Ezekiel: Divisions and Dividers

By Tara Ingrid Ludmer
Fall 1999

Why are the exiles the proper audience for Ezekiel?

This is a question that many scholars try to answer. It is puzzling because many of Ezekiel’s oracles are clearly about the community in Palestine, often even to the community in Palestine, yet Ezekiel pronounces them in front of the exiles. This has led some scholars to conclude that Ezekiel in fact prophesied to the Palestinian community, at least for part of his career. Today, however, a majority of scholars agree that Ezekiel was in fact active exclusively in Babylonia. Scholars must then explain the function of Ezekiel’s highly Palestinian centered text in an exile community. I contend that the oracles against and regarding the community in Palestine serve to divide one community from the other, and are part of a series of divisions that Ezekiel uses in service of his vision of the future. It is these divisions, their effects and their goals, that I will explore in this paper.

Ezekiel’s Community in Exile

The Israelites that the Chaldeans deported in 597BC were the elite of their society. They were the king and his family, the important priests, the rich leadership, in short, movers and shakers of the Southern Kingdom. Their deportation was a political maneuver designed to ensure the loyalty of Judah, a pet technique of the Babylonians. The men and women of influence and wealth were removed from Judah, deprived of their "family, social status and material possessions," and of course their homes. Nevertheless, they surely remembered who they were.

Although as far as living standards and livelihood, the exiles "situation was not necessarily bad," the experience can only have been traumatic. The relocation disrupted their social order and forced a majority assume lives of work and trade. Even more troubling, at a time when Israelite religious life was centered completely on the Temple, they may have felt cut off from God himself. If God’s sanctuary is in Jerusalem, is God present for the exiles in Babylon? Is it possible to be the House of Israel outside of the Land? Was their expulsion from the Land also an expulsion from the people of that land?

Ezekiel’s oracles are answers to these questions for the exile community.

What are Ezekiel’s answers?

Fundamentally, Ezekiel insists not only on the continuing legitimacy of the exilic community, but also on its superiority over the Palestinian community. For Ezekiel, the exiles and not the Palestinians are the future of Israel. Ezekiel serves his community through prophecies intended to mold them for the future that he envisions, and that address their issues of displacement and identity.

For example, are the exiles worried that they are cut off from God because they are far from God’s sanctuary? The first chapter of Ezekiel describes the prophet’s encounter with God. In the first three verses, it is stated twice that this encounter took place by the Chebar Canal. Ezekiel insists that God can be present in Babylonia, and anywhere else, according to the highly mobile nature of Ezekiel’s conception of God.

Are the exiles worried that they are permanently cut off from the land? Ezekiel puts this concern in the form of a statement by the Jerusalemites, "The land has been given as a heritage to us." They seem to believe that the nobility has been carried away so that they can benefit and inherit the land. But Ezekiel reassures the exiles that the Jerusalemites are wrong: "[God] will give you (the exiles) the Land of Israel." This second passage is a good example of how Ezekiel reassures the exile community by making distinctions between them and the community in Palestine. First of all the two possible outcomes are directly in conflict: either the land will be returned to the exiles, or the remaining Israelites will inherit it, this means that one community will ‘lose’ and one will ‘win.’ Secondly, Ezekiel encourages division along class and power lines. If the banished upper classes feel themselves scorned by the lower classes who have come to power after their departure, they are more likely to remember the differences between themselves and the Jerusalemites – another distancing.

How does Ezekiel’s attention to the community in Judah serve the future of the exiles?

According to Ezekiel, Jerusalem is "self-willed whore,", her king betrays Yahweh’s covenant, her leaders practice abominations in the Temple, and her citizens "fill the country with lawlessness." Ezekiel’s condemnation of the situation in Jerusalem builds up the exile community by putting the Jerusalemites down, again polarizing the two communities. Showing the exile community all the awfulness of the community in the Land encourages the exiles to see themselves as distinct from that community.

Ezekiel does not tell the exiles about a community in Palestine that is lost without its leaders. He instead portrays a people that have replaced their old leaders with new ones. The exile community may see this as a betrayal, or as an indication that they are no longer responsible for the people they have left behind. In fact, Ezekiel asserts that the community in Judah is fully responsible for its own destruction. Either way, the exiles are encouraged to see themselves as apart from the Jerusalemites.

Not only has Ezekiel established a situation where the two communities are distinct, they are also in direct conflict with one another on issues of possession of the land and of leadership.

Why is it necessary that the exile community feel distanced from the community in Jerusalem?

