Tag Archives: Ezekiel

Prophesy to the Wind

The Knesset Memorial, Jerusalem (Detail) Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones

O mortal can these bones live? This people who continues to dwell in the valley of death
This people who refuses to learn from the past, these ears that did not hear
These hands which did not help and the eyes that remain obstructed so that they do not see
The cataracts of hatred and privilege that blind them to the neighbor they sacrificed
The ears made deaf by the cacophony of shouting voices that no longer hear the victims cry
And yet the Lord says to prophesy to the bones and once again they will rise up again
Bone will join to bone, sinew to sinew, flesh and tendons and heart and muscle will grow anew
 
So dry bones hear the words the prophet proclaims, from one who stands in the valley of death
Daring to enter into that place where dreams have died and history is forgotten
Walking to the remains of a people whose heart and soul shriveled and died as they forgot love
These shambling remains of the people of a dream and a hope, to a nation which lost its way
Stand upon the graves of the present and shout at the top of your lungs about resurrection
Not to some distant heaven but a new creation where eyes and ears and hearts are opened
The death of the moment is not the end of the story for the prophet tells of new beginnings
 
The prophet whose voice strained as he tried to change their direction of yesterday’s winds
Now prophesies again to the four winds that blow upon the earth as they return the breath of God
Which enters into the nostrils and fills the lungs with the air of the new creation which doesn’t die
For the voices of hatred and death, of separation and war, the raised voices of angry men fall silent
As the still, soft, silent creative words are finally heard after the fire, thunder, winds and quakes
And with tears in his eyes the prophet sees the dry bones live, the blind eyes see and the deaf ears hear
As the new hearts learn how to love rather than hate and arms are raised to embrace rather than strike
 
Perhaps the prophet is a madman listening to the voices in his head and prophesying to the wind
To continue to cry out for the possibility of something new as demons dance in the graveyard
To believe that the dry bones might someday choose something other than the death they know
Or perhaps the stubborn prophet is the only sane one, the voice of life in the midst of devastation
The dreamer who refuses to give up in the midst of the nightmare and believes the darkness will end
Perhaps like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel the prophet will become a beacon of hope in the night
O mortal can these bones live? Can this people be renewed? O Sovereign Lord, you know
 
Until that day the prophet’s voice goes out to the dry bones and prophesies into the wind.

 

Jeremiah 23-A Righteous Branch and Unrighteous Prophets

Jeremiah 23: 1-7: The Righteous Branch

rootofjessebranch

1 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. 2 Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. 3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.
5 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”
7 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, “As the LORD lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,” 8 but “As the LORD lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.” Then they shall live in their own land.

Anyone who reads Jeremiah has to make educated guesses about the context that Jeremiah is writing to, especially when the time period is not made explicit. I see this as an extension of what comes before at the end of chapter 22 which is addressing the beginning of the exile (the first exile where the leadership is taken into exile but the people are left primarily in the land) in the time of Jechoniah and so this passage comes very late in the story of Jeremiah. The chapter verse delineations in scripture come much later and probably reflect an effort to highlight the messianic hope of this passage rather than see it buried at the end of a long chapter of judgment against the king, yet this passage probably belongs as an extension of chapter 22. Rabbi Lau has a different perspective, that it comes much earlier in the time of Josiah and contrasts between Josiah and the local leaders of his time (Lau, 2013, p. 28ff.) but this is an area where I think both Walter Brueggemann and Patrick Miller, who I have been reading as I have gone through Jeremiah, are correct. (Brueggemann, 1998, p. 205) (Elizabeth Actemeir, et. al., 1994, p. VI:744)

The themes of these verses are full of echoes throughout the prophets and in the gospels as well. The verses about the shepherds and the ways they have not been faithful is echoed in Ezekiel 34:
2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them– to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.
7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 8 As I live, says the Lord GOD, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
10 Thus says the Lord GOD, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them. 11 For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out Ezekiel 34: 2-11
And is echoed in John chapter 10 where Jesus talks about being the good shepherd in contrast to the previous shepherd, or in Mark 6: 34 where the people are discussed as sheep without a shepherd. Here in Jeremiah at the end of verse four the promise is for a new and faithful shepherd who will come. After a long passage of judgment now comes the hope of the coming days.
Again the passage about the righteous branch has echoes in other places as well, for example in Isaiah 11:
A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. Isaiah 11:1
And the hope is that out of the defunct lineage of David which seems to be coming to an end that the God of Israel will maintain the commitment to the line of David and from that line will raise up a righteous branch who will live out of the vision of the Lord’s peace. And the renewal that the Lord will bring will make even the paradigmatic event of the Jewish people’s story, the Exodus, take second place to the new renewal that the Lord will do when the people are returned from exile. This is a story of hope for at least two sets of people: for the Jewish people it was a hope of renewal and return with a righteous and faithful king where God would gather from all the lands of the diaspora God’s people once again, and for Christians is also is an image of hope for from the story of Jesus we cannot help but hear that story in the hope of the righteous branch that arises out of the line of David. One passage can bring hope in two different ways, and hearing the hope of one another should also help us to see our dependence upon the Hebrew Scriptures to understand the life and ministry and hope of Jesus and his followers.

