Chapter OneEzekiel 1:1-3
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In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens
were opened and I saw visions of God.
2 On the fifth of the month-it was the fifth year of the
exile of King Jehoiachin-3 the word of the Lord came to
Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the
land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the Lord was
The opening three verses of Ezekiel serve to
locate the prophet's ministry in time and space.
Verse 1 tells us that the prophet received his call
on the fifth day of the fourth month in the thirtieth
year, among the exiles beside the Kebar River. This verse may originally
have stood simply as the heading for the opening vision, addressed to people
familiar with the prophet and his situation. At a later date, when the
prophecies were addressed to a wider (Judean?) audience, it became necessary
to clarify the details of verse 1. It was at this point that the next two verses
were added, either by the prophet or someone else. This addition equates the
"thirtieth year" of verse 1 with the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin
(593 B.C.), specifies the "I" of verse 1 as "Ezekiel son of Buzi the priest" (see
NIV text note), and identifies the Kebar River, where the exiles lived, as being
"in the land of the Babylonians."
The original meaning of the "thirtieth year" in verse 1 has been much
discussed from the time of the rabbis onward. The text gives us no indication
from what datum the thirtieth year is counted. Three major possibilities
(1) It is the thirtieth year since a specific event. This method of dating is
well attested in the Old Testament (see, e.g., 2 Chron. 23:1, where "the seventh
year" is the seventh year since the usurpation of the throne by Athaliah).
Elsewhere in Ezekiel, the dates have as their consistent baseline the exile of
King Jehoiachin (as in Ezek. 1:2), while Amos dates his prophecy with reference
to an earthquake (Amos 1:1).
On the basis of the other dates in Ezekiel, some have thus seen the
"thirtieth year" as the "thirtieth year of King Jehoiachin's exile," which
would make verse 1 refer to the date of the final prophecy of the whole
book. Other commentators from ancient times have sought an event thirty
years previous to 593 B.C. that might serve as a suitable datum point. The
identification of Josiah's reform (ca. 621 B.C.) as that "point zero" goes back
to the Targum and was held by Jerome, while David Kimhi favored the idea
of the thirtieth year since the last year of Jubilee.
(2) It is the thirtieth year in the reign of a specific king. This is the most
common dating method in the Old Testament, used not only of the kings of
Israel and Judah but also of a foreign king in Nehemiah 1:1 and 2:1. Indeed,
the references in Nehemiah are of particular interest since the first simply
speaks of "the twentieth year," which is not more specifically defined until
the next chapter, where it becomes clear that the "twentieth year" in question
is that of King Artaxerxes. Some have therefore argued that the dating
in Ezekiel 1:1 is based on "Babylonian time," beginning with the accession
of Nabopolassar in 625 B.C.
(3) It is the thirtieth year of the prophet's life. This view goes back to Origen
and has found several contemporary supporters. One would normally
expect an additional phrase in the Hebrew to indicate it as his age; yet there
is a parallel at Genesis 8:13, where the "six hundred and first year" is that of
Noah, as 7:11 makes clear. This date would have been significant for Ezekiel,
for at that age he would have taken up his priestly ministry in the Jerusalem
temple, had it still been standing.
There is no simple solution to this problem (self-evidently, since otherwise
it would not continue to be discussed!). Some reference point that was
presumably transparently clear to the original audience is no longer available
to us. More significant, whoever added the additional notes of verses 2-3
chose not to highlight the "thirtieth year" but rather offer the date from
Jehoiachin's exile. It is thus perhaps best to leave the question open and not
base our exegesis on inevitably speculative reasoning. What is clear and
underlined in the present form of the text is that the opening vision of the
prophet Ezekiel is placed in the fifth year of Jehoiachin's exile, that is, 593
B.C., while the prophet lived among the exiles of Babylonia. Historically and
socially, therefore, Ezekiel's message was addressed to those in exile.