Thomas Renz argues that in 587BC Jerusalem is punished by near complete annihilation. He sees Ezekiel 5:12 as one of many proofs for this argument. According to this verse, a third of the inhabitants will die of pestilence or famine, a third will die by the sword "around [them]," and a third will be scattered in ever direction and God will "unsheathe the sword after [them]." Accepting that this is the outcome that Ezekiel predicts, then he must certainly prepare the exile community to accept the destruction of their fellows in Jerusalem. He needs to ensure that the exiles will not believe that the end of Jerusalem means their own death as well, or the death of the relationship between God and B’nai Israel. Ezekiel’s prophecies, sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly, work to build a Babylonian community that can survive the destruction of Jerusalem as an independent community.

How should the Exile community deal with the Destruction?

Although Ezekiel’s prophecies are meant to drive a wedge between the two communities, and he has defamed the Jerusalemites in the exiles’ eyes, Jerusalem is still dear to the exiles. It is their true home, and they presumable still have friends and, Ezekiel implies, even children there. But the exile community is no longer to identify itself with the Jerusalem community – or else the end of that community would mean the end of the exiles too. Ezekiel demonstrates this in the passage where the death of Ezekiel’s wife symbolizes the destruction of Jerusalem and its community. Although this a traumatic event for Ezekiel, it clearly the death of someone distinct from himself.

We might also ask how the leadership of a society would react to the destruction of its people. The exiles themselves were in a relatively comfortable position, certainly far superior to that of their brethren in Jerusalem. Would some among them have felt that they ought to be suffering with their people? Would they have felt, as we say now, like the captain who believes he must go down with his ship? Ezekiel addresses these concerns also.

In Ezekiel, God makes the prophet lie on his left side, and then on his right side, to bear the punishment of the House of Israel and the House of Judah. He must eat starvation rations and barley cake baked on excrement. In this way, Ezekiel symbolically shares in the fate of Jerusalem. If Ezekiel were a priest in the Temple, which would have been his vocation if not for the exile, he would have represented his community before God, taken their guilt upon himself and absorbing it. Perhaps this action serves as a signal for the community in exile that they need not physically participate in Jerusalem’s fate, because Ezekiel has symbolically participated in it for them? If this is not satisfactory to the exiles, there is another option.

Why are the Jerusalemites dying? Ezekiel claims that "the person who sins, only he shall die." By promising punishment on an individual rather than a communal basis, Ezekiel gives an explanation for why the people in Jerusalem must die, and the leaders in exile need not. Since it seems that the elite in exile live because they are more righteous than Jerusalemites, their being in Jerusalem would not change anything. Even "should Noah, Daniel, and Job be in it, as I live – declares the Lord God – they would save neither son nor daughter; they would save themselves alone by their righteousness." This understanding of the situation that Ezekiel offers to the exiles clearly establishes a moral hierarchy, with the elite of Israel coming out on top. If the exiles really survive because they are upright, even if they were with physically with their people, they would still not ‘go down with the ship.’

By declaring the destruction of Jerusalem and its inhabitants, insisting that each person who dies, dies because of his or her own behaviour, and promising that the exiles will be returned to the land, explicitly implying that they will live, Ezekiel sets up a situation where the exiles could not help but see themselves as ‘Noahs, Daniels, and Jobs’ who are surviving because they are somehow better than the Jerusalemites. The exiles become ‘us,’ and the Jerusalemites, ‘them.’ The Jerusalemites are bad, the exiles are, if not good, at least better. Ezekiel’s descriptions of the abominations in the Temple and of the ultimate fate of the "dishonored and wicked" king that replaced Jehoiachin emphasize this distinction. Not only has God not cast away the exiles and chosen the Jerusalemites, but God has left God’s Sanctuary in Jerusalem.

The condemnation of the Jerusalemites transforms the exiles’ distance from the Temple and the traditional seat of their people from a negative situation to a positive one. It is indeed a very good thing that the exiles are no longer in Jerusalem.

Who are the exiles after the Destruction?

The exiles survive the destruction, but what should their identity be? If the community in Judah was the House of Israel, and the exiles distanced themselves from that community, how can the exiles be the House of Israel? But Ezekiel insists that the exiles are the future of the children of Abraham and the covenant with God, so how can they not be the House of Israel. Ezekiel resolves this problem with another process of separation. He first associates the status of ‘Beit Israel’ with the community in exile, and then disassociates it from the community in Judah.

At the beginning of Ezekiel, the House of Israel seems to mean the community in the land. God instructs Ezekiel to cry "over all the vile abominations of the House of Israel who shall fall by the sword, by famine and by pestilence… I will stretch out My hand against them… then they shall know that I am the Lord." In the ears of the community in exile, the House of Israel is a ‘them,’ and a ‘they.’ Later in the book, the exiles hear that they are also still B’nai Israel. Ezekiel tells them that God has announced that God will "save your brothers, the men of your kindred, all of that very House of Israel…" Their continuing status as part of the House of Israel is confirmed in later passages as well. For example, when God instructs Ezekiel in what to say to "certain elders of Israel," who must be in Babylonia since they come to visit Ezekiel, God says "Now say to the House of Israel."

