Ezekiel 20:1-26: Three Movements

This drama of human history
is indeed partly our construct,
but it stands under a sovereignty
much greater than ours.
— Reinhold Niebuhr (Justice and Mercy)

Some elders of Israel decided to ask God for help. We don’t know what caused them to inquire, especially since every word out of Ezekiel’s mouth seemed to be judgment! Some scholars point out that the language used, “to make inquiry”, echoes a promise from Deuteronomy 4:27-29:

The LORD will scatter you among the peoples; only a few of you will be left among the nations where the LORD will lead you. There you will serve other gods made by human hands, objects of wood and stone that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell. From there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul. (NRSV)

Whatever their motive, God’s response had not changed. In the attitude later reflected by De Niro, God answered their inquiry: “You talkin’ to me?”

What follows in chapter 20 is a parody. Ezekiel takes a look at the familiar history of Israel, but puts a bitter twist on it. Here Ezekiel accomplished the same purpose he did back in chapter 16, but without the metaphor to soften the blow.

Ezekiel lists the history of Israel in three movements:

  1. Israel in Egypt (vv. 5-9)
  2. The first generation in the desert (vv. 10-17)
  3. The second generation in the desert (vv. 18-26)

. . .

A few things strike me from these three episodes:

  • God’s generosity.

In the first episode, Ezekiel recounted how God chose Israel. Stop and reread that sentence. God chose Israel! The Creator of the Universe deigned to pick one nation out of all the people in the world to be his own. That alone is breathtaking. Still, there’s more: after he chose Israel, he picked a bountiful land for them to live in.

In the second episode, God gave Israel his laws to show them how to live life to the fullest. One of those laws that Ezekiel singles out for special attention is the Sabbath. God instituted a day of rest every week to rejuvenate and refocus Israel on her divine benefactor. Even after their horrible rebellion with at Sinai with the golden calf, God still choose to keep them.

In the third episode, after the second rebellion, God gave them yet another chance: “Do not follow the statutes of your parents” (v. 18, NRSV). Again God repeats his laws to them. God patiently endured, generation after generation, waiting for Israel to turn back to him.

  • Israel’s rebellion.

Each time God moved graciously, Israel acted rebelliously. God singled out two ways that Israel acted disobediently.  First, they persisted in worshiping idols. In the Hebrew language, the generic word for God and idol sound very similar. Their meanings, however, could not be more different. In contrast to the living God, idols are literally, “the nothings”.

The second act of disobedience sounds odd to us. Of all the things that Ezekiel could have chosen, he singled out their disregard of the Sabbath as the symbolically damning decision. Why Sabbath?

Sabbath was a symbolic event for Israel. Unlike the surrounding nations, Yahweh had asked Israel to observe a Sabbath for a couple of reasons. God rested on the seventh day, and so should the Israelites. Sabbath introduced a divine rhythm into life that shouldn’t be circumvented. Also, God delivered Israel out of Egypt: they should take a Sabbath to remember God’s redemption. There you have the two poles of thought on the Sabbath: rest and worship.

The emphasis on Sabbath sounds odd to us because we tend to spend more of our time arguing legalistically about what we can and cannot do on Sundays, rather than living the divine rhythm. Sabbath observance marked Israel as God’s people. At the risk of importing ideas from an outmoded covenant, couldn’t a day of rest in our busy weeks be used to rejuvenate and remember God’s mercy?  Couldn’t it even mark us as God’s own?

  • God’s motive.

God’s motive in giving Israel second chances reveals the twist in Ezekiel’s parody. God endured Israel’s rebellion for his own sake! Three times we hear that when God was ready to pour out his wrath on the Israelites, “I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived” (v. 9, cf. 14, 22 NRSV).

Here you have the heart of an impassioned yet scorned lover: “Don’t start thinking that I cared about you all those times I took you back. I was looking out for myself!”

. . .

Obviously these words are overly harsh, and laced with rhetorical flourish. God did care and was moved to mercy and kindness on behalf of his covenant. God was not simply biding his time ever since the golden calf incident, until he could destroy his chosen people with impunity. Ezekiel, however, made God’s point as strong as he knew how: “How dare you elders approach the God you have rejected for years.”

. . .

Merciful God, I know you love me.  Help me to walk in your paths, follow your guidance, and live your life.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

< Ezekiel 19:10-14 | Pride Goeth

Ezekiel 20:27-32 | Following Suit >

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