Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review

Peterson, Brian Neil, Ezekiel in Context: Ezekiel's Message Understood in its Historical Setting of Covenant Curses, and Ancient Near Eastern Mythological Motifs (Princeton Theological Monograph Series, 182; Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012). Pp. xviii + 416. Paperback. US$48.00. ISBN 978-1-60899-524-0.

Ezekiel in Context is a revised edition of a University of Toronto dissertation (supervised by J. Glen Taylor). As declared by Peterson, “This study concludes that the book of Ezekiel is not an amalgam of visions and oracles compiled with no particular literary strategy but rather is a purposeful literary work, which betrays Ezekiel's rhetorical intent” (p. 1). Selecting the visions and extended metaphors for particular analysis, the author argues on the one hand that the book is driven from beginning to end by the notion of covenant, and on the other that Ezekiel's prophecies are to be interpreted in the light of both Old Testament precedents and the ancient Mesopotamian literary and religious environment in which the prophet ministered.

The latter obligates him in the opening chapter to demonstrate first that the prophecies were delivered in Babylon, and second, that if Ezekiel used Mesopotamian motifs he must have been very familiar with the mythology and even the literature of the region. The former is not difficult; the latter requires more work, but Peterson presents a solid case for deliberate adaptation of Babylonian notions. He devotes much of the second half of the first chapter to arguing particularly that ancient Near Eastern treaty forms underlie the content and the structure of the book. The traditions of treaty curses for a vassal's disloyalty to a suzerain provide a helpful lens through which to read this book. This notion is not new, but his attempt to interpret the broad sweep of the book in these terms is helpful. In fact, his impulse to view the structure of the book as being governed by the supreme curse, viz., a deity's threat to abandon his temple, casts new light on what many have understood as a key motif in the book.

Accordingly, Peterson structures his analysis around the visions in the book: chapter 2, the vision of an offended deity (Ezek 1–3) and his departure from his Temple (Ezek 8–11); chapter 4, the reversal of the curse of being abandoned by one's deity (reflected in being left unburied) and the imposition of the curse on Israel's enemies (Ezek 37–39); chapter 5, the restoration of the covenant relationship, symbolized by the return of YHWH to his temple (Ezek 40–48). In the middle of the discussion centered on the four visions Peterson considers the judgment oracles, concentrating on the metaphorical portrayal of Israel's crimes that precipitated the curse and the divine abandonment in chapters 16 and 23 (ch. 3). Chapter 6 concludes the discussion with a survey of the ground that has been traveled and a brief consideration of the implications of the study. This is followed by a fifteen-page appendix on “Ezekiel and Apocalyptic,” thirty-four pages of bibliography, and a Scripture index.

Peterson's discussion of the opening vision in chapter 2 is compelling. In my own work I have emphasized the significance of the vision for the prophet himself and for his call (YHWH calls Ezekiel to priestly service in a foreign land), but Peterson helpfully highlights the ominous features of the vision, and its significance for the motifs of divine abandonment and the impending judgment of Jerusalem.[1] Whereas the opening vision (Ezek 1–3) only anticipated YHWH's departure from Jerusalem, the second vision (Ezek 8–11) portrays that reality in all its fearful fury. Following a consideration of inner-biblical antecedents to divine abandonment, the author provides a detailed review of extra-biblical analogues, not only to the central motif, but also to specific features of the vision (e.g., the eyes on the chariot; the four-headed cherubim).

In chapter 3 Peterson discusses how Ezekiel uses the metaphor of adultery and the unfaithful wife in chapters 16 and 23 to explain why YHWH would abandon his wife and impose on her the most horrific of curses. Responding to feminist scholars who are so troubled by this portrayal of divine violence that they cannot see the grace that YHWH demonstrated toward Jerusalem in rescuing her and lavishing his love on her, let alone accept his public rejection of her, Peterson rightly reminds us that these texts should be read in the light of analogous biblical texts and ancient Near Eastern treaty curses. Although he is certainly right in recognizing the importance of these texts in exposing the causes underlying YHWH's abandonment of his people, I wish he had provided stronger justification for isolating these metaphorical portrayals as pivotal to the overall argument of the book. Not only are some of Ezekiel's other metaphors equally forceful, but also these two texts share with 20:1–44 and 22:1–16 both subject matter (exposing the nation's history of rebellion) and generic features (all four are introduced as formal legal proceedings [cf. 16:12; 20:2–4; 22:1–2; 23:1, 36]).

In light of a paper I read recently at SBL,[2] I welcome the title of Peterson's fourth chapter: “The Awesome Deity's Love.” The author highlights the contrast between Ezekiel's vision of hope for Israel after judgment and the total failure of ancient Near Eastern treaties to hold out any positive prospect for unfaithful vassals. Israel's hope is demonstrated dramatically in the vision of their own revival and restoration in chapter 37, and the imposition of the curses they had experienced on Israel's enemies in chapters 38–39. After helpfully assembling the biblical and extra-biblical evidence for the significance of corpses being left unburied, he demonstrates how the punishment of Gog and his allies will be accompanied by the renewal of the covenant (Israel will “know” YHWH and enjoy the covenant of peace). Peterson suggests the precedent for this vision may be found in Deut 30 (pp. 248–9). Of course this interpretation assumes the chronological priority of Deut 30, which many scholars view to be a post-exilic addition to the book. I agree with his interpretation, but I wish he had provided some justification for this view.

Responding to those who treat Ezekiel's final vision as secondary, Peterson concludes his study by demonstrating its integral place within the flow and argument of the book. With powerful rhetorical force the vision of the new Temple, of the new Torah, and of the new land declares the ultimate restoration of the covenant, whose essential benefit is the presence of the deity among his people. Peterson rightfully notes that this theme is declared by the announcement of the name of the new city, “YHWH is there.” It might have been helpful at this point to relate this name to the longstanding covenant formula, “I will be your God, and you shall be my people,” and its corollary, “I will dwell in your midst” (Exod 25:8; 29:45–46; etc.).

Following in Moshe Greenberg's “holistic” tradition, Brian Peterson has done us all a great service in trying to understand how the book of Ezekiel holds together.[3] Peterson draws his evidence from a wide range of primary sources and interacts well with critical scholarship.[4] His treatment is well-organized and presented in a very clean and readable style.

Daniel Block, Wheaton College

[1] Daniel Block, The Book of Ezekiel Chapters 1–24 (NICOT; Grand Rapid, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 80–131. reference

[2] Daniel Block, “The God Ezekiel Wants Us to Meet,” in By the River Chebar: Historical, Literary, and Theological Studies in the Book of Ezekiel (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013), 44–72. reference

[3] Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 1–20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB, 22; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), 18–27. reference

[4] In a few instances, his secondary sources have been eclipsed. (1) On the “bad laws” of 20:25 (p. 186), see Kelvin G. Friebel, “The Decrees of Yahweh That Are ‘Not Good’: Ezekiel 20:25–26,” in Ronald L. Troxel, Kelvin G. Friebel, and Dennis R. Magary (eds.) Seeking Out the Wisdom of the Ancients: Essays Offered to Honor Michael V. Fox on the Occasion of His Sixty-Fifth Birthday (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005), 21–36; (2) On boundary stones (pp. 246–7), see Kathryn E. Slanski, The Babylonian Entitlement narus (kudurrus): A Study in Their Form and Function (ASOR Books, 9; Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2003); (3) On the recognition formula (pp. 260–3), see John F. Evans, “An Inner-Biblical Interpretation and Intertextual Reading of Ezekiel's Recognition Formulae with the Book of Exodus” (Th.D. Diss., University of Stellenbosch, 2006). reference