Study Guide

Book of Ezekiel Analysis

  • Genre

    Prophecy

    Ezekiel's a prophet. Mainly a prophet of wrath, it's true, but also a prophet of consolation. He's a little bit country and a little bit rock n' roll—or, uh, a lot rock n' roll (think Death Metal) and a little bit country. As a prophet, Ezekiel predicts destruction for his own people, as well as for most of the nations around them: Edom, Moab, Egypt. The list goes on--just about every nation in the known world at the time.

    But prophecy's about more than just predicting wrath. It's also about looking towards a better future, picturing the best as well as the worst. Ezekiel gives the people a way out, but it involves strict obedience and the grace of God. He predicts that this will happen, and that there will be an end to God's wrath. The exiles need something to hold onto.

    Now, this all sounds like prophecy as usual—a little destruction, a little redemption, add some casual smiting, and voilà! Someone call the publisher.

    However, Ezekiel's a little more playful and eccentric than your average prophet. His brand of prophecy includes all of the following hallmarks:

    • The Performative Prophet. The Israelite prophets love to practice what they preach and bring their metaphor to life, but Ezekiel puts them all to shame. He groans, he builds brick models of the siege of Israel, he destroys his own hair in various ways—he's all about that performance.
    • The Prophet Possessed. Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah have very normal, tea-time conversations with God, in which everyone gets to share their thoughts and feelings and it is committed to paper. Not so in Ezekiel—he gets jerked around by the Spirit of the Lord, and is often forced into silence, or moved bodily in some sort of trance. He's God's guy, body and soul.
    • The Prophet's Proverbs. Ezekiel likes to sprinkle some proverbs (a.k.a. Ancient wisdom sayings) alongside his prophecy, and add a dash of poetry or legal disputes or whatever he feels like, really. Ezekiel has no problem jumping off from other people's songs, poems, or sayings to get his point going, and he loves extended allegories, parables, and symbolic stories. There's your classic gloom 'n' doom prophecy, sure, but it's dressed up with sparkles in Ezekiel.

    Basically, Ezekiel is a versatile dude, with super strong opinions...like an ancient Lady Gaga. Sometimes, he walks around wearing an outfit made of meat (it's commentary, obviously), and sometimes, he puts on his fanciest outfit and goes on a jazz tour with Tony Bennett. 

    He'll always surprise you.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Well, the title is Ezekiel's name, and it's his prophecies that make up the whole of the book.

    Ezekiel's name, in Hebrew, means something like "May God strengthen him." Some scholars maintain that the proper translation is, "May God provide him with a rigorous strength-training regimen," but that's highly controversial.

    Like other Major Prophets, Ezekiel's account has its own style, its own personality. If Isaiah leads the reader towards a future time of reconciliation and universal peace and love, and Jeremiah brings on doom and gloom and God's wrath, Ezekiel seems to disturb the reader with God's mysteriousness and strangeness.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Ezekiel's book ends with nine chapters devoted to the rebuilding of the future Temple; the various rules governing sacrifices and festivals and how to worship God correctly; and describing how the land will be divided between the twelve tribes of Israel. It's a blueprint for the future: the House of Israel has just suffered a massive defeat, and Ezekiel's giving them the tools to rebuild. The last verse lets us know the reason for all these instructions and measurements:

    The circumference of the city shall be eighteen thousand cubits. And the name of the city from that time on shall be, The LORD is There. (48:35)

    Restoring God's presence to Jerusalem—publicly—is the point.

  • Setting

    Judah and the Near East, Before and After the Babylonian Exile

    Ezekiel's set in the unfortunate land of 6th-century BCE Judah, which is in the process of being destroyed and its population sent into exile. But when the book begins, Ezekiel's actually by the river Chebar with one of the first batches of Babylonian exiles. (Biblical history note: there are two waves of exile. First, people under King Jehoiachim get carted off, and then there's another massive exile when Jerusalem falls to Nebuchadnezzar.) In Ezekiel's visions, he's transported back to Jerusalem, which is the real geographical center of the book.

