Based on a lecture given on July 9, 2002, adapted by Orr Scharf.
Does God judge us individually, on account of the consequences of willful choices? Is our fate sealed by a destiny predetermined by the deity? Jews in the time of Ezekiel the Prophet (whose prophecies are commonly dated to 593-573 BCE), were anxious to determine what divine consideration brought on them two calamities: The exile to Babylonia (beginning in 597 BCE) and the destruction of the First Temple (586 BCE).
The Book of Ezekiel presents two different replies: One based on the notion of complete freedom of action and full accountability of the individual for his or her own fate (Ezekiel 14, 18), and one based on strict determinism, whereby the entire nation is doomed to a disastrous fate because of a primordial sin (Ezekiel 20).
Interestingly, the prophet does not attempt to reconcile the two explanations, leaving the image of God with gnawing, unresolved tension.
Conception from freedom
Ezekiel 14 presents the following prophecy:
The word of the Lord came again to me, saying, Son of man, when the land sinneth against me by trespassing grievously, then will I stretch out mine hand upon it, and will break the staff of the bread thereof, and will send famine upon it, and will cut off man and beast from it: Though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they should deliver but their own souls by their righteousness, saith the Lord God. If I cause noisome beasts to pass through the land, and they spoil it, so that it be desolate, that no man may pass through because of the beasts: Though these three men were in it, as I live, saith the Lord God, they shall deliver neither sons nor daughters; they only shall be delivered, but the land shall be desolate. Or if I bring a sword upon that land, and say, Sword, go through the land; so that I cut off man and beast from it: Though these three men were in it, as I live, saith the Lord God, they shall deliver neither sons nor daughters, but they only shall be delivered themselves. Or if I send a pestilence into that land, and pour out my fury upon it in blood, to cut off from it man and beast: Though Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live, saith the Lord God, they shall deliver neither son nor daughter; they shall but deliver their own souls by their righteousness. (Ezekiel 14:12-20)
We find here repetition of different types of punishment and the declaration that only three men will be saved from God’s wrath – Noah, Daniel and Job. His vengeance shall be so overwhelming that their merit will not save anyone, not even their own children.
Ezekiel’s declaration that the righteous men “shall deliver neither sons nor daughters” clashes with narratives in Genesis in which two of these protagonists figure: Noah and Abraham. In the story of the Flood, Noah was saved together with his family – but the prophecy discounts this possibility.
It also undoes the importance of the famous passage from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah: Abraham asks God “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25), so that He take into account the righteousness of Sodom’s pious residents, and not mete out indiscriminate destruction on the sinful city.
Countering these stories, Ezekiel forcefully and repeatedly asserts that God’s judgment is personal judgment. The righteous will not save anyone but themselves, not even their own kin. Every person is unique in standing before God.
This conception clashes with a common understanding of the major historical events that shaped Ezekiel’s lifetime. The prophet’s contemporaries were boggled by the fact that the most irascible king in the last days of the Kingdom of Judea, Manasseh, had not suffered for his sins, while the exile was the price Judeans have had to pay for his iniquities. Manasseh reigned for an impressive 50 years, yet he had “erected altars to Baal and made an Asherah pole” (2 Kings, 21:3) in the holy of holies.
Placing idols in the Temple is one of the worst transgressions imaginable, and the Bible decries it bitterly. Yet Manasseh’s grandson, Josiah, who was righteous, was killed young and immediately after his death the Babylonians conquered Judea. So how is it possible they had peace and prosperity under the reign of a wicked king, and their calamities followed the rule of a righteous king?
The Second Book of Kings says Jerusalem was destroyed because of the deeds of Manasseh, but not in his generation, because God did not want to inflict punitive measures immediately. This, of course, was unsatisfactory for the exiled. They accost Ezekiel: “We, the sons, are suffering for the deeds of our fathers. This isn’t fair.” This is the complaint the prophet is facing, to which he replies:
What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?’ As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die. (Ezekiel 18:2-4)
We find a similar protest in the Book of Lamentations: “Our fathers have sinned, and are not; and we have borne their iniquities” (Lamentations 5:7), and in Jeremiah: “whoever eats sour grapes – his own teeth will be set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:28). This indicates that the proverb of sour grapes expressed a prevalent conception in Ezekiel’s time in relation to divine punishment of that generation.
