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Ezekiel 36: Telling the Story

Ezekiel 36: Telling the Story

This was one of my texts from yesterday, though we worked from Titus 3:3-11, where I think vs. 3-8 parallels chapter 36 quite nicely.

But my interest today is not in a specific verse, but rather in the way in which Israel’s story is told. Christians often have ambivalent, if not downright negative, feelings about the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. You’ll hear people say, “I’m more of a New Testament person.” In a certain sense, we should all be New Testament (Covenant) people. We are God’s people under terms of the new covenant. That’s why we call that portion of Scripture the “New Testament.”

Nonetheless, Israel’s story is critical. One reason it is so useful is the way in which Israel told their story. Other nations record their triumphs and their successes, crediting the appropriate historical characters. Sure, one will have comments on how the gods favored this person or that, but the overall story is one of human triumph.

Israel, on the other hand, records key failures. We focus on things like slavery in Egypt, and the human leader who brings out Israel is a reluctant leader, taking actions as God initiates. One of the key high points, the establishment of the Davidic monarchy, is told with amazing details about the failings of the human players. Then we have the exile, from which Israel emerges due to the intervention of a foreign monarch. Ezekiel 36 underlines this by not claiming that Israel had, themselves, reformed, but rather that YHWH would cleanse them, give them a new heart, restore them, and be their God. He wouldn’t even do this for their sake, but for the sake of their reputations, ending (Ezekiel 37:28) with the nations knowing that he is God because he makes Israel holy.

Christianity joins this tradition as it is born out of the depths of despair and not the heights of triumph. We need to remember this as we strive for position and power. We serve one who did not. We honor (I hope!) a tradition that does not give its greatest honor to the powerful. We are sinners in the hands of a God who is making us holy. That is the story of salvation.

 

OT v. NT: God Does It

OT v. NT: God Does It

One of the differences some claim between the Old and the New Testaments is that in the Old Testament it’s about works, while in the New it’s about God’s grace. I’ve found vanishingly few Old Testament scholars who hold this difference, but in the pews it’s fairly common. One response, of course, is to read a good collection of the commands to action in the New Testament. On the other hand, one can read the Old, as I was doing this morning in preparation for teaching Sunday School.

I’m studying Ezekiel 36 & 37, looking particularly at the actions of the Spirit there. There is a theme in chapter 36, and it’s important. While God talks about Israel’s failings, and the reason they were scattered, when it comes time for redemption, there is no discussion of the punishment having taught them their lesson so that from now on they will be good on their own power. Rather, the emphasis is that God is causing them to be gathered for God’s reasons and purposes.

“I YHWH have spoken, and I will do it” (v. 36). “My Spirit I will put within you, I will make it happen that you will walk in my statutes, keep my judgments, and do them” (v. 27). Both those translations are a mite over literal, but I could get even more literal to connect the Hebrew vocabulary in v. 27 “I will do that … you will do.” The reform is presented here as a decision and an act of God, not of human beings.

Human action is certainly called for, both here and elsewhere, including all through the New Testament. But the decision and cause is put back to God’s Spirit.

Greater Good than Before

Greater Good than Before

I will multiply on you people and animals, and they will increase and bear fruit. People will live on you as in the former times and I will do greater good to you than I did before. Then you will know that I am YHWH. (Ezekiel 36:11)

Ezekiel here address the message to the mountains of Israel, which paints a nice word picture. This is part of my preparation to teach the Sunday School lesson this coming Sunday.

I want to call attention to the phrase I have translated “do greater good to you than I did before.” I think that Israel is here learning the lesson that often to get greater good what we have now has to go away. We fear something new because we lose the old. But an earthquake, a fire, or even a hurricane can get us started on something new because we have to.

I don’t mean that the destruction itself is good. What I’m suggesting is that sometimes we, like nature itself, become renewed after the things we cling to have been destroyed.

Translating Poetry

Translating Poetry

On March 24, 2016, blog entry marked 11:40 AM, Dave Black talks about translating poetry and links to his essay on the topic from a Festschrift, available via Google Docs.

Reading Dave’s comments about translating poetry reminded me of one of my favorite translations of poetry from any language to any other, Max Knight’s translations of Christian Morgenstern’s German poetry. You can find samples here. I particularly like Der Lattenzaun/The Picket Fence, but Die Trichter/The Funnels, which Knight translates twice, provides another good example.