    Ezekiel's all about location—so much so that there's a series of chapters (40-42) that do little more than describe the precise measurements of every single area in the future rebuilt Temple. These chapters might not be the most entertaining chapters for the modern reader unless you're building a Lego version of the Temple, but they help indicate the condition in which the House of Israel has found itself.

    They're in a state of transition, to put it mildly. They've been totally devastated and need to start over. However, this isn't just a disaster, it's also an opportunity to begin afresh. Ezekiel keeps looking forward to a time of perfect peace and obedience, when people will be free from the wrath of God because they've learned to stop provoking it. Or more accurately, because God decides to stop being angry.

  • The Four Creatures

    As Far Out as the Bible Gets

    This is probably the weirdest part in Ezekiel, and everyone has their own interpretation. But before we get into those, we ought to marinate in the bizarre glow of these trippy passages:

    As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf's foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. (1:4-7)

    And this:

    Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another; each of them moved straight ahead, without turning as they moved. As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle; such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above; each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. (1:8-11)

    Now, this vision wasn't a completely out-there addition to Ancient Near Eastern literature. Cherubim, combining the features of different animals, show up in Ancient Near Eastern Art (especially Babylonian art, which Ezekiel might've been exposed to during the exile) a lot, as guardians of royal temples and other spots of importance.

    Everyone's a Critic

    Everyone has their own take on these weird visions. 

    • John Calvin thought that the animals were chosen to pull God's chariot just because they were the kings of their respective parts of the animal kingdom—the Human (humanity), the Lion (mammals), the Eagle (birds), and the Ox (…the Ox is a king, too, we guess?). But for this analysis, we need to get farther out than that.
    • The early Church Father, Irenaeus, thought that they each represented one of the Gospel writers who helped usher Jesus' message around the globe. The Human represents Matthew, since Matthew focuses on Jesus' human lineage and genealogy at the beginning; the Ox stands for Luke, since the Ox is a work-animal, and Luke talks about the physical acts and healing miracles of Jesus; the Lion is Mark, because Mark discusses Jesus as a figure of royal stature; and the Eagle is John, who is able to fly into the spiritual mysteries of Jesus' identity as "The Word."
    • On the Jewish side of things, the Mishnah (an ancient rabbinic text composed around the 2nd and 3rd century CE) announced that most people should steer super clear of this passage, unless they're really really far along in their spiritual training. Some combination of theological sensitivity (describing the literal, physical God is always a hot-button issue) and fear of misinterpretation (not everyone has the subtlety of mind/sanity to deal appropriately with psychedelic prophecies) led one rabbi to announce that nobody should read it...ever. But, of course, people did, and the mystical souls amongst them got a ton of mileage out of this outlandish vision of the heavenly landscape. This vision was a pretty big deal to the medieval kabbalists (source).
    • For the 18th-19th-century British poet and prophet, William Blake, God and humanity are one. So Ezekiel's four animals represent the divine aspects of both God and of human beings. The Human is Imagination; the Lion is Passion, Love, and Desire; the Ox is Power and Sensation; and the Eagle is Intellect.

    Of course, there are other interpretations, but these should be enough to chew on for now.

  • The Likeness of God's Glory

    We're not done with this chariot thing yet. Ezekiel doesn't just see a bunch of fluffy critters pulling God's chariot… he sees—well, God. Or, technically, not really, since "no man can see God and live." He sees "appearance the likeness of the glory of God"—a visionary image or representation of God's glory that isn't actually the same thing as God himself. He can't even find the words to explain it. But it might be as close as a mortal like Ezekiel can get without dropping dead on the spot.

    Here's the description straight from Ezekiel himself:

    And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form. Upward from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all around; and downward from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendor all around. Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. (1:26-28)

    Since God himself is beyond representation—which is why he won't let the Israelites worship idols or make images of him—he can only be seen indirectly. God isn't actually a guy with fiery legs surrounded by a rainbow: that's just his costume for this special, prophetic occasion.

