On the impossibility of describing God: the weird of Ezekiel

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Ezekiel may be one of the longer books of the bible, but there are comparatively few readings from his prophecies which occur in the lectionary. Those that do tend to reflect the most straightforward aspects of his message. Right from the beginning, however, Ezekiel draws his listeners in to bizarre descriptions of his visions. Perhaps fortunately for readers and preachers, these are omitted from the Sunday cycle of readings.

Ezekiel’s visions – a woodcut by Hans Holbein via Wikimedia Commons

As a priest, he has a particular interest in the Lord’s glorious presence dwelling in the temple. The book begins with visions given to the prophet in Babylon, and part of the burden of Ezekiel’s message is that the Lord’s glory had left the temple in disgust. Much of the first half of the book, despite being set in Babylon, seems to be addressed to the residents of Jerusalem before their exile.

Ezekiel puts a great deal of stress on the transcendence of the God who nonetheless addresses him as “mortal man.”1 Even in his visions of God, he stresses that what he sees is only an approximation of the living and invisible God: he sees “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord” (Ezekiel 1:28). The combination of detailed description, and the way it is presented as an approximation of what cannot be fully described leads to Ezekiel being a favoured source for mystics, especially some Jewish mystical traditions.

However, the passages used in the lectionary draw on some of Ezekiel’s less visionary prophecies. He characterises Israel as a rebellious people.2 He offers a parable of Israel as a tree showing God as the one who brings the high low, and raises the low up high.3 Most notably he rejects a traditional understanding of law and divine punishment: children will not be punished for the sins of their parents, but parents and children for their own sins. It goes some way to forming the basis from which an understanding of individual personal responsibility can emerge.4 The priest or prophet, however, is responsible for another’s sin if he does not warn the person to repent.5

Ezekiel devotes some attention to the calling of the leaders, the shepherds of Israel, here seemingly including those aristocracy who share the king’s rule. This leads to one of his more famous prophecies, that God will raise up a true shepherd, a new David. As well as providing a related reading for Christ the King,6 this provides the background to John’s presentation of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

His most famous prophecy, however, comes in chapter 37. This is the vision of the valley of dry bones coming to life as God sends his Spirit upon them. Selected verses from this are used as the first reading for Lent 5 in Year A, when the gospel is the raising of Lazarus. It is one of the key texts that helps develop the language of resurrection that later writers will draw on, although here in Ezekiel it is resurrection as a metaphor of new hope for the nation, rather than about the afterlife for individuals.7


Notes

  1. Literally, “son of man” one of the many times that expression is used, beginning in 2:1 and then very frequently throughout the book. It is not a title, but a reminder of Ezekiel’s identity as human and mortal before the indescribable glory of God.
  2. Ezekiel 2:1-5, the related reading in Year B for Proper 9, the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
  3. Ezekiel 17:22-24, Year B, 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 6.
  4. Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 (Ecumenical) or 18:25-28 (Roman Catholic), Year A, Proper 21, 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
  5. Ezekiel 33:7-11 (or 7-9) Year A, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 18
  6. Christ the King, Year A.
  7. The Revised Common Lectionary also includes it as a possible reading during the Easter Vigil, and an alternative reading for Pentecost.

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