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We have seen that the structure of Ezekiel is incredibly complicated and that one of the favorite features that he likes to use and further complicate is that of the chiasm.  The whole of Ezekiel 20-23 is a chiasm and smaller portions of it can also be outlined further.  Take a look at this handout for more detail.

Rev. Justin Lee Marple, Niagara Presbyterian Church, chiasm of Ezekiel 20-23

We have noted before that the whole book is a chiasm.  And as you can see in that chiasm, chapter 23 ends a major part of the book – the Oracles of Judgment.  So then, among the Oracles of Judgment Ezekiel 20-23 is a unit marked off by the introduction that includes timing, setting, and audience for the words that follow.  We looked at the content and organization of Ezekiel 20 last time, except that I need to make one modification – Ezekiel 20:45-49 belongs to the outline of the next chapter.  Actually in the Hebrew Bible Ezekiel 20:45 is Ezekiel 21:1, though I will refer to the English Bible versification so that we are all on the same page.

But the whole of Ezekiel 20-23 is a chiasm and key to seeing this structure is noting that there are four lists of charges – one in the first section, one in the last, and two in the middle.  Moreover, there are two interpreted “allegories” (an allegory is a story where the “characters” symbolize someone else).  And at the center of the whole chiasm is a “parable” (a metaphorical story with one main point).  The placement of these texts is clearly arranged in a chiasmic fashion and they are meant to be interpreted together – each sheds light on the meaning of the others.

Note that the first, middle, and last sections of the chiasm all begin with the question, “Son of man, will you judge?”  And then a line about declaring to the people their abominations.  The first section ending with “declares the Lord YHWH” as does the center section and the last section ending “and you shall know that I am YHWH.”  These lines are very common ending markers for sections in Ezekiel.  The two allegories mark their conclusions with “for I YHWH have spoken” and “for I have spoken, declares the Lord YHWH.”  The second one then adding the line about Jerusalem having “forgotten” YHWH & etc.  The remembering theme is important in the first allegory.

On the handout you can also see some of the common elements in each list of charges in the whole of Ezekiel 20-23.  Chapter 20 gives us the summary ‘did not walk in my statutes, rejected my rules, greatly profaned my Sabbaths.’  But specifically singles out idolatry and child sacrifice.  The other lists of charges are more specific – shedding blood being another a big one.

The point with the charges is that they include both social sins (like shedding blood) as well as what we might call “religious” sins (like profaning the Sabbaths).  Another way of putting it: there are issues of justice alongside issues of religious practice.  Actually, the Hebrew thinker would not even put these two things into separate categories as if there were a separate realm of the secular and the sacred, which they did not believe; after all, shedding blood is a priestly concern.  And what is more the text describes both kinds of adultery against God – idolatry and political alliances with foreign nations.

The structure of Ezekiel 20-23 can actually be further subdivided.  The climax of the chiasm – an encased parable of metals refined by fire is itself a chiasm – encased by the two sets of charges with the parable between them.  Moreover, the allegory of the fire and its interpretation follows what some call the high jump format (a variation on the chiasm) followed by another chiasm.  We will look at these two sections in more detail.  And other portions of these chapters could also be further outlined as well.

On your outline handout I have laid out the prophetic high jump format of Ezekiel 20:45-21:17.  So now we turn to this, it is part 1 of the fire allegory.  This is an incredible masterpiece of artistic literature.  Note how perfectly in every way the first two stanzas Ezekiel 20:45-49 and Ezekiel 21:1-5 line up together.  In the former you have the allegory (which on the outline handout I have put in brackets what each symbolic ‘character’ represents) and then in the latter stanza is the interpretation of the allegory (which I have put in brackets the symbolic characters from the first stanza).

In this allegory we can make the following equations of places: the southland = Jerusalem, the south = the sanctuaries, the forest land of the Negeb (which is Hebrew for south) = land of Israel.

And also of the characters – every green tree = the righteous and every dry tree = the wicked.  This is a merism – the righteous and the wicked are the two groups to whom everyone belongs – thus the point is that everyone will be “cut off.”

And so the allegory says that there will be a fire in this forest that will consume every green tree and every dry tree scorching all faces from south to north and the fire will not be quenched.  In the interpretation, the fire is now a sword – the sword will cut off both righteous and wicked and be against all flesh from south to north and the sword will not be re-sheathed.

And the purpose is one of “recognition” or “knowing” – “All flesh shall see that I YHWH have kindled it” and “And all flesh shall know that I am YHWH.”

