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Ezekiel the Prophet

June 1, 2011 – 6:27 pm3 Comments
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Jules Winnfield, from Pulp Fiction (1994), delivers his favourite passage from the Book of Ezekiel

By Robert M Kaplan

It is a critical period for the Israelite nation. In 597 BCE, Nebuchadrezzar pillaged the Temple, taking King Jehoiachin and a group of prominent citizens back to Babylon. The exiles kept their religious and national identity and used their skills as artisans. Among them was the man known as the Prophet Ezekiel.

Ezekiel is the only prophet to have operated outside the Holy Land. He faced a challenge not known by his people since the Egyptian exile. That they were not persecuted by the canals of Babylon where they were abducted only made his task more difficult.

His ministry is accepted as being from 593-571 BCE and his work has come to us in the Book of Ezekiel (hitherto BoE). With the opening lines Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, that I was in the midst of the captivity by the river of Chebar; and the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God – he tied us to the moral history of his people.

What follows is one of the great prophetic visions of all time, far richer in its visual and auditory elements than those relayed by the other prophets. God approaches Ezekiel as a divine warrior, riding in his battle chariot.

The narrative of the BoE is characterized by lucid parables and the most extensive use of symbolism in the Bible. Widely regarded as the finest literary work in the Old Testament, but, at times, broadening to extreme coarseness, even obscenity.

Ezekiel was a most unusual individual. That he was a priest, a prophet, a seer and a visionary is beyond doubt. The frequency of his visions –  93 times –  was far more than any other prophet, including Moses. His visions, his capacity to travel through time and space, and other extraordinary, if not baffling behaviour, has received explanations from psychiatrists, psychologists, theologians and historians.

Ezekiel is one of the earliest examples of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy described (the first is in the Book of Numbers). Typical features include hypergraphia and religiosity, pedantry and obsessiveness, extreme sexually fantasies associated with intense misogyny, insensitivity to the feelings of others, stickiness of thinking manifesting in repetitiveness, anger and emotionally discordant behaviour.

Ezekiel’s attitude to women goes way beyond the extreme. Taking into account that biblical women were often described as feckless, seductive and immoral, Ezekiel’s portrayal of them as harlots is only the start.  In Chapter 16, he uses the story of a marriage that fails; God is the husband, Jerusalem is the wife. As a literary analogy this is simply superb – the relationship falters, then fails – but the wife becomes a whore, nothing less than an insatiable nymphomaniac.

The BoE remains an enduring item of the world’s literary canon. It succeeds in conveying the anguish, confusion and disarray of a people uprooted from their land and the central focus of their religion. It does so in language that, despite the extreme intrusions, is extraordinarily eloquent; literature – and history –  at its best. It provides the two foundations of Jewish life that sustain it for the next two millennia: the concept of individual responsibility, and the establishment of the synagogue.

Ezekiel had one vision – but what a vision. He was the fountain through which flowed a unique vision, that of the monolithic god and his chosen people.

Robert M Kaplan is a forensic psychiatrist, writer and historian at the Graduate School of Medicine, University of Wollongong. He will deliver a presetnation titled The Book of Ezekiel: the Prophet who defined diaspora morality at the Limmud Oz Conference in Sydney this month.

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