1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ezekiel
EZEKIEL (יחזקאל, “God strengthens” or “God is strong”; Sept. Ἰεζεκιήλ; Vulg. Ezechiel), son of Buzi, one of the most vigorous and impressive of the older Israelite thinkers. He was a priest of the Jerusalem temple, probably a member of the dominant house of Zadok, and doubtless had the literary training of the cultivated priesthood of the time, including acquaintance with the national historical, legal and ritual traditions and with the contemporary history and customs of neighbouring peoples. In the year 597 (being then, probably, not far from thirty years of age) he was carried off to Babylonia by Nebuchadrezzar with King Jehoiachin and a large body of nobles, military men and artisans, and there, it would seem, he spent the rest of his life. His prophecies are dated from this year (“our captivity,” xl. 1), except in i. 1, where the meaning of the date “thirtieth year” is obscure; it cannot refer to his age (which would be otherwise expressed in Hebrew), or to the reform of Josiah, 621 (which is not elsewhere employed as an epoch); possibly the reference is to the era of Nabopolassar (626 according to the Canon of Ptolemy), if chronological inexactness be supposed (34 or 33 years instead of 30), a supposition not at all improbable. That the word “thirtieth” is old, appears from the fact that a scribe has added a gloss (vv. 2, 3) to bring this statement into accord with the usual way of reckoning in the book: the “thirtieth” year, he explains, is the fifth year of the captivity of Jehoiachin. The exiles dwelt at Tell-abib (“Hill of the flood”), one of the mounds or ruins made by the great floods that devastated the country, near the “river” Chebar (Kebar), probably a large canal not far south of the city of Babylon. Here they had their own lands, and some form of local government by elders, and appear to have been prosperous and contented; probably the only demand made on them by the Babylonian government was the payment of taxes.
Ezekiel was married (xxiv. 18), had his own house, and comported himself quietly as a Babylonian subject. But he was a profoundly interested observer of affairs at home and among the exiles: as patriot and ethical teacher he deplored alike the political blindness of the Jerusalem government (King Zedekiah revolted in 588) and the immorality and religious superficiality and apostasy of the people. He, like Jeremiah, was friendly to Nebuchadrezzar, regarding him as Yahweh’s instrument for the chastisement of the nation. Convinced that opposition to Babylonian rule was suicidal, and interpreting historical events, in the manner of the times, as indications of the temper of the deity, he held that the imminent political destruction of the nation was proof of Yahweh’s anger with the people on account of their moral and religious depravity; Jerusalem was hopelessly corrupt and must be destroyed (xxiv.). On the other hand, he was equally convinced that, as his predecessors had taught (Hos. xi. 8, 9; Isa. vii. 3 al.), Yahweh’s love for his people would not suffer them to perish utterly—a remnant would be saved, and this remnant he naturally found in the exiles in Babylonia, a little band plucked from the burning and kept safe in a foreign land till the wrath should have passed (xi. 14 ff.). This conception of the exiles as the kernel of the restored nation he further set forth in the great vision of ch. i., in which Yahweh is represented as leaving Jerusalem and coming to take up his abode among them in Babylonia for a time, intending, however, to return to his own city (xliii. 7).
This, then, was Ezekiel’s political creed—destruction of Jerusalem and its inhabitants, restoration of the exiles, and meantime submission to Babylon. His arraignment of the Judeans is violent, almost malignant (vi. xvi. al.). The well-meaning but weak king Zedekiah he denounces with bitter scorn as a perjured traitor (xvii). He does not discuss the possibility of successful resistance to the Chaldeans; he simply assumes that the attempt is foolish and wicked, and, like other prophets, he identifies his political programme with the will of God. Probably his judgment of the situation was correct; yet, in view of Sennacherib’s failure at Jerusalem in 701 and of the admitted strength of the city, the hope of the Jewish nobles could not be considered wholly unfounded, and in any case their patriotism (like that of the national party in the Roman siege) was not unworthy of admiration. The prophet’s predictions of disaster continued, according to the record, up to the investment of the city by the Chaldean army in 588 (i.-xxiv.); after the fall of the city (586) his tone changed to one of consolation (xxxiii.-xxxix.)—the destruction of the wicked mass accomplished, he turned to the task of reconstruction. He describes the safe and happy establishment of the people in their own land, and gives a sketch of a new constitution, of which the main point is the absolute control of public religion by the priesthood (xl.-xlviii.).