  • The Wheels

    We're still not finished with the chariot… we haven't got to the crazy wheels that seem to rotate in some remarkably odd way. 

    As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl; and the four had the same form, their construction being something like a wheel within a wheel. When they moved, they moved in any of the four directions without veering as they moved. Their rims were tall and awesome, for the rims of all four were full of eyes all around. When the living creatures moved, the wheels moved beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. (1:15-19)

    Not only did this inspire a classic African-American spiritual, "Ezekiel Saw The Wheel"—it helped inspire the creation of all those "Ancient Aliens" programs you see on the History Channel (lodged between "Ice Road Truckers" and "Pawn Stars"). Yeah, some people have assumed that these eye-covered wheels are flying saucers. Feel free to take these claims with several grains of salt—or more.

    What the wheels do seem to symbolize is God's power and mobility, his omnipotence and omniscience. This vision helped inspire a whole school of visionary practices called "Merkabah Mysticism," where devotees would repeat Ezekiel's vision, having their own experiences of divine power in the form of God's chariot. This went on to influence the development of Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism. (Merkabah means "chariot" in Hebrew.)

  • Eating a Scroll

    When God gives Ezekiel his message and mission—explaining God's wrath and his purposes in sending the House of Israel into exile—he does so through a vision:

    He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey. (3:1-3)

    Even though Ezekiel's bringing a message of wrath, the scroll is sweet to the taste. It indicates that the "word of God" is sweet and consoling (as it is in certain chapters of Ezekiel). It's a custom in some Jewish schools to put a piece of candy on the student's first Hebrew primer. Same idea as eating the sweet scroll, but less time-consuming.

  • Ezekiel Bread (And Other Austerities)

    You can find "Ezekiel Bread" at your local supermarket. As part of Shmoop's exhaustive research for this Learning Guide, our editors sampled the product and pronounced it, well, not too disgusting. The recipe's part of a symbolic act that God commands Ezekiel to do:

    And you, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them into one vessel, and make bread for yourself. During the number of days that you lie on your side, three hundred ninety days, you shall eat it. The food that you eat shall be twenty shekels a day by weight; at fixed times you shall eat it. And you shall drink water by measure, one-sixth of a hin; at fixed times you shall drink. You shall eat it as a barley-cake, baking it in their sight on human dung. (4:9-12)

    God revokes the human dung part after Ezekiel protests (thanks, God),but the point of the act is that Ezekiel will, as an individual, go through some of the same pains and deprivations suffered by his people: They won't have enough of each kind of grain, so they'll need to mix different grains together to make bread.

    By lying on his side, Ezekiel acts out the inactivity and paralysis into which his people are being forced by exile and destruction. The same goes for when he's forced to keep silent, only speaking when he gets God's permission. Helpless, is the point here.

    Editor's note: We prepared the Ezekiel Bread in the toaster, minus the dung, and ate it standing up just for one day. We also forgot and drank two-sixths of a hin. We hope that still counts.

  • Temple Rooms and Other Idolatries

    In Chapter 8, God beams Zeke over to the Temple in Jerusalem and exposes him to Judah's idolatries in a vision:

    Then he said to me, Mortal, dig through the wall; and when I dug through the wall, there was an entrance. He said to me, Go in, and see the vile abominations that they are committing here. So I went in and looked; there, portrayed on the wall all around, were all kinds of creeping things, and loathsome animals, and all the idols of the house of Israel. Before them stood seventy of the elders of the house of Israel, with Jaazaniah son of Shaphan standing among them. Each had his censer in his hand, and the fragrant cloud of incense was ascending. (8:8-11)

    God goes on to show Ezekiel women who are worshipping the god Tammuz and people who are worshipping the sun and the "Image of Jealousy" (probably an image of the foxy female goddess, Asherah).