At this point both the Israelites in the Land and the exiles in Babylon constitute Beit Israel. But since Ezekiel works the distance the exiles from the Jerusalemites, the next stop is make the exiles and only the exiles Beit Israel. As Ezekiel continues, the Israelites in Palestine are associated more and more with Jerusalem itself, which becomes a living entity in the text, and less and less with the House of Israel. In the first oracles against the community in Jerusalem, the House of Israel is condemned for its behaviour which is even more abominable because they are acting abominably in the Sanctuary, in Jerusalem, and in Israel. In his later oracles concerning the Land, God instructs Ezekiel to "proclaim Jerusalem’s abominations to her," and Jerusalem itself becomes the offender; when Got tells of Jerusalem’s harlotry and then later writes of her as a sister named Oholibah, sister of Samaria.

While the Israelites in Judah are becoming associated with the city of Jerusalem instead of Beit Israel, the exiles are becoming more and more strongly associated with Beit Israel. God says to Ezekiel, "Tell the House of Israel: Thus said the Lord God: ‘I am going to desecrate My Sanctuary, your pride and glory, the delight of your eyes and the desire of your heart; and the sons and daughters you have left behind shall fall by the sword.’" The House of Israel here clearly consists of the ones who have left sons and daughters behind, the ones who are outside of the land, that is, the exiles.

Finally, after the destruction of Jerusalem and its inhabitants, God promises the mountains of Israel that they "shall yield [their] produce and bear [their] fruit for my people Israel, for their return is near." God’s people Israel are the people that will be returning. God’s people Israel are the exiles to whom God promised to return the land.

Ezekiel makes the exile community understand and accept that they are the future of B’nai Israel and the covenant by using divisive techniques. In conjunction with his condemnations of the community in Judah, he uses the exiles knowledge of their own nobility and exploits class tensions to make the exiles and the exilic community believe that they are better than the community in Judah, to make them the true House of Israel.

How should the Exiles live after the Destruction?

Although Ezekiel appeals to the exiles’ knowledge of their nobility, an entire society cannot be composed of nobles. In fact this must be very clear to the exiles in their every day life. Many of them have become laborers and farmers and only a few can continue to be leaders. Renz argues that Elders mentioned so often in Ezekiel represent a reorganization of leadership in the exilic community. Ezekiel also uses divisive techniques to mold the future of the exile community, especially to form hierarchies of status and power.

In the previous part of the paper I have examined Ezekiel’s prophecies against the Jerusalemites, in a perhaps misleading way that implied that the exiles escaped criticism. In fact I believe that the criticism directed against the exiles serves a different purpose in establishing the new community that do the oracles against Jerusalem. The latter create a hierarchy between the exiles and the Jerusalemites, and the former in conjunction with the latter create hierarchies and instructions for the exilic community.

As the House of Israel, the exiles are part of a continuing relationship and covenant with God, and God wants them to live. "Turn back, turn back from your evil ways, that you may not die, O House of Israel," they are exhorted. Nevertheless they can no longer continue to see themselves a society of upright nobles. Ezekiel’s prophecies therefore break down the elite status that they built up before.

How is the elite un-elited?

The many criticisms against the community in exile are a first step in making the community see themselves in a different light. Although at first they may not believe that Ezekiel is a true prophet, when the destruction comes, they will know, according to the book of Ezekiel, and then they will be able too see themselves in Ezekiel’s eyes. In Ezekiel they are described as "rebellious," and God instructs the prophet to "declare to them the abhorrent deeds of their fathers. These exchanges ought to have had a humbling effect on the people.

Then the community of exiles is transformed from leaders to followers. The exiles are described as God’s flock, who are "scattered all over the face of the earth, with none to take thought of them and none to seek them," because their leaders, their shepherds have been greedy and negligent. Finally, in the very famous episode of the valley of dry bones, the community in exile, who we might have expected to find glad and happy for the survival they earned, secure in their nobility, and confident of their relationship with God who cares for them and wants them to live, is described as humble and desolate. "Our bones are dried up," God says in their name, "our hope is gone; we are doomed." This is a community that must turn to God, therefore to Ezekiel, God’s prophet, for guidance.

What guidance can the exiles find in the book of Ezekiel?

The oracles against community in Jerusalem, whose prominence has been puzzling for scholars, here plays yet another important role for the exiles: by serving as a negative example. Furthermore, they are not just a general negative example against idolatry, lawlessness, and betrayal, but in some cases speak quite specifically to the community in exile.

