I. The Call of Ezekiel to the Prophetic Ministry (1:1–3:27)
◆ Nature and Design
The first major section of the book of Ezekiel is clearly occasional in nature, being addressed to a specific people (Judah) facing a specific crisis (the collapse of the nation) at a specific time in history (598–586 B.C.). From a series of date notices attached to oracles and visions (1:1, 2–3; 3:16; 8:1; 20:1; 24:1) we learn that this entire series of messages was received and delivered within a span of six or seven years, the period immediately preceding the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadrezzar. The effects of this crisis are apparent on every page as the prophet issues his urgent warnings of the impending disaster. But in the end the curtain falls with a final shocking announcement of its inevitability. Glimpses of hope are few, being scattered about like precious pearls in a turbulent sea of divine fury (6:8–10; 11:14–21; 16:60–63; 17:22–24; 20:40–44). The forms of the messages reflect their importance. By means of direct announcements of judgment, colorful allegorical word pictures, dramatic and often shocking symbolic actions, disputations with his hearers, and divinely controlled personal tragedy, Ezekiel seeks to drive home his point.
But this mission of gloom and doom opens on a brilliant note with the call of Ezekiel to the prophetic ministry. Because of the literary complexity and obviously composite nature of the text, scholars are not agreed on the limits of Ezekiel’s call narrative. Although most recognize 3:15 as the conclusion, 1 it seems best to fix the terminus ad quem at the end of ch. 3, the conclusion of Yahweh’s personal instructions for the prophet. The shift in style, tone, and substance in 3:16–21 makes these verses seem intrusive in the narrative. Nevertheless, the chronological note at 3:16 suggests that it is to be interpreted in the light of the preceding experiences of the prophet. The symbolic nature of Ezekiel’s actions in 3:22–27 suggest to some that this segment describes the beginning of the prophet’s professional ministry. 2 However, the adverb “there” (šām, v. 22) ties the paragraph to the foregoing, and several motifs in the text echo what has been described in 1:4–3:15. Furthermore, the events described involve only Yahweh and his ambassador. The symbolic actions are intended to prepare the prophet for his mission, not to communicate some aspect of Yahweh’s message for the people. Finally, the concluding challenge, “Whoever listens, let him listen; whoever refuses, let him refuse, for they are a rebellious house,” reads like a final verbal punctuation mark. 3 In any case, only in ch. 4 do the symbolic actions of the prophet begin to relate directly to his message, rather than to his role.
Assuming these limits, on the basis of style and content, the major structural components of the narrative are easily identified:
A. The superscription (1:1–3)
B. The inaugural vision (1:4–28a)
C. The commissioning of Ezekiel (1:28b–3:11)
D. The preparation of Ezekiel (3:12–15)
E. Yahweh’s induction speech (3:16–21)
F. The initiation of Ezekiel (3:22–27).
Old Testament accounts of individuals’ calls to divine service tend to be cast in two forms: the protested call and the overwhelming call. 4 Ezekiel’s call is generally classified among the latter, since it bears the following typical features: (1) The person being called receives a vision of Yahweh in all his splendor and majesty. (2) The person demonstrates verbally or nonverbally an overwhelmed response to the vision. (3) The person is reassured, prepared, and equipped by Yahweh to fulfill his or her prophetic responsibilities. (4) The person receives a special commission from Yahweh. 5 However, the tendency to draw the distinctions between the two types of call narratives too sharply has blinded interpreters to the reality that both types merge in this account. Numerous features of the present narrative, which will be noted in the commentary, 6 suggest that Ezekiel was not a willing prophet, at least in the beginning. Contributing to this impression is the extraordinary length and detail of this account, which exceeds by word count the report of the call of Moses, the classic illustration of a resistant prophet, by almost fifty percent. Ezekiel is a product of his time and his environment. The intensity of the opening vision, the duplication of the commissioning speech, the prescribed physical ingestion of the scroll, the stern watchman charge, and the threefold binding combine to soften Ezekiel’s resistance and prepare him for the role into which he is conscripted by the sovereign Lord.
Several additional general observations of OT call narratives may be made. First, the prophetic call was not an ecstatic or trancelike experience. Where information is provided, the divine confrontation occurred when the person was engaged in the normal activities of life. Second, as in Hebrew narrative generally, the accounts are punctuated and controlled by dialogue between Yahweh and his prophet. The commissioning of a prophet was a very personal experience. On the one hand, Ezekiel was allowed to respond verbally to the divine visit, expressing his reactions in first-person form. On the other hand, Yahweh spoke personally with his new emissary, and characteristically issued his commission in direct imperatival form. Third, the call of the prophet was a private affair. The decision to call a person was made by Yahweh alone, and communicated without third-party involvement. Indeed, the selection of persons for divine service seems at times to have been quite arbitrary, irrespective of personal faith (Gideon), interest in the divine agenda (Moses), or personal gifts (Jeremiah). Fourth, the function of the prophet was mediatorial. 7 The call did not come for the prophet’s own sake, but that a divine message might be communicated to a third party, