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Chapter 10: There is a voice that cries

CHAPTER TEN: THERE IS A VOICE THAT CRIES

THE PROPHETS OF OLD

 

Prophet Approximate dates B.C.E. Kings Kingdom
Samuel 1050 – 1000 Saul, David United Kingdom
Elijah 870 – 850 Ahab, Ahaziah Israel
Elisha 850 – 795 Jehoram-Jehoash Israel
Micaiah 853 Ahab Israel

 

Prophets of the monarchs:

 

Amos 760 Jeroboam II Israel
Jonah 760 Jeroboam II Israel
Hosea 760 – 722 Jeroboam II-Hoshea Israel
Isaiah 740 – 700 Uzziah-Hezekiah Judah
Micah 740 – 687 Jotham-Hezekiah Judah
Zephaniah 640 – 610 Josiah Judah
Nahum 630 – 612 Josiah Judah
Jeremiah 626 – 580 Josiah-The Exile Judah
Habakkuk 600 Jehoiakim Judah

 

Prophets from the exile and after:

 

Ezekiel 592 – 570
Obadiah exile
Haggaai 520
Zechariah 520 – 518
Malachi 500 – 400

 

Parts of the Book of Isaiah are assigned to this period, which is sometimes referred to as Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah.

 

Elisha replaces Elijah or “my god is Yahweh” replaces “my god is salvation.” Elisha is primarily known for his many miracles, but his task, as the Eerdmans’ Bible Dictionary[1] puts it, “was actually three-fold: to heal, prophesy, and complete Elijah’s assignments.” As healer he cures Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army, who suffered from leprosy, by having him bathe three times in the Jordan River. As prophet he correctly predicts that the combined forces of Jehosaphat of Judah and Jehoram of Israel will defeat the Moabites in battle. To complete Elijah’s duties he travels to Damascus to anoint Hazael as legitimate sovereign. But in the popular mind Elisha will always be associated with miracles. And just what is a miracle? The most famous discussion of miracles is by David Hume in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:[2]

 

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and

unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against

a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any

argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it

more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of

itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is

extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found

agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of

these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing

is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of

nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health,

should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more

unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to

happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life;

because that has never been observed, in any age or country. There

must, therefore, be an uniform experience against every miraculous

event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as

a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and

full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any

miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered

credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our

attention), ‘That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle,

unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be

more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish:

And even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments,

and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree

of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.’ When any

one tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately

consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person

should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he

relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle

against the other; and according to the superiority, which I

discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater

miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more

miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then,

can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

 

From this we get a working definition, which also coincides with the way we use the word `miracle’: “a miracle is an event of an extraordinary kind brought about by a god and of religious significance.”[3] Thus, for example, the claim in Joshua 10.13 that the sun stayed still for one day while the Israelites defeated the Amorites, would count as an extraordinary event since it violates Newtonian laws; the event is reported to have been brought about by Yahweh, and was another significant exhibition of Yahweh’s power and his intervention into history on the part of his chosen people. Using Hume’s criterion for testing this claim we would weigh the probability of the sun standing still versus the probability that the report is false. Surely such an event would have been reported by witnesses all over the world, for it would have been of great moment; but we have testimony of the event only from the Hebrew writer, who wants to tell a particular story about divine intervention. It seems more likely that the writer is proclaiming the miracle rather than describing it. Hume has four arguments designed to show that “there never was a miraculous event established” in Part II of his Section 10. Hume argues that “there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusions in themselves.” Secondly, he notes that people love to gossip about the unusual and that religious people are not beyond using falsehood to support what they take to be basically true. His third point is that “it forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous people.” These three points turn on factual matters, and take miracles as serious claims about matters of fact. It may well be, however, that miracles are matters of the form of a story and not the facts of the matter. Miracles do not offer evidence for the existence of god; miracles presuppose the existence of god. Hume’s fourth argument is logical in nature and is an important one to consider:

 

I may add as a fourth reason, which diminishes the authority of

prodigies, that there is no testimony for any, even those which have

not been expressly detected, that is not opposed by an infinite

number of witnesses; so that not only the miracle destroys the

credit of testimony, but the testimony destroys itself. To make this

the better understood, let us consider, that, in matters of religion,

whatever is different is contrary; and that it is impossible the

religions of ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China

should, all of them, be established on any solid foundation. Every

miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these

religions (and all of them abound in miracles), as its direct scope is

to establish the particular system to which it is attributed; so has it

the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other

system. In destroying a rival system, it likewise destroys the credit

of those miracles, on which that system was established; so that all

the prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as contrary

facts, and the evidences of these prodigies, whether weak or strong,

as opposite to each other.

