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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 8, the prophet’s second visionary experience. Ezekiel had been living in exile for five years without any updates about the situation in Jerusalem. One day, toward the end of his 430-day stint of lying on his side, he envisioned a messenger of God, fiery like gleaming amber, picking him up by his hair and supernaturally transporting him to Jerusalem. Out of all the prophets, Ezekiel may be the best at delivering a well-crafted hook.

In describing his transport, Ezekiel said, “the spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem” (8:3). In my imagination, Ezekiel traveled the thousand miles from Babylon to Jerusalem in the same manner the characters traveled in Madeline L’Engle’s science-fiction book The Wrinkle in Time. In the book, Meg Murray, the main character, moved between places and eras by “tessering,” wrinkling the fabric of space-time. Ezekiel was reluctant to “tesser” which is why his divine guide had to grab hold of his hair. Again, this is all in my head where literature sometimes colors the Bible’s missing details and tessering is L’Engle’s made-up verb. According to the biblical text, Ezekiel’s body remained in Babylon, but his mind had a full sensory experience in Jerusalem.

Ezekiel noted that the vision occurred “in the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month” (8:1). Ezekiel used the sixth year of King Jehoiachin’s reign as his reference point, even though Jehoiachin was exiled in Babylon alongside him and not actually ruling over anything. (There is a lot more to say about King Jehoiachin, but I am going to save that for the episode on Ezekiel 17.) Ezekiel’s date works out to 18 September 592 BCE. According to his precise chronology, the Jerusalem vision occurred fourteen months after he first saw an apparition of God’s throne chariot by the Chebar River and accepted his call to the prophetic office.

According to the text, a delegation of elders was with Ezekiel in his home when he had the visionary experience. They were likely lay leaders who came to Ezekiel seeking an oracle from the Lord. Despite the excesses of his sign-acts, the people recognized him as a prophet. Perhaps they inquired about Jerusalem and the fate of their compatriots, or they came because his elaborate sign-acts were a sight to behold.

When Ezekiel felt the hand of God fall upon him, he looked and saw the same humanoid figure with fiery legs and a gleaming torso he had seen atop the throne chariot (8:2; 1:27). Once again, the prophet was careful to describe his theophany through analogy and simile, so he did not accidentally show irreverence. He described the figure that “looked like a man” and stretched out “the form of a hand” (8:3). Whereas before the divine hand fed him a scroll, this time the hand grabbed a lock of hair and spirited him away to Jerusalem.

In real life, Ezekiel never returned to Jerusalem after his deportation; he died in exile. Although the purpose of the visionary trip to Jerusalem is not stated directly in the text, it seems God wanted Ezekiel to witness for himself the widespread apostasy that had taken hold of the temple. If Ezekiel was perturbed by his calling because he did not think Jerusalem deserved to be destroyed, God changed his mind (3:14). His divine tour guide took him through a series of four scenes that grew progressively disturbing.

In the first scene, Ezekiel found himself at the northern gate to the temple’s inner court. Blocking the gateway to enter the temple complex, he spotted “the image of jealousy” (8:3). Naming the idol was less important to Ezekiel’s escort than the jealous reaction it provoked in Yahweh. Although he did not specify what patron deity the carved statue represented, it was most likely a statue of the Canaanite goddess Asherah. The book of 2 Kings attests that during the evil King Manasseh’s reign, he placed an Asherah pole in the temple (2 Kings 21:3). King Josiah later burned Manasseh’s Asherah pole during his campaign to purge Judah of idolatry (2 Kings 23:6).

Beside the seated statue, Ezekiel saw the glory of the God of Israel atop his radiating throne chariot (8:4). The first two times Ezekiel encountered God’s glory, he collapsed on the ground. The third time, he stayed on his feet, absorbing the irony of the juxtaposition of the wooden statue next to the overpowering brilliance of Yahweh. God asked Ezekiel, “Mortal, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary?” (8:6). They have polluted God’s sanctuary by their idolatrous impulses. Yahweh and pagan deities can have nothing to do with each other. The temple was never meant to be shared by Yahweh and graven images.

As they continued their walk-and-talk through the temple complex, the divine guide led Ezekiel to a second scene. Standing by the entrance to the temple court, Ezekiel spotted a hole in the wall. The divine guide instructed him to dig a bigger hole through the wall where he found a secret entrance (8:8). As he peered into an unidentified room, perhaps a temple storage area, the guide instructed him to go further inside for a distinct vantage point. Carved on the walls all along the room’s perimeter, there were reliefs of “creeping things and loathsome animals” (8:10). In the cover of darkness, seventy leaders of the house of Israel gathered with censers and burned incense to the idols (8:11). Each idol had its own attentive devotee (8:12). Surprisingly, Ezekiel recognized one leader as a man named Jaazaniah, whose father Shaphan had been one of King Josiah’s political appointees (2 Kings 22:3)!

Ezekiel’s reference to exactly 70 elders may have been a callback to Moses and his election of 70 elders. In Exodus, soon after God saved the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, he invited 70 men to join Moses and Aaron at Mount Sinai in a ceremony to ratify their covenant (Ex. 24:1,9). The 70 elders were later called upon to help Moses govern the camp. Because they were faithful men, God empowered them with the same holy spirit as Moses to help shoulder the burden of leadership (Num. 11:16-30). At Sinai, the 70 elders affirmed the covenant. But in Ezekiel’s vision, there were 70 elders who betrayed the covenant, an upsetting reversal of Sinai.

