This blog continues my reflections on Ezekiel chapter 1.
I have given my own imaginative comprehension of Ezekiel’s vision of God, but here I want to add a more neutral consideration of his imaginative work. We may think that the bulk of the material in the biblical book was communicated through preaching to the Jewish exiles at different times and places, but this is already an interpretation of what we have, namely a writing which purports to be a record of prophetic visions and utterances. Most scholars accept the existence of a “historical Ezekiel” and assign more or less of the book’s material to this person, but there is no evidence for his existence outside the book itself. It seems right therefore to interpret the book itself as an imaginative construction which sets before the reader the story of a prophet preaching in times and places designated in the text. The book that is, asks to be understood as historical fiction or fact; which, we cannot tell. It may have been composed by a historical Ezekiel or by his disciples during the period of the Exile in Babylon, or by a later author reflecting on the meaning of the Exile.
Clearly the obvious meaning of the Babylonian victories over the kingdom of Judah and deportations of its citizens in 598 and 586 BCE, is as an instance of Babylonian imperialism. Judah was doubtless a minor threat on the borders of empire, but one which could be dangerous in alliance with Egypt, and therefore needed forceful attention. The role of small nations in the history of great middle eastern empires is an important area of study in itself: were the lives of citizens of Moab, Tyre, Israel, Judah and Philistia, different from those of citizens of the great empires? Did they share in the cultural and technological advancements of the empires? Did they have any serious patriotism or were they forced by their own rulers into wars which put their possessions and livelihoods at risk? Whatever answers they give to these questions, all scholars agree that the small nations were perpetually at risk of violent disruption by the great powers of the area throughout the last millennium BCE.
Anyone coming to the book of Ezekiel from a study of that history must surely be startled to be faced with the assertion that the destruction of Judah and deportation of its people are in fact due to the wrath of its God at the refusal of its people to observe his laws. If we think of a prophet explaining the defeat of the British Expeditionary force by Germany in 1940 as God’s punishment for British sin, we can see how peculiar Ezekiel’s imagination actually is. Only those who have steeped themselves in the biblical tradition of the “holy people chosen by God” can understand Ezekiel’s claim, which itself comes from his own immersion in that tradition. He imagines that Israel/ Judah has been chosen by God to represent his blessing on all nations, which cannot be communicated from above but only by human beings who are persuaded to “walk in God’s way.” The ideal for Israel/Judah held out by Ezekiel is to be a small people, nourished by worship in a holy temple, living quietly by God’s Law in the midst of other nations. Ezekiel sees his people’s rejection of this calling as the reason for God’s wrath and their current exile. God’s punishment is not supernatural but simply his “permission” for the Babylonians to conquer and deport. The author of Ezekiel presents this scenario without apology, as if it were obvious.
But maybe he’s a nutter, a religious maniac who reads the events of world history in the light of his sacred writings, to which he adds his own bizarre visions? If so, his book would only be interesting to the historian of politics and religion. I think that that he is sane, challenging the ideology of great powers that nations must submit or perish. He believed that his nation could live communally for God, that is by holiness, justice and peace, refusing to play any part in any power games at all. The effort required to maintain this view in face of imperial ideology is seen in the author’s image of Ezekiel himself and of his creator God, whose power is not greater than that of empires but simply beyond them and all creatures. This radical imagination invents the holy God who demands holy living, but needs the help of faith to believe that its God is real.