker, he wins the heart of every generation of humanity thereafter (He reminds me of Süskind’s protagonist who possesses the magical perfume to win the love of everyone). You can find the references to him in the HB/OT: 2 Kings 18-20; 2 Chronicles 32:32; Sirach 48:17-23. In the discoveries at Qumran, his prophetic book was the third most attested book with 20 scrolls after the Psalms and Deuteronomy. After the Psalter, his book is the most cited HB/OT book in the New Testament. Not only the Christians like him, but also the Jews regard him as of noble lineage, related to King David (b. Sotah 10b; b. Megillah 10b; cf. Leviticus Rabbah 6:6); he allegedly became the father-in-law of King Hezekiah (b. Berakot 10a). He is particularly respected for the vision described in Isaiah 6, sometimes leading the rabbis to place him on the same level as Moses (cf. Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:4). Given his popularity, you can understand why Michelangelo painted him most handsomely in comparison to the other HB/OT prophets in the Sistine Chapel:

Image

If Isaiah were my boyfriend, a possible conversation between us would run like this:

Lydia: Will you love me forever? If I fall into the ocean and nearly get drown, will you jump in to save me?

Isaiah: Of course, honey! You are my love, my sunshine, my everything! I will risk everything for you. (And you will never know that he has repeated every single word to another beauty from Egypt or Assyria!)

Jeremiah

To know the strength of Ezekiel, you have to compare him with Jeremiah. The real meaning of Jeremiah is “God exalts”, from the root רום, “to exalt”. But somehow, I always confuse the name with another root רחם, which means “to have compassion”. This is probably because I deem this prophet to be the most compassionate one. Yet, he can be an annoyance to some. He can ramble and ramble and ramble on due to his emotional or physical plights. Next to the book of Psalms, his book is the second longest book in the Bible in terms of verses and words. That is probably why the structure of the book has been considered for a long time to be incomprehensible or illogical. Just try to do a comparison between the Hebrew Masoretic Text and the Greek Septuagint version of the book of Jeremiah, you can see how confused the prophet really is. The Greek version has less than 3000 words than the Hebrew version. Furthermore, the oracles concerning the nations at the end of the Hebrew version (chapters 46-51) have been moved to the middle after chapter 25 in the Greek version. And the internal arrangement of the oracles concerning the nations is also different in both versions. The confused mind of the prophet is understandable, since he has witnessed the upcoming destruction and exile of his beloved people to a foreign land. But, personally, I cannot stand myself or any other for flashing their pains and distraught continuously. Thus it is almost unbearable for me to find a lot of laments and complaints (Jeremiah 11:18-12:6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-13); a lot of tears and torments (14:19-22; 4:19; 8:18-9:1; 9:10, 17-19; 10:19; 12:7; 13:17; 14:17; 20:14-18; 23:9), a lot of plots and persecutions (26:10-19; 36:26; 37:11-38:6). Come on, you are a man, right?! Apparently such a melodramatic man is also very popular like Isaiah. Within the HB/OT, you can find the reference to this weeping prophet in 2 Chronicles 35:25. The tradition is extended by the Septuagint’s preface to Lamentations 1:1, which ascribes the book to Jeremiah. In the Second Temple literature, the so-called Paralipomena of Jeremiah and the Epistle of Jeremiah are traced back to Jeremiah. The prophet’s concept of a new covenant also finds its way into the New Testament. The use of Jeremiah 31:31-34 in Hebrews 8:8-12 is the longest continuous quotation of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament in the New. If I were a painter for Jeremiah, I would probably paint him as 马景涛, a Taiwanese TV star who often appears in the melodramatic soap dramas in this way:

Image

If Jeremiah were my boyfriend, our conversation would probably go like this:

Lydia: Will you love me forever? If I fall into the ocean and nearly get drown, will you jump in to save me?

Jeremiah: Why!!?? How can you die  without me???!!! I will never let you leave me!!

Having suffered a nervous breakdown, he would probably roll in ahes, growl and cry on the ground. And I would be SO guilty to have started this conversation at all and would sheepishly go away…

Ezekiel

I love his name, which means “God will strengthen”! From the name itself, we already know that he is a strong-minded person. In contrast to Isaiah, he doesn’t have very elegant speeches in the book. Of priestly descent, he is probably a practical person due to cultic demands. Therefore he will have less time to talk and more time to act. It probably doesn’t make much of a difference to Ezekiel’s daily activity when God actually shuts the prophet’s mouth up in 3:26 and only opens his mouth when God wants him to talk of the divine words. When Ezekiel speaks, he speaks earnestly and speaks only God’s words. Therefore you will find a lot of repetitive formulae throughout his prophetic book, e.g. the divine messenger formula (“thus says Yahweh”) or the word-event formula (“when the word of the Lord came to me saying”). Different from Jeremiah, Ezekiel probably has a better logic and better organizing skills. Therefore, when I read his book, I feel like I am reading a diary. You can find a quite ordered chronological series (1:1-2; [3:16]; 8:1; 20:1; 24:1; 26:1; 29:1, 17; 30:20; 31:1; 32:1, 17; 33:21; 40:1). The clear outline makes one biblical scholar to make the following comment: “The book of Ezekiel is widely and correctly considered the most tightly structured prophetic book of the Old Testament.” (See Konrad Schmid, “The Book of Ezekiel,” in“The Book of Ezekiel,” in T&T Clark Handbook of the Old Testament [ed.J. C.Gertz et al.; trans. J. Adams-Maßmann; New York: T&T Clark International, 2012], 452.)