Translation is a creative activity. When the material is very technical, the room available for creative activity, or better the necessity for it, may be lower, but it’s still there. Communication is not easy, no matter what one is trying to communicate, and when one is trying to communicate many things (and often a good writer is doing just that), the translation becomes more difficult.

In the case of Bible translation, we multiply these problems because we are trying to translate a variety of literary genres across a gap of history and culture, which, in addition, either have or have acquired theological meanings that may relate to times before or after their composition. There’s a great deal of freight in the text and hanging onto it for dear life lest it be lost along the way.

Into this perilous swamp comes the translator, trying to jump from one foothold to another, always hoping the foothold is not the back of a sunbathing alligator. (Try translating that murky metaphor for comprehension by a desert-dwelling tribe. I dare you!)

But I don’t see the difficulty of translation as a major problem for Christianity. The major problem I see is that we are afraid of the creativity of translation. We should, embrace it, enjoy it, learn from it, and live it.

Now that I think about it, we’re afraid of the creativity of communicating, discussing, and embodying the message in our own language.

As I read a passage like the first chapter of Ezekiel I see a prophet’s creativity challenged. Ezekiel struggles for words. (I wrote a bit about this earlier on the Energion Discussion Network.) One commentator “cleaned up” Ezekiel’s prose and made it rational and orderly, discarding a large portion of the chapter in the process.

But Ezekiel the prophet is trying to be a translator for us, translating his experience of, his vision of God into terms that can communicate with us. It isn’t easy for Ezekiel. It isn’t easy for me. I don’t think it’s easy for any translator.

I want the translator to be a good linguist, but I also want him to be able to feel and experience along with Ezekiel and then creatively transfer this vision of God to me as an English reader. Will I get precisely what Ezekiel got? No. Not a chance. But I can get a glimpse of God’s glory as Ezekiel did, as I hope the translator did, and as I hope is conveyed through a good, creative translation.

Poetry especially deserves this sort of creativity. And we shouldn’t fear it. People often act as if any sort of creativity in Bible translation means the message is being lost. But that is our modern desire for a compendium of facts about God.

I came out of my MA program in seminary with a compendium of facts and I promptly left the church. I came back struggling with texts I found hard to comprehend, hard to translate, and even harder to live.

The struggle is greater than the catalog. Every. Single. Time.

But the facts conveyed by a vision like Ezekiel 1 or a powerful, intricately structured poem such as Psalm 104 are actually relatively few. The glory conveyed is beyond comprehension. I’ll go for not one creative translation (even my own), but for many. I want to try to comprehend the “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” and there’s no way I’ll do that with just the facts.

God could have provided us with a systematic theology, carefully tagged with paragraph and subparagraph numbers, footnoted with additional explanations, structured so as to miss nothing. God didn’t do that. I think God did it intentionally.

That’s why I’m less critical than others of Bible translators, less willing to say they got it wrong. It’s not that I think they are without error. It’s just that I have such great respect for their willingness to get in there and try.

I think it would be wonderful if we all encouraged them and gave them the freedom to creatively pass to us the message they experience.

And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18, NRSV)

Or perhaps:

… And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him. (2 Cor. 3:16-18, The Message)

Or perhaps …

It’s not by our efforts to get it all right that we remove the veil and see clearly. It’s by turning to the Lord. The Lord is the one who can make us see clearly in spiritual things, because the Lord is Spirit. So when we look in this way, we can contemplate the Lord’s glory and that is what will transform us from glory to glory. (1 Cor 3:16-18, my paraphrase, applying it now, good until the next time I read it)

Eschatology, Ezekiel, and the Glory of God

Eschatology, Ezekiel, and the Glory of God

Some Eschatology SourcesTonight I’ll continue my discussion of Ezekiel, which I see as a book that stands somewhat between classical prophecy and apocalyptic, though more on the side of classical prophecy. Nonetheless you’ll see aspects of the structure and language of Ezekiel in much of apocalyptic literature, enough so that I would suggest that being acquainted with Ezekiel is a prerequisite for serious study of Daniel or Revelation.

We’ll be focusing on the glory of God and how it moves and is used symbolically in this book, right up to the temple vision. Depending on how I manage to use the time I may finish talking about this book. I’m obviously not covering this in detail, but I hope this may provide a start for those who’d like to study more.

I’ll be following this study with some selections from Jeremiah and 2nd and 3rd Isaiah, and then I’ll move to some of the visions of Zechariah before going to Daniel. We’ll be doing a full verse-by-verse study of the book of Daniel. It’s important to get a look at these prophetic books so that we can see clearly where Daniel differs and think about why it does so.