Jeremiah 23: 9-40: The Failure of the Prophets

The Breaking of Jeremiah's Yoke by Hananiah, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Amiens, France

The Breaking of Jeremiah’s Yoke by Hananiah, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Amiens, France

9 Concerning the prophets:
My heart is crushed within me, all my bones shake;
I have become like a drunkard, like one overcome by wine,
because of the LORD and because of his holy words.
10 For the land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land mourns,
and the pastures of the wilderness are dried up.
Their course has been evil, and their might is not right.
11 Both prophet and priest are ungodly;
even in my house I have found their wickedness, says the LORD.
12 Therefore their way shall be to them like slippery paths in the darkness,
into which they shall be driven and fall;
for I will bring disaster upon them in the year of their punishment, says the LORD.
13 In the prophets of Samaria I saw a disgusting thing:
they prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray.
14 But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a more shocking thing:
they commit adultery and walk in lies;
they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from wickedness;
all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah.
15 Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts concerning the prophets:
“I am going to make them eat wormwood, and give them poisoned water to drink;
for from the prophets of Jerusalem ungodliness has spread throughout the land.”
16 Thus says the LORD of hosts: Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you; they are deluding you. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. 17 They keep saying to those who despise the word of the LORD, “It shall be well with you”; and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, “No calamity shall come upon you.”
18 For who has stood in the council of the LORD so as to see and to hear his word?
Who has given heed to his word so as to proclaim it?
19 Look, the storm of the LORD! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest;
it will burst upon the head of the wicked.
20 The anger of the LORD will not turn back
until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his mind.
In the latter days you will understand it clearly.
21 I did not send the prophets, yet they ran;
I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied.
22 But if they had stood in my council,
then they would have proclaimed my words to my people,
and they would have turned them from their evil way,
and from the evil of their doings.
23 Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off? 24 Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD. 25 I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” 26 How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back– those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? 27 They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. 28 Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the LORD. 29 Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? 30 See, therefore, I am against the prophets, says the LORD, who steal my words from one another. 31 See, I am against the prophets, says the LORD, who use their own tongues and say, “Says the LORD.” 32 See, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, says the LORD, and who tell them, and who lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or appoint them; so they do not profit this people at all, says the LORD.
33 When this people, or a prophet, or a priest asks you, “What is the burden of the LORD?” you shall say to them, “You are the burden, and I will cast you off, says the LORD.” 34 And as for the prophet, priest, or the people who say, “The burden of the LORD,” I will punish them and their households. 35 Thus shall you say to one another, among yourselves, “What has the LORD answered?” or “What has the LORD spoken?” 36 But “the burden of the LORD” you shall mention no more, for the burden is everyone’s own word, and so you pervert the words of the living God, the LORD of hosts, our God. 37 Thus you shall ask the prophet, “What has the LORD answered you?” or “What has the LORD spoken?” 38 But if you say, “the burden of the LORD,” thus says the LORD: Because you have said these words, “the burden of the LORD,” when I sent to you, saying, You shall not say, “the burden of the LORD,” 39 therefore, I will surely lift you up and cast you away from my presence, you and the city that I gave to you and your ancestors. 40 And I will bring upon you everlasting disgrace and perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten.