The one modification from the normal high jump format is the additional line: “Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord YHWH!  They [certain elders] are saying of me, ‘Is he not a maker of parables?’”  This line is clearly answered by the parallel lines down below regarding groaning and wailing, as “Ah” is just such an interjection of woe.

The Hebrew term translated “parables” is a more general genre indicator – when I call it an allegory I am being more specific and what I am usually calling a parable is also more specific than the general term here.  But they all fall under the same general idea together with the riddle/fables we have seen – they are stories told to make a point, often stories that hide and reveal at the same time, stories that require interpretation.

Note the complexity of the chiasm portion of the outline in that the phrases “And all flesh shall know that I am YHWH” and “I YHWH have spoken” answer each other and “declares the Lord YHWH” answers the identical phrase; yet the alternating order of introductions: (A) “The word of YHWH came to me,” (B) “as for you, son of man,” (A) “and the word of YHWH came to me,” (B) “As for you, son of man,” (this alternating order of introductions does not include the section without an introduction though it does have the “son of man” marker (21:12-13)).

Just as we saw with the first two stanzas the rest of the high jump does not disappoint in its detailed artistry.  The chiasm is highly developed: one can read the first, middle, and end without missing the second and second to last parts and those two parts read seamlessly too.  The first, middle, and end parts have the command to “prophesy,” to which some physical gesture is added in the first (set your face) and last (clap your hands).  The commands for the other two parallel parts are also complimentary: “groan” and “cry out and wail.”

The text to follow is then clearly marked by the introduction: “The word of YHWH came to me: As for you, son of man,”… (21:18f).  This is the combination of the two parts of the alternating order of introductions noted above: “The word of YHWH came to me” and “As for you, son of man.”  This suggests that what to follow is building on what we have just seen in the above chiasm, especially when taken together with the fact that themes from the first, center, and last sections of this chiasm above are repeated in the opening and closing sections of the next chiasm.

Above, 21:1-5 talks about YHWH drawing a sword against the people, 21:8-11 discusses how the sword is sharpened and polished for slaughter, polished to flash like lightning, and 21:14-17 “made like lightning” and has Ezekiel letting the sword come down twice/thrice as a prophetic symbolic act.  Next (21:18-23) Ezekiel will do a prophetic symbolic act marking two ways for the sword of the king of Babylon to come and in the last section (21:28-32) the sword is drawn for the slaughter, polished to consume and to flash like lightning.  That the second chiasm is building on the first one tells us the climax of the whole chapter is the climax of the second chiasm.

The whole of the chapter is tied together as well by the forceful line in bold earlier that the sword will not be sheathed again and then in the last paragraph “return it to its sheath.”  And the fire in the very first paragraph is answered by “you shall be fuel for the fire” in the last paragraph.  This further ties the two ‘halves’ of the chapter together.

My outline of the second part of the chapter (Ezekiel 21:18-32) is somewhat more tentative, there may be something else or more going on here, but there are several things pointing to this being a chiasm.  First of all, note that the introductions using the phrase “son of man” are the the first and last sections and the one in the middle opens, “Therefore thus says the Lord YHWH.”  The middle section appears to have two parts, the second introduction in the center also saying, “Thus says the Lord YHWH.”  Thus the chiasm is an A,B,B’,A’ pattern.

The two outer sections also have the theme of false divination and concern the “Ammonites.”  They also have the commands to “mark” (a prophetic sign) and to “prophesy” opening them, just as we saw in part one of the chapter.

The whole of Ezekiel 21:18-32 is a unit completed by the phrase we saw complete the previous chiasm: “for I YHWH have spoken.”

But the text is more complicated than a chiasm suggests because the A and A’ and B and B’ portions do not cleanly answer one another.  Instead, for example, there are clear connections between the B’ and A’.  Also, the idea is that Ezekiel is to mark two ways for the Babylonian king to choose from and through a multiplicity (the symbolism of 3 here in Ezekiel) of means of divination he chooses to go to Jerusalem and but the Ammonites are not let off the hook as they are next.

In other words, the the first and center sections concern Jerusalem and her prince and the last section concerns the Ammonites.  So the second center section says, “O profane, wicked one, prince of Israel, whose day has come, the time of your final punishment” and the last section says, “the profane wicked, whose day has come, the time of their final punishment.”  The former refers to the prince of Israel and the latter to the Ammonites.

And there is one theme that ties together the first section, the first section in the center and the last section of this part: “remembrance.” (1) “he brings their guilt to remembrance,”  (2) “because you have made your guilt to be remembered, in that your transgressions are uncovered, so that in all your deeds your sins appear– (3) because you have come to remembrance, you shall be taken in hand,” and (4) “you shall be no more remembered.”

