A prophet’s strange visions and powerful message

People of the Book – Ezekiel

New York Institute of Technology professor Luis Navia claims that NASA engineer Josef Blumrich came to the idea of the omnidirectional landing gear of the Mariner shuttle after reading the strange vision recorded in the book of Ezekiel. Other more fantastic theses concerning this account abound. (I admit that as a teenager I enthusiastically read Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods, in which he argued that the technologies and religions of many ancient civilizations were given to them by ancient astronauts who were welcomed as gods.) But Ezekiel is a fascinating figure to contemplate beyond his supposed association with alien technology and/or psychedelic drugs.

A loose contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah (some sources claim they were relatives), Ezekiel lived in the period leading up to and during the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century B.C. As the Jews were carried off from Jerusalem to live under the tyrant Nebuchadnezzar, who tradition says drank his courtly wine from the hollowed-out skull of one of their countrymen (today a 15-liter bottle of wine is called a Nebuchadnezzar), Ezekiel continued to preach the importance of remaining faithful to YHWH, the singular God who had initiated a special and eternal covenant with the Israelites.

In a memorable passage, Ezekiel follows the leadings of the Lord out into a valley of dry bones. He sees innumerable skeletons scattered throughout the arid landscape, bringing to mind the words of Dante quoted by T.S. Eliot, familiar sentiments to anyone that has visited the enormous cemeteries and catacombs of other countries, “I had not thought death had undone so many.” God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones, “Listen, I will make breath enter you so that you may come to life” (Ez 37:5). The Hebrew word for “breath” (rûah) can be translated in various English terms — wind, breath, spirit. In Genesis, it is the rûah Elohim (the Spirit of God) that hovers over the waters of chaos before creation.

And when the enlivening divine breath enters them, the bones grow flesh and leap to their feet, a vast yet homeless army, “without hope and cut off.” The Lord then tells them in a multi-leveled expression of truth, “I am going to open your graves, my people, and bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you will know, my people, that I am the Lord when I open your graves and bring you up out of them. I will put my spirit in you that you may live and I will place you in your own land” (Ez 37:12-14). He prophesies here not only the return of the exiled Jews to Israel, but also of all his children of every era to what Thomas Aquinas’s famous hymn calls “our true native land to be,” the new and eternal Jerusalem.

In the 44th chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, God refers to the sanctuary gate forever closed. “Then the Lord said to me: ‘This gate is to remain shut. It must never be opened; no one may enter through it. The Prince himself is the only one who may sit inside the gateway to eat in the presence of the Lord.’”

St. Ambrose and his student St. Augustine both interpreted this passage as allegorically referring to the perpetual virginity of Mary, the Theotokos (the God-bearer). The former writes, “Who is this gate if not Mary? Is it not closed because she is an inviolate virgin? Mary is the gate through which Christ entered the world, when he was brought forth in the virginal birth and the manner of his birth did not break the seals of virginity.”

Many New Testament commentaries reflect similar interpretations of the risen Jesus miraculously passing through the barred doors of the upper room (Jn 20:19-23). Theologians to this day, from Scripture scholars to feminist thinkers to bishops, continue to read these passages, reflect upon, and discuss the delicate issue of Mary’s virginitas ante, inter, et post partum.

In current-day Iraq, a building exists which is traditionally thought to be the tomb of Ezekiel. Jews have treated this site as a pilgrimage destination for millennia. Recent rumors that the tomb was at the center of inter-religious conflict between Shi’ite Muslims and local Christians and Jews have been debunked by the Jerusalem Post. All three faiths revere the prophetic witness and sanctity of Ezekiel, (in Islam, known as Dhu’l-kifl). Prayers of devout believers can still be heard here in various ancient and modern languages, peaceably and movingly coexisting in this holy place, if perhaps not in every corner of the Middle East today. For as the Lord told Ezekiel about his sons and daughters throughout the earth: “Behold, I will take you from among all people, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land…A new heart will I give you and a new spirit will I put within you…and you shall be my people and I will be your God” (Ez 36).

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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