    You might take this vision literally, assuming that everyone has their own weird idol closet, but you can also read it in a metaphorical way. That's probably closer to how it was intended to be read. Even though people are outwardly worshipping God, in their hearts and in their private lives they're worshipping other things, like riches or sex or pride. The secret rooms symbolize that hypocrisy—an inability to put the inner life in line with the outer life.

  • Marking of the Faithful

    In Chapter 9, God sends a mysterious angelic messenger to separate those who are going to be killed in the Babylonian invasion from those who aren't. The saved get a mark on their foreheads:

    Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherub on which it rested to the threshold of the house. The Lord called to the man clothed in linen, who had the writing case at his side; and said to him, 'o through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of those who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it. To the others he said in my hearing, Pass through the city after him, and kill; your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. Cut down old men, young men and young women, little children and women, but touch no one who has the mark. And begin at my sanctuary. So they began with the elders who were in front of the house. (9:3-6)

    We just know you were about to say that this reminds you of the marking of doorways with sheep's blood on the first Passover, which saves the firstborn children of the Israelites from the Angel of Death who slaughters the Egyptians' firstborn (Exodus 12:23). It's also kinda like the marking God gives to Cain in Genesis which is meant to keep Cain safe during his exile, letting people know that he's a man protected by God (Genesis 4:15).

    The image appears again in the Book of Revelation, where the righteous people who are saved by God also are marked on the forehead: "Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were one hundred forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads." (Rev 14:1). Lots of imagery in Revelation is taken straight from Ezekiel. This was before copyrights.

  • Pot of Meat

    God explains to the citizens of Jerusalem that they're not the pot of meat they thought they were, hiding comfortably in the slow-cooker with their veggie friends.

    You shall fall by the sword; I will judge you at the border of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord. This city shall not be your pot, and you shall not be the meat inside it; I will judge you at the border of Israel. (11:10-11)

    Now you might've thought it would've been a bad thing to be a pot of meat. It doesn't sound particularly pleasant considering what usually happens to meat in a pot. But in this case, God is saying that the people aren't like meat safely protected from the outside world by a pot. They'll be destroyed or exiled in the end. Only dead bodies littering the streets of Jerusalem will be like meat in the pot.

  • Whitewashed Wall

    For Ezekiel and for editorials in newspapers, "whitewashing" something means trying to make a situation look better than it is—covering up the true nature of things. God throws this accusation at the false prophets who've been predicting that Jerusalem and Judah will survive the Babylonian assault:

    I will break down the wall that you have smeared with whitewash, and bring it to the ground, so that its foundation will be laid bare; when it falls, you shall perish within it; and you shall know that I am the Lord. Thus I will spend my wrath upon the wall, and upon those who have smeared it with whitewash; and I will say to you, The wall is no more, nor those who smeared it—the prophets of Israel who prophesied concerning Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for it, when there was no peace, says the Lord God. (13:14-16)

    The prophets have been whitewashing the truth about Jerusalem. Maybe they know what tends to happen to prophets who try to tell it like it really is. Nobody likes hearing about their horrible sins and imminent total destruction.

  • Trees and Vines

    Trees and vines are often used as metaphors to describe kingdoms and countries (like in the eagle and vine allegory in Chapter 17): the rise and decline of these nations is just like the life cycle of plants, from growth to decay.

    At one point, God compares Egypt to a tree that used to flourish and spread wealth and happiness around:

    All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs; under its branches all the animals of the field gave birth to their young; and in its shade all great nations lived. It was beautiful in its greatness, in the length of its branches; for its roots went down to abundant water. (31:6-7)

    Somehow that sounds less like Egypt than a Disney movie.

    But anyway, Egypt will be punished, attacked and sacked by Babylon, something like God chopping down the tree and killing the birds and Bambi.

  • Eagle Allegories

    In chapter 17, Ezekiel uses a somewhat confusing allegory to describe some political happenings. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon is represented by a great eagle who takes a branch from the highest cedar in Lebanon. The branch represents King Jehoiachin and "Lebanon" is actually Jerusalem, while the cedar is the House of David. Are you with us so far?