The divine guide turned to Ezekiel said, “Mortal, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, each in his room of images? For they say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land” (8:12). This is the epitome of dark irony. While they complained that Yahweh had abandoned them and no longer paid attention to Judah, he was present and observing their deeds. Meanwhile, they rationalized worshiping their lifeless statues which were inherently sightless. They claimed Yahweh was indifferent to their hardship, but really, that was their own rationalization for unacceptable behavior. He was not at all indifferent!

As they left the first foreboding scene, the guide escorted him to witness even “greater abominations” (8:13). At the entrance of the north gate, they came upon Judean women weeping for Tammuz (8:14). In this third brief scene, the guide offered no additional explanation. We do not have any biblical background information on Tammuz; this is the only time the pagan god is mentioned.

However, Tammuz is well-known by historians of the ancient Near East because he was a popular god in Mesopotamian mythology. An agricultural deity, Tammuz was associated with vegetation and the cycles of the seasons. In the cult of Tammuz, supplicants took part in a mourning ritual where they lamented Tammuz’s banishment to the underworld every summer, hoping to ensure his resurrection during the planting season.

The most heinous part of the women’s supplication to Tammuz was that Yahweh had associated his covenant responsibilities with the fertility of the land. Because the people of Israel and the land of Israel were critical pieces of the covenant, he promised that obedience to him warranted agricultural blessings (Lev. 26:3-5). God promised that if they followed his decrees and kept his commands, he would send rain and make the grounds generate plentiful crops. Instead, the women bypassed Yahweh and pleaded with a foreign god to bless them with harvests.

In the house of horrors that had become the temple, one apostasy surpassed the next. The tour started in the courtyard and progressed toward the Holy of Holies. At every stage, the abominations became worse. In the last scene, Ezekiel stood between the porch and altar, the closest access point to the inner sanctum. He observed twenty-five men turning their backs toward the temple and facing eastward, prostrating themselves before the sun god. Although the text does not identify the men as priests, they had to be if they worked in such proximity to the inner court of the temple. Ezekiel, who came from a priestly family, was appalled.

King Manasseh was the first to introduce sun worship into the Jerusalem temple, despite an explicit ban against the solar cult since the days of Moses (Deut. 4:19). He even installed horses and chariot monuments in dedication to the sun god, which Josiah had promptly removed (2 Kings 23:11-12). Every threat to the religion of Yahweh that Josiah destroyed made a triumphant return after his death. All his reforms were reversed. What greater betrayal could there be than the priests meant to facilitate Yahweh worship, turning their backs on his temple to worship the sun, an object of his creation.

The first of the Ten Commandments gives the fundamental principle underlying the entire covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). Certainly, after seeing the detestable spiritual state of Jerusalem, Ezekiel understood God’s decision to unleash his wrath. Yahweh had to abandon the temple. There was no other choice.

The people of Judah sensed that disaster was coming. Babylon had long been breathing down their neck. But instead of repenting and returning to Yahweh, they appealed to every false god of their neighbors. Desperate, they turned for help to any god other than the one true God. Asherah was a Canaanite god that had long captured their devotion. The animal idols in the dark room suggest some converted to the Egyptian pantheon with its worship of beetles, crocodiles, hawks, jackals, baboons, and snakes. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, animals play a role in the journey to the afterlife. Perhaps the elders appealed to Egyptian gods because at least one political camp in Judah thought Egypt’s army was their only hope of defeating the Babylonians. If that is the case, the other camp may have worshipped Tammuz to placate the gods of their Babylonian oppressors.

Whatever the reason for their disloyalty, the temple that was dedicated to the sole worship of Yahweh had become a multi-idol breeding ground. Notice that religious pluralism is not a modern invention, but an age-old temptation. However, Ezekiel was clearly not a promoter of interfaith lessons. Syncretism was reprehensible to God in the Old Testament, and it remained to be so in the New Testament. The apostle Paul warned the church in Corinth, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (1 Corinth. 10:21-22).

Since Ezekiel’s deportation five years earlier, every sector of the society had deviated from pure worship in their own way: the elders, the women, and the degenerate priests. Yahweh told Ezekiel that idolatry was not even the worst of the problems. They had also filled the land with violence (8:17). Their ethical and moral provocations piled on top of their spiritual apostasy. The accumulation of their crimes forced God’s hand. He could not abide in a temple once dedicated to him where he was no longer acknowledged.

In the dark and in secret, the people had professed that Yahweh no longer saw them and that he had already abandoned the land (8:12). Ironically, when they assumed he was not watching, God paid the utmost attention to their abominations. However, their profession turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ezekiel 8 purposed to answer the question of why God was ready to give up on the covenant. The abominations in the temple proved God was not being oversensitive. It was really that bad.

Next week we are reading Ezekiel 9. The visionary experience that began with Ezekiel’s transport to Jerusalem continues for the next three chapters. Ezekiel 8-11 is one literary unit. While his divine guide whisked him away at the start of Chapter 8, the guide will deposit him in his home at the end of Chapter 11. When he regains consciousness, the same exiled elders are sitting there waiting for his response, as if no time had passed for them while Ezekiel was “tessering” across space.

Thank you for listening and please continue to take part in this Bible Reading Challenge. And please keep the nation of Israel in your prayers as the country continues to accomplish its war goal of releasing the remaining hostages and eradicating Hamas. I have been thinking a lot about how Ezekiel was also a hostage living in exile and what better prophet to read and study as we empathize with the Jews who are once again traumatized by captivity.

For all the Biblical references each week, please see the show transcript on our blog or by signing up for our emails at I do not say all the references in the podcast but they are all in the transcript.

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Shabbat Shalom