 

Multiple religions, each offering miracle as evidence for its truth, act to weaken miracle as evidence, to the extent that each religion is exclusive. One way out of this problem is to see that miracles are literary devices used to affirm or ground the claims of a particular official line. When a prophet, in a story, accurately tells the future, that is a sign of authenticity, a way of establishing the prophet as a trustworthy story teller. When one prophet is reported as repeating a previous prophet’s miracle, as when Jesus feeds the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, while earlier Elisha had fed one hundred with twenty barley loaves and some fresh ripe ears of corn, it is a way of indicating that Jesus is a new and more powerful Elisha.[4]

 

Consider other than biblical miracles. We have all heard of the person (maybe even a friend or relative) who is diagnosed as having cancer and is then given a prognosis of “less than a year to live.” But the person recovers, and the doctor says that the cancer is gone. The person’s life is imperiled; against expectation, the person is saved. Isn’t that a miracle? It depends upon who is reading the events. From the medical point of view, such examples indicate that medical prediction, in many cases, is not particularly accurate. And this does not mean that the doctor was an incompetent or the cancer was never there. Part of the description of a particular case may well include remission and even cure with no “treatment” at all. Since the human body is a complex system and the state of our knowledge of the various kinds of cancers is incomplete, it is not at all a violation of natural law that this particular person has recovered. But now consider these same facts from the point of view of the patient. Imagine that after the diagnosis the patient goes to see her priest and together they pray. And several times a day she prays to her god for assistance. From her point of view a miracle has occurred. Her petition has been granted and no matter what others say she will continue to believe that a miracle has occurred and that her life is the only evidence required. The popular press is full of these sorts of stories of prayer-miracles. Another kind of example comes from near escapes from potentially deadly accidents. In a recent severe windstorm in British Columbia several trees were blown down in populated areas. House after house suffered damage from large Douglas Fir trees suddenly uprooted by the wind and thrown into the house. In one case a couple were in bed in their water bed thinking about getting up to prepare for the day. Since the roads were blocked and the ferry was not running it seemed probable that going to work late was not a bad idea. The man moved across the water bed to “cuddle” a bit before getting up. Crash! His side of the bed sud- denly had an arm thick branch puncturing the very spot where he had just been. Miracle? Or coincidence? The significance of some coincidences as opposed to others (the cat was under the bed, say, and was impaled by the branch) comes about because of the relation between the coincidence and a set of human hopes, fears, and desires. The non-religious person would, as he jumped out of the deflating bed, thank his good luck for saving him at the cost of the cat. Coincidence-miracles depend upon the point of view of the persons involved. What the non-religious person calls luck is called the grace of God or a miracle of God by the religious person. When such a coincidence does occur, and when from a particular person’s point of view that coincidence is sig- nificant, the tendency is to think of oneself as being special (Lady Luck smiles on you). Once again we find a flawed argument at work: If I am special then God will look after me by arranging for good things to happen to me. Good things happen to me; therefore, I am special. Such a coincidence can be taken by the religious person as a sign that god is at work in the universe and that god cares about persons. But, unfortunately for this reading, bad things happen to good people.

 

Hume is skeptical in part because it seems that miracles always happen long ago and far away. In those cases then we have to depend upon “eyewitness” testimony, and as we all know it is less than perfect. If we think of miracles as events that are conceptually impossible and empirically certain[5] then at least we get the idea of what would count as a miracle. It is conceptually impossible to “part the waters” of a sea, or to stop the sun for a period of time, or to make the sun go backwards. If one witnessed such an event one would have good evidence that it occurred, but if one reads about it one has not a miracle but a miracle-story. In order for us to believe the story we will have to believe the story teller, and one way of establishing the au- thority of the text is by privileging it, by naming it “scripture” instead of story.

