Formations 07.02.2017: Excessive Politeness Can Be Deadly

Ezekiel 2

A recent study in Seattle has concluded that “overly polite” 911 operators are partly to blame for slower police response times and, ultimately, loss of life for some callers.

The report, released in November of last year, found the operations of Seattle’s 911 call center “potentially dangerous.” Not only was the center understaffed and technologically deficient, there had also developed “an overly polite manner of call taking” which the report concluded may cause delay. Furthermore, the study cited the federal consent decree between the Seattle Police and the Department of Justice (initiated in 2012 to combat violations of the 14th Amendment) as fostering “obsession with customer satisfaction” and “a misalignment of priorities” within the center.

According to Don Nagle, senior public safety consultant with the firm that conducted the study, part of the problem stems from call center training. Rather than starting trainees with the highest priority calls and working down from there (which is what most 911 centers do), Seattle trainees begin with non-emergency calls and report writing. Unfortunately, this system “does not instill a sense of urgency in the emergency call taking process.” As a result, operators grant too much time to non-priority calls—and leaving less time for higher-priority calls.

“The result of all the changes in the reform process,” Nagle says, “is there’s a high expectation of service, whether it’s emergency calls or non-priority calls.”

None of the Hebrew prophets will ever be faulted for being “overly polite.” They had an urgent message to deliver, and that urgency comes through quite clearly. Customer satisfaction? What good is that when your “customers” are about to lose everything?

Today’s passage describes Ezekiel’s prophetic call to “a traitorous and rebellious people” on the eve of the Babylonian exile (v. 3) with a stern and difficult message of judgment. Despite the urgency of his message, his prospects don’t look good. God anticipates that the people will resist Ezekiel and his message. Whether they listen or not, “they will know that a prophet has been among them” (v. 5).

This passage gives us a foretaste of what we will hear in book of Ezekiel. We’re in store for some difficult words of “mourning, lamentation, and doom” (v. 10) before finally arriving at the vision of national restoration in the concluding chapters.

David Kroman, “‘Overly Polite’ 911 Call Center Could Cost Lives,” Crosscut.com, 21 November 2016 http://crosscut.com/2016/11/report-seattle-911-response-understaffed-overly-polite/.

Discussion

• When do believers today resist God’s commands as the ancient Judahites did?
• How do we respond when God-sent messengers expose our guilt?
• How are modern readers of the Bible to deal with such a harsh message as we hear in Ezekiel?

Reference Shelf

The prophet Ezekiel

Ezek 1:1-3, despite the problem of understanding “the thirtieth year,” describes Ezekiel as a priest “among the exiles by the River Chebar” at the time of his prophetic call (593 B.C.E.). The “exile of King Jehoiachin” began with his surrender of Jerusalem to the Babylonians (March 597 B.C.E.). According to the account in 2 Kgs 24:12, 14, Jehoiachin became a Babylonian “prisoner” at this time (a king in exile, confined to quarters in the city of Babylon), accompanied by the royal family and the palace officials. The “princes” (patrician urban officials), the “men of valor” (the highest military officers), and the “craftsmen and the smiths” (the skilled technicians) were also among these exiles. They, and possibly others, were given responsibility for expansion or restoration of the system of irrigation canals upon which the prosperity of the Babylonian city-states depended. In the village of Tell Abib (3:15), probably near Nippur, it appears that the exiled patricians had some autonomy in religious and community affairs. The “elders” of the community exercised some kind of leadership over (or among) the agricultural workers (8:1; 14:1; 20:1). The Babylonian policy of replacing the central power structure was intended to discourage further efforts to end the economic drain caused by the payment of regular “tribute” to Babylon. It was assumed that the new officials in Judah, under the rule of Josiah’s uncle, Zedekiah, would be more cooperative.

It is generally assumed that Ezekiel was a priest of the Jerusalem Temple. The fact that he was among the exiles of 597 suggests that he was from an aristocratic priestly family, possibly belonging to the old Zadokite line established by Solomon (Zadokites appear in Ezekiel only in 40–48). Among the exiles, Ezekiel functioned as a prophet, consulted occasionally by the “elders,” and exercising leadership over a group among the exiles. We see his priestly background in the language of the book. The concern with the Temple in Jerusalem, the concern with what is ritually “clean” or “unclean” (cf. 22:23-26), and echoes of the “Holiness Code” give some strength to this assumption.

Roy D. Wells Jr., “Ezekiel,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 282.

Briers and Thorns

As is typical of call narratives, Yahweh reassures Ezekiel. The dominant metaphor in this section is “briers and thorns,” which, along with “scorpions,” signify his hostile audience, according to the NRSV and all other major translations. However, the dominant imagery for the truculence of the people is hardness of heart, face, and forehead, not prickliness. Thus it is unlikely that the briers and thorns are meant as a metaphor for the people. More likely, the verse describes the prophet’s own “thorny” ability to protect himself. He is a thornbush, and he is surrounded by another, the scorpion-plant, a type of thornbush whose flowers resemble scorpions. Thus the verse is better translated

Do not be afraid of them,

and do not fear their words,
for you yourself are thistles and thorns,

and you are nestled among scorpion-plants.

As such, the verse resembles a Babylonian incantation:

I am the spike of a thornbush; you cannot step on me!

I am the stinger of a scorpion; you cannot touch me! (Maqlû III 153- 54)

Like the incantation, Yahweh’s reassurance attributes to Ezekiel the resistant, protective characteristic of thorns; it also includes a promise of divine protection. Elsewhere in the Bible, other types of thornbushes served as a kind of natural barbed wire in military and agricultural contexts (see Exod 22:5; Isa 10:17). The protective quality of thorns also is evoked in metaphors of divine protection….

Thus not only is the prophet himself equipped with briers and thorns, he is nestled among the thorns of Yahweh’s enveloping care.

Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 40–43.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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