    Then Eagle-Nebuchadnezzar drops a seed from the House of David cedar—meaning King Zedekiah, left to rule in Jerusalem—which then grows into a vine which reaches out towards another great eagle. This symbolizes Zedekiah reaching towards Egypt, trying to make it an ally:

    There was another great eagle, with great wings and much plumage. And see! This vine stretched out its roots toward him; it shot out its branches toward him, so that he might water it. From the bed where it was planted it was transplanted to good soil by abundant waters, so that it might produce branches and bear fruit and become a noble vine. (17:7-8)

    God uses this allegory to show how useless it is for the House of Israel to form an alliance with Egypt. The solution to their problems is religious—rededicating themselves to God—and not political or military. Anyway, Zedekiah backed the wrong guy because Babylon ended up thrashing Egypt and Zedekiah paid a pretty steep price for it. Check out Jeremiah 52:8 for the gory details. (Never mind; we know you're busy. His sons are killed in front of him and then he gets his eyes gouged out.)

  • Lions

    Ezekiel uses lions to symbolize powerful nations. Take his description of the princes of Israel:

    He prowled among the lions; he became a young lion, and he learned to catch prey; he devoured people. And he ravaged their strongholds, and laid waste their towns; the land was appalled, and all in it, at the sound of his roaring. (19:6-7)

    We're not sure, but this may in fact have a little-known connection to the Vampire Weekend song, "Young Lion" (though Rock Genius claims it's a reference to Jeremiah). At any rate, whether it does or doesn't have anything to do with Vampire Weekend, the "young lion" has a double-edge to its symbolism: yeah, lions are kingly beasts, but they can also be violent and savage like the oppressive and corrupt kings of Judah. So when this lion gets hauled off to Babylon, it's for Israel's protection.

  • Twisted Sisters

    God compares Jerusalem and Samaria to two young sisters who both grew up to become prostitutes selling themselves to foreign gods:

    The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, there were two women, the daughters of one mother; they played the whore in Egypt; they played the whore in their youth; their breasts were caressed there, and their virgin bosoms were fondled. Oholah was the name of the elder and Oholibah the name of her sister. They became mine, and they bore sons and daughters. As for their names, Oholah is Samaria, and Oholibah is Jerusalem. (23:1-4)

    The names Oholah and Oholibah mean, respectively, "her tent" and "my tent is in her." In talking about the adultery these two sister-wives commit against him, God constantly draws an analogy between adultery and idolatry. Idolatry's the national or social equivalent of cheating on your spouse. It's the way nations become unfaithful.

    The analogy in this case gets pretty graphic—God takes it as far as it can go, really—particularly in verses 23:20-21. In his book Seeking Ezekiel , the psychoanalyst David Halperin suggested that these verses show that Ezekiel had some serious issues with women and sex. He saw a dread and fear of women's sexuality as behind many of Ezekiel's visions. Think about that vision where he blasted through a "wall" to find some disgusting things and see if you think Dr. Halperin has a point.

  • Death of Mrs. Ezekiel

    In one of the most shocking actions in the book, God kills Ezekiel's wife:

    The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your sandals on your feet; do not cover your upper lip or eat the bread of mourners. So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded. (24:15-18)

    God supposedly does this to show that Ezekiel is suffering the same feelings that the House of Israel will feel when it goes into exile and Babylon murders its sons and daughters.

    But there might be another layer of interpretation. Since the Prophet's a representative of God, Ezekiel's suffering mirrors God's. Just as the House of Israel was once God's "wife," and is now going to die when the Babylonians destroy her, Ezekiel's actual wife will die. But the same way God won't show any pity for his dead wife, Ezekiel also needs to hide his emotions, prohibited to mourn outwardly. So, yeah—it's really pretty horrible, especially since it's all done intentionally just to make a point.

