Ezekiel: Problematic Priest-Prophet?
Three things that will help you to understand the book of the prophet Ezekiel
Ezekiel is a strange book, and not one I’ve heard many people name as their favourite. It has some well loved aspects, like the image of hearts of stone being turned to flesh (36:26) and the powerful vision of the valley of dry bones (ch 37).
These, however, are dwarfed by the difficult parts of the text. The humiliation of Jerusalem, personified as a woman in chapter 16 has long troubled feminist scholars.1 The book is also full of sign-acts, strange behaviours that the prophet performs in order to communicate his message.
These include: lying bound in ropes (4:1-8), baking a cake over excrement (4:12), shaving his head and striking some of the hair with a sword (5:1-2), covering his face and digging through a wall (12:3-7).
How should we understand this book? In order to help answer this question, here are three of the most important things you need to know about the book of Ezekiel:
The importance of the exile:
The most important thing that you need to know about in order to understand the book of Ezekiel (and, if you ask me, the whole of the Hebrew Bible…) is the Babylonian exile.
The background to this event begins in 1 Kings 12, when the nations of Israel and Judah divide and form their own kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The northern kingdom fell under Assyrian control in the 8th century, during which time texts like Hosea Amos were probably written.
The southern kingdom thrived for a while, but eventually became a ‘vassal state’ of Babylon, meaning that it was under the control of the empire. Tensions grew and led eventually to the exile of the Judeans to Babylon and the destruction of Jerusalem between 597 and 586 (see 2 Chron 36 and 2 Kings 25).
It was after this event, and in response to it, that the book of Ezekiel was written.
Today, we understand a great deal about what it means for a person to be displaced. Be it by war or environmental change, the experience of displacement is deeply traumatic. A displaced person may experience ‘cultural bereavement’ upon realising that they will never be able to return to home and their way of life as it was before.2
This brings us to the second point…
The exile was deeply traumatic for all those who were displaced and for the writer of the book of Ezekiel.
In recent years, Biblical scholars have been enormously influenced by insights from trauma studies. When thinking about texts written during, or in response to the exile, trauma studies helps to flesh out the ways in which these texts might have been shaped by the traumatic circumstances in which they were produced.
Traumatic circumstances of all kinds can produce a range of reactions including rage, violence, sadness, lamentation and despair.
On this basis, Brad Kelle argues that in the book of Ezekiel 'some of the bizaare imagery and disturbing language are perhaps best understood as in some way symptomatic of the prophet's personal experience of the trauma of the exile, with its realities of terror, violence, shame and loss'3
This does not necessarily make the experience of reading the difficult parts of Ezekiel any easier. As a woman, I still find the content of chapters 16-20 incredibly difficult, and I think I always will. This perspective does, however, give the reader some sense of what lies behind these texts which is in part related to traumatic experience in the writer(s).4
Finally, it is important that we understand that Ezekiel was written in a priestly context, most likely by a person that was a priest.
There are many aspects of the book that give this away. For one thing, the word ‘abomination’ appears 43 times in the book, more than anywhere else in scripture. This word is a particular trademark of Leviticus, and particularly the section of the book known as the ‘holiness code’ (chapters 17-26) which was particularly important for priests.
The text presents a deep concerned with holiness and ritual purity which are significant concerns of the holiness code. This goes some way to explain the many many repetitions of topics such as ‘defiling your neighbours wife’ throughout the middle portion of the book.
Much the last part of the book is concerned with the temple, and offers a compelling vision of what its re-establishment as a house of worship might look like. This is a deeply hopeful image in light of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 586.
So, in sum, the book of Ezekiel is shaped by three significant factors: the influence of the Babylonian exile, the trauma which resulted from those events and Ezekiel’s priestly background.
I hope this has gone some way to demystifying what is a strange and fascinating book!
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See chapter 4 in Cheryl Exum, Plotted, Shot, and Painted : Cultural Representations of Biblical Women, (London: Bloomsbury, 1996)
See Maurice Eisenbruch, ‘From post-traumatic stress disorder to cultural bereavement: Diagnosis of Southeast Asian refugees’, Social Science & Medicine, Volume 33, Issue 6, 1991, Pages 673-680
Kelle, Brad E. “Dealing with the Trauma of Defeat: The Rhetoric of the Devastation and Rejuvenation of Nature in Ezekiel.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 128, no. 3, 2009, pp. 469–490, p 482
Alongside trauma, there is also blatant misogyny at work in these texts which cannot be excused