Bible Commentator

Articles

Rabbi Moshe Reiss

moshereiss@moshereiss.org

JEREMIAH, THE SUFFERING PROPHET AND EZEKIEL, THE FLYING PROPHET

The author has written a book entitled ‘Messengers of God: A Theological / Psychological Perspective (WWW:Moshereiss.Org). The theme of the book is that the Tnakh is both God centered and human centered. We receive the message of God from a messenger; the messengers are human beings. As human being they interpret God according to their own understandings. A famous Midrash tells that all the participants heard God at Mt. Sinai but according to their own understanding.

Much of the Hebrew Bible is written as if it were autobiographical; Moses apparently tells his story, Samuel, Jeremiah and Ezekiel theirs. Are autobiographies the Truth and nothing but the Truth? (The author is fully aware of the many conflicts about who wrote different parts of the Bible. My interest is in commenting on the text regardless of the ‘actual’ writer – assuming that can ever be known. Given the enormous influence of the text, that is in itself a worthwhile endeavor. Many others can and do interest themselves with the authorship issue.)

An autobiographer chooses what he wishes to record. We have learnt from Freud that what we choose to record may not be the most important, perhaps what we ‘forgot’ is more important.

Jeremiah story seems too truthful and painful not to be true; the Talmud suggests he is the only Prophet to have written his own story (BT Baba Bathra 14b). Is Ezekiel’s story too outrageous to be true or too outrageous not to be true? Would God really ask His prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute and an adulterous woman? Maimonides thought that reality difficult to conceive. The subtle negative irony in Samuel’s narrative seems more biographical than autobiographical.  Genesis seems written by a narrator-historian with great insight into the characters he is writing about.

The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel (both also priests) lived and were active as prophets during a time of great catastrophe for the people of Israel, the destruction of the first Temple.

They created different theologies to respond to the Temple’s destruction. Jeremiah blamed the people of Israel misconduct on ethical behavior. Ezekiel blamed the people of ritual misbehavior.

JEREMIAH

The people of Israel thought that doing the sacrifices was sufficient as their part of the covenant; God would protect them. Jeremiah disagreed. Jeremiah condemns those following the Temple rituals as if that was all God needed. Jeremiah cried out at the gate of the Temple that God would destroy the Temple and cared not for those who stated `the lying words ... the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord’ (Jer. 7:4).  He continued that if you oppress the stranger, the orphan and the widow  ... [and] if this house which is called by my name, .... [is] a den of robbers’ (7:8,11) I will destroy it. The people, priests and some prophets disbelieved Jeremiah. For this Jeremiah was condemned, arrested, jailed and sentenced to death twice.  The first death sentence was voided by the King of Judah and the second  by Nebuchadnezzar, himself who captured Jerusalem exiled many of the Israelis and then destroyed the Temple.

Jeremiah developed a theology of repentance, exile and restoration. If the Jews repented God would restore them to Jerusalem. Since those who remained in Jerusalem (including the newly appointed King Zedekiah) rejected his advice (as they had before the Temple was destroyed) he told those exiled in Babylon that they were the holy remnants (Jer. 23:3;31:7), to repent and wait until God restored them. In a letter he wrote to the exiles:

    `build houses, settle down, plant gardens and eat what they produce, marry and have sons    and daughters, choose wives for your sons, find husbands for your daughters so that these     can bear sons and daughters in their turn ... Work for the good of the city to which I have exiled you, pray to YHVH on its behalf since on its welfare yours depends’ (Jer. 29:5-8).

This is a new theology of exile; stay, work, be fertile and God will protect you there. God did not need the Temple.

Jeremiah is the only prophet to have dialogues and monologues with God in the form of prayers about his tortured life. They are introspective, self-revelatory and biographical, more private cries of distress than prophetic. He is appealing and praying to God (in each prayer God is the addressee - thus it is a prayer) as a suffering human being not in his function as a prophet to the people of Israel, but perhaps as a complaint to the one who gave him the mission, which he considers to have failed. No one in biblical literature has felt this personal acute pain and its affect on his personal religious experience like Jeremiah. It is more burdensome than he could stand. God even tells him not ‘pray for these people, neither lift up or cry or pray on their behalf, do not intercede with Me, for I will not hear you’ (7:16). This puts him in an opposite position than Moses who always interceded for the people. Did Jeremiah despair of God or decide that he and only he ‘knew’ God. How does one survive in a human society believing that? He has no life outside his relationship with God. In this sense his mission (or at least as he perceived it - that is why he the messenger is so important) was more difficult that Moses’. Moses had a life, a wife, a brother and sister and children. Jeremiah has no family or social relations (at God’s request) he has nothing but God, an impossible companion! He seemed to carry the world upon his shoulders. He sees and feels the world differently than his fellow Judeans. He knows that destruction must come because they have broken the covenant. This divine consciousness gives Jeremiah a sensitivity, what Heschel called the pathos of God. He saw the apathetic indifference of H/his people as the voice of God and such he differs from us.  1 He was inspired by Moses, Amos and Hosea, and has absorbed God into his unconscious and becomes God-intoxicated. Did he have any words of his own? Jeremiah has a more suffering relationship to God and is not just a prophet, a much more dangerous task. He is every man’s suffering and pain.  Can he have become the ‘righteousness’ of God? In this he cannot succeed. God’s anger may be righteous indignation towards injustice. Jeremiah’s may be as well. But his anger is also human. When he says ‘avenge me’ he is a suffering human being - not God-intoxicated.