His not complaining or crying does not mean that he suffers less than Jeremiah. I think he is truly manly. Think about it: Having been deported forcefully from the home country to a foreign land – Babylon, he lives in that foreign land until his death. God worries about him and tells him repeatedly that he is going to meet some trouble makers – the rebellious Judahites (Ezekiel 3:8). Unlike Jeremiah, Ezekiel does not complain too much about these people. We only see a bit of his complaints in Ezekiel 20:49. God asks him to eat dung, he only bargains a bit then he follows the instruction silently (Ezekiel 4). He is not afraid of those evil doers. Regardless of the hierarchy, he dares to challenge and compare the whole inhabitants of Jerusalem to worse-than-prostitutes (Ezekiel 16, 23).  Even though there are many prophets who have also compared Jerusalem or Israel to prostitutes, Ezekiel contains the longest and the most piercing, elaborate, detailed depictions of those hypocrites. When God takes away Ezekiel’s desire of the eye – his wife, and commands the prophet not to cry, Ezekiel really does not cry (24:16-18). Truly manly! A lot of his thoughts probably do not go well with the traditions. According to the Talmudic tradition, Rabbi Hananiah ben Hezekiah, a sage of the first century BCE, consumed what at the time was considered to be an impressive amount of three hundred jars of oil while he attempted to explain the difficult passages of the Book of Ezekiel (b. Sabbath 13b; Hagigah 13a). Such a man with principles and own thoughts definitely makes others dislike him. Thus in the Lives of the Prophets from c. 1st century CE, we read, “He died in the Land of the Chaldeans during the Captivity…the ruler of the people of Israel killed him there as he was being reproved by him concerning the worship of idols.” How tragic! In contrast to the popularity of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the New Testament never names or quotes the prophet Ezekiel directly, even though the book of Revelation in particular seems to have been influenced significantly by Ezekiel. A pseudo-Ezekiel text is found at Qumran, albeit only fragment remains. A man who is not recognized until/after his death, how lonely!

I am imagining how it is like to be a girlfriend of Ezekiel. If there is a trouble maker coming up to us and ask Ezekiel: How could you like a girl like Lydia!? I think Ezekiel would look haughtily at that trouble maker and respond: I just like her! That’s none of your business!

And if I ask him the same question:

Lydia: Will you love me forever? If I fall into the ocean and nearly get drown, will you jump in to save me?

Ezekiel will stop whatever he is doing, he will look me deep into the eyes and will tell me: “You know my feelings for you.” The he will go back to his work at hand – trying to correct the measurements of the house that he is going to build for me! I think God probably also likes Ezekiel as a man of action. Otherwise, God won’t ask him to write down the detailed measurements of the gigantic New Temple in Ezekiel 40-48. If I were to die, I don’t need Ezekiel to cry for me. I just need to know that his heart will bleed for me, that will be enough.

If I have the choice, I will make the diplomatic Isaiah my acquaintance, the compassionate Jeremiah my friend and the strong-minded Ezekiel my beloved.

Why do I write out this piece? First, I think it is fun to read and integrate what I’ve learned about the prophetic books in a fun way to share it around. Second, the more I think about the differences of the prophets, the more I have the awe for God, the Master. Despite their varied personalities, God seems to win the hearts of all of these men totally and overwhelmingly. Thus I think the true heart of Isaiah lies in God when the prophet proclaims God to be the one and the only (cf. Isaiah 44:6; Isaiah 45:5, etc.); I think Jeremiah is still compelled to speak God’s burning words despite his crying unwillingness or bitterness (cf. Jeremiah 20:9). And the fearless and stubborn Ezekiel shows the obedience to his Master by eating dung! It reminds me how mortal I am, that I can never force myself to like everybody of every personality equally(the reverse is also true). Yet God alone has the ability to use so many people from all walks of life and win their total obedience. It reminds me of what unites me with the others (as said in Romans 8:28):

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

And this shall be my 2013 New Year motto! 😀 I wish you a very Happy New Year, that you may cherish every day and every encounter!Image

*The above picture is taken from the facebook page of another great teacher I have had (Thanks for that!).


3 thoughts on “Lecture: Ezekiel’s My Cup of Tea!

  1. Interesting! Good work 🙂 Perhaps the poem “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow” written by the Australian Catholic poet Les Murray will change your mind about the weeping prophet, Jeremiah 😛

  2. Dear sis, thanks for this awesome recommendation! 😀 I read that poem and find this line beautiful: “but the weeping man, like the earth, requires nothing.” I have nothing against tears as long as they are not utilitarian. Jeremiah is still good to be a friend. Or honestly, maybe I just need to develop a softer heart…

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