Ezekiel 18-20 again displays great variety in presentation. Chapter 18 walks us through a hypothetical three generations to refute a popular proverb. In these generations the first one did what was right, the second did what was evil, and the third did what was right. The one who does what is right will live, the one who does wicked things will die whereas the proverb would lead you to believe that the third would be cursed for his father’s evil works. Then the second half of the chapter explains what happens for those who repent from doing what is wrong and what happens for those who move from doing what is right to doing what is wrong. Chapter 19 gives us what may very well be a fable/riddle like what we had seen in chapter 17 but it does not directly explain it for us. Chapter 20 though appears to be the interpretation of the riddle but also responding to chapter 18 with three cycles (like generations) of Israel and how each generation rebelled against YHWH. Click here for some notes on these chapters that will be helpful as you read the rest of this post.
Ezekiel 18:2 quotes the same popular proverb we heard back in Jeremiah 31:29, saying, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Jeremiah replied more succinctly to this proverb to the effect that it would no longer be used in Israel. But the whole of Ezekiel 18 is in response to and a critique of this popular proverb. And Ezekiel is preaching based upon Deut 24:16, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” Thus we hear the echoes of Deuteronomy throughout the passage not to mention the echoes of Deuteronomy elsewhere in Ezekiel and even within these three chapters. Ezekiel is seeking to correct a false interpretation of the Torah and of Israel’s experience.
Chapter 18 is divided into two parts but the end of the first is preparing you for the second part. The first paragraph begins with the first generation. If a man is righteous and does what is just and right, and there is a whole list indicating some things he does or does not do, but the sum of which is he walks in God’s statutes and keeps God’s rules, then he shall surely live. The second paragraph then envisions what would happen if that father in the first generation had a son who is violent and did some of the forbidden things in the earlier list. The repetition of the list here is broken up in its order compared to the generation before and after it perhaps highlighting that he has committed robbery and usury (extorting his brother) (after all see the short summary later in the chapter and see the outline). This son shall surely die.
So far then we have seen two generations – one righteous and one wicked – and so now Ezekiel proposes what would happen if the third generation, a son of the wicked man, saw what his father had done and does not do likewise. Then the first list is repeated with some slight variations if you look at the exact text but all of the elements are in the same order except the sum of which is “obeys my rules, and walks in my statutes” (Ezekiel 18:17). Note that this is the inverse order from before “walks in my statutes and keeps my rules” (Ezekiel 18:9). This man will surely live and not die for his father’s sin.
We are not saying that the righteous person is sinless, but this righteous person is blameless according to the Torah.
It is only then at the end of this part of the passage that the terms righteous and wicked are applied to the persons envisioned in the three generation example. “The righteousness of the righteous and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20). Before it was only said that if a man is righteous (i.e. does righteousness) but now these are the two categories. And this prepares us for part two.
The second part of the chapter probably begins then with Ezekiel 18:21. The theme of this part of the chapter is that of repentance. What your outline shows with the letters on the left is where themes get repeated. Thus I have labeled as A the situation of repentance – that if one repents then they will live. This is the focus of the passage, it gets the most text. I have labeled as B the situation of reversion (we might call it) – if a righteous person turns back and does evil things then they will die.
Enveloping the second set of A and B is a point that I have labeled C. Here is the accusation of the people that God’s ways are not just. The simple response is that it is not God who is unjust but the wicked are the ones who are unjust. The second and more unpacked C is followed by a call to repentance, which again is the theme of the whole. And I have labeled as D this discussion of taking pleasure in the death of the wicked. In the first, God asks the question: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked? And not rather that he should turn from his way and live ?” And this is answered in the second paragraph labeled D.
These are the well known lines, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord YHWH.” And this is followed by the call to repentance, mirroring the second half of the question: “So turn and live!”
But note the intricate interweaving of these points in the text. The first point labeled D splits up the A and B points, which A and B are in reverse order between the two labeled C. We would have probably expected to have seen the points labeled D form the outside of the passage much like the way the two labeled C subdivide that section, thus the first A point is in an interesting position.
Ezekiel 19 is a very short chapter compared to the one before and the one after it. But it is clearly a unit unto itself, even though it lacks the traditional opening and conclusion formulas we have seen constantly in Ezekiel. We know that it is a unit because of the opening line: “And you, take up a lamentation for the princes of Israel, and say:” – we would only have expected the “And you” to be followed by the traditional “son of man” – but the conclusion then answers the introduction saying, “This is a lamentation and has become a lamentation.” The chapter has the feel of something more than a lamentation.
One might conclude that the chapter consists of two fables and together is one riddle or something else, but in any case, the author has left us to make those conclusions whereas he usually provides them when it is the case.
There are two halves to the lamentation. The first half is much more poetic than the second half and the first half uses the lamentation quina rhythm of 3:2 in Hebrew, which we saw in Jeremiah’s lamentations (as per Greenberg’s commentary).
The first half uses the imagery of a lion. Lions are especially appropriate in Scripture to represent the Davidic king. So the mother is a lioness and she raises one cub to be a lion but the nations heard about him and carried him off to Egypt. So she raised another cub to be a lion but the nations set against him and carried him off to Babylon.
