Formations 07.16.2017: Jerusalem’s Collapse

Ezekiel 24:1-13

Maya ruins at Tulum, Mexico

Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He first gained fame for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), in which he traced the geographic, environmental, and biological factors that led to the rise of Western civilization. His next book, Collapse, can be seen as a sequel in which he traces the factors that led to the collapse of past societies, and what we can learn from them about the challenges that societies face today.

Diamond describes how ecological degradation, climate change, hostile neighbors, overpopulation, and other factors can create a recipe for disaster. As evidence, he discusses in great detail the demise of such societies as the Maya civilization, the medieval Norse colony on Greenland, and Easter Island.

Drawing comparisons to the early twenty-first century, Diamond paints a bleak picture of our prospects today. But he is not without hope. The subtitle of his book is, “How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail,” and the word “choose” is crucial. At least as important as the crises that beset the failed societies of the past are the ways they chose to address them—or avoid addressing them. He offers several examples of how societies let a crisis get away from them, including,

a failure to anticipate future consequences; an inability to read trends or see behind the phenomenon of “creeping normalcy,” with things getting just a little bit worse each year than the year before but not bad enough for anyone to notice; [and] the disproportionate power of detached elites, particularly when they condone or even positively promote what he describes as “rational bad behaviour” on the part of those who manage or use natural resources. (Porritt)

As we read Ezekiel 24, I wonder if we can’t read Judah’s ultimate collapse as the result of failure to anticipate consequences, complacency with “creeping normalcy,” and the disproportionate power of detached elites. There’s probably a case to be made there, although for Ezekiel Judah’s collapse was rooted in spiritual, not environmental factors.

Ezekiel’s parable of the pot was no doubt little comfort for the people of Jerusalem with the Babylonians literally at the gates, but it highlights a common tendency in the prophets to find (or make) meaning in the midst of even the worst of circumstances. The fall of Jerusalem was no doubt devastating, but Ezekiel holds hope that somehow God might use this tragedy for positive ends.

Gregg Easterbrook, “‘Collapse’: How the World Ends,” The New York Times, 30 Jan 2005 http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/30/books/review/collapse-how-the-world-ends.html?mcubz=2.

Jonathon Porritt, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive,” The Guardian, 14 Jan 2005 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/jan/15/society.

Discussion

• When have you observed people letting a crisis get away from them? What happened?
• What keeps us from seeing a coming disaster until it may be too late?
• Did Ezekiel think it was too late for Judah? Explain.
• What can we learn from Judah’s failures as nations, communities, and individuals?

Reference Shelf

Ezekiel’s Images of Doom

Much discussion of Ezekiel concentrates on the clear picture drawn by the legal series in chap. 18 (“If…then”). There, the life-giving power of responsible action overrides all sense of historical doom. The effect of this section of the book is far more complex, with the rejection of the power of virtue to avert disaster (14:12-23) and with the depiction of the limitations imposed by the sin of one generation on the possibilities open to later generations (chap. 20). These reflections alternate with harsh allegories of the city as a burnt vine (chap. 15), and errant wife (chap. 16), and a prostitute (chap. 23). In the allegories of the eagles, the vines, and the transplanted cedar (chap. 17), and the lament over the lion cubs and the vine in the wilderness (chap. 19), there appears to be a severe limitation of hope associated with kings—in Jerusalem or in exile. The words of doom reach a climax in the metaphor of the sharpened sword (chap. 21), the detailed listing of infractions of traditional law (chap. 22), the cooking pot to burn, and the refraining from mourning rites (chap. 24).

Roy D. Wells Jr., “Ezekiel, Book of” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 284.

Announcements of Woe and Judgment

The announcement of judgment [in vv. 6-8] equates the pot with the “bloody city,” or Jerusalem (cf. Ezek 22:2). NRSV’s translation of the second line suggests that the pot itself is unclean, and that sense is also reflected in the second announcement of judgment (vv. 9-13), in which the pot itself is heated in order to cleanse it of its filth. The question is, what has made the pot unclean?

What was thought to have been properly prepared meat is discovered to be contaminated by blood. The laws concerning the slaughter of animals lie behind the development of this motif in the poem. Human beings were permitted to eat flesh as long as it was drained of blood (Gen 9:4). That such laws have not been followed is suggested by v. 7: the city has poured out blood on a bare rock and has not attempted to cover it with earth. Although the metaphor revolves around matters of ritual purity, Ezekiel’s primary concern is with the judicial murders that have filled the city with the blood of innocent men, women, and children (ch. 22; Ezek 7:23). Yahweh resolves to leave the blood exposed, thereby hastening the punishment (cf. Gen 4:10)….

This second announcement of judgment [in vv. 9-14] pulls together motifs from vv. 3-5 and 6-8, as Yahweh takes charge of the cooking (vv. 3- 5) and cleansing (vv. 6-8) of the pot. Yahweh commands that the meat be emptied out of the pot in v. 6, while vv. 10-13 depict both the disposal of the meat and the repeated futile attempts to cleanse the pot. Yahweh stokes the fire by adding more logs to the pyre (Heb. medura; NRSV “pile”; v. 9, cf. v. 5) and gets the stew boiling so hot that even the bones become charred. All of the liquid is boiled out of the stew, and the solid matter is burned to a crisp. Two features of these verses lead Block to conclude that the meat in the pot is now disclosed to be human flesh. First, the one other use of the noun “pyre” has associations with human sacrifice. Second, Ezekiel uses the term “bones” (Heb. ‘esamot) only of human bones. The gruesome disclosure that the people are the sacrifice is reminiscent of Zephaniah 1:7, where the consecrated guests that have gathered for the Lord’s sacrifice turn out to be the sacrifice themselves.

The pot is then set empty upon the coals in order to burn out the remaining corrosion. In addition to rust, which had been the only description of impurity in v. 6, vv. 11-13 employ cultic terms for impurity that recall earlier announcements of judgment against the city. Commentators have long noted that oxidized copper produces not rust but verdigris, a green-black tinge, and it may be germane to the metaphor that such verdigris cannot be removed by heat. Readers will be reminded of the metaphor of the house of Israel as worthless dross (22:18-22); here, it is the city that cannot come clean. The oracle closes with declarations of divine resolve not to spare the city from destruction (cf. 7:8-9).

Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 313–15.

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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