In the sixth year, elders from Judah came to speak to Ezekiel. Ezekiel tells them of the things that God showed him. At that time, one of the things that God showed him were the elders of the House of Israel burning incense to images in the Temple, and the false leadership of Jaazaniah and Pelatiah, and the death of Pelatiah. Is it just the elders and lay leaders in Jerusalem with whom Ezekiel has a problem, or is it the institution itself? Later in the book, whenever elders come to speak with Ezekiel, they are rebuffed. Once, God tells Ezekiel that these elders themselves are idolaters, and instructs Ezekiel to warn them against their fetishes, a second time, God also refuses to respond to the elders except to promise that the each member of the House of Israel will be judged before he can enter Israel again. These events serve to undermine the trust of the community in their Elders, and so to undermine the institution itself.

The prophecy against the shepherds of Israel also serves to undermine the exile’s institutions, and so divide the people from their leadership. If most of the people are sheep, then the rams and the bucks that God berates for exploiting their privilege can be understood to be the lay leaders among the people. Neither should the people look to their prophets (except Ezekiel) for leadership, because they are condemned as devourers of people, and even the priests have profaned God. Neither should the people look to Jehoiachin or his seed for a new leader, the monarchy is also subject to strident criticism, and God will appoint a new shepherd for them only when they will be returned to Jerusalem. In this way Ezekiel has undermines would-be claimants to authority in the exile. Who is left for the exiles to turn to? Renz argues that this lack of attention to present organization reflects an expectation of temporary exile and illustrates the books primary concern, "whether ‘Israel’ has a future or would disappear from history." While I would certainly agree that this is one of Ezekiel’s primary concerns, I also contend that in fact Ezekiel has a great interest in hierarchies and structures. There is not simply an inadvertent lack of attention to present organization, but a deliberate breaking down of it that, to my mind, has a function in the book.

Why the deliberate breakdown of present organization?

This breakdown represents another step in Ezekiel’s series of divisions. Just as dividing the exile community away from the Jerusalem community laid the ground work for the exiles to become the future B’nai Israel, dividing away the present leadership from the exile community lays the ground work for a new leadership structure according to Ezekiel’s vision for Israel’s future.

How does Ezekiel rebuild the structure of authority for the House of Israel?

The bulk of Ezekiel’s vision for the future of Israel is found in his description of the new Temple. The leadership that Ezekiel envisions is based on, big surprise, hierarchies – putting some people up and others down. Here, the future hierarchy is based on the behaviour of the past. The people, who have been rebellious and lawless, will be left without "easy access to the restored Temple nor a clearly defined role in its worship." The Levites will have to guard the Temple and perform the chores, but despite their priestly status they will no longer be able to enter the Sanctuary or approach God because they "forsook [God] when Israel went astray." There will be one King appointed by God over all of Israel, but his power is also limited to prevent the exploitation and abuse of power practiced by the kings before him. Although he can approach the Sanctuary closer and plays a larger role in the cult than any other lay person, he no longer has control over the administration of the Temple or the priests who are responsible for it. Only the priests of the line of Zadok, that is, the family to which Ezekiel also belongs, are not criticized for past deeds. According to Ezekiel they "maintained the service of [God’s] Sanctuary when the people of Israel went astray." Only they may approach God and administer to him. The Zadokite priests will serve as judges, will distinguish between clean and unclean, and God God-self will be their portion. "All the first fruits of every kind, and all the gifts of every kind… shall go to the priests." This is the highly structured system of leadership for which Ezekiel has been preparing the exiles from the beginning of his ministry.

In conclusion:

The series of divisions in the book of Ezekiel serve to develop the system of leadership that Ezekiel envisions for Israel. They reflect the belief that a highly structured hierarchical social system is what is best for Israel in terms of her relationship with God and her political and social security. Ezekiel’s techniques are, fittingly, very divisive because his goal is a strictly divided society – where each category of people has its proper place and proper function which is the inexorable destiny of each of its individuals.

Is Ezekiel elitist? The fact that the community which he serves is comprised of the elite of the formal Israel, is adamant about creating hierarchical systems, in addition to his placing of his own category of people closest to God, or at the top of his final system, seem to be indications of elitism on Ezekiel’s part. His belief in order, rank, and position could be a direct reflection on Ezekiel’s status as a member of a priestly line whom he sees as responsible for judging and separating the pure from the impure. In any case, to the extent that hierarchy is inherently elitist, Ezekiel is certainly an elitist book.


Duguid, Iaian. Ezekiel and the Leaders of Israel.E.J. Brill. Leiden, 1994.

Renz, Thomas. The Rhetorical Function of the Book of Ezekiel. E.J. Brill. Leiden, 1999.

Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures. The Jewish Publication Society. JPS translation. Philadelphia, 1985.