The first two times the verb is in the hiphil (“to cause to be remembered”) and the second two times the verb is in the niphal (“to be remembered”).  So the idea here in the outer sections is (1) he caused them to remember their guilt that they may be taken and (4) they will no longer be remembered, but at the center it is saying (2) they caused their guilt to be remembered and (3) because they remembered they will be taken.  Exile is being “forgotten.”

Thus in the chiasm of A, B, B’, A’ for this part there is a strong relationship in theme between A, B, and A’ as well as another strong relationship in theme between B’ and A’.

The nature of a chiasm is to focus on the center, which is all about Jerusalem and her prince.  This makes sense, the stress that Ezekiel is making is not so much on the Ammonites as it is on the Israelites.  Thus the climactic point of the entire chapter (Ezekiel 20:45-21:32), though clearly understated when I put it in prose this way, seems to be that the nation will go into exile for their sins and the prince of Israel will be taken from his throne.  The climax is also making a pun in Hebrew of guilt and ruin (cf. Duguid, p.277).

The encased parable of metals refined at the center of chapters 20-23 is not thoroughly interpreted for us, Ezekiel leaving that to us to do, but the parable is obvious enough that it is not terribly difficult especially since we have had his assistance with understanding the allegories in the sections before and after it.  He is describing what will happen as being like refining Israel since they have become dross to God.  That fire is necessary for this refinement is especially appropriate given the earlier allegory.  And they are put in a furnace, which is what Babylon is to Israel (cf. Daniel).

The first list of charges in Ezekiel 22 are based on the Holiness Code of Leviticus, though some of the language is clearly influenced by Deuteronomy.  The second list of charges in this chapter are based on Zephaniah 3:3-4.  He has a slightly different list of the groups than Zephaniah but the word choices and ideas show that Ezekiel is building on what Zephaniah said.  There are charges for the princes, priests, officials, prophets, and the people of the land.  There are several charges in common between the lists.

The chapter is an obvious chiasm, some call a chiasm with a parable in the middle “an encased parable.”  Though perhaps the least obvious part to be one whole section is Ezekiel 22:1-16 since it has multiple conclusion formulas: “declares the Lord YHWH,” “I YHWH have spoken, and I will do it,” and “you shall know that I am YHWH.”  The parable ends with that same line expanded and then the final section ends with “declares the Lord YHWH.”  Each section begins “And the word of YHWH came to me: (And you) son of man.”

We are going to spend less time looking at Ezekiel 23:1-35 and not because the content is somewhat risque but because it would be to discuss points made extensively before as the text here is expanding upon Ezekiel 16 (especially Ezekiel 16:44-52).  Ezekiel 16 used the metaphor of sexual sin and actions worse than prostitution to describe their infidelity to God by seeking out the protection of other nations.  It was not about sexual sin as much as that was a metaphor pointing us to the real concern at hand.  Likewise here in Ezekiel 23:1-35 we have an allegory that uses sexual sin to describe something else.  It is worth noting that this passage should be rated X because of its graphic language.  It describes their sin in terms of bestiality and displays no modesty.

In Ezekiel 16:44ff Samaria, Jerusalem and Sodom were sisters, all daughters of one mother.  Samaria was the oldest sister and Sodom the youngest sister.  The allegory of Ezekiel 23 is only for the two sisters – Samaria and Jerusalem.  We can identify the allegory this way (as the text does): there are two women, daughters of one mother, the elder sister Oholah (“her tent”) = Samaria and the younger sister Oholibah (“my tent is in her”) = Jerusalem.  The names pun.

In Ezekiel 16:26 you can read, “You also played the whore with the Egyptians” and this idea is here in Ezekiel 23 as well, “They played the whore in Egypt” (Ezekiel 23:3).

In both Ezekiel 16 and 23 the idea is that Jerusalem kept increasing their whorish behavior.  And that Jerusalem then has done far worse than her elder sister Samaria ever did even though they just saw what God did to Samaria.  For example, “Samaria has not committed half your sins.  You have committed more abominations than they, and have made your sisters appear righteous by all the abominations that you have committed” (Ezekiel 16:51).  “Her sister Oholibah saw this [what Oholah did and the consequences] and she became more corrupt than her sister in her lust and in her whoring, which was worse than that of her sister” (Ezekiel 23:11).

But again the text is describing international affairs – international relations – and how Israel should trust in the Lord YHWH and not seek out these alliances with others.  These alliances were adultery against YHWH.  The reason for the shocking language is to get them to see just how ugly what they are doing is.  The chapter then concludes the whole section with yet another list of charges, which we have already otherwise discussed to some extent above.

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