For tonight, you can view/listen through the event page on Google+ or using the YouTube viewer below.

How and Why Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus Shaped My Theology (Briefly!)

How and Why Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus Shaped My Theology (Briefly!)

In a comment, Steve Kindle asks:

… in regards to your formative books, Hebrews, Ezekiel, and Leviticus, is it because you see Hebrews as teaching substitutionary atonement that springs from Leviticus? And Ezekiel foresees a renewed covenant that Hebrews embellishes? Just wondering.

The briefest answer would be “no.” But leaving it at that would be rude, or at least would appear rude to me.

My view of the atonement does not center on the substitutionary view, nor on the even more specific penal substitutionary view. This annoys one set of my friends, and perhaps an enemy or two. To annoy the rest, I must emphasize that I do not deny substitutionary atonement. I believe it is one way in which Scripture talks about atonement, though I don’t see the strong courtroom sense of the modern PSA in Scripture. What I actually believe is that there are many metaphors in in Scripture for God saving us from sin and death, and that each of these enlightens us in some way. Each of them, however, if made the sole metaphor, will also tend to lead us into various forms of imbalance.

While the substitutionary view of atonement does occur in Hebrews, substitution itself is not in focus. Similarly, I do not get such views of substitution as I do have from Leviticus. The most famous quote on this is Leviticus 17:11, quoted at Hebrews 9:22, but if this is made to carry the weight Christians often make it carry, it will actually produce a contradiction in Leviticus, and the ransom theory/metaphor, one which fits the text of Leviticus more closely, works quite well in Hebrews.

So having eliminated substitution as the formative view, what exactly did lead me to take these three books so seriously. I must admit that the key reason is simply that I chose to study them. I had no idea what I was getting into, but elements of the books fascinated me. But in fact some common themes became very much formative for me.

Once I got started on Ezekiel, however, the key issue because the presence of the glory of God. There are interesting movements of God’s glory throughout the book, and they produce some quite interesting ideas. My first question was why we have a vision of God’s glory in Babylon in the first chapter, then we see the glory leaving the temple in Jerusalem in the 8th and 9th chapters, and finally it returns to Jerusalem in the 43rd chapter. The illogic on the surface of the first chapter led one commentator, whose name I forget though Eichrodt comes to mind, to suggest that the first chapter was moved by a later editor. Obviously God’s glory couldn’t appear in Babylon before it left Jerusalem.

But on thinking a bit further I came to believe that was precisely the point. God’s glory was not restricted to the land of Israel. God was able to act anywhere. At the same time as God was able to act anywhere God has not rejected Israel either, so we see the glory return to the temple and life flow from the temple later in the book. In its very structure, Ezekiel looks forward to the blessing of the entire world in fulfilment of the promise to Abraham. Chapters 8 & 9 also make clear, however, that one cannot behave however one wishes and still expect God’s glory to remain and bless. So we see the withdrawal of God’s glory in those chapters along with the condemnation of all who do not sigh and cry for the abominations in the land (9:4).

External to the three books I would point out that this “presence/absence of God” idea stuck with me. You’ll see it in Torah in wilderness, and you see that the presence of God is not necessarily safe, but is much to be desired. But the whole ceremonial system, as I was taught to call it, didn’t seem to make sense. In fact, the problem was that I heard about it almost exclusively as substitutionary sacrifice for sin. What I, as a Christian, was supposed to know was that lambs (little, cute, wooly lambs in Sunday School terms) were killed because of how awful people’s sins were, and this had pointed to Jesus dying as the lamb of God. Now I in no way want to diminish the view of Jesus as the lamb of God, and especially the application of that we see with the lion/lamb metaphor in Revelation 4-5. But why is there this huge body of literature starting in the latter portion of Exodus and going through numbers, with a few points in Deuteronomy? So from there I started my study of Leviticus.

I began to see a much broader sense of the ceremonial law, how many of the things taught by the prophets were foreshadowed in liturgical form. These include a priestly teaching of the doctrine of repentance, a repeated turn away from ritual as powerful in itself, and a drive to learn to distinguish holy and unholy, not to simply avoid the unholy, but to become holy, to increase the bounds of the holy. God told the Israelites to be holy because he is holy. A simple yet extremely daunting command.

