02 September 2021

Collateral damage, part three: shock and awe in Ezekiel

part one, part two

We ran the late Joel Kauffmann's Pontius' Puddle (including this strip) regularly during my time at Quaker Life.

I've spoken twice recently at Spokane Friends Meeting on the prophet Ezekiel. He's endlessly fascinating to me. My university education was in political science (specializing in the USSR), and I like to think that Ezekiel was a fellow political scientist. (See, for example, his analysis of leadership in Ezekiel 34, where the numerous references to us as sheep reminded me of Joel Kauffmann's Pontius strip above.) The following thoughts are drawn from the second of my two visits to Spokane.

So what kind of politics was Ezekiel dealing with? Among other things, he addressed Babylon's conquest of Judah, the spiritual and ethical compromises that led to Israel's miseries, the conspiracies between Judah's renegade politicians and Egypt, and God's promise to restore Israel and punish Israel's tormenters. These are all part of the political background for Ezekiel's ministry. Located with the exiles somewhere between Babylon and the Persian Gulf, he was acutely aware of what was going on in Jerusalem. As a prophet, Ezekiel didn't confine himself to commentary -- God commissioned him to be a watchman for the Israelites, and he was going to do whatever it took to get God's warnings across.

Speaking in God's name, those warnings had one constant refrain:

Then they (or you) shall know that I am the LORD.

The complete list, with links, is here.
By my count, this line or some close variation of it occurs 58 times in the book of Ezekiel. Of those 58 occurrences, 48 of them follow a prophecy of doom. Ten times this formula is linked with God's plans to restore Israel. The rest of the time, it caps a recitation of what will happen to Israel as a result of its departure from God's law or its anti-Babylonian plotting with Egypt, or (especially later) what will happen to Israel's neighbors for mocking and oppressing and exploiting the Israelites.

The theme of God's blanket condemnations, as when God decides to drown Pharaoh's army, or (for that matter) the whole world except for the passengers on Noah's ark, has always been a difficult one for me. Even Ezekiel reports God saying "As sure as I am the living God, I take no pleasure from the death of the wicked." What am I to make of these threats of mass extinction -- especially when their apparent stated purpose is to restore God's reputation among those who seem to have forgotten?

The first time I tackled this puzzle, I asked the reader to consider three possibilities.

  1. These people's sufferings, past or future, were inconsequential to God in comparison to the value of teaching the rest of us a lesson.
  2. These events did not happen exactly as they're depicted in the Bible; in reality, no innocent people suffered just for the sake of shock and awe.
  3. God's biblical chroniclers did not understand God well enough at that point in history to record God's provisions of care to those whose death appears cruel to us.

The second and third options seem most helpful to me. God's biblical chroniclers were focused on the specific challenges of their situations and did not (or could not) describe the fullness of God's intention for all humanity, and therefore did not record God's actual care for those whose suffering and death appears cruel to us, if such things happened. (And we know from history that millions of innocent people, of all faiths and none, have suffered or are suffering now -- it's no use pretending otherwise.) 

Along with witnesses to the loving Creator who (as Anthony Bloom put it) desired each one of us into being, there's a residue of the tribal God, the warrior God of the Israelites, whose prominence as champion of a small, specific set of tribes seems to vary dramatically from one biblical writer to another. What’s really interesting to me is that the biblical editors, both at the time the words were set down, and during the centuries when the full Bible was being put together by church committees, did not think this variety should be concealed from us, and trusted that the Holy Spirit would help us discern what we need to know about God’s character.

Having established (I hope!) Ezekiel's credentials as both a prophet and a political scientist, I can't help wondering how to apply Ezekiel, particularly that ominous "They shall know that I am the LORD," to our own overheated politics of today. In his Interpreters commentary on Ezekiel, Joseph Blenkinsopp cautions us, "It is important to bear in mind that the prophet, unlike the mystic, is addressing a quite specific historical situation, generally a situation of crisis. To approach a prophetic book with the idea that it will impart 'timeless truths' is to risk serious misunderstanding." But I have a couple of tentative thoughts.

The biblical prophets focus mostly on three themes: first, the worship of God and the need to keep God at the center, no matter what. Often this theme is linked with their personal stories of how God commissioned them as prophets. Second, they point to corruption and its consequences, no matter whose ox is gored. The third theme: what will happen to Israel’s neighbors as a result of their cruel treatment of the Hebrew people.

Ezekiel hit all of those themes hard, addressing very specific situations both before and after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC.To risk extracting "timeless truths" from all of this passionate prophecy, here’s what I propose for us today:

1. With or without the temple, God is among the worshippers. Ezekiel wants you and me to know that God can be worshipped even in exile, even when we don’t have a temple to resort to. No matter what crisis we might be facing -- hurricanes, pandemics, displacements of all kinds, blowback in our nation’s foreign adventures -- God can be among us in our worship. 

"Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations." (From Psalm 90.)

2. God will not be mocked.

Ezekiel's message is an equal opportunity warning: God will not be mocked neither by our friends and allies, nor by our so-called enemies. 

What constitutes mocking God in our own time? Here is a brief list, but you might think of more… 

Christians mock God when we treat anyone as worth less than the full image and likeness of God. In the USA, for example, the Church has yet to take full account of the demonic stronghold of racism, a stronghold which Christians helped build.

Christians mock God when we violate the commandment against bearing false witness -- maybe the most political and most prevalent violation of our times. God knows the truth, and will not be mocked.

Christians mock God when we use manipulative God-language to further our own agendas, sometimes coming dangerously close to committing the one unforgivable sin: attributing to the Holy Spirit our own sinful intentions or prejudices.

Am I implying that only Christians mock God? Not exactly, although, parenthetically, I'm convinced that a thoughtful, honest atheist, however mistaken in other ways, cannot be charged with mocking God. My priority here is to plead with us to keep our own behavior clean and sober, because of the next point....

3. God will keep God's promises.

Ezekiel wants us to know that God will, one way or another, keep the promises God has made to us, never to forsake us, to lead us to the Peaceable Kingdom, and to make us a blessing to all nations. Drawing on 2 Corinthians 1:20, here’s another way to put it: Jesus is the "yes" to all of God’s promises

In all this, I'd like to suggest that Ezekiel has a charge for us Quakers: 

  • as members of the Body of Christ, to discern how to express God's promises to our community and our world today, and 
  • to discern what our individual roles are, and what our meetings' roles are, in keeping those promises. 
As we pray and get to work, maybe we'll hear an encouraging echo of Ezekiel's voice of prophecy: Then they shall know that I am the LORD.


Speaking of temples, COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on England's 42 Anglican cathedrals. (Thanks to fulcrum-anglican.org.uk for the link.)

Russian historian Yuri Dmitriev's case is going to Russia's Supreme Court. Meet some of his supporters.

Meanwhile, the repression of Russia's independent media voices continues, including one of my favorite television outlets in all the world, tvrain.ru.

Is it true that Russian has no word for "privacy"?

Was there dishonesty in a famous study of dishonesty? It was a study that I read when preparing my own study of academic cheating. (Here's my article as published.)


John Primer at Don Odells Legends:

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