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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 17.

As an innovative prophet, Ezekiel never ran out of teaching methods, whether it was a mime, public shaving, small scale enactment of a siege, judgement speech, or a twisted fairytale. In Chapter 17, God commanded Ezekiel to compose a riddle (17:1). The riddle was supposed to expose the treachery of King Zedekiah, a favorite subject of his condemnations. He had already performed an elaborate charade portraying King Zedekiah’s botched escape from Jerusalem (12:7-14). His ever-changing communication styles hammered home similar messages. Riddles were a popular party trick in ancient times. Perhaps when he first presented the riddle, bored exiles gathered who were looking to be entertained. However, if his listeners expected amusement rather than condemnation, they had to be disappointed.

Ezekiel composed an enigmatic riddle that the exiles could not solve on their own accord. In fact, his teaching is better classified as a complex fable because the featured characters are all related to nature: two eagles, a cedar shoot, a vine, and a strong wind. Like Aesop’s fables, the two eagles exhibit human-like characteristics. The meaning was not at first clear, but Ezekiel clarified that the consequences of the eagles’ actions were a predictive prophecy.

The tale of two eagles

The chapter divides into two sections: the fable (17:3-10) and its divine interpretation (17:11-21). Ezekiel unfolded the complete fable before identifying the historical figures that the eagles, seed, and vine symbolized. A good riddler makes his listeners engage with the imaginative exercise of the story and delays the gratification of an answer. However, for our purpose in seeking understanding, I will correlate the symbols with their historical counterparts as we progress through the tale.

The riddle begins, “A great eagle with great wings and long pinions, rich in plumage of many colors, came to the Lebanon. He took the top of the cedar, broke off its topmost shoot; he carried it to a land of trade, set it in a city of merchants” (17:3-4). As explained by Ezekiel, the first eagle represented King Nebuchadnezzar. Ezekiel’s description of the bird’s beauty and multicolored feathers reflected the wealth and power of the Babylonian empire. The crown of the cedar tree symbolized Jehoiachin, the Davidic king transplanted from Jerusalem to Babylon in 597 BCE, alongside Ezekiel and other Jerusalem elite (17:12). The riddle wrapped the place names in mystery. Lebanon was code for Jerusalem and Babylon was the “city of merchants.”

At 18-years-old, after reigning only three months, the Babylonian army stripped King Jehoiachin of his throne and took him captive. He survived the deportation and exile, just as the cedar shoot survived being plucked out of Lebanon. According to the biblical record, Babylon treated Jehoiachin well enough (2 Kings 25:27-30). He received an allowance and could eat at the royal table. In fact, when archaeologists excavated a trove of sixth-century clay tablets at a site near Nebuchadnezzar’s place, they found four receipts that named Jehoiachin as a recipient of generous food and oil rations. The inscriptions even gave Jehoiachin the title “king of the land of Judah,” leaving no doubt as to the correct identification.

The fable continued, “Then he took a seedling from the land, placed it in fertile soil; a plant by abundant waters, he set it like a willow twig. It sprouted and became a vine spreading out but low; its branches turned toward him; its roots remained where it stood. So, it became a vine; it brought forth branches, put forth foliage” (17:5-6). King Zedekiah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, was the “seedling from the land.” He was part of the royal line of David, but unlike Jehoiachin, the empire permitted him to stay in the “fertile soil” of Jerusalem (17:13). The gardener eagle made certain the seed had soil and water so that it sprouted and became a vine with foliage. Still, the vine never grew tall; it stayed low to the ground with a shallow root system. Indeed, Zedekiah was completely subservient to Babylon with no actual power.

If Ezekiel’s audience had paid close attention to the details of the first eagle and cedar shoot, they may have guessed the first eagle was Nebuchadnezzar. In the ancient Near East, the eagle was often a royal symbol. Because the memory of Jehoiachin’s capture was fresh, they may have easily identified Jehoiachin with the cedar branch. However, they certainly would have puzzled over the identity of the second eagle. The second eagle’s action was a prophecy of what would come.

Ezekiel explained, “There was another great eagle with great wings and much plumage. And see! This vine stretched out its roots toward him; it shot out its branches toward him from the bed where it was planted so that he might water it” (17:7). The second eagle was powerful, but to a lesser degree than the first eagle. His wings were impressive, but not the greatest; his plumage was colorful but not richly colorful. The plumage likely symbolized the empires’ military might. Whereas the first eagle was busy snatching and planting, the second eagle did not perform any actions. He was a passive bystander. The second eagle represented the Egyptian pharaoh (17:15). During Ezekiel’s day, Egypt was still a superpower, but its influence on the region waned as Babylon extended its reach.