But in line with the argument posited in Chapter 14, Ezekiel asserts that one is not to be punished for the sins of one’s father, or alternately be delivered by the virtues of one’s father. It flows from this argument that not the sins of Manasseh exiled the Jews out of Judea, but their own iniquities, for which they are held personally accountable.
Conception from determinism
Upon reading Ezekiel 20, the prophet’s reproof of the proverb takes an altogether different meaning. Rather than seeking to reinforce the conception from freedom, Ezekiel stretches the historical perspective in his explanation of the people’s sins and punishment:
I lifted up mine hand unto them also in the wilderness, that I would scatter them among the heathen, and disperse them through the countries, because they had not executed my judgments, but had despised my statutes, and had polluted my Sabbaths, and their eyes were after their fathers’ idols. (Ezekiel 20:23-24)
Jerusalem was destroyed and the people of Judea were exiled not because of the sins of Manasseh. The iniquities of a single generation are a trifle in comparison to the sins that stretch back as far as the desert generation, epitomized by the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32).
Therefore, the conception from freedom is rejected altogether, and so is the proverb of the sour grapes: Meritorious or not, no Jew is to be spared, because the People of Israel have sinned before God at the first opportunity after becoming His people. For God did not remain indifferent to these transgressions and responded:
Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live, and I polluted them in their own gifts, in that they caused to pass through the fire all that openeth the womb, that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am the Lord. (Ezekiel 20: 25-26).
The Torah condemns the practice of child sacrifice, the “passing through fire”: “That thou shalt set apart unto the Lord all that openeth the matrix” (Exodus 13:12); “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire” (Deuteronomy 18:10). Not only that, Jeremiah speaks in God’s name ordering to put an end to this practice: “And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart.” (Jeremiah 7:31). Even the only passage in the Torah describing divine involvement in child sacrifice ends with words, not with deeds.
In the story of Isaac’s akeidah (binding) (Genesis 22), the divine command to Abraham to “Sacrifice [Isaac] there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains” is reversed; in Ezekiel it is not. The reversible order to perform child sacrifice served as a test for Abraham’s faith, which he passed with flying colors; the People of Israel failed their test of faith, hence they are issued an irreversible order.
This command is punishment. Going back a few verses from this dramatic passage, we learn that God had given the People of Israel laws of life: “Judgments which if a man do, he shall even live in them” (Ezekiel 20:11). But they refused to obey them and turned their backs on God, hence as punishment He is giving them laws of death and destruction.
This is one of the most difficult passages in the Hebrew Bible. God, the source of all being, of morals, of rationality, takes full responsibility for unimaginable laws of death: “I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live; and I polluted them in their own gifts.” Me, God, I did it; I gave you death as punishment.
The books of Deuteronomy and Kings refer the inquirers after the reasons for divine punishment one or two generations back; here Ezekiel points back 20 generations – this is not “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children” (Exodus 20:5), it is the iniquity of the children’s children’s children. The God of history sealed the fate of his people upon the moment of their becoming, leaving them no freedom, excluding the possibility of sin-and-punishment, crossing out the possibility of repentance.
Torn between possibilities
The Book of Ezekiel contains an astonishing disparity of views. On the one hand, Ezekiel enhances the freedom and responsibility of the individual, and places emphasis on an individual’s capacity to choose a new way, to alter the future by coming self-redeeming.
On the other hand, he despairs of human nature completely. There is no hope, no possibility short of divine intervention that can change the character, the heart, and the spirit of humanity and bring about redemption. These two polar opposites are found in the same book.
In some way, this may remind us of the modern debate between different schools of psychologists over how much of human behavior and potential are dependent upon genetics and cultural environment, and how much can yet be changed by human effort and will.
Ezekiel was torn between the two possibilities and voiced both in an extreme fashion. Because he does not resolve the tension between the two conceptions, he does not offer a single reply to the inquiries of exiles after the reasons behind the divine punishments inflicted on their generation.