Anytime a text from Ezekiel is thrown up by the lectionary, most preachers hope against hope that it is the "dry bones" passage from chapter 37.
At least there one can reflect on new life and new hope in the midst of exile, thus avoiding the complex and contentious scholarly battles about the actual location of and reasons for the prophet's words and work.
Ezekiel too often has been examined as a man who is little less than psychotic. His peripatetic ramblings between Babylon and Jerusalem, either in reality or in his unstable mind, have caused many readers to experience whiplash, finding themselves spectators at a prophetic ping-pong match. And this is to say nothing of the downright crude allegories of chapters 16 and 23, writings more appropriate for a brown paper bag than a Bible!
I caricature but not by much. Ezekiel is a very long book and has not been heard from the pulpits of our churches very often, save those who would find, in its rich metaphors and allegories, magic keys to the world's end. Such speculation is to me false, foolish, and dangerous.
Ezekiel was a man of God for his own time, surely at the beginning of and during the exile of Israel to Babylon in the early decades of the sixth century BCE. The scholarly debates have now settled, for the most part, on Ezekiel's residence in Israel, with his "trips" to Babylon being flights of prophetic insight.
Thus, when we read his often difficult words, we are reading a prophet reacting to the end of Israel as he knows it, a land facing an uncertain future, its leaders trudging hundreds of miles eastward toward the world's greatest city, mighty Babylon.
In the long allegory that precedes our text, Ezekiel offers two poems. They describe two great eagles, the first of which breaks off the topmost shoot of an enormous cedar tree -- one of the fabled cedars of Lebanon -- and flies with it to a "city of merchants." That eagle then takes a seed and plants it in fertile soil where it sprouts as a "low-spreading vine," rooted and fixed in that soil (Ezekiel 17:3-6).
In the second poem, another eagle sees that the spreading vine of the first eagle has turned toward him. It has, in fact, been transplanted into "good soil by abundant waters," where the second eagle hopes it becomes a "noble vine," bearing much fruit (Ezekiel 17:7-8).
God then asks a penetrating and ultimately devastating question: Will the vine prosper?
The answer is a resounding no. This so-called noble vine will be pulled up by its roots, its fruit will rot and wither. And the transplanted vine will also not thrive; it too will wither right at its place of transplantation (Ezekiel 17:9-10).
The prophet then helpfully explains the allegory for his readers (Ezekiel 17:11-21).
The historical background is clear: the king of Babylon (the first eagle) comes first to Lebanon (Jerusalem). He takes the top shoot of the cedar (Jehoiachin, king of Jerusalem) and brings him to "the land of trade" (Babylon).
Next, the king takes the "seed" of the land -- Zedekiah, the last king of Israel and a Babylonian puppet -- and places him in "fertile soil, near abundant waters" (Babylon). There, he becomes a "low spreading vine," a vassal to the power of Babylon.
The second eagle (the pharaoh of Egypt) then redirects the vine of Israel toward his land, transplanting the vine to Egypt. He offers Israel military support against Babylon, again in "good soil by abundant waters," this time the Nile.
This refers to Zedekiah's revolt against his Babylonian masters with the connivance of Egypt early in the second decade of the sixth century BCE. The result is disaster.
Furious and eager for revenge against the traitorous vassal, Babylon returns to Jerusalem, destroys the city, and drags its leaders, including Zedekiah, off to exile in Babylon.
In a grisly touch, Nebuchadnezzar orders the sons of Zedekiah to be murdered in the presence of the Israelite king, just before Zedekiah is blinded. That way, the memory of his murdered sons will follow him vividly to his exilic grave.
Thus are history's horrors couched in allegory.
But our text, in the face of such misery and death, offers another sort of allegory altogether. No longer are eagles (world leaders) the active agents; the Lord God will now act.
God will take another sprig from the topmost cedar and will plant the twig on a "high and lofty mountain, a mountain of Israel." The twig itself will bear fruit and will grow into a mighty cedar. Under the shade of this huge tree and in its vast network of branches, "every kind of bird will live" and "winged creatures of every kind" will find their place of safety (Ezekiel 17:22-23).
Some have speculated that the history behind this poem may include Zerubbabel, a grandson of Jehoiachin, who some hoped would restore the fallen throne of David in Jerusalem. Zerubbabel does mean "seed/sprout of Babylon," and the allegories have much to do with seeds and plantings. In a later messianic interpretation, both Matthew 1:12-13 and Luke 3:27 trace the ancestry of Jesus through Zerubbabel.
Allegories, by their very natures, do not always reveal their detailed meanings, especially when so many centuries separate their composition from our own time.
But in this case, I do not think we are bound completely to the exact history that may or may not lie below this imaginative prophecy.
The basic claim is clear in verse 24. Whatever eagles or great trees are to be found in the world are all under the rule and way of God. For it is finally God who "makes the high tree low and the low tree high," who makes "green trees dry and dry trees flourish." It is not finally pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar who has the final word, for "I the Lord have spoken; I will do it."
Exile is not the last word, because God is still speaking.
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