Two Ideals From The Exile
( Originally Published 1916 )
Ezekiel, like Jeremiah, looked forward to a covenant made with the restored nation, but he failed to see that this covenant needed to be of an essentially different nature from the old one. His idea was that God by his power would multiply his people, setting his sanctuary in their midst, and that the nations would be forced to recognize his presence there. While Ezekiel was a prophet with some recognition of the inner conditions of life, he was much more a priest, concerned with the external and visible institutions that express the relations of the people with their God.
It was near the close of his ministry, in the twenty-fifth year of his captivity, that Ezekiel saw in detailed vision the restoration of the temple, city, and land, with more magnificent provision for sacrificial worship than had ever been realized while the kingdom stood. The vision occupies the last nine chapters of Ezekiel's book; of these the first three describe the ideal temple, and especially its surrounding courts and gates. Next comes a description of God's returning to his restored house, the sequel to the vision which the prophet had seen, nearly twenty years before, of God's departure from his temple.
Mindful of the pollution which had driven the Holy One from his ancient temple, Ezekiel prescribed elaborate safeguards for the sanctity of the house to be built. No foreigner was to enter the sacred precincts, and those members of the tribe of Levi who had formerly officiated at the high places were to be permitted only the more menial duties in connection with the temple and its sacrifices. The truly priestly functions were to be limited to those Levites who had officiated in Solomon's temple. These were counted sons of Zadok, who was priest in the days of David and Solomon, and whose ancestry was traced back to Aaron.
The Deuteronomic law had provided for the Levites of the devastated high places equal rights with the Jerusalem priests, but Ezekiel's ideas of the purity of the temple revolted at this and introduced the sharp distinction between the priests and the other Levites characteristic of later Judaism. How far Ezekiel's other careful provisions for the physical purity of the priests were the mere writing down of ancient practices and how far they were new ideas of his we cannot always be sure; certainly the pre-exilic codes which are preserved make no such elaborate provisions for ritual cleanness. The judicial functions which he ascribed to the priests were such as had long been their prerogatives.
Detailed provisions were made as to the various kinds of offerings; and a mechanically ideal allotment of the land to the Twelve Tribes, quite different from their historical apportionment, is described at length. According to this ideal, there were to be seven tribes north and five south of the city and sanctuary, each tribe owning a strip from the sea to the desert. About the sanctuary the separate domains of the priests, the Levites, and the prince were arranged.
Ezekiel, as a young man of priestly family and ardent devotion to his God, had seen the mixed mass of foreign cults practiced in the temple during the years of reaction, after Josiah's death. He must have realized through those bitter years that the centralization of worship in Jerusalem, insisted upon in the law of Deuteronomy, had not accomplished its purpose in securing the exclusive worship of the God of Israel. Now, in the latter years of his life, he planned for the future an arrangement of the restored community which it seemed must protect the sanctuary for its own. God. He was filled with a sense of Yahweh's holiness, but this seems to have been in his mind more ceremonial than moral. He had something of the ethical conception of God that his great predecessors had developed during some centuries of upward progress, but the original idea of holiness, separation, was more prominent in his thought.
Other men of priestly mind and inheritance, in the early years of exile, formulated a code of ritual law in which the word "holiness" is so often repeated that it is known as the "Holiness Code." This body of law was taken up into the later Book of Leviticus, of which it now forms chapters 17-26. The laws deal mainly with ceremonial purity, qualifications for the priesthood, religious festivals, and kindred themes. A comparison of the directions for the great annual feasts with those found in our earliest ritual code may serve at once to indicate the continuity of Israel's ritual and the gradual elaboration of the laws which prescribe its practices.
Probably the Holiness Code did little more, in most matters with which it dealt, than formulate the practices of the true worship of Yahweh as they were understood in the Jerusalem temple before its destruction. So long as the temple stood and its worship was conducted by a succession of trained priests, very little was needed by way of written law to direct its forms of worship; the fall of the temple and the transporting of its priests to a distant land seem to have brought about very speedily a certain amount of literary activity on the part of these priests. We shall find this activity increasing among the Jewish priests of Babylon in subsequent generations.
