Taking a chapter at a time in the first part of Israel Knohl’s The Divine Symphony, worked. I have decided, though, that the second part of the book will be more interesting if I just look at particular scriptures that he discusses.
He discusses Ezekiel. Ezekiel prophesied during the exile in Babylon. The question was why God had allowed the disaster of the sack of Jerusalem and the exile in which the Babylonians forced many Jews to relocate to Babylon.
Ezekiel’s answer was contradictory. If the whole Bible is a symphony of many voices, Ezekiel all by himself is at least a duet. He gives two completely different answers to the question of why the exile.
In Ezekiel 18 the prophet seems to disagree with the idea that it was the idolatry of the past that led to the exile. The proverb being repeated was that the fathers had eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge. Especially, some thought that the wickedness of the king, Manasseh, who reversed Josiah’s reforms, was the cause of God’s punishment. Ezekiel asserts individual responsibility. The soul that sins shall die (18:1-4). The wicked man who renounces his sin shall live (18:21).
He seems to defend God’s fairness over against the idea that sin and punishment are the results of an inscrutable fate. No. It is the sin of the individual that God punishes, and the reformation of the individual that God honors. He agrees with 2 Chronicles which, over against 2 Kings, blames the exile on the last king of Judah, Zedekiah and his generation (2 Chronicles 36:11-14).
But then, in chapter 20, Ezekiel seems to say the opposite. Ezekiel says Israel collectively turned against God in Egypt, in the Wilderness, and in Canaan. Therefore, God’s wrath is poured out against them. Long ago, God had predestined them for exile
“I also swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations and disperse them through the lands, because they had not obeyed my rules, they had rejected my statutes,they had profaned my Sabbaths, and their eyes were fixed on their fathers’ idols” (20:23-24).
So which is it? Does God punish the individual for his or her own sins, or does God set the fate of future generations by the behavior of their ancestors?
Well, this same contradiction is still around. There are those today who claim that God has condemned us all collectively because of Adam and Eve’s sin. Yet what we need to do is make an individual, personal decision for Christ.
Knohl suggests that Ezekiel tries moves beyond pessimistic determinism in chapter 36. Israel is irrevocably corrupt, so God will remake them with new hearts. Knohl actually uses the word “reprogram”.
But this differs from the call to the individual in Ezekiel 18:31 to “get yourself a new heart and a new spirit.”
Ezekiel, says Knohl, was torn between his affirmation of personal freedom and responsibility and despair about human nature apart from divine reprogramming.
Many Christians will recognize this debate as similar to Arminianism vs. Calvinism. It is as though Arminius and Calvin were two personalities in the same man. Ezekiel expressed both positions, and he expressed them both in an extreme fashion.
The whole topic of freedom over against determinism is interesting. In family systems theory all kinds of things that happened in families in the past impact the present. A string of good marriages tends to a positive impact. But things that happened in the past like suicide, alcoholism, and abuse tend to negatively impact the present, especially if there was an attempt to keep them as family secrets.
And yet, individuals seem to have the power to overcome negative trends or to screw up positive ones. So it is perhaps better to go to neither of Ezekiel’s extremes.