EZEKIEL

A stranger book than the Book than the Book of Ezekiel does not appear in the Jewish canon. The author reports being of Ezekiel paralyzed, bound and dumb seven days after his call (for 430 days or perhaps for seven and one half years)  yet nevertheless prophecies (3:4-6,26; 24:27; 33:22). Is he a speechless prophet? He eats scrolls, excrement, has his hair and beard cut off by a sharp sword or razor, into three separate parts to be burnt in three different places (5:1-2) and he flies from Babylon to Jerusalem (11:1).  He writes of gruesome, and bloody events where human-like beings slaughter the people of Jerusalem except those they mark on the forehead as mourners (10:2-7). People die from his look or words (11:1-13) and he resurrects people (37:7-10). He is the only prophet to be ‘transported’ visionary (apparently four times - chapters 8,11, 37 and 43). He occasionally writes obscenely. In fact his prose easily rates as the most sexually explicit descriptions in the Bible.

He writes of bizarre visions, tasting some of his visions.  Moshe Greenberg notes that while most of Jeremiah’s prophecies materialized Ezekiel’s did not. 2  Yehezkel Kaufmann said the same. 3 Rashi notes that prophesying on foreign soil is problematic. He is not an unknown prophet, yet, as compared to Jeremiah we are told very little about him. We know enough about his personality to suggest it is in fact very odd. If a prophet is intended to speak God’s words are Ezekiel’s too imaginative? Maimonides suggested his visions were imaginary. 4

One verse in his book suggests that he was a good entertainer. ‘As far as they are concerned, you are like a love song pleasantly sung to a good musical accompaniment’ (33:32). Or does he envision a different side of God than  seen by other prophets? His cherub-like vision may depict four different images of God.

Ezekiel presents some radical theologies.  Ezekiel says God gave Israel laws that He knew ‘were not good and judgments they could not live by’ (20:25). That is a shocking statement - and an even more shocking theology. Is Ezekiel saying that some of the laws of Moses were a perversion?  Is then Israel’s, Jerusalem and the Temple’s destruction simply God’s will?  Even if one of Ezekiel’s themes is the inscrutability of God this thesis is difficult to maintain.  The Temple he described is different in many ways from that defined in the Pentateuch.

Ezekiel claims that the people of Israel were depraved during their entire history. His definition of depravity is idolatry defined in sexual terms. Perhaps it is not surprising that he sounds more like a priest than a prophet. 5 Jeremiah, his contemporary prophet did not see the abominations Ezekiel described in the Temple.  Ezekiel stands in stark contrast to Jeremiah seeing the fall of Jerusalem as inevitable and certainly different than Isaiah who saw Jerusalem as inviolable. He needed to find a reason for the destruction and a way out. His reason for the destruction was the people of Israel’s  total depravity from the beginning of its history. He describes history in dogmatic terms, not like Jeremiah who questions even God. Having so described Israel Ezekiel needs a way out and it is the development of the first Hebrew apocalypse (the destruction of evil in the form of Gog of Magog) and then a new Messianic Temple. This was the beginning of the Israelite idea of eschatology and utopian messianism.  His vision of the chariot of God became (after his death) into the idea of mystical travel to heaven.

Ezekiel describes Israelite history as evil from the beginning of their relationship with God in a way never described by any other prophet. And he uses explicit sexual metaphors also never used before. While Hosea and then Jeremiah used sexual metaphors the explicit sexuality used by Ezekiel to describe Israel’s evil have never been so described before. As Moshe Greenberg has noted Ezekiel takes ‘the adulterous wife of Hosea and Jeremiah [and gives them] a biography’. 6

It is for these reasons that the sages of the Talmud were more critical of his book than any other book in the Bible (see BT. Meg. 25b; Men. 45a; Hag. 13b; PT Meg. 4:12).