You will remember from Kings that of the sons of Josiah one had been carried off into exile in Egypt and another later was carried off into exile in Babylon. And still in the future, from Ezekiel’s perspective, another would yet go to Babylon.
In any case, whatever genre we conclude this passage is besides a lamentation, at least on one level the text is referring to the kings who have already been carried off into exile and replaced on the throne by other brothers.
But as I read it I was also thinking about the whole of Israel’s history – that they went into exile in Egypt and then that they went into exile in Babylon. So perhaps it is also a riddle pointing to the bigger picture, remember that not all of the points need to correspond as we saw with the earlier riddle in Ezekiel.
The second half of the chapter then changes metaphors – now the mother is not a lioness but a vine in a yineyard. This already should remind us of Ezekiel 17, but then when we see the description of the death of the vine we should be reminded of what the first eagle did in that fable/riddle of Ezekiel 17. The vine is again plucked up. The before and after contrast is clear – before she was planted by the water and now she is planted in the desert, before her strong stems became ruler’s scepters, and after there remains no strong stem and no ruler’s scepter.
The vineyard is a common Biblical metaphor for Israel and so if the former half of the lament dealt with the kings, then this latter half deals with the whole nation. The connection here between the mother and “children” is more organic given that it is a vine that is the mother. And it has been said that the death sentence as applied to the vine is “overkill.” It would have been sufficient for the vine to have been plucked up from the well-watered place and abandoned to the desert to kill it but then the text adds wind and fire to the equation.
This brings us to Ezekiel 20. This is a long and involved chapter that we are only going to scratch the surface of for now. It is one of the times that we get a full introduction with the timing (7th year, 5th month, 10th day) and audience (certain elders) and an extended “word of YHWH came to me” line. There is the question God asks, “Is it to inquire of me that you have come?” and the answer He gives, “As I live, declares the Lord YHWH, I will not be inquired of by you.” This same sequence is followed later in the chapter (Ezekiel 20:30-31).
The first part of the chapter is the longest sequence and where we will spend most of our time in analysis of the structure and simply note some interesting things in the smaller paragraphs later.
First, as you can see in the outline, the section shows us cycles. In the first cycle we see that God swore to bring them into the Promised Land, commanded them to cast away the idols of Egypt, but the people rebelled against YHWH, He said He would pour out wrath upon them, but for the sake of His name, He held back from totally destroying them, gave them His statutes and rules, by which if a person does them he shall live, and gave them His Sabbaths as a sign, this so that they may know (recognition formula) “that I am YHWH” with the additional phrase “who sanctifies them.”
The second cycle then at first backs up to they rebelled against him, He said He would pour out His wrath on them, but He acted for the sake of His name, this cycle then backs up (as you can see from the outline) to the point about the oath but this time it is an oath that the generation will not enter the land, followed, (as with the previous oath) by a command to not walk in their father’s statutes and defile themselves with their father’s idols, then the cycle continues where it left off earlier with the positive “Walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules, and keep my Sabbaths holy that they may be a sign.” This again is “so that you may know that I am YHWH.” That phrase serves as the conclusion marker for each cycle.
Note especially the repetition of the three fold obedience lines “walk in my statutes,” “obey my rules,” and third about observing my “Sabbaths.” These are stated positively in each cycle but also when the people rebel these are the three things mentioned that they did not do – worse than that, that they violated outright.
The third cycle resembles the second beginning with the statement of the people’s rebellion, then I said I would pour out my wrath, but…I acted for the sake of my name, then the oath that they would be scattered in exile, and interestingly next he leaves out the call to cast away their idols, and the twist on the next part is that He gave them statutes and rules that were NOT good “rules by which they could not have life” and He defiled them through “their very gifts in their offering up all their firstborn, that I might devastate them. I did it that they might know that I am YHWH.”
That the third cycle left out the command to get rid of your idols anticipates one of the later paragraphs where He tells them to go serve their idols if they will not listen to Him “but my holy name you shall no more profane with your gifts and your idols” (cf. 20:39). Note that this later paragraph has the key phrases in chiastic order: declares the Lord YHWH…, and you shall know that I am YHWH…, and you shall know that I am YHWH…, and declares the Lord YHWH!” Only this last phrase serves as a structural marker to the paragraph – it is the concluding line.
The last paragraph then has YHWH telling Ezekiel “son of man” preach against the south. And what he is to tell them is, “I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree. The blazing flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from south to north shall be scorched by it. All flesh shall see that I YHWH have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.” And the chapter ends with a concluding line about how the elders are saying of Ezekiel, “Is he not a maker of parables?”
The conclusion clearly answers the opening of the chapter. But it also reminds us of the previous chapter and how that previous chapter also mentioned a fire and how that previous chapter I suggested may also be a riddle speaking about the larger history of Israel and now we see this part about the fire burning trees after all of these cycles about the original exodus, the wilderness generation, and exile.
So Ezekiel once again continues to show us how many different ways he can prophetically preach this message of judgment.