Friday, November 12, 2010

Notes on Ezekiel, 3: Chapter 1

The chief difficulty with interpreting Ezekiel is the temptation to over-interpret. So, for example, in the first chapter all the details of the visions that Ezekiel describes seem to cry out for interpretation. But the reader should remember that this is a vision. Hence, much of it is not only not to be taken literally, the point of it is to communicate to the reader an impression. Second, the reader should pay attention to the frequent use of terms such as “the likeness of,” “the appearance of,” “like,” and other terms indicating comparison. In some sense this chapter is on extended set of metaphors. Third, the reader should try to grasp the big picture, and not to become lost in the details of the imagery. In other words, the details of the vision are something like the dots of color that make up a pointillist painting. (If the reader doesn't know what pointillism is, the Wikipedia article is sufficient.) The details, to some extent, do not matter in themselves. It is what they bring to the whole that creates the effect intended by Ezekiel’s description.

The chapter divides into four parts: the introduction (1-3), the four living creatures (4-14), the wheels (15-21), and the throne (22-28). The introduction sets us in time and place. The time is the fifth year of the exile of Jeoiachin, fifth day of the fourth month. According to modern chronology, that puts Ezekiel by the River Chebar (pronounced key-bar) on Jul 31, 593 BC. The Chebar River (or canal) is located between modern Baghdad and Basra. This appears to have been the location of one of the villages of the Judean exiles.

The opening of the heavens is the idea that Ezekiel is allowed to see into the heavenly realm ordinarily not accessible to us. What he saw, he attempted to describe. But the language that he used indicates that he was operating at the limits of human language to communicate what he saw. Much of the language is clearly metaphorical. So what are we to take from the vision? First, we are to apprehend the completely overwhelming nature of the vision. At the conclusion, Ezekiel fell on his face (vs 28). Second, the reader should note the main themes of the vision. The cherubim (not identified here as such, but specified in 10:1) are human in form, having faces representing the highest of the various created orders: human, domestic animals, wild animals, and birds. Thus the created order magnifies God. The frequent mention of fire carries with it the idea of the judgment of God. Note that the storm came out of the north (1:4), which is the standard direction from which judgment arrives for Israel (see also Jer 1:14). The cherubim are also connected with the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:24), the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:17ff), the curtains of the tabernacle (Ex 36:8), and the walls of the temple (1 Kgs 6:29). They serve to protect the holiness of God, and hold off the unholy man who would draw too near.

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