    But the House of Israel eventually will come back to life. Not so Ezekiel's wife. This is one of the most disturbing passages in a book that's frequently aiming to disturb. BTW, Dr. Halperin the psychoanalyst sees Ezekiel's ability to refrain from grieving and go right back to work the next morning as just more evidence of his woman issues.

  • The Guardian Cherub

    When God starts tearing into the Prince of Tyre, he says that he'll be thrown out of his state of Eden-like happiness and security by the guardian cherub that God's sent to look over him:

    In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned; so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, and the guardian cherub drove you out from among the stones of fire. (28:16)

    This is the same kind of fearsome cherub with a flaming sword that God appoints to guard the gates of Eden after Adam and Eve are thrown out (Genesis 3:24). Definitely not these guys .

  • Pharaoh as Leviathan

    God attacks the Pharaoh like he were some sort of demonic monster, foretelling his defeat at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar:

    I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon sprawling in the midst of its channels, saying, My Nile is my own; I made it for myself. I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your channels stick to your scales. I will draw you up from your channels, with all the fish of your channels sticking to your scales. I will fling you into the wilderness, you and all the fish of your channels; you shall fall in the open field, and not be gathered and buried. To the animals of the earth and to the birds of the air I have given you as food. (29:3-4)

    Yowza.

    In The Book of Job, the Leviathan's a sort of tyrannous mega-lizard, symbolizing to the dominance of physical nature over humanity. The Pharaoh's like a little version of that same Godzilla-style monster. He represents tyranny, repression, arrogance: basically all the bad qualities a ruler could have. So God sends someone who's actually quite like him—King Nebuchadnezzar—to destroy Egypt and defeat the Pharaoh.

    You've probably noticed that God's always threatening to leave people's corpses out in the open for vultures and wild animals to eat. In ancient Israel, a respectful burial was hugely important. So this image was probably pretty effective in getting across God's blazing anger.

  • God as Shepherd, Israelites as Sheep

    Frustrated with the way the bad shepherds—corrupt prophets and rulers and priests—have been misleading The House of Israel, God promises to help by taking the shepherd role and showing how it's done: 

    For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. (34:11-12)

    From the viewpoint of most Christians, this clearly has a definite Jesus Christ feel to it, since Jesus is a tenderhearted shepherd of humanity. But from an orthodox Jewish perspective, it would refer to a promised future time where the House of David would be gathered back from exile and ignorance to be ruled by a righteous king anointed by God.

    However you personally view it, it shows God taking on a more compassionate role. Up to this time, he was focused more on total destruction and wrath. But now he's starting to focus on what will happen after the Babylonian exile ends.

  • Valley of Dry Bones

    God shows Ezekiel a vision of a valley full of dried-out human bones. He tells Ezekiel to prophesy and bring the bodies back to life. Huh?

    So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. (37:7-10)

    No, this isn't God's sneak preview of the series finale of "The Walking Dead." It's first and foremost a prophecy about the House of Israel. After the Babylonian invasion and its exile, the House of Israel seemed totally dead and defeated. But now, God says they'll come back from the dead with a new covenant with God. After the exile, the population had been pretty much decimated, so God makes sure there will be a "multitude" that returns and gives witness to his amazing glory.

    At the same time, this vision also hints of an actual resurrection from the dead—an idea that would prove to be important both to Christianity and to later Judaism. The Hebrew Bible doesn't talk too much about the afterlife. But Ezekiel and Isaiah contain images relating to life after death, and in the Book of Daniel there's an unambiguous description of the resurrection of the dead. Given what this book is about, though—the destruction and restoration of the nations of Judah and Israel—it's doubtful that Ezekiel meant anything more than that at the time.