My wife said that during this study I would come away from my personal devotion time detached, as though I had been in an extraordinary time of spiritual experience. All I can say is that I would love to write a study guide for Leviticus with the intention of drawing more Christians into that story, but that I feel utterly inadequate to the task. In my study I would read the text in Hebrew, then in the LXX, and finally in an English translation before going to Milgrom’s commentary. It takes hard work to get even a good start on this material, but I consider it well worthwhile, in fact, the most worthwhile year of personal devotions I have engaged in.

And that turns me back to Hebrews, where I see Hebrews 6 as the center of the book’s message, but if you step back right before, one of the characteristics of mature Christianity is having one’s faculties trained by practice to discern good from evil, a close parallel to Leviticus. I think it is also closely aligned in goal, i.e., this training of the faculties is part of the endurance, staying on the track. And note that I don’t think this contradicts it being a gift from God. The Torah is also a gift from God, and it was instruction. It’s purpose was to train.

If I could summarize, I get from this that my faith is to be an active faith, an active seeking of the presence of God, a life of practice. We are changed and transformed by looking, by finding, by discerning (2 Corinthians 3:18). That is the key element of theology that I get from Ezekiel, Hebrews, and Leviticus, and I think it shapes all else.

 

David Ker is at It Again!

David Ker is at It Again!

David Ker has started an interesting series. As usual, he’s doing something very different, and the result is some interesting posts. He uses a spreadsheet to randomly choose a chapter from the King James Version and then he writes a post about it.

He has an announcement about the series, and I’d suggest his post For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses (Ezekiel 23) as a good example of the new post genre:

When I was a little boy in Sunday School this was one of our favorite chapters. My buddies and I, we gravitated to this chapter, verse 20 in particular, and snickered. How did we even find the verse? Maybe like dirty jokes, naughty bits of the Bible are passed down from older boys to the younger.

Read the rest and follow the series!

Appearance of the Form of the Glory

Appearance of the Form of the Glory

In today’s Running Toward the Goal podcast, recorded on the road with apologies for the quality, I discuss Ezekiel 1:28. I thought that as additional reference I’d provide my discussion of these terms from my college paper originally written in 1979. This is unchanged from the original form.  (This extract is an appendix to the original paper.  The full paper is here.)


The Uses of ;eyn, demuth and mar’eh in Ezekiel 1

In the textual comments (see note p on verse 13) I made an emendation of the text in which I stated that a scribe, reading the chapter and seeing demuth used in verse 13 would tend to wish to correct it to mar’eh as more appropriate to the context of the verse. As the King James Version uniformly translates each of the three words above with English words which are essentially similar, it is necessary to demonstrate that this use is indeed correct. The KJV has translated them as color, likeness, and appearance respectively.

 

;eyn appears four times in the chapter, Holladay suggests simply “look” or “appearance”, but Eichrodt (OTL) suggests “sparkle”. Elsewhere, gleam is suggested. The latter seem most appropriate in the context here, In verses 4 and 27 the Chashmal gleams, In verse 7 the polished bronze. In verse 16 the wheels, probably of a translucent or transparent color gleam. So gleaming or sparkling here appears to be the best translation.

 

demuth appears 9 times. We have the demuth of the four living creatures who have the demuth of a man. Their faces have the demuth of various creatures. The demuth of a vault is above the creatures’ heads. The sapphire stone resolves itself into the of a throne. Upon the demuth of a throne is the demuth of the appearance of a man. Finally the glory of God is said to have demuth. The only one of these which is neutral is verse 28, “the form of the glory of Yahweh”, although even here reference is being made to the form which was on the throne. Holladay suggests form as a translation for demuth. It appears to be the best translation in this chapter.

Lastly we have mar’eh which appears 11 times. It is used as a general reference to the four creatures, immediately followed by the statement that they had the form of a man, four faces, four wings, etc. In verse l3 there is the mar’eh of lightning, which does not have “form” as such. In verse l4 we have the mar’eh of lightning again. The mar’eh of the wheels was as the sparkle of tarshish, etc. The mar’eh of the wheels was as if a wheel were within a wheel. Ezekiel sees the mar’eh of sapphire which resolves itself into the form of a throne. There is the form of the mar’eh of a man, and the mar’eh of fire, the mar’eh of a rainbow, and the mar’eh of a gleaming. In only one of these cases would “form” be an appropriate translation. That is verse 16, with regard to the wheels.

In verse 13, however, the situation is reversed. The “coals of fire burning like lightning” could hardly be described as having “form”. The scribe, seeing Ezekiel’s normal use of the words could easily have added mar’eh in the margin to indicate that this would be a better word to employ here.