The discourses of the first period (i.-xxiv.) do not confine themselves to political affairs, but contain much interesting ethical and religious material. The picture given of Jerusalemite morals is an appalling one. Society is described as honeycombed with crimes and vices; prophets, priests, princes and the people generally are said to practise unblushingly extortion, oppression, murder, falsehood, adultery (xxii.). This description is doubtless exaggerated. It may be assumed that the social corruption in Jerusalem was such as is usually found in wealthy communities, made bolder in this case, perhaps, by the political unrest and the weakness of the royal government under Zedekiah. No such charges are brought by the prophet against the exiles, in whose simple life, indeed, there was little or no opportunity for flagrant violation of law. Ezekiel’s own moral code is that of the prophets, which insists on the practice of the fundamental civic virtues. He puts ritual offences, however, in the same category with offences against the moral law, and he does not distinguish between immorality and practices that are survivals of old recognized customs: in ch. xxii. he mentions “eating with the blood” along with murder, and failure to observe ritual regulations along with oppression of the fatherless and the widow; the old customary law permitted marriage with a half-sister (father’s daughter), with a daughter-in-law, and with a father’s wife (Gen. xx. 12, xxxviii. 26; 2 Sam. xvi. 21, 22), but the more refined feeling of the later time frowned on the custom, and Ezekiel treats it as adultery. However, notwithstanding the insistence on ritual, natural in a priest, his moral standard is high; following the prescription of Ex. xxii. 21  he regards oppression of resident aliens (a class that had not then received full civil rights) as a crime (xxii. 7), and in his new constitution (xlvii. 22, 23) gives them equal rights with the homeborn. His strongest denunciation is directed against the religious practices of the time in Judea—the worship of the Canaanite local deities (the Baals), the Phoenician Tammuz, and the sun and other Babylonian and Assyrian gods (vi., viii., xvi., xxiii.); he maintained vigorously the prophetic struggle for the sole worship of Yahweh. Probably he believed in the existence of other gods, though he does not express himself clearly on this point; in any case he held that the worship of other deities was destructive to Israel. His conception of Yahweh shows a mingling of the high and the low. On the one hand, he regards him as supreme in power, controlling the destinies of Babylonia and Egypt as well as those of Israel, and as inflexibly just in dealing with ordinary offences against morality. But he conceives of him, on the other hand, as limited locally and morally—as having his special abode in. the Jerusalem temple, or elsewhere in the midst of the Israelite people, and as dealing with other nations solely in the interests of Israel. The bitter invectives against Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon and Egypt, put into Yahweh’s mouth, are based wholly on the fact that these peoples are regarded as hostile and hurtful to Israel; Babylonia, though nowise superior to Egypt morally, is favoured and applauded because it is believed to be the instrument for securing ultimately the prosperity of Yahweh’s people. The administration of the affairs of the world by the God of Israel is represented, in a word, as determined not by ethical considerations but by personal preferences. There is no hint in Ezekiel’s writings of the grandiose conception of Isa. xl.-lv., that Israel’s mission is to give the knowledge of religious truth to the other nations of the world; he goes so far as to say that Yahweh’s object in restoring the fortunes of Israel is to establish his reputation among the nations as a powerful deity (xxxvi. 20-23, xxxvii. 28, xxxix. 23). The prophet regards Yahweh’s administrative control as immediate: he introduces no angels or other subordinate supernatural agents—the cherubs and the “men” of ix. 2 and xl. 3 are merely imaginative symbols or representations of divine activity. His high conception of God’s transcendence, it may be supposed, led him to ignore intermediary agencies, which are common in the popular literature, and later, under the influence of this same conception of transcendence, are freely employed.