  • Gog and Magog

    In the Book of Ezekiel, God predicts that in the future, a wicked king from the North named Gog, from the land of Magog, will come against Israel and try to defeat it (think ice wall plot in Game of Thrones). They're the distant barbarian hordes that God drags in from the far north. However, the tables will be turned, and the evil king and his whole army will bite the dust:

    On that day, when Gog comes against the land of Israel, says the Lord God, my wrath shall be aroused. For in my jealousy and in my blazing wrath I declare: On that day there shall be a great shaking in the land of Israel; the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, and the animals of the field, and all creeping things that creep on the ground, and all human beings that are on the face of the earth, shall quake at my presence, and the mountains shall be thrown down, and the cliffs shall fall, and every wall shall tumble to the ground. I will summon the sword against Gog in all my mountains, says the Lord God; the swords of all will be against their comrades. (38:18-21)

    This little prophecy's had a big influence. In the Book of Revelation, Magog suddenly becomes a person (or being) instead of a place and helps Gog in his evildoings (Rev. 20:8). They're even mentioned in the Qur'an, which says that Dhul-Qarnain (possibly inspired by Alexander the Great) built a giant wall in the North to keep Gog and Magog out (Sura 18:83-98). During the Cold War, some Christian evangelists in America even speculated that the Soviet Union actually was the same as Gog and Magog. (Source).

    Regardless of what Gog symbolizes, the story has shades of the Armageddon and "Antichrist" stories built into it. It suggests that before people can live in real peace, there needs to be a massive and violent reckoning, where a ruler representing the forces of evil will be finally and totally wiped out.

  • Temple Construction and the Bronze Man

    A huge chunk of Ezekiel is devoted to describing how the Temple, which was destroyed by the Babylonians, needs to be rebuilt. Ezekiel describes how he's beamed up to the Temple site by God and encounters this weird Bronze Guy with a measuring string who guides him around giving really, really detailed descriptions of everything that needs to be measured.

    He brought me, in visions of God, to the land of Israel, and set me down upon a very high mountain, on which was a structure like a city to the south. When he brought me there, a man was there, whose appearance shone like bronze, with a linen cord and a measuring reed in his hand; and he was standing in the gateway. The man said to me, Mortal, look closely and listen attentively, and set your mind upon all that I shall show you, for you were brought here in order that I might show it to you; declare all that you see to the house of Israel. (40:2-4)

    These directions are obviously really important to Ezekiel and the other Judeans who will eventually come out of exile. The Temple's the only place where God can be worshipped perfectly, so the directions have to be followed down to the last cubit and calf. God's very particular about these things. The Bronze Guy with the measuring cord is evidently some sort of divine, angelic architect figure—a messenger of God sent to communicate the highly specific way God wants to be worshipped and the dangers of spending too much time in the tanning bed.

  • God's Gate

    After God enters the newly rebuilt Temple in Ezekiel's vision, he tells Ezekiel that no one else is allowed to enter by that gate:

    The Lord said to me: This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut. (44:2)

    The symbolism's pretty straightforward: the ways of God aren't the ways of human beings. They're meant to enter and experience life differently from God, and can't tread the same path or walk through the same gate that he passes through. Kind of like that first-class airplane cabin or VIP lounge you've only dreamed about getting into.

  • The Sacred River

    Ezekiel predicts that the Dead Sea, which is still salt-water today, will eventually become fresh-water and have fish in it, thanks to a healing stream of water that will pour out from under the Temple:

    He said to me, This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. (47:8-10)

    If we take this literally, it means just what it says. But it might mean that the presence of God in the Temple will bring a society and a people who once seemed corrupt and dead back to life. The "waters of life," like the "streams in the desert" the Book of Isaiah or the holy water used during baptism, symbolize purification: a fresh start. They can cleanse and renew a people spiritually. Not to mention revive the sushi industry in Israel, which totally tanked after the Babylonian invasion.

