Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 3 (2000-2001) - Review

Kutsko, John F., Between Heaven and Earth: Divine Presence and Absence in the Book of Ezekiel (Biblical and Judaic Studies from the University of California, San Diego, 7; Winona Lake, IN.: Eisenbrauns, 2000). Pp. xiv + 185. Cloth. ISBN 1-57506-041-8.


A revision of the author's doctoral thesis (Harvard, 1997), this monograph argues that the paradox of divine presence and absence is central to Ezekiel's treatment of three pressing issues of the exile: theodicy (why are we in exile?); theophany (where is God in exile?), and theonomy (what power does God have, now that we are in exile?). Kutsko supports his insightful proposals with solidly developed exegetical and historical arguments and balanced evaluations of past treatments of these issues.

In his introductory chapter, Kutsko states the following premises of his study: 1) the book of Ezekiel is literarily coherent and exhibits a well-integrated structure; 2) the author of Ezekiel not only creatively appropriates Israelite traditions, 3) he also consciously interacts with Assyro-Babylonian imperial rhetoric. Kutsko situates each of these premises in a helpful and concise survey of scholarship. He then addresses each of the above questions in three separate but interrelated chapters, which he calls case studies.

Kutsko argues in chapter 2 that idolatry is the most frequently stated reason for the exile in Ezekiel and thus forms the basis of Ezekiel's theodicy. The prophet's concern with idolatry immediately brings the paradox of divine absence and presence into view, since idols in Israel implied divine presence, yet their very presence forced God's withdrawal and absence. Kutsko pursues Ezekiel's critique of the idols along three lines. First, Ezekiel's frequent references to proscribed activity, his preferred terms for idols (especially the "quintessentially Ezekielian" term Mylwlg), and his conscious avoidance of the term Myhl) in connection with idols, demonstrate the prophet's intention to deny any "divine associations, representational merit, or even craftsmanship to the idols" (p. 35). Kutsko then considers what Ezekiel would have meant by idolatry (probably the use of idols to worship other gods), as well as the extent to which evidence does or does not point to continuing idolatrous practices in Ezekiel's time. Second, Kutsko argues that not only was Ezekiel familiar with the Mesopotamian understanding of idols as the image of a god, he repudiated this understanding and implicitly followed the Priestly teaching that only human beings were proper images of God. Third, Kutsko demonstrates that Ezekiel links his condemnation of ethical abuses with the practice of idolatry. The chapter makes a convincing case that Ezekiel, not Second Isaiah, was the first monotheist. One wishes, however, that Kutsko had been more precise in his discussion of Ezekiel's use of the term Mlc (pp. 68-69). It is not the case, as he claims, that "Ezekiel employs Mlc solely for idols (Ezek 7:20; 16:17; 23:14)." Ezek 23:14 uses the term simply to refer to a representation of human beings. One also wishes that there were stronger evidence for Kutsko's suggestion that Ezekiel appropriated the Priestly conception of human beings as the image of God, since that is crucial for the development of his argument in chapter 4.

Chapter 3 takes up the problem of theophany (where is God?) by examining Ezekiel's use of the priestly Kabod traditions. Kutsko argues that Ezekiel must address the exiles' pastoral need of divine presence without undercutting his theodicy, that God is absent because of their idolatry. The Kabod traditions allow Ezekiel simultaneously to assert God's transcendence, nearness, and presence in judgment. What is important to Ezekiel about the Kabod is its mobility, as is apparent in the traditions of wilderness wandering. In fact, the analogy between exile and wilderness allows Ezekiel to assert that exile is "both a means of punishment and an occasion for divine presence."

Chapter 4 addresses the problem of theonomy, or the extent to which God continues to rule. The framework for this discussion is the Assyro-Babylonian practice of confiscating, restoring, and returning divine images. The practice was an integral aspect of Assyrian imperial policy, and it was often used to illustrate the victor's power over the conquered people„that is, by controlling the gods, the victor also controlled the defeated nation. Kutsko discerns a comparable pattern in the book of Ezekiel and suggests that the author has appropriated this imperial motif in order to parody it. Unlike the divine images, Yahweh was had not been abducted but had left his temple and would return to it of his own accord. Furthermore, the "image" to be restored is not that of the idols, but the true representations of God, the people of Israel, and it will be Yahweh their creator who restores them. Kutsko develops this argument through a daring if occasionally strained analysis of selected motifs in Ezekiel 36-37. Of particular interest is his analysis of the cleansing of the people's "hearts of stone" and other aspects of their identification with the idols.

The book has many strengths, among them a sustained and largely successful effort to interpret the book of Ezekiel in its larger cultural context as an erudite, literary reworking of Israelite and Mesopotamian traditions. The book is therefore a useful model of the comparative study of biblical and ancient Near Eastern materials. As such, it also offers helpful approaches to current questions about Ezekiel's rhetorical strategies by demonstrating the manner in which Ezekiel appropriated well known political idioms and adapted them to suit his theological aims.

Margaret S. Odell
St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN 55057