Exploring Babylon Chapter 17
Recent scholarship concerning the prophet Ezekiel touches on some fascinating questions about the extent to which Judeans in Babylonian exile were acculturated and how cultural contact between Babylon and Israel might have affected Jewish sacred text. Much of the discussion revolves around links between the Book of Exodus and Ezekiel’s visions. And this week — which includes both the final readings in the Book of Exodus and a reading from Ezekiel — seems a good one to begin exploring some of the scholarship.
Background on the prophet Ezekiel comes exclusively from biblical evidence (i.e., no extra-biblical references have been found). He lived first in Judea, part of a priestly family, and was then forcibly relocated as in the first Exile to Babylon in 597 BCE. Because he served in the Temple, it is assumed that he was at least 20 years old while still living in Jerusalem. The visions he records encompass both Jerusalem and Babylon.
A brief scan of scholarship — at this point, using only free sources accessible on-line; more to come, and suggestions for resources most welcome! — includes several views about the life in Babylon available to someone of Ezekiel’s background.
Ezekiel and Babylonian Literature
“Ezekiel in and on Babylon,” by D. S. Vanderhooft discusses acculturation of Judean exiles, pointing out the difference between acculturation and assimilation and raising a number of possibilities for what Ezekiel might have encountered. (Here’s Vanderhooft’s paper, via Academia.edu, from TRANSEUPHRATÈNE 2014,)
Vanderhooft and many others cite the work of Laurie E. Pearce, Assyriologist in the Dept. of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at University of California-Berkeley. She looks at “Identifying Judeans and Judean Identity in the Babylonian Evidence” in the collection Exile and Return: The Babylonian Context (Jonathan Stökl & Caroline Waerzeggers, eds. Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 2015 — available in part through Google Books.) More specifically, she posits several suggestions for if/how Ezekiel would have learned cuneiform and gained familiarity with Babylonian literature (Ezekiel: A Jewish Priest and a Babylonian Intellectual).
In “Ancient Jewish Cultural Encounters and a Case Study on Ezekiel,” Mladen Popović discusses the relative strength of proposed literary parallels between Ezekiel and Babylonian literature as well as other evidence for knowledge sharing across cultural boundaries during Ezekiel’s time. His article introduces the Jewish Cultural Encounters in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern World which he edited with Myles Schoonover and Marijn Vandenberghe (Leiden, the Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2017 — also available in part through Google Books).
Ezekiel’s Visions and Babylon
In “Ezekiel’s Temple in Babylonian Context,” Tova Ganzel and Shalom E. Holtz discuss the possible influence of Neo-Babylonian temples on Ezekiel’s visions. Their focus is on how both Babylonian temples and Ezekiel’s visionary architecture are designed similarly to separate sacred from profane. They conclude:
We cannot say with any certainty that Ezekiel borrowed these features from his environment. We may say, however, that Ezekiel and his audience might have understood the plan for the rebuilt temple by looking to their surroundings. They had, in short, a working model not too far from their homes in exile.
— Ganzel/Holtz paper, from Vetus Testamentum 64 , via Academia.edu
Abraham Winitzer raises a more radical suggestion in his article, “Assyriology and Jewish Studies in Tel Aviv: Ezekiel among the Babylonian literati.” He notes that other scholars have found similarities between images in Mesopotamian mythology, visions of Ezekiel (1:26–27), and descriptions in Exodus (24:9–10). He continues, however, suggesting that parts of Exodus (chaps. 25–31, 35–40) not only “share important features with Ezekiel but in fact may be derivative of it.” Winitzer then adds:
The ramifications of this proposal – if it finds acceptance – are considerable, and would further the basic claim made here concerning the place of Babylon in the formation of early Jewish tradition. For not only would it shed new light on the place of Ezekiel and, more broadly, of the biblical prophets in a way presciently anticipated by early modern biblical scholarship, it would also highlight exposure to Babylonian culture as a productive force behind this evolution.
— Winitzer, IN Encounters by the Rivers of Babylon: Scholarly Conversations Between Jews, Iranians and Babylonians in Antiquity.
Uri Gabbay and Shai Secunda, eds. (Tubingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014)
This week’s Torah portion concludes the Book of Exodus and the construction of the Tabernacle (Ex 40, in the double-portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, Ex 35:1-40:38). Special readings for Shabbat Parah, one of the special Shabbatot leading up to Passover, are Numbers 19:1-22 and Ezekiel 36:16-38.
The extra Torah reading speaks of the ritual of the red heifer, which purifies after contact with a corpse. As My Jewish Learning explains, this theme is tied to Passover because “only people who were pure could eat from the Passover sacrifice, in ancient times a public announcement reminded anyone who had become impure to purify themselves before making the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem.”
The haftarah includes a different view of purity, linked with Judea returning from Babylonian exile:
וְזָרַקְתִּ֧י עֲלֵיכֶ֛ם מַ֥יִם טְהוֹרִ֖ים וּטְהַרְתֶּ֑ם מִכֹּ֧ל טֻמְאוֹתֵיכֶ֛ם וּמִכָּל־גִּלּ֥וּלֵיכֶ֖ם אֲטַהֵ֥ר אֶתְכֶֽם׃
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your fetishes.
וְנָתַתִּ֤י לָכֶם֙ לֵ֣ב חָדָ֔שׁ וְר֥וּחַ חֲדָשָׁ֖ה אֶתֵּ֣ן בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם וַהֲסִ֨רֹתִ֜י אֶת־לֵ֤ב הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ מִבְּשַׂרְכֶ֔ם וְנָתַתִּ֥י לָכֶ֖ם לֵ֥ב בָּשָֽׂר׃
And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh;
וְאֶת־רוּחִ֖י אֶתֵּ֣ן בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם וְעָשִׂ֗יתִי אֵ֤ת אֲשֶׁר־בְּחֻקַּי֙ תֵּלֵ֔כוּ וּמִשְׁפָּטַ֥י תִּשְׁמְר֖וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶֽם׃
and I will put My spirit into you. Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe My rules.
— Ez 36:25-27