20 June 2011

"... as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God." (v. 1)


The opening chapters of Ezekiel describe the vision and call of the prophet. This takes place in 593 BC, when Ezekiel was among the exiles in Babylon. (In 597 BC Judah had been defeated by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and the leaders of the community, including King Jehoiachin, taken into exile.) Ezekiel was by the river Chebar in the land of the Chaldeans - this was the land from which Abraham had set out on his journey and is in the southern part of modern Iraq.

The exiles were a displaced and traumatised people, full of questions and doubts. Had God deserted them? Was the exile a punishment? How could they worship God in a foreign land away from the temple in Jerusalem which had been the symbol of God's presence among them?

Ezekiel's vision is complex and this can be a difficult text to understand. The vision of God is beyond language and is described in a series of powerful and evocative images. Cloud and fire were associated with the presence of God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:9-18). The vision comes from the north, traditionally the place of Mount Zion and the temple (Psalm 48:1). At the centre of the cloud and fire is "something like gleaming amber" (v. 4): the Hebrew word is unique to Ezekiel and difficult to translate - it is used in modern Hebrew to mean electricity.

The four living creatures are later identified as cherubim (Ezekiel 10:15). These were traditionally the heavenly beings who bore the throne of God (Psalm 80:12 Samuel 6:2). Their basic form is human, but the details of the description emphasise their mystery. The four faces heighten the mystery and the majesty of the creatures and have been understood in a variety of ways. Strange as they are to us, there are similarities to statues in the holy places and palaces of ancient Babylon.

The prophet was describing the mystery of God ,so it is not surprising that the details are elusive. The clear message was that God was with the people, even in their exile and that is a message of hope for us today.

To Ponder

How do you picture God?

Are there people in your community who are refugees or exiles? How are they treated and how do you feel about them?

Bible notes author: The Revd Ruth Gee

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