 

Elisha’s `violation’ miracles include making an iron axe float, making leprosy come and go on command, overhearing the King of Aram from a vast distance, causing persons to be blind and then restoring their sight, raising a child from the dead, and foretelling the future. All of these affirm that he is a `man of god’. The narrative relates the fortunes of the kings of the divided kingdom and above all provides a reading for why the chosen people are not flourishing in the promised land. Throughout this part of Kings we are reminded of the violation of the religious laws of Yahweh, particularly in the use of hill shrines for sacrifice. The struggle between Yahweh and Baal is reported here and it comes to a climax in [6] Kings 10 when Jehu orders a sacred ceremony for Baal to be held. “Jehu himself sent word throughout Israel, and all the ministers of Baal came; there was not a man left who did not come. They went into the temple of Baal and it was filled from end to end.” Once he has all of the ministers of Baal in one place he orders them to be killed by the soldiers he has stationed outside. “So they slew them without quarter.” The sacred pillar of the Baal and the temple which housed it are destroyed and made into a privy. “Thus Jehu stamped out the worship of Baal in Israel,” and he is properly rewarded: “You have done what is right in my eyes,” says the Lord, “…your sons to the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel.” (Do you remember that commandment: Thou shalt not kill?) Jehu reigned over Israel for twenty-eight years. Elisha continues to perform his magical rituals and during the reign of Jehoash he dies and is buried. But this is not the last we hear of him. Even in death this prophet is presented as having supernatural powers.

 

Year by year Moabite raiders used to invade the land. Once some

men were burying a dead man when they caught sight of the

raiders. They threw the body into the grave of Elisha and made off;

when the body touched the prophet’s bones, the man came to life

and rose to his feet. (2 Kings 13.21)

 

Elisha has been presented as a prophet capable of violation miracles, including, making iron float on water, a feeding miracle, a resurrection miracle, and the power to bring others back to life even after he has died. One way of asserting the special status of an Old Testament hero is to tell stories that show him as a miracle worker. The rest of 2 Kings relates the downfall of the southern and northern kingdoms until the time that the troops of Nebuchadnezzar besiege Jerusalem. After a prolonged siege he takes the city, defeats the king and his army, and burns the palace, the temple, and all the houses of the city. Jerusalem is destroyed. The chosen people are defeated and their most holy of sites is destroyed. How could this horrible destruction and defeat have happened? We are told, “All this happened to the Israelites because they had sinned against the Lord their God who brought them up from Egypt…” (2 Kings 17.7) Now begins the Babylonian Exile (587 – 539 B.C.E.).

 

This flourishing, chosen, and special people are completely defeated and taken in to captivity, where their king, instead of ruling the promised land will be a welfare case at the table of the Babylonian king, to be fed at the pleasure of Babylon. During this exile from the land it would have been easy for the Jews to become exiled from their religion as well. They had no formal text – no scripture to turn to for comfort and explanation. The stories of their past were an integral part of them but they were as scattered as were the people. In a strange land with its strange customs and stranger gods, they must have experienced an alienation worthy of twentieth century existential analysis. Cut off from their poetry, their priests, and their god, they would have felt utterly alone and abandoned. From the high point of the United Kingdom to the low point of the diaspora the fall has been great. The first fall (disobedience) had resulted in expulsion from the Garden of Eden; this fall also results in expulsion from the promised land and reasons for it are sought by the prophets. One can imagine the prophet/poets in exile searching their memories and whatever documents they possessed for the answers to the burning question: what happened? What happened to the promise made in the covenant? Why have we fallen so low? And they would have found   the answer: disobedience.   One imagines them working feverishly to record the story of the covenant and prescribing those actions required to purge the guilt and recover the promise. The `Poetic Genius’ of the prophets was historical in the sense that, with hindsight, it revealed a story which in turn revealed a growth and development of the human spirit, from childhood to adulthood, or, as Blake would later put it, from innocence to experience. One aspect of the story is its affirmation of the importance of prophets. Citing many examples that the destruction could have been avoided had the king and people listened to the prophets (2 Kings 17.13; 23; 20.16-18; 22.15-18; 24.2, 13) sent to them by God, the writers attempt to reestablish the authority of the prophets as mediators between God and the people. The new prophets must reinterpret the text to explain the destruction of Jerusalem and to build a future city for the chosen people.

 

After all, Amos, “one of the sheep-farmers of Tekoa,” had prophesied in about 760 B.C.E. that the Lord would destroy the nation because of its disobedience.

 

“For you alone have I cared

among all the nations of the world;

therefore will I punish you

for all your iniquities.

 

And he had given a careful description of the problems that would cause the wrath of the Lord:

 

You who loll on beds inlaid with ivory

and sprawl over your couches,

feasting on lambs from the flock

and fatted calves,

you who pluck the strings of the lute

and invent musical instruments like David,

you who drink wine by the bowlful

and lard yourselves with the richest of oils,

but are not grieved at the ruin of Joseph –

now, therefore,

you shall head the column of exiles;

that will be the end of sprawling and revelry.