    • Sex Drugs And Violence Rating

      NC-17

      You could argue that Ezekiel should just be an R: yeah, it has plenty of violence and destruction, descriptions of stoning and an abandoned baby lying in a pool of blood but that's true for plenty of other prophets' books. But there are certain passages that take it way beyond R. Like this one. You can't really have such a graphic description of bestiality and just settle for a plain old "R"—it's a bit above and beyond the typical "Wrath of God" scenario.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • William BlakeThe poet William Blake was inspired by Ezekiel—more by the trippy, far-out visions than by the predictions of destruction and wrath. In addition to influencing Blake's epic The Four Zoas (the "Four Zoas" or "Four Living Beings" are Blake's take on Ezekiel's four-faced creatures), Ezekiel appears in Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." In this poem he explains that he lay on his side for so long and "ate dung" (which he didn't actually do) in order to try to elevate people's minds towards the Infinite.
      • The Book of Revelation: A huge amount of the imagery from the Hebrew Bible reappears in the Book of Revelation. In this instance, John of Patmos (Revelation's author) says that he saw the same four-faced creatures as Ezekiel, bowing down and singing praises to God.
      • Dante, PurgatorioWhen Dante finally meets his beloved muse, Beatrice, he daringly has her appear on the same chariot as the "Glory of God" in Ezekiel, preceded by the same four-faced beings.
      • John Donne: This major English poet went from being a witty, secular writer to a deeply religious Anglican minister. He found Ezekiel to be the best of the Major Prophets: "Amongst the four great ones, our prophet Ezekiel is the greatest… the extraordinary greatness of Ezekiel is in his extraordinary depth, and mysteriousness."
      • T.S. Eliot, "Ash Wednesday": This poem records T.S. Eliot's conversion to Christianity—in a very surreal and bizarre way totally befitting Eliot. Reflecting on his own resurrection, Eliot quotes Ezekiel's line regarding the Valley of Dry Bones, "And God said / Shall these bones live?"
      • John Milton, "Lycidas": John Milton's "Lycidas" is supposed to be a lamentation for the death of the young poet, Edward King, who was one of Milton's friends. But Milton takes time to attack the English clergy of the day, comparing them to the same "bad shepherds," misleading and corrupting their flock, which Ezekiel also attacks.
      • Sean O'Casey, Juno and the Paycock: At the end of O'Casey's classic play, one of the characters pleads that Ireland's "hearts of stone" must be replaced with "hearts of flesh"—a direct reference to Ezekiel 36:26.
      • The Qur'an: The Qur'an gives a new take on Ezekiel's prophesy about Gog's invasion. In the Qur'an, "Dhul Qarnain" (maybe the same as Alexander the Great) builds a wall in the North to protect people from the wicked destroyers, Gog and Magog. Like in the Book of Revelation, Magog is a being in The Qur'an, whereas in the Book of Ezekiel, Magog is a place.

      Pop Culture References

      • The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas: In this musical starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds, one of the characters mentions weird spaceship theories related to the Book of Ezekiel after seeing a shooting star.
      • Close Encounters of the Third Kind: According to The Oxford Handbook of the Reception of the Bible, Steven Spielberg used Ezekiel-style imagery in depicting some of the flying saucers in this sci-fi classic.
      • Pulp Fiction: Quentin Tarantino's ultra-violent gangster masterpiece has a famous scene where Samuel L. Jackson recites a quote from Ezekiel before shooting someone who tried to rip off his boss. The only thing is… the quote isn't really from Ezekiel. It's made-up.

      Other References

      • Ezekiel BreadAlthough Ezekiel Bread is marketed as a healthy alternative to normal bread, Ezekiel himself actually needed to eat this multi-grain treat as a sort of ascetic demonstration: it shows that the Israelites will be under siege and near-starvation, so they'll need to make bread made out of mixed grains.
      • Ezekiel Clothing: This skater-targeted brand of clothing is probably making a reference to Ezekiel…we think. But information is scarce—at any rate, it's cryptic, enigmatic… likely what the marketers were going for.
      • Eric Von Daniken, The Chariots of the Gods: As a disclaimer, this book is one of the most discredited things ever written. But it's popular enough that we have to mention it. Eric von Daniken pioneered the "ancient astronaut theory" which now appears on every History Channel show: the idea that alien visitors influenced human beings in ancient times. Naturally, von Daniken suggests the weird wheels Ezekiel sees on God's chariot are really part of a spaceship.