The first ideal of Israel's religion which we find assuming fixed and permanent form in the exile is that of rigid provision for guarding the holiness of Yahweh and his people, by the preservation of those rites which were now counted his true and time-honored worship, and by the establishment of new rules which should prevent such admixture of foreign worship as had characterized the last years of Solomon's temple.
All this involved a turning away from the ideas of the prophets and an emphasis upon ritual law such as not even Deuteronomy had contemplated. Had it been simply a temporary reaction against the prophetic interpretation of religion, it would not have demanded prolonged discussion; it was rather a. momentous point in the age-long struggle between the prophetic and the priestly sides of Israel's religion, indicating the dominance of priestly ideals for ages to come.
The work of Ezekiel and of the codifiers of the Holiness Code belongs to the earlier years of exile. Toward the latter end of this period stirring events among the nations called forth once more- the spirit of true prophecy. For some years we continue to hear a most wonderful chorus of prophetic voices that has sung itself on through the ages as the expression of the highest hope and faith of which the human spirit is capable. Later editors affixed these songs to the Book of Isaiah's prophedes, whence they are often styled the Second Isaiah.
The rise of Cyrus, who established the Medo-Persian Empire and extended it westward to the Aegean, seems to have assured an enlightened seer in Babylon that deliverance for the exiles was near at hand. The power of their rulers had so far crushed the hope of his people that they had little confidence in the purpose or ability of their God to deliver them. To meet this situation the new poet-prophet gave expression to the loftiest descriptions of Yahweh's universal power that had yet been spoken. Isaiah had heard him acclaimed as the one whose glory filled the whole earth and had thought of him as shaping the course of the great nations to his will; but the unnamed prophet of the exile knows him as the one that "created the heavens and stretched them forth, that spread abroad the earth and that which cometh out of it, that giveth breath unto the people upon it and spirit to them that walk therein." He represents Yahweh as declaring, "I have made the earth and created man upon it; I even my hands have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded."
In these oracles we have at last reached the expression of unequivocal monotheism. The great prophets of the eighth century came dosé to this in their realization that their God directed the movements of the nations, but it required the experiences of exile, the widened view of the world below and the starry heavens above, such as came after years of life amid the culture of ancient Babylonia, to bring to conscious expression the definite doctrine of God as the creator of all things.
The last king of Babylon, under whose rule this great monotheistic prophet lived, was a most devoted worshiper of the ancient gods of his land, divinities which had been honored centuries before the ancestors of Israel covenanted with Yahweh at Sinai. Their fame had spread so far that the name of one of them, the moon-god Sin, was borne by the mountain where Moses first met Yahweh, and the mountain whence he viewed the promised land, Nebo, bore the name of another of these ancient gods. Now the Babylonian king, whose name, Nabonidus, means "Nebo elevated," was trusting these deities of ancient, widespread recognition to protect his land and theirs from the rising power of the upstart Cyrus. In Babylon, Nabonidus repaired the ancient temples and brought the gods of the other cities in stately procession to his capital to assure its safety.
The captive prophet had apparently seen such processions of helpless images and was moved with scorn: "Bel boweth down, Nebo stoopeth; their idols are upon the beasts, and upon the cattle," he cries out. The excavations of the past few years have uncovered the stately procession street leading up to the great temple of Babylon, a street whose walled sides were covered with. blue glazed tile, bearing tawny lions in bas-relief, that seem almost alive through the splendid artistry of the ancient ceramists; hence today we can picture more vividly than would have been possible for us five years ago the idol-processions that called forth the scorn of our prophet of the sixth century before Christ. Again and again the prophet heaps scorn upon those who make and honor images, and never more effectively than in chapter 44, where he pictures the carpenter as warming himself with part of the tree that he has felled, kindling part to bake bread, and making a god of the residue.
In his exultant sense of the unique power of Yahweh this prophet does not wholly lose sight . of the moral nature which to Amos was the very essence of divinity: "He has formed the earth to be inhabited and speaks righteousness; he is a just God; looking unto him all the ends of the earth may be saved." It is, however, in the oracles delivered a few years later, after Cyrus' capture of Babylon, and perhaps by another poet, that the full moral quality seen by Hosea and Jeremiah is ascribed to this God, now apprehended as universal Creator and Preserver. In chapters 55, 58, and 61 we find God described as one who will have mercy and abundantly pardon the wicked who forsakes his way; one who would not have the fast one of sackcloth and ashes, but of letting the oppressed go free, dealing bread to the hungry, and covering the naked; one who anoints his representative to preach good tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and to comfort all who mourn.