 

Gluttony, drunkenness, lack of industry – these are all a part of the disease, but the most serious and deadly sin of all is to be “not grieved at the ruin of Joseph,” which asserts one of the common themes of the Old Testament: forget the past and die. Looking back on Amos from the period of exile must have been an experience of discovery, for Amos had described the illness and the result of the illness almost 200 years before. In a vision Amos had seen a swarm of locusts devouring the land, had seen the Lord summoning a “flame of fire to devour all of creation,” and had seen the Lord with a plumb line in his hand to measure the heart of the people. But he had also sounded a promise for the future: “I will restore David’s fallen house; I will repair its gaping walls and restore its ruins.”

 

Jonah is a favorite prophet because of the detail of his story. “Jonah” has also been a battleground for fundamentalists and skeptics who debate whether or not a man could live inside a fish or not. One side argues that living inside a fish would be no problem, if the fish were large enough, and there were air to breathe, and the man didn’t get crushed on the way in. The other side argues that the man would never get by the throat, would be digested if he did get by, and if he were not digested or crushed he would be suffocated. `Therefore, the Bible is true,’ says the fundamentalist. `No, therefore, the Bible is false,’ says the skeptic. Both readings depend upon taking the story as composed of propositions which are either true or false. But this story is not description; it is prescription. And it is a powerful and necessary prescription for a serious “illness” of the Old Testament: intolerance. It is one of the first treatments offered for this devastating “illness” of the spirit, which shrivels and starves the human spirit by restricting acceptance of the different and blocking love of what is. Intolerance is like an alien and indigestible food in the stomach – constipating and unhealthy, and until it is eliminated health will be impossible.

 

It is ironic that The Book Jonah would become a battleground for arguments between literalists and debunkers, each filled with the intolerant and passionate intensity that a single correct reading provides. But wait a minute. Is this story about whether or not a man can live inside a fish? Consider this pattern: Joseph Campbell, in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, brings together hundreds of stories from many different cultures to argue that we all tell the same stories and that our heroes all have the same face. He extracts a pattern from hero stories that looks like this:

 

 

A. SEPARATION

 

1. the call to adventure

2. refusal of the call

3. supernatural aid

4. the crossing of the first threshold

5. the belly of the whale

 

 

B. INITIATION

1. the road of trials

2. the meeting with the goddess

3. woman as the temptress

4. atonement with the father

5. apotheosis

6. the ultimate boon

 

 

C. RETURN

1. refusal of return

2. the magic flight

3. rescue from without

4. the crossing of the return threshold

5. master of the two worlds

6. freedom to live

 

 

 

Whether the hero be ridiculous or sublime, Greek or barbarian, gentile or Jew, his journey varies little in essential plan. Popular tales represent the heroic action as physical; the higher religions show the deed to be moral; nevertheless, there will be found astonishingly little variation in the morphology of the adventure, the character roles involved, the victories gained. (page 38, Campbell)

 

 

If we use this map to chart the meaning of the Jonah story we do not find a realistic description of how things are, but rather a prescription of how things ought to be, presented in the genre of protest fiction. Jonah gets the call to go to Nineveh, but attempts to refuse it. The reluctant hero is such a part of our heritage that we tend to overlook the reluctance, but we still hold to the cultural myth that tells us that a leader (hero) should be reluctant, should not really want to lead us but should somehow be talked into the task. (“I don’t want to run, but many have urged me to do so,” or “Duty called me to this position of power; I was quite happy before the call just selling used cars.”) Jonah is cut of the same verbal cloth as Moses, who is the paradigmatic reluctant hero; both try valiantly to escape their destiny, to hide from the call. Separation, initiation and return are all present in this story. Jonah refuses the call, but he can not escape his own life; he is initiated into the new by the bizarre experience of being swallowed up; and he returns or passes the threshold after calling out to God:

 

I called to the Lord in my distress,

and he answered me;

out of the belly of Sheol I cried

for help,

and thou hast heard my cry.

Thou didst cast me into the depths,

far out at sea,

and the flood closed round me;

all thy waves, all thy billows, passed

over me.

I thought I was banished from thy sight

and should never see thy holy temple again.

 

After this experience Jonah is called a second time, “Go to the great city of Nineveh, go now and denounce it in the words I give you.” Jonah obeys at once. Armed with his new found power he proceeds to Nineveh to chastise and punish the evildoers in the name of his god. Like Samuel and Elijah before him, Jonah is rigid in his intolerance of evil and is almost gleefully and righ- teously looking forward to the destruction of Nineveh. If Elisha could kill forty two boys for making fun of his bald head, then surely Jonah can witness the destruction of one hundred and twenty thousand sinners at the hand of an angry god. But the people repent and “God saw what they did, and how they abandoned their wicked ways, and he repented and did not bring upon them the disaster he had threatened.”

