The Character named Ezekiel as a Reflection of Israel’s Story

I am preparing to write a journal article on Ezekiel, a book that presents interesting problems and possibilities for integrating historical and literary approaches.  Of the four prophetic scrolls Ezekiel may be the most self-consciously unified as a literary work.  The most visible aspect of the literary cohesion is the Merkabah (divine chariot) vision, which describes Ezekiel’s visualization of YHWH’s glory in chapters 1, 10, and 43.  The divine glory departs the condemned temple in Jerusalem (10:18), appears to Ezekiel among the exiles in Babylon (1:1), and returns to inhabit a new temple (43:2).  Ezekiel also contains many chronological notices, most of which appear in order.

1:1/1:2                  30th year, 4th month, 5th day, and 5th year of the exile of Jehoichin, 4th month, 5th day

8:1                          6th year,6th  month, 5th day (of the exile of Jehoicahin)

20:1                        7th year 5th month, 10th day

24:1                        9th year, 10th month, 10th day

26:1                        11th year, ? month, 1st day

29:1                        10th year, 10th month, 12th day

29:17                     27th year, 1st month, 1st day

30:20                     11th year, 1st month, 7th day

31:1                        11th year, 3rd month, 7th day

32:1                        12th year, 12th month, 1st day

32:17                     12th year, 1st month, 15th day

33:21                     12th year, 10th month, 5th day

40:1                        25th year, 1st(?) month, 10th day

Features like these led many interpreters of the 20th century to conclude that Ezekiel had very little composition history.  They argued the book was written in something close its present form all at one time, perhaps by Ezekiel himself during the early years of the exilic period.

More recent views of Ezekiel have moved away from that model toward one that describes a complex history of composition and allows the book of Ezekiel to participate in the difficult theological negotiations of the Restoration/Persian period.  Among the most important issues the book of Ezekiel negotiates are the tension between inherited guilt and individual responsibility (Ezekiel 18) and the delineation between the righteous and the wicked (33:10-20).  The aftermath of national defeat and shared personal trauma demand reexamination of easy assumptions about these issues in the Restoration period.

Paying attention to the book of Ezekiel as a set of traditions originating in the last days of the Judean monarchy, and arriving at its current status as a cohesive literary work in the Persian period requires a synthetic approach to the book.  The feature best equipped to help us keep our interpretive questions connected is the literary character named Ezekiel.  He begins the book grounded in the last days of Jerusalem and the temple of Solomon in the early sixth century, and finishes his role inside a grand vision of a rebuilt temple, wading off into deepening waters in Ezekiel 47.  Between these two points he is often a tortured and tormented figure who embodies the captivity, pain, and grief about which he prophesies.  His life story becomes the renegotiation of sin, punishment, repentance, and redemption the book wants and needs to accomplish.

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