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Welcome to Bible Fiber, where we are encountering the textures and shades of the biblical tapestry through twelve Minor Prophets, two reformers, and one exile. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern. This week we are studying Ezekiel 15.

For the first fourteen chapters, Ezekiel’s divine dispatches included overpowering visions and bizarre sign-acts. In Chapter 15, he switched his method of communicating, choosing instead to reinforce the message through a series of six parables and metaphors (Ezek. 15-19). The other worldly theme of a throne chariot motored by winged and wheeled composite creatures faded out. In its place, Ezekiel relied on realistic scenes from nature and homelife that would be familiar to every ancient person. He likened Israel to a useless vine, an unfaithful wife, and an abandoned infant. He compared Jerusalem’s political alliances to two battling eagles and her last kings to captured lions. Each parable points to the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the awful fate of the city’s residents. If Jewish mysticism holds that only mature initiated mystics should ponder Ezekiel’s throne chariot, the compilation of Ezekiel’s word pictures is the opposite. The parables and their explanations are accessible to all.

Ezekiel’s first and shortest metaphorical passage is about a useless wild vine in the woods. God asked Ezekiel, “How does the wood of the vine surpass all other wood, the vine branch that is among the trees of the forest? Is wood taken from it to make anything? Does one take a peg from it on which to hang any object?” (15:2-3).

Although Ezekiel did not specify his audience, he presumably shared the oracle with the exiles in his company. God wanted them to ponder the utility of a fruitless vine growing wild in the forest. In their lived experience, they had surely never seen a vine branch with more strength than a rooted tree. A vine, apart from its production of fruit, has little worth. For example, a carpenter would not use a flimsy vine as building material. A vine is not even sturdy enough to craft a peg for wall hanging; it would sag under the slightest weight. In fact, Ezekiel specified that he was not even describing a vine, but rather a vine branch. In Hebrew, gefen means vine and zemora refers to a fallen or pruned branch. The vine branch is even less useful than the vine itself.

Vine imagery

In likening Israel to a vine, Ezekiel was alluding to a well-developed metaphor in Hebrew tradition. In Genesis, before the patriarch Jacob died, he bestowed his blessing and parting words to each of his sons. Jacob described Joseph, his resilient loyal son, as a fruitful vine near a spring with branches growing over the garden walls (Gen. 49:22).

The Psalms include an elaborate vine metaphor describing Israel’s election and placement in the promised land. God is compared to a master gardener who transplanted his choice vine from Egypt to his royal garden (Ps. 80:8-11). In preparation for the vine’s planting, God cleared the ground so the vine could take root and fill the land with branches and shoots. The Psalmist prophesied that one day God would rebuke his people and allow the garden wall to be broken down with its fruit exposed to wild animals and passersby (Ps. 80:14-16).

The prophet Jeremiah described Israel as a “choice vine from the purest stock” that deteriorated into a wild vine of no value (Jer. 2:21). Hosea tweaked the metaphor to imply that as the vine of Israel increased, so did their idolatry and sin (Hos. 10:1). In Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard, the prophet portrayed Israel as God’s beloved “vineyard on a very fertile hill” (Isa. 5:1-7). In anticipation of the vineyard’s abundant yield, God built a watchtower to protect the harvest and hewed a wine vat. Unexpectedly, the vine yielded nothing but rotten grapes. According to God’s original garden design, the vine of Israel was meant to abide in God by carrying out his commandments and building a loving and just society based on his design. Instead, their complacency and idolatry prohibited their spiritual fruitfulness.

Charred vine branch

Ezekiel extended Isaiah’s vine metaphor to its natural conclusion. In Isaiah, the corrupted vine only produced sour grapes, but at least it produced something. Ezekiel’s vine was nothing but pruned branches littering the forest floor. To devalue the vine branches even further, Ezekiel described the branches as burned on both ends and charred in the middle. He rhetorically asked, “When the fire has consumed both ends of it and the middle of it is charred, is it useful for anything? (15:4).

Once Ezekiel’s rhetorical questions had the audience agreeing with the obvious truth that a charred vine branch is utterly useless, he revealed the spiritual significance of his message. Parables differ from allegory in that they start with an obvious surface meaning and then include the narrator’s own interpretation. God declared through his prophet, “Like the wood of the vine among the trees of the forest, which I have given to the fire for fuel, so I will give the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (15:6).

If God is the vinedresser, no one could fault him for pruning the unproductive vine branches and tossing them into the fire. Vinedressers pruned their gardens once in the winter and once in the summer. If a branch did not produce quality fruit, they would cut and discard it or bundle it as kindling wood. The vine branches—which Ezekiel describes as the inhabitants of Jerusalem—failed to fulfill their purpose to exemplify a covenant relationship with the one true God.

Historical footing

Ezekiel’s explanation of the fate of the vine paralleled Jerusalem’s actual history. He cautioned, “although they escape from the fire, the fire shall still consume them” (15:7). In 605 and 597 BCE, the Babylonian army attacked Jerusalem and deported its elite citizens. The attacks were likely what Ezekiel had in mind when describing their escape from the fire. When he prophesied a coming fire that would succeed in consuming them, he was looking to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. On that day, God vowed to unleash his wrath upon the city, bringing total devastation and destruction (15:8).

Ezekiel clarified that even though some vine branches would escape the fire, it was not a result of Yahweh’s rescue but a lucky escape (15:7). At some point, God would throw them back into the fire. In the previous chapter, Ezekiel made it clear that not all escapees from Jerusalem should be considered the remnant (14:22-23). If interested, go back and hear Ezekiel 14 for his thoughts on the escapees’ behavior.

Jesus’s vine

The Bible’s vine imagery did not start with Ezekiel, and it did not end with him. Jesus was certainly no stranger to the power of parables as an effective communication method. Prophetic parables often coaxed the hearers into agreement until they realized they were condemning themselves.

In the New Testament, Jesus used the vine metaphor to encapsulate the entire gospel message. Jesus described God as the vinedresser, but he cast himself as the true vine of Israel. With Jesus standing in as the true vine, he created a new path for followers of God to bear fruit. By relying on Jesus Christ, the true vine, believers can achieve what had before seemed impossible. In calling his disciples to a fruit-bearing life, Jesus explained:

He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (John 15:1-8)

That is all for Ezekiel’s shortest parable. For the next several chapters, Ezekiel continues to teach in parables to clarify and justify the divine position. Parables are one way of giving Yahweh’s side of the story. He tried every means of communication to disrupt their naïve belief that Jerusalem was on the verge of resurgence and the covenant was unbreakable. Get ready for next week. Ezekiel 16 is the longest single oracle in the book, and it is also uncomfortably explicit in its comparison of Israel to an adulterous woman.

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Until next week, Shabbat Shalom and Am Israel Chai!