The relations between the writings of Ezekiel and those of Jeremiah is not clear. They have so much in common that they must have drawn from the same current bodies of thought, or there must have been borrowing in one direction or the other. In one point, however,—the attitude toward the ritual—the two men differ radically. The finer mind of the nation, represented mainly by the prophets from Amos onward, had denounced unsparingly the superficial non-moral popular cult. The struggle between ethical religion and the current worship became acute toward the end of the 7th century. There were two possible solutions of the difficulty. The ritual books of our Pentateuch were not then in existence, and the sacrificial cult might be treated with contempt as not authoritative. This is the course taken by Jeremiah, who says boldly that God requires only obedience (Jer. vii. 21 ff.). On the other hand the better party among the priests, believing the ritual to be necessary, might undertake to moralize it; of such a movement, begun by Deuteronomy, Ezekiel is the most eminent representative. Priest and prophet, he sought to unify the national religious consciousness by preserving the sacrificial cult, discarding its abuses and vitalizing it ethically. The event showed that he judged the situation rightly—the religious scheme announced by him, though not accepted in all its details, became the dominant policy of the later time, and he has been justly called“the father of Judaism.” He speaks as a legislator, citing no authority; but he formulates, doubtless, the ideas and perhaps the practices of the Jerusalem priesthood. His ritual code (xliii.-xlvi.), which in elaborateness stands midway between that of Deuteronomy and that of the middle books of the Pentateuch (resembling most nearly the code of Lev. xvii.-xxvi.) shows good judgment. Its most noteworthy features are two. Certain priests of idolatrous Judean shrines (distinguished by him as “Levites”) he deprives of priestly functions, degrading them to the rank of temple menials; and he takes from the civil ruler all authority over public religion, permitting him merely to furnish material for sacrifices. He is, however, much more than a ritual reformer. He is the first to express clearly the conception of a sacred nation, isolated by its religion from all others, the guardian of divine law and the abode of divine majesty. This kingdom of God he conceives of as moral: Yahweh is to put his own spirit into the people, creating in them a disposition to obey his commandments, which are moral as well as ritual (xxxvi. 26, 27). The conception of a sacred nation controlled the whole succeeding Jewish development; if it was narrow in its exclusive regard for Israel, its intensity saved the Jewish religion to the world.
Text and Authorship.—The Hebrew text of the book of Ezekiel is not in good condition—it is full of scribal inaccuracies and additions. Many of the errors may be corrected with the aid of the Septuagint (e.g. the 430—390 + 40—of iv. 5, 6 is to be changed to 190), and none of them affect the general thought. The substantial genuineness of the discourses is now accepted by the great body of critics. The Talmudic tradition (Baba Bathra 14b) that the men of the Great Synagogue “wrote” Ezekiel, may refer to editorial work by later scholars. There is no validity in the objections of Zunz (Gottesdienstl. Vortr.) that the specific prediction concerning Zedekiah (xii. 12 f.) is non-Prophetic, and that the drawing-up of a new constitution soon after the destruction of the city and the mention of Noah, Daniel, Job and Persia are improbable. The prediction in question was doubtless added by Ezekiel after the event; the code belongs precisely in his time, and the constitution was natural for a priest; Noah, Daniel and Job are old legendary Hebrew figures; and it is not probable that the prophet’s “Paras” is our “Persia.” Havet’s contention (in La Modernité des prophètes) that Gog represents the Parthians (40 B.C.) has little or nothing in its support. There are additions made post eventum, as in the case mentioned above and in xxix. 17-20, and the description of the commerce of Tyre (xxvii. 9b-25a), which interrupts the comparison of the city to a ship, looks like an insertion whether by the prophet or by some other; but there is no good reason to doubt that the book is substantially the work of Ezekiel. Ezekiel’s style is generally impetuous and vigorous, somewhat smoother in the consolatory discourses (xxxiv., xxxvi., xxxvii.); he produces a great effect by the cumulation of details, and is a master of invective; he is fond of symbolic pictures, proverbs and allegories; his “visions” are elaborate literary productions, his prophecies show less spontaneity than those of any preceding prophet (he receives his revelations in the form of a book, ii. 9), and in their present shape were hardly pronounced in public—a fact that seems to be hinted at in the statement that he was “dumb” till the fall of Jerusalem (iii. 26, xxxiii. 22); in private interviews the people did not take him seriously (xxxiii. 30-33). His book was accepted early as part of the sacred literature: Ben-Sira (c. 180 B.C.) mentions him along with Isaiah and Jeremiah (Ecclus. xlix. 8); he is not quoted directly in the New Testament, but his imagery is employed largely in the Apocalypse and elsewhere. His divergencies from the Pentateuchal code gave rise to serious doubts, but, after prolonged study, the discrepancies were explained, and the book was finally canonized (Shab. 13b). According to Jerome (Preface to Comm. on Ezek.) the Jewish youth were forbidden to read the mysterious first chapter (called the markaba, the “chariot”) and the concluding section (xl.-xlviii.) till they reached the age of thirty years.