 

Jonah is angry. This is what he had feared: he would make this trip to Nineveh to bring them destruction and death for their sinful ways and at the last minute God would get soft on him and show compassion. He still has not learned what his “trip” was about; he cannot read the experience he has just undergone. God provides him with one more experience by which to under- stand the meaning of his call. After providing Jonah with a gourd to shade and protect him from the weather God causes a worm to destroy the gourd. At the loss of this simple gourd, Jonah is mortally angered, and we read in King James, Jonah 4.9-11:

 

9. And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to

be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to

be angry, even unto death.

10. Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on

the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured,

neither madest it grow; which came up in a night,

and perished in a night:

11. And should i not spare Nineveh, that

great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand

persons that cannot discern between their

right hand and their left hand; and also much

cattle?

 

Nineveh is not destroyed. This god is changing, and for the first time we have a story which explicitly champions religious tolerance. Jonah’s bigotry is rebuked by the religious tolerance of God. Jonah will bring back a boon for all of his community: Be tolerant of the new and the different, for we are responsible for our own suffering, our own destiny.

 

Ezekiel (may God strengthen) is priest and prophet who began his career in the last years of the Kingdom of Judah and ended it during the captivity in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. He is the prophet of ecstatic visions, of clairvoyance, of out of body experiences, catatonic states, and allegory. He is addressed as “Man” or “Son of Man” by the Lord who comes upon him and gives him his prophetic powers. The empowering experience, described in chapter 1, is in the form of an experience rich in visual splendour and symbol. By the river Kebar Ezekiel sees a storm cloud carried by the wind and bristling with flashes of fire and brilliant light. In the fire he sees four living creatures with human form and animal faces. Images of lions, eagles, oxen, wings and radiant fire exhibit the power and majesty of God in this complex visual metaphor. As Ezekiel looks at the living creatures he notices wheels on the ground beside each of the four creatures. “The wheels sparkled like topaz, and they were all alike: in form and working they were like a wheel inside a wheel, and when they moved in any of the four directions they never swerved in their course.” (1.15) the rims of these wheels are “full of eyes all round.” The imagery is unmistakable: all seeing eyes in fire, these are the eyes that will see into the past and into the future – powerful and omniscient. These are the eyes of a prophet, blinded by the normal but sensitive to the divine. Above the wheels and the creatures, above the vault over their heads, emerging from what looks like a furnace of molten brass is a human figure, radiant and powerful “like the appearance of the Lord.” This imagery is the empowering scene for this prophet, who the Lord refers to as simply “Man,” or literally “Son of Man.” The Lord gives him a task to perform: “I am sending you to the Israelites, a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me.” Imaged in fire and wind, this god will now complete the commission by having his prophet literally eat the words he is to speak. “Open your mouth and eat what I give you.”

 

Ezekiel reports: “Then I saw a hand stretched out to me, holding a scroll. He unrolled it before me, and it was written all over on both sides with dirges and laments and words of woe. Then he said to me, `Man, eat what is in front of you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the Israelites.’ So I opened my mouth and he gave me the scroll to eat. Then he said, `Man, swallow this scroll I give you, and fill yourself full. So I ate it, and it tasted sweet as honey.” (Ezek. 2.9 – 3.3) Ezekiel eats the word of his god and now contains the word, or the word is made flesh in Ezekiel’s act of eating it. He is now transported by a spirit atop the wheels and with a rushing sound he is suddenly with the exiles, where he stays for seven days and is dumbfounded. It is as if there is a requirement for Ezekiel to digest the word, and to do that he must spend a week without speech in order that he will be properly prepared to deliver the word when it is required. The word of the divine has taken on the form of the human. “Man, I have made you a watchman for the Israelites; you will take messages from me and carry my warnings to them.” Each of these messages will be introduced by a standard formula: “these are the words of the Lord God,” a formula we will read some twenty times in the rest of the book.