In this group of oracles that reflect the last days of exile and perhaps the early years of restoration in Jerusalem, the progressive revelation of God through the prophets of ancient Israel reaches heights that seem final. Jesus of Nazareth, moving among men in bodily form, will make this conception of God tangible, fuller, too, in the details of its meaning for human life, but even he can scarcely give man a loftier conception of the power and nature of God than that embodied in these oracles of the sixth century before his incarnation, except in one profound aspect. That aspect is glimpsed at least in the passages concerning Yahweh's servant which are found within these groups of oracles.
The principal servant-passages may be parts of what was originally a single poem that have been separated as they were inwoven with the other songs of chapters 40-55, or they may have been independent oracles with a common theme. At any rate there seems to be a progress in the interpretation of the servant from the point when the figure first meets us in chapter 44 to its final appearance in chapter 53.
At the beginning the identity of the servant upon whom Yahweh has put his spirit is not made clear, though his lofty mission of establishing justice in the earth and bringing the prisoners out of the dungeon is stated, and we are told that he is to do this without breaking a bruised reed or quenching a dimly burning wick. Later in the same chapter the title "Yahweh's servant" seems to be applied to his people, who are, however, characterized as deaf and blind. In the following chapter the scattered people of Israel, though blind, are God's witnesses and servant, and in the next Israel is definitely addressed as "my servant" more than once, and the title is again applied to the people in chapter '48 as redeemed from the captivity of Babylon.
In chapter 49 the servant is addressed as Israel, but his function now is to bring Jacob or Israel back to his God, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel. He is also to be a light to the Gentiles and to be Yahweh's salvation unto the ends of the earth, Although addressed as Israel, the servant here cannot be more than the faithful part of the people whose mission is to bring back the unfaithful and to spread the light to the world.
In the great final passage (52:13—53:12) the figure seems individualized as that of one who has for the sake of others borne cruel punishment, pouring out his soul unto death, so that it has been made an offering for sin.
Whoever is in the mind of the ancient prophet-poet, whether it is suffering Israel personified, or, better, the loyal portion of Israel which has borne the sins of the nation in anguish of soul, or whether it is an individual, past or future, the picture suddenly opens to us fleeting, baffling vistas into the universal truth of life. The supreme servants of God who have greatly served mankind have ever been despised and rejected of men, men of sorrows and acquainted with grief, bearing the iniquities of many. Hosea and Jeremiah come to mind among those who had already lived and died when the poem of the Suffering Servant was written. The martyrs of religion, and of every other high devotion, men who have greatly risen above the level of their own age, have drawn others up toward their high vision only as they themselves have borne the iniquities. The humble servants of God, whose loving devotion has sought to win the base or the unseeing near them to a true life, have just as really exemplified the great law of life which the ancient poet- saw.
Jesus of Nazareth, who most fully and perfectly realized the mission of the Servant of God, counted himself the Son sent in self-sacrificing love by the Father whose heart yearned over all his children on earth. He taught us to see that God himself is the supreme example of this universal law of life, Thus in these oracles the truth is glimpsed; five hundred years later it will be made clear and will complete Israel's revelation of God, the truth that the just and holy Creator, the one God, is self-sacrificing love.
From the exile come two strangely contrasting ideals of loyalty to God. One is that of uttermost loyalty manifest in formal worship, to be given to him alone, by his exclusive people, who are to be guarded from all foreign contamination. The other is loyalty manifested in another kind of sacrifice, not the offering of bulls and goats, but a life of self-sacrifice for service, if need be unto the death, not jealously guarded from contamination but a light unto the Gentiles. In the vicissitudes of the generations immediately to follow the former will prove the path by which the restored community will preserve its integrity and its faith. Five centuries must pass before the other is adopted as the center and heart of true religion.