There in exile, Ezekiel was confronted by a dramatic spectacle: The heavens
were opened and he saw "visions of God" (mar ôt lohîm, 1:1). The prophet
was taken behind the scenes, as it were, and given a different, divine perspective
on the events unfolding around him. The phrase "visions of God"
or "divine visions" encompasses not only the opening vision of the divine
throne-chariot, but all of the visions that play such an important part in
Although Ezekiel, like other Old Testament prophets, hears the word of
the Lord, for him the visual aspect of God's revelation has a particularly
prominent place. Thus the book is in important ways structured around the
vision of God's throne-chariot prepared for action in chapter 1, that of the
abominations that cause the glory to depart from the Jerusalem temple in
chapters 8-11, the vision of the renewal of the dry bones in chapter 37, and
the vision of the new temple in chapters 40-48. God is dramatically at work
even in the apparently hopeless situation of the exiles, a work that the prophet
is invited to "show and tell" to those around him.
God's word for the exiles. One common mistake
in interpreting the prophets (and perhaps
esp. Ezekiel) is to get bogged down in the minor
details and thus attempt to overinterpret the text.
For instance, some commentators build extensively on the "thirtieth year" of
verse 1, speaking of that as the time when the prophet would have expected
to enter priestly service had he been at home in Jerusalem. Yet the presence
of Ezekiel 1:2-3 already serves to play down the importance of the exact
identity of the thirtieth year. If verse 1 is the original heading of (part of) the
prophecy for the original audience, verses 2-3 are the heading for the wider
audience, that is, for us! They address those who do not know what the thirtieth
year is, need to be informed which prophet is speaking, and cannot be
expected to know that the Kebar River is in Babylonia unless that fact is
The basic point, then, of the introductory verses is that God's word comes to
the exiles. Now it may seem self-evident to contemporary readers that God can
address us and we can come to him wherever we are. The prophet's original
hearers, however, had a different understanding of their relationship to the
place where they lived. If we are to understand Ezekiel's message, we must
seek to understand what it meant to the people of his day to be in exile. It
was not merely that they happened to be living somewhere other than they
would have preferred to be; rather, their entire world had caved in upon
them. In the same way that contemporary Jewish theology can be described
as "Theology after Auschwitz," because every understanding of God and the
world has to take into account the experience of the Holocaust, so also this
part of Old Testament theology must be designated the "Theology of Exile,"
because of the radical impact of that earlier holocaust. Tamara Eskenazi
expresses it thus:
Exile. It is not simply being homeless. Rather, it is knowing that you
do have a home, but that your home has been taken over by enemies.
Exile. It is not being without roots. On the contrary, it is having deep
roots which have now been plucked up, and there you are, with roots
dangling, writhing in pain, exposed to a cold and jeering world, longing
to be restored to native and nurturing soil. Exile is knowing precisely
where you belong, but knowing that you can't go back, not yet.
Weeping and dreaming. What do you do in exile? The first thing that you
do is sit down and weep. As the psalmist put it in Psalm 137:1-4:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
In exile, life cannot be "business as usual." How can there be joy in exile? How
can there be joy when the memory is still filled with the demolition of all that
is precious: Jerusalem's stones torn down, her infants slaughtered (Ps. 137:7-8)?
In view of God's apparent rejection of his people, who can but pour out
tears unceasingly (Lam. 2:18; 3:49)? Joy is gone and dancing turned to mourning
This mourning is not simply grief at the random sorrows of life, the "slings
and darts of outrageous fortune," to use Shakespeare's phrase. Rather, in the
midst of the pain, there is a recognition of the cause of that pain. Judah's
calamity is a consequence of her own sin (Lam. 3:42; 4:13). Paradoxically,
though, in the midst of that recognition is also the beginning of hope. If
tragedy is not a random event but the result of God's sovereignty, then there
may be hope of a new beginning. The one who has bruised can also bind up;
the one who has rejected his people can restore them to himself (Lam. 5:21).
God's covenant love, his hesed, is the basis for hope in the midst of tears.