Although the vine was secure under the patronage of the first eagle, Babylon, it stretched out its branches toward the second eagle, Egypt. The vine showed ingratitude toward the first eagle’s care by seeking the protection of the lesser eagle instead. Zedekiah was the vine and indeed, when he grew weary of the Babylonian yoke, he secretly reached out to Egypt to form an anti-Babylonian alliance.

The vine’s poor choice to abandon the gardener eagle in favor of the passive eagle led to its destruction. Perhaps at first the active eagle did not notice the vine’s re-rooting since it took place under the surface. Upon discovering the plot, the irritated grand eagle forcefully uprooted the vine, resulting in the rotting of its fruit and the withering of its leaves (17:9). When the “east wind” blew, there was nothing left to protect the vulnerable vine (17:10). Ezekiel’s “east wind” referred to a weather event in the Middle Eastern desert that kicks up so much dust that the sky can look like thick orange fog. When I lived in Beer Sheva, I once left my windows open all day and an “east wind” deposited an inch of dust all over my living room.

Historians theorize Ezekiel composed the riddle around 591 BCE, based on its placement in the book. If correct, the tale of the treacherous vine illustrated Zedekiah’s betrayal and Nebuchadnezzar’s attack on Jerusalem two years before the events occurred. Although the prophets did less future-telling than often assumed, the eagle fable was one of the predictive prophecies that built Ezekiel’s credentials as a prophet.

Divine interpretation

Ezekiel asked his audience, “do you not know what these things mean?” (17:12). He then broke down their recent history and the imminent consequences of Zedekiah’s failed leadership. God spoke through the prophet to reveal the fable’s divine interpretation without leaving it to the audience’s best guess.

Compared to Babylon and Egypt, Israel was a mere seed in the eagle’s beak. Still, Ezekiel refused to portray Zedekiah as a powerless victim caught between two superpowers. Jeremiah advised Zedekiah to submit to Babylon’s authority, and he stubbornly ignored the prophet’s counsel (Jer. 38:17-23). Instead, he played the game of realpolitik, betting on the wrong superpower, and lost. True, pharaoh and his army did not possess the same power as Babylon. The real problem, however, was Zedekiah’s lack of faith in Yahweh, the protector of Israel.

Jeremiah and Ezekiel didn’t object to the Egyptian alliance because they preferred one pagan empire over another. The Bible most often depicts Babylon as the epitome of evil, arrogance, idolatry, and cruelty. Even though Jeremiah discouraged Zedekiah’s rebellion against Babylon, Jeremiah also predicted that one day God would vindicate Jerusalem and punish Babylon for its wicked deeds (Jer. 50-51). What most irritated the prophets was that Zedekiah hardened his heart and refused to seek Yahweh in his foreign policy moves (2 Chron. 36:11-13). In the king’s panic, he put his attention on building a new political alliance when he should have been routing out Judah’s apostasy and encouraging spiritual reforms. Vacillating, he looked for rescue anywhere other than Yahweh.

Ezekiel alluded to Zedekiah’s appeal to Egypt when he said, “Pharaoh with his mighty army and great company will not help him in war” (17:15). According to 2 Kings, Zedekiah’s appeal to Egypt for horses and troops gained him nothing other than triggering Babylon’s wrath (2 Kings 25:1-7). Zedekiah had taken an oath of loyalty to Babylon in Yahweh’s name (2 Chron. 36:13). The author of 2 Kings described both Jehoiachin and Zedekiah as evil but did not offer an explanation (2 Kings 24:19). Ezekiel illuminates the historical narrative. Zedekiah’s treasonous act against Babylon mirrored his treason against Yahweh.

Zedekiah’s breach of his treaty with Babylon was foolish, but it is startling that God equated the treachery against Babylon with treachery against himself. Zedekiah’s refusal to submit to Babylon’s authority mirrored his stubborn dismissal of Yahweh’s authority. In God’s eyes, before he had ever broken his political oath, he first broke his spiritual oath. Sin stacked upon sin. Likewise, the fury that Nebuchadnezzar felt over Zedekiah’s betrayal was nothing compared to Yahweh’s wrath.