The book divides itself naturally into three parts: the arraignment of Jerusalem (i.-xxiv.); denunciation of foreign enemies (xxv.-xxxii.); consolatory construction of the future (xxxiii.-xlviii.). The opening “vision” (i.), an elaborate symbolic picture, is of the nature of a general preface, and was composed probably late in the prophet’s life. Out of the north (the Babylonian sacred mountain) comes a bright cloud, wherein appear four Creatures (formed on the model of Babylonian composite figures), each with four faces (man, lion, bull, eagle) and attended by a wheel; the wheels are full of eyes, and move straight forward, impelled by the spirit dwelling in the Creatures (the spirit of Yahweh). Supported on their heads is something like a crystalline firmament, above which is a form like a sapphire throne (cf. Ex. xxiv. 10), and on the throne a man-like form (Yahweh) surrounded by a rainbow brightness. The wheels symbolize divine omniscience and control, and the whole vision represents the coming of Yahweh to take up his abode among the exiles. The prophet then receives his call (ii., iii.) in the shape of a roll of a book, which he is required to eat (an indication of the literary form now taken by prophecy). He is informed that the people to whom he is sent are rebellious and stiff-necked (this indicates his opinion of the people, and gives the keynote of the following discourses); he is appointed watchman to warn men when they sin, and is to be held responsible for the consequences if he fail in this duty. To this high conception of a preacher’s function the prophet was faithful throughout his career. Next follow minatory discourses (iv.-vii.) predicting the siege and capture of Jerusalem-perhaps revised after the event. There are several symbolic acts descriptive of the siege. One of these (iv. 4 ff.) gives the duration of the national punishment in loose chronological reckoning: 40 years (a round number) for Judah, and 150 more (according to the corrected text) for Israel, the starting-point, probably, being the year 722, the date of the capture of Samaria; the procedure described in v. 8 is not to be understood literally. In vi. the idolatry of the nation is pictured in darkest colours. Next follows (viii.-xi.) a detailed description, in the form of a vision, of the sin of Jerusalem: within the temple-area elders and others are worshipping beast-forms, Tammuz and the sun (probably actual cults of the time);  men approach to defile the temple and slay the inhabitants of the city (ix.). In ch. x. the imagery of ch. i. reappears, and the Creatures are identified with the cherubs of Solomon’s temple. This appears to be an independent form of the vision, which has been brought into connexion with that of i. by a harmonizing editor. There follow a symbolic prediction of the exile (xii.) and a denunciation of non-moral prophets and prophetesses (xiii.)—though Yahweh deceive a prophet, yet he and those who consult him will be punished; and so corrupt is the nation that the presence of a few eminently good men will not save it (xiv.). After a comparison of Israel to a worthless wild vine (xv.) come two allegories, one portraying idolatrous Jerusalem as the unfaithful spouse of Yahweh (xvi.), the other describing the fate of Zedekiah (xvii.). The fine insistence on individual moral responsibility in xviii. (cf. Deut. xxiv. 16, Jer. xxxi. 29 f.), while it is a protest against a superficial current view, is not to be understood as a denial of all moral relations between successive generations. This latter question had not presented itself to the prophet’s mind; his object was simply to correct the opinion of the people that their present misfortunes were due not to their own faults but to those of their predecessors. A more sympathetic attitude appears in two elegies (xix.), one on the kings Jehoahaz and Jehoiachin, the other on the nation. These are followed by a scathing sketch of Israel’s religious career (xx. 1-26), in which, contrary to the view of earlier prophets, it is declared that the nation had always been disobedient. From this point to the end of xxiv. there is a mingling of threat and promise. The allegory of xxiii. is similar to that of xvi., except that in the latter Samaria is relatively treated with favour, while in the former it (Aholah) is involved in the same condemnation as that of Jerusalem. At this point is introduced (xxv.-xxxii.) the series of discourses directed against foreign nations. The description of the king of Tyre (xxviii. 11-19) as dwelling in Eden, the garden of God, the sacred mountain, under the protection of the cherub, bears a curious resemblance to the narrative in Gen. ii., iii., of which, however, it seems to be independent, using different Babylonian material; the text is corrupt. The section dealing with Egypt is one of remarkable imaginative power and rhetorical vigour: the king of Egypt is compared to a magnificent cedar of Lebanon (in xxxi. 3 read: “there was a cedar in Lebanon”) and to the dragon of the Nile, and the picture of his descent into Sheol is intensely tragic. Whether these discourses were all uttered between the investment of Jerusalem and its fall, or were here inserted by Ezekiel or by a scribe, it is not possible to say. In xxxiii. the function of the prophet as watchman is described at length (expansion of the description in iii.) and the news of the capture of the city is received. The following chapters (xxxiv.-xxxix.) are devoted to reconstruction: Edom, the detested enemy of Israel, is to be crushed; the nation, politically raised from the dead, with North and South united (xxxvii.), is to be established under a Davidide king; a final assault, made by Gog, is to be successfully met, and then the people are to dwell in their own land in peace for ever; this Gog section is regarded by some as the beginning of Jewish apocalyptic writing. In the last section (xl.-xlviii.), put as a vision, the temple is to be rebuilt, in dimensions and arrangements a reproduction of the temple of Solomon (cf. I Kings vi., vii.), the sacrifices and festivals and the functions of priests and prince are prescribed, a stream issuing from under the temple is to vivify the Dead Sea and fertilize the land (this is meant literally), the land is divided into parallel strips and assigned to the tribes. The prophet’s thought is summed up in the name of the city: Yahweh Shammah, “Yahweh is there,” God dwelling for ever in the midst of his people.