Just as Moses appealed to the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
so that God would not destroy his people utterly after the incident with the
golden calf (Ex. 32:13), so also in the Exile, God's commitment to the
covenant brought hope. Added to this self-commitment was the basic character
of God as gracious and compassionate, again as he had revealed himself
originally to Moses (Ex. 34:6). Because of those facts, the possibility of
forgiveness and restoration was real. Thus the book of Lamentations closes:
"Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of
old unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure"
Such a restoration could not be claimed presumptuously, however. The
temptation, even in exile, was to hang on to glib hopes rather than truly to
mourn and repent. Thus Jeremiah wrote to the exiles furiously denouncing
those who promised a quick end to their troubles (Jer. 29:15-23). Such
prophets found a ready audience for their words, but Jeremiah criticized
them for failing to listen to God's words through the prophets, words that
spoke of the sword, famine, and plague (29:17-19). Until the dregs of the
bitter cup of exile had been drained, there could be no talk of a new future.
For the foreseeable future-for seventy years, which in most cases was far
more than their life expectancy, their future lay in Babylon. Only after the
cup of wrath had been drained would a new future be possible for Israel;
only after the sin had been paid for would it be possible to speak tenderly
to Jerusalem and proclaim her comfort (Isa. 40:1-2).
In the meantime, alongside weeping, there was also room for dreaming.
According to Psalm 126:1, "When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion,
we were like men who dreamed." The dreaming actually started a long time
before the captives began to return. When everything has been torn down to
the foundations, when nothing remains of the structures of the past, but when
at the same time there is confidence that the nation will rise again, phoenix-like,
from the ashes, visionary dreams can flourish. There can be dreams of a
future that will preserve the best of the past while avoiding the worst.
Ezekiel's task. This context of weeping and dreaming describes well
Ezekiel's task. On the one hand, he speaks clearly and unequivocally of judgment
and destruction. During the early years of his ministry, he spoke of
more judgment yet to come. In 589 B.C., in spite of the warnings of Ezekiel
and Jeremiah, Zedekiah rebelled against the Babylonians, hoping to break free
with Egypt's help. It was a disastrous error of judgment; in the aftermath,
the temple itself was destroyed and Jerusalem razed to the ground (see
2 Kings 25). The people needed to know that the events of the fall of
Jerusalem and its temple were no mere accidents of fate but were the result
of the people's sin. Those responsible had to be called to account.
Yet while he was called to tear down the ruins of the past, at the same time
Ezekiel was called to portray also a message of hope for the future. Though
the judgment was from God, so also was the possibility of restoration. In the
opening portion of the book the emphasis is on tearing down: The ruins
must first of all be cleared, yet hope for the future is not completely lacking.
Likewise, in the latter portion of the book, though the emphasis is on hope
and dreams of the future, there is also room for a return to criticism and
weeping for the past.
There is thus both continuity and discontinuity in Ezekiel's presentation
of the Exile. On the one hand, things can never again be as they once were.
Because of the idolatry of the past, God's judgment has come upon his people
with devastating effect. The glory has departed, not just symbolically but
really from Israel. God has turned his face away, abandoning his people,
leading to their certain death. Had that been all there was to the history of
redemption, no one could have faulted God.
But amazingly in the midst of that sentence of death comes God's recreative
word of life. God speaks to these people where they are, in exile! God tears the
heavens open and invites his chosen prophet to see his glory, the grounds of
both judgment and hope. There will be, after the Exile, life from the dead-not
because of any claim Israel may have but simply because of the mercy
of God. In the meantime, Israel in exile is not forgotten or abandoned by God
but is to live in the light of that promise, with hope. Though they live after
the coming of night before even the first rays of dawn, yet in the light of who
God is and his free promise to his people, they can live in expectant hope.
Learning to live in exile. It seems to me that the
social location of the book of Ezekiel in the Exile
is one of the reasons for its contemporary neglect.
The image of the Christian life as exile is not a
common one in our days.