Ezekiel is the first Apocalyptic Prophet. Ezekiel begins his book with the vision of Merkavah - the Chariot. He is the first Prophet to emphasize the visions of the secret world. When Isaiah tells of his vision (chapter 6) it is still a secret and acts as the background to his words - (chapter 7,9 and 11) his words are clearly more important than the vision. Similarly Jeremiah’s visions serve to illustrate his words. The Talmud in discussing the canonization of Ezekiel resents his telling the secrets of God’s world and then the Mishna (the basic text explained in the two Talmuds) forbids the explaining of this known as ‘Ma’aseh Bereshit’ - the stories of creation. They understood that Ezekiel’s vision was the secret of the creation. His vision was an attempt to penetrate the mystery of God, the world of the divine. His was a world of four headed beasts, each with four wings,  who were like lightening (Ez. 1:13-14), like wheels within wheels (1:19,21), and they were attached to a sapphire stone throne(1:26). And then Ezekiel is told to eat the scroll of his vision, to internalize the vision and perhaps to hide it.   In his vision of the New Temple (described after the apocalyptic battle of evil represented by Gog of Magog) the prince is both a High priest (44:3; 45:7,17) and a political leader and one or both are criticized, in past as being corrupt (45:8-9).

Ezekiel book talks about priestly rules (he actually changes them from Leviticus) and a key word for him is ‘tamay’; ritual uncleanliness. His criticism of the Israelites is on ritual misbehavior. He is more concerned with his priestly role that his prophetic role. Ezekiel’s theology is based on priestly rituals. Walter Zimmerli points out that the word God appears more often than in any other canonized book; 434 times. In half of these time the name of God is doubled - Adonai YHVH. The doubling only appears sixty six times aside from Ezekiel. 7 (Jeremiah uses the term YHVH ‘Tzvaot’ eighty two times.) This confirms Joyce noting the theocentricity of the theology of Ezekiel. 8 Ezekiel is also Templecentric. Instead of talking about ethics Ezekiel uses women as a symbol of priestly and ritual uncleanliness.  

SIMILARITY AND DIFFERENCES

The similarity of Jeremiah and Ezekiel is in the discussion of new hearts. `Circumcise yourselves for YHVH, apply circumcision to your hearts’ (Jer. 4:4, see also 9:25-26) and Ezekiel  says in the name of God that  `I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give a heart of flesh instead (Ez. 36:26). What does the phrase a new heart mean?  The heart they have currently had allowed them free choice to choose God or not. Ezekiel and Jeremiah knew the Israeli’s had not chosen God. Your ears do not hear His words. Look, their ears are uncircumcised’ (Jer. 6:10). A new heart is defined by Jeremiah as a new covenant and which Ezekiel says will have a new spirit; a spirit to listen to God. It is important to note that the same Ezekiel has been told by God that He `shall raise up one shepherd, My servant David, and put him in charge of them to pasture them ... My servant David a prince (Ez. 34:23-24). Again my servant David shall be their king.... their prince(37:24-25). The term Ezekiel uses `nasi’  translated as Prince or Leader is a new use of that term. It has never previously been used for David as a messianic figure.  Is the Prince Messiah different than the King Messiah? Is his point that my servant David and my prince are subservient to God as the King Messiah. Ezekiel is the first Prophet who can truly be called Apocalyptic.

The different theologies of Jeremiah, as a Prophet and Priest, preaching in favor ethics and Ezekiel, also a Prophet and Priest, but preaching in favor of ritual. This is not to deny Jeremiah’s belief in the ritual laws nor Ezekiel’s belief in ethics, but rather that one chose the prophetic role and the other the priestly role. They each chose to see a different problem facing the Israelite people. These two messengers of God relate different messages.

1 Moore, D. J. The Human and the Holy: The Spirituality of Abraham Joshua Heschel, (Fordham Univ. Press, N.Y., 1989) pgs. 78-79.

2 Greenberg, Moshe, Ezekiel, (The Anchor Bible, Doubleday, N.Y., Vol. 1,1983, Vol. 2, 1997).

3 Kaufmann, Y., translated by Moshe Greenberg, The Religion of Israel (Schocken Books, N.Y., 1972)  pg. 429.

4 Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, Translated by Shlomo Pines, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1963) pgs. 403-407.

5 Zimmerli calls him a ‘cult prophet’, in Zimmerli, W., Ezekiel, Translated by R.E. Clements,  Volume I and II (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1969) Vol. I,  pg. 39, 77, also in Carley, K.W., Ezekiel Among the Prophets, (SCM, London, 1975).

6 Green berg, Vol. I, pg. 299.

7 Zimmerli, Walter, Ezekiel, Translated by R.E. Clements, two volumes (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1969), Vol. pgs. 556-558.

8 Joyce, Paul, Divine Initiative and Human Response in Ezekiel, (JSOT, vol. 51, Sheffield University Press, Sheffield).