First the critique goes towards the ruling elite, the shepherds, the king but now it turn on the religious authorities and in particular the other prophets. There are several points in the book of Jeremiah where we hear about other prophets who are proclaiming a different message than Jeremiah is called to proclaim and the people hear different religious authorities proclaiming a very different message, or more likely they hear Jeremiah as a voice that is so different from the message others are saying that he goes unheard. In giving the people a false message they have prevented the people from having a realistic hope of turning. The narratives from the political and religious elites are going in the opposite direction of the proclamation given to Jeremiah. They proclaim an unconditional peace which serves the people rather than the covenantal shalom which calls the people to live in justice.
Perhaps these other prophets feel compelled to live into their roles, prophets are supposed to have a message from the Lord, dreams to dreams and visions to tell and so in the absence of these visions they have kept up the appearance, or perhaps the prophets have been coopted into the royal and priestly power systems to be additional mouthpieces for these authorities. Whatever the case they have failed in their calling, according to Jeremiah they are producing only lies and false visions and they are leading the people astray. They have become worse than the prophets of northern Israel which led Israel to worship Baal, for they perhaps are constructing a misleading image of the Lord. God’s judgment is on the prophets who have misled the people. Their condemnation will be harsher, everlasting disgrace and perpetual shame, and unlike the promise of a righteous branch that will arise out of the stump of Jesse, there is no promise for the prophets-they are also to be cast out of the city.

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The Place of Authority: A Brief History Part 3a: The Exile, the Crisis of Collapse

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners

By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. In the willows there we hung up our harps.For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. 

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said,

 “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”

O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!   Psalm 137 NRSV

In 721 BCE, after roughly 200 years of separation from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, the Northern Kingdom Israel falls to the Assyrian Empire (which has its origins in the Northwestern Part of modern day Iraq) and the Northern Kingdom is effectively absorbed into the Assyrian nation.  Somehow Judah holds on, even though it becomes completely surrounded by the Assyrian Empire.  Empires come and go, and power shifts to the Babylonian Empire (which has its origins in modern day Southern Iraq) without going into the bloody details: Jerusalem falls, the temple is destroyed, the Davidic monarchy effectively ends and the people of Judah are taken into exile or captivity in Babylon.  The loss of king and temple, as well as the land cause a crisis of authority which leads to one of the most constructive and important periods in Judaism.

The loss of home is catastrophic, it leads to a ton of questions about the future and there may not be any good answers at that point.  The closest cinematic example I could come up with was the loss of Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof where families try to make the best of their coming exile, belittling what they are leaving behind-and yet families are broken apart, scattered across the world, many will never see each other again.

Something as catastrophic to not only the physical well-being but also to the communal consciousness can lead to several outcomes, many of which do emerge in this time. One response of the conquered is to assimilate with the conqueror, to align oneself with the victor, to adopt their values and practices and to set aside at least a portion of one’s previous identity to become a part of something different.  This is the perceived response of the Northern Kingdom by the Southern Kingdom-they stay on their land, intermarry with the Assyrians, and what emerges will be a hybrid people-no longer really Jewish, already separated from the Davidic monarchy and the temple hundreds of years before they become the other…the Samaritan (yes this is where those Samaritans that Jesus runs into in the New Testament come from).  But to be fair, a large number of the Judeans also assimilate into Babylon, only a small portion of the Judean people will return to their homeland at the end of the exile, most will remain dispersed throughout the nations.

In the lead up to the exile, the prophetic voice becomes very harsh in its critique of the monarchy, temple, the lack of economic justice within the nation, and the perceived idolatry of the shepherds of the nation.  This is the time where the first parts of Isaiah, much of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and many of the Minor Prophets become active in the memory of the people. The prophetic voice leads the way pointing to the ways in which kings and priests, throne and temple have not only failed as sources of authority but are at the very heart of the crisis viewed as a judgment from the LORD.  The prophets announce condemnation for the shepherds (the leaders, the authority in throne and temple) as one example among many:

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not the shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings: but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you ruled them.  So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd: and scattered wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them. Ezekiel 34.1-6 NRSV

 Instead of coming to believe that somehow their God is weaker than the gods of the Assyrians or the Babylonians, something amazing happens in the prophetic imagination (to use Walter Brueggemann’s keen words) and they begin to understand the transitions and the conflict around them as a part of God’s work—that behind Assyrian and Babylonian is the Lord of hosts (literally the Lord of armies-typically we think of this as heavenly armies, but I am beginning to think that in there is something more earthly to this term than often given credit). The coming destruction is a judgment particularly on the leaders, but also within all this death is the chance for something new: a fresh start, a redefinition, a chance to redefine and re-imagine what it means to be the chosen people.

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones.  He led me around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.  He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophecy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord. Ezekiel 37.1-6 NRSV

The prophetic voice will help the people re-imagine a new way forward, a way that is so critical to the way we understand things that we need to take some time with it.  Hope will not die, in fact it will be reborn in a new and powerful way and the people will understand themselves as a chosen people, but what that means takes a dramatic turn in the exile.  To that we shall turn next.

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