 

Words, messages, prophesies, scrolls, speech and speechlessness, tongues and tongues tied, listen, refuse to listen – all of these are the diction of images of the book of destiny, the plot that the divine has chosen to reveal to a living and human prophet. And this is an angry god, a god who brings a whirlwind of revenge, destruction, desolation and death to a people who are his chosen people: “An end is coming, the end is coming upon the four corners of the earth. The end is now upon you; I will unleash my anger against you; I will call you to account for your doings and bring your abominations upon your own heads.” (7.3)   This anger will lead to the destruction of Israel and to the en- slavement of her people. For rebelling against the Laws of the covenant, these chosen but fallen people will be punished by their god who will bring a sword against them and destroy the hill-shrines, altars, and idols, along with the cities and the lands. “I will scatter your bones about your altars,” the Lord says, through Ezekiel, who sees six men with battle-axes who have come to destroy all of the sinners. One of the six is a man dressed in linen who has a pen and ink at his waist, and whose task is to put a mark on the foreheads of those who are worthy of being spared. Only those with the mark will be spared; all others will be killed without pity.

 

These visions of Ezekiel’s spark with energy are alive with imagination and freshness. It is as if the poet’s powers are increased in the company of destruction and desolation. An angry god feeds the imagination with powerful images of famine, pestilence, and destruction. There is a condemnation of Jerusalem. The city is described as a wanton woman fornicating with everyone and even paying the fornicators. A whirlwind of images is heaped up to be thrown at the abominable Israelites who have sinned against Yahweh. New principles of justice are introduced through Ezekiel, for example, Yahweh tells him:

 

You may ask, `Why is the son not punished for his father’s

iniquity?’ Because he has always done what is just and right and has

been careful to obey all my laws, therefore he shall live. It is the

soul that sins, and no other, that shall die; a son shall not share a

father’s guilt, nor a father his sons’s.

 

And then a bit later Yahweh bitterly says, “`The Lord acts without principle,’ say the Israelites. No, Israelites, it is you who act without principle, not I.” But in defense of the Israelites one might well remember the earlier words of this god when he said “I punish the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me.” These two principles are logically incompatible. And a god who changes moral principles is hard to tell apart from one who is without principles. A long list of punishments to be levelled against the sinful Israelites leads to the next set of prophesies which are against foreign nations. Ammon, Sidon, Tyre, Egypt, Moab, Edom, Seir (the hill country of Edom) are all to be punished, in some cases because they rejoiced when they saw the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the people, in other cases so that the people will know that Yahweh is the Lord.

 

All of this imagery of destruction leads to another experience for Ezekiel: “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he carried me down in a plain full of bones.” There Ezekiel is made to go to and fro across the bones until he has been around them all. They cover the plain and are “very dry.” Here then is the imaged end, the promise of a nation has ended in a valley of dry bones, lacking any life or flesh, spirit or vitality. Those Hebrews rescued from Egyptian slavery so long ago, those peoples who had been forged into a congregation in the desert, those chosen tribes who were to be as numerous as stars in the sky, as multitudinous as sand on the beach, are now seen in this vision as dead and dry, devoid of life.

 

But then Ezekiel is ordered to take one leaf of a wooden tablet and write on it, `Judah and his associates of Israel.’ And to take another and write on it, `Joseph, the leaf of Ephraim and all his associates of Israel.’ And to bring the two together to form a single tablet. And like the tablet in Ezekiel’s hand the Lord will bring together the exiled Israelites and assemble them from their places and restore them to their own soil. The restoration of the united kingdom is imaged in writers’ works – the restored kingdom is in the book, as it were. “The leaves on which you write shall be visible in your hand for all to see.” And the leaves on which Yahweh writes, the leaves of history, will be visible for all to see also, in the renewed covenant and the rebuilt city of Jerusalem, in the midst of which will be the sanctuary of the Lord. The theocracy is to be restored and detailed directions are given for the construction of the temple. Ezekiel looks back at the sin of the Israelites, tells of the consequences of the sin, and then promises a future which will resurrect the best of the past. Ezekiel also looks forward to the beginnings of the Christian story in the New Testament. Its hero/prophet, Jesus, will also have the power to see more than any other can see, and will, like Ezekiel, be an incarnation of the word in the flesh. “The perimeter of the city shall be eighteen thousand cubits, and the city’s name for ever after shall be Jehovah-shammah.”6

 

 

 

 

[1] The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, edited by Allen C. Myers, et.al. published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

[2] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and Selections from a Treatise of Human Nature, Chicago: Open Court, 1912, Section 10.

[3] Richard Swinburne, editor, Miracles, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, page2.

[4] 5,000/100 = 50; therefore Jesus is fifty times more powerful than Elisha.

[5] See R. F. Holland, “The Miraculous,” American Philosophical Quarterly, 1965, 2:43-51.

 

6 That is “the Lord is there.” Other prophets have given Jerusalem other names as signs of future transformations.

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