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Spring 1992    Vol. 21 No. 1    pp. 100–102 

Book Review

Ezekiel 18 and the Rhetoric of Moral Discourse

Gordon H. Matties. Atlanta, GA: Scholars, 1990. 244 pages.

Reviewed by Millard C. Lind

Gordon Matties, Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba, comes close to revealing his personal identity in this book when he says, “Most North American readers of Ezekiel cannot enter the agony of Ezekiel’s own moment in history. The terror of losing all the foundations and structures for social identity and religious vision is scarcely comprehensible” (p. 219). As a member of a church which experienced the terror of Russian exile, he is uniquely equipped to understand the agony of Ezekiel’s exile. His book was first written as a doctoral dissertation at Vanderbilt University.

This work is a study of ethics in the book of Ezekiel, using chapter 18 as a port of entry. In his introduction (chapter 1), Matties discusses his problem, task and method. His thesis is that Ezekiel in chapter 18 seeks to form “a community of character” (language borrowed from Stanley Hauerwas); he maintains that community forms itself through the self-conscious acts of individuals.

In chapter 2, Matties discusses how Ezekiel draws upon ancient Israelite tradition as the source of his authority and how he transforms this tradition by using it to reconstruct the exilic community.

Chapters 3 and 4 are an exegesis of Ezekiel 18 and form the basis for chapters 5-7. Chapter 3 is a form critical analysis, dealing with the extent of the basic unit, its literary, logical and compositional structure, and its genre. Its genre is a prophetic disputation, designed to convince an audience and answer its objections. Contrary to an older form criticism which dealt only with similarities, Matties agrees that the whole point of the use of the genre is to set forth uniqueness, here the call to repentance (vv. 30-33a). The chapter relates to Matties’ thesis especially in these verses, which have two assumptions: (1) the community can engage in moral discernment and transformation; (2) Yahweh is the moral agent whose pathos engages the audience’s situation, yet allows them their own choice of life (vv. 31b-32, cf. v. 23).

Chapter 4 continues the exegesis by dealing with short, self-contained genres which are found within the larger disputation genre: short formulas (reception formula, v. 1; oracle formulas, vv. 3, 9, 23, 30, 32, etc.); the proverb (vv. 2-3); legal {101} lists (vv. 5-9; 10-13; 14-17); and the call to conversion (vv. 30-32).

Ezekiel’s legal lists are drawn into the unique focus of the disputation: to call forth the reality of a peoplehood committed to the covenant Lord. They lead up to the call to repentance, a call fundamental to moral discourse.

In chapter 5, Matties discusses individual responsibility in community. He rejects the older idea that Ezekiel moved to individualism from a rigid corporate personality concept in which only the social unit was recognized. Matties holds that both corporate and individual responsibility were aspects of Israel’s religion from its beginnings, and that Ezekiel did not move from this earlier tradition.

In chapter 6, “The Human Moral Agent and the Function of Law,” Matties investigates the individual laws of Ezekiel 18, the use of terms for observing law, and the function of law in the book of Ezekiel. The author points up two items about the individual lists which are of special interest to this reviewer: 1) To “lift up the eyes to idols” may be a political polemic against reliance upon Egypt (cf. Ezek. 23:27); and 2) a unique characteristic of Israelite law is its democratization, that responsibility for justice and righteousness are required of each individual rather than merely the political officials. The Western contrast of “law vs. gospel,” if accepted, makes it impossible to understand the function of law in the book of Ezekiel. Law is an agent of transformation, a pedagogical device directing concern not to the political or religious hierarchy but to all the people in order to create a new reality, a community of character.

In “Theology and Ethics in Israel, an Integrative Analysis” (chap. 7), Matties discusses Ezekiel’s view of Yahweh in relation to the moral life. Although God as moral agent can act apart from human agency, God cannot be honored without human agency; God’s holy presence depends upon interpersonal action with the human community. Divine integrity demands that God’s acts are in accord with the covenant norms (theodicy); community integrity demands enablement and freedom to obey covenant demands (ethics, 18:31). This interdependent integrity is predicted not upon Yahweh’s arbitrary authority but upon divine pathos—an interested, passionate God (18:32; cf. v. 23)—a pathos made evident only in the unity of the divine and prophetic word. Yahweh’s integrity {102} is dependent upon an act beyond judgment, a future act in which Israel is to participate even while in exile by turning to God, toward a community of character now.

Matties breaks with traditional interpreters who hold that Ezekiel’s message is mainly a theological interpretation of the threatening disaster of the exile; instead, he maintains that Ezekiel had political intent, agreeing in this with Bernhard Lang (Kein Aufstand in Jerusalem, 1981). His contribution, beyond Lang, is that he details Ezekiel’s positive political vision, a community of character. Would not this political picture be more complete if it included Ezekiel’s negative message, emphasized by Lang: “no revolt in Jerusalem,” that Israel is not to integrate itself into the power structures of the Near East? Matties does touch on this in his exposition of 18:15, but this chapter as an entry to the book does not really introduce the major emphasis found in chapters 23, 16, and elsewhere. If this negative emphasis is included, Ezekiel’s political vision is somewhat like that of Jesus as depicted by Marcus J. Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus, 1984. Perhaps it is not too surprising if Ezekiel’s vision contributes toward that of Jesus.

Matties’ book is a major work in Ezekiel studies. He is thoroughly conversant with the scholarly literature on Ezekiel. His analysis includes a sociological dimension which lays out the practical this-worldly concern of Ezekiel’s theology. His own “sect” orientation, that is, his active participation in an alternative community which has known suffering and struggle in its commitment to be a community of character, gives to him analogies for understanding Ezekiel.

While the book is written for biblical students, its language is not overly technical; it is accessible to persons in other fields who love the Bible and want to know about Ezekiel.

Millard C. Lind
Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries
Elkhart, Indiana

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