Indeed, Zedekiah’s duplicity hastened Babylon’s swift attack. When Nebuchadnezzar’s army first laid siege to Jerusalem, the Egyptian army briefly mobilized (Jer. 37:5-7). However, their intervention only made a small impact and then they retreated. While the Babylonian army built siege ramps around the city, Egypt did not lift a finger. Zedekiah had paid a heavy price for appealing to Egypt, and he gained nothing in return.

After offering the fable’s interpretation, Ezekiel asked a series of rhetorical questions about Zedekiah’s reign. The prophet asked, “can he break the covenant and yet escape?” (17:5). The answer was no. Ezekiel prophesied Zedekiah’s death in Babylon two years before the actual cascade of events occurred that lead to Zedekiah’s capture. Ezekiel wanted the people to understand beforehand that Zedekiah’s brutal death was the consequence of his own wrongheaded foreign policy, and not the fault of God.

The question arises, why did God ask Ezekiel to criticize Zedekiah’s action through a riddle rather than a traditional oracle? Riddles, like parables and allegories, disarm the audience’s bias and offer fresh perspectives. Perhaps his listeners upheld Zedekiah as their last hope to preserve the royal line of David and restore their independence. If Zedekiah was popular among the exiles, they probably saw his rebellion against Babylon as heroic rather than suicidal (2 Kings 24:20). They may have eagerly awaited the mobilization of the Egyptian army to come to Jerusalem’s rescue. If Ezekiel directly accused Zedekiah, they may have put up their guard and been too offended to listen. The coded teaching allowed them to first condemn the vine’s odd behavior before they understood the deeper meaning.

Tree of life

After Ezekiel’s fable foretold the fates of two Judean kings, he returned to the symbol of the cedar shoot. Reworking the allegory once more, he attached a promise of divine intervention for the house of David. God assured, “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender shoot from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will transplant it on a high and lofty mountain” (17:22). Yahweh’s greatness surpasses that of any aggressive eagle, and the tender shoot would be far superior to any earthly king. When the first eagle, Babylon, had transplanted the cedar shoot, it spread its roots and survived, but the vine never grew tall or thrived. Once the shoot is planted on Mount Zion, Israel will prosper once more.

On the surface, God promised he would preserve the royal line of David. Jehoiachin was the low tree that he would make high (17:24). In Ezra and Nehemiah, we learn that Jehoiachin’s grandson, Zerubbabel, returned to Israel with the restored remnant. Ezekiel’s prophecy was fulfilled in the short-term by the edict of Cyrus, the restoration of Jerusalem, and the return of Zerubbabel from the house of David. However, Zerubbabel quickly disappeared from Israel’s story and no Davidic king ever took the throne in the Second Temple period. Jehoiachin, or his descendants, did not fulfill the lofty promise of becoming a mighty cedar tree in Zion. Ezekiel’s prophecy must have pointed to something bigger, beyond their release from captivity and return to the land.

Messianic branch language is all over the Old Testament, whether it is a vine, shoot, or branch. Isaiah spoke of the beautiful “branch of the Lord” (Isa. 4:2) and a “shoot from the stump of Jesse” (Isa. 11:1). Jeremiah prophesied, “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer. 23:5). Zechariah promised the arrival of “God’s servant, the Branch” (Zech. 3:8) and named the Branch as the one appointed to rebuild the future temple (Zech. 6:12).

For Christians, we recognize Jesus as the branch. His saving work fulfilled all that was predicted about the branch. Born in the line of David, he came from the same cedar tree as Jehoiachin, and he held the promise of David’s eternal throne (2 Sam. 2:16). Jesus, the Messiah king, launched an eternal kingdom on both heaven and earth. Under his rule, Yahweh will be recognized as sovereign over all nations.

With the tall tree thriving on the highest mountain, Ezekiel described Israel as flourishing under its care and protection. He pronounced, “Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind” (17:23). The branch, once plucked and transplanted by a bird, now shelters birds of all kinds. The Messiah king would save Israel, and thereby save the whole world through an extension of the covenant. All nations would find security in the tree’s shade.

Thank you for listening and please continue to take part in this Bible Reading Challenge. Next week, we are reading Ezekiel 18. Also, please visit our website at and sign up for our weekly news letters with Amy’s Red Alert on Wednesdays about the modern situation in Israel and my Bible Fiber every Friday that tells Israel’s spiritual story.

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Shabbat Shalom and Am Israel Chai