Literature.—For the older works see the Introductions of J.G. Carpzov (1757) and C.H.H. Wright (1890). For legends: Pseud.-Epiphan., De vit. prophet.; Benjamin of Tudela, Itin.; Hamburger, Realencycl.; Jew. Encycl. On the Hebrew text; C.H. Cornill, Ezechiel (1886) (very valuable for text and ancient versions); H. Graetz, Emendationes (1893).; C.H. Toy, “Text of Ezek.” (1899) in Haupt’s Sacred Books of the Old Test. Commentaries: F. Hitzig (1847); H. Ewald (1868); E. Reuss (French ed., 1876; Germ, ed., 1892); Currey (1876) in Speaker’s Comm.; R. Smend (revision of Hitzig) (1880) in Kurzgefasst. exeget. Handbuch; A.B. Davidson (1882) in Cambr. Bible for Schools; J. Skinner (1895) in Expos. Bible; A. Bertholet (1897) in Marti’s Kurz. Hand-Comm.; C.H. Toy (1899) in Haupt’s Sacr. Bks. (Eng. ed.); R. Kraetzschmar (1900) in W. Nowack’s Handkommentar. See also Duhm, Theol. d. Propheten (1875); A. Kuenen, Prophets and Prophecy (1877); Gautier, La Mission du prophète Ezéchiel (1891); Montefiore, Hibbert Lectures (1892); A. Bertholet, Der Verfassungsentwurf des Hesekiel (1896); articles in Herzog-Hauck, Realencykl.; Hastings, Bibl. Dict.; Cheyne, Encycl. Bibl., Jew. Encycl.; F. Bleek, Introd. (Eng. tr., 1875), and Bleek-Wellhausen (Germ.) (1878); Wildeboer, Letterkunde d. Oud. Verbonds (1893), and Germ, transl., Litt. d. Alt. Test.; Perrot and Chipiez, Hist. de l’art, &c. , in which, however, the restoration of Ezekiel’s temple (by Chipiez) is probably untrustworthy. (C. H. T.*)
- The Assyrian term abubu is used of the great primeval deluge (in the Gilgamesh epic), and also of the local floods common in the country.
- So we must read (as Robertson Smith has pointed out) in xxii. 9 and xviii. 6, instead of “eating on the mountains.”
- The stricter marriage law is formulated in Lev. xviii. 8-15, xx. 11 ff.
- Yahweh’s spirit, thought of as Yahweh’s vital principle, as man’s spirit is man’s vital principle, is to be breathed into them, as, in Gen. ii. 7, Yahweh breathes his own breath into the lifeless body. The spirit in the Old Testament is a refined material thing that may come or be poured out on men.
- The “Great Synagogue” is semi-mythical.
- In viii. 17 the unintelligible expression “they put the branch to their nose” is the rendering of a corrupt Hebrew text; a probable emendation is: “they are sending a stench to my nostrils.”
- The legendary figure of Daniel (xiv. 14) is later taken by the author of the book of Daniel as his hero.
- For a reconstruction of the poem in xxi. 10, 11, see the English Ezekiel in Haupt’s Sacred Books.
- Gog probably represents a Scythian horde (though such an invasion never took place)—certainly not Alexander the Great, who would have been called “king of Greece,” and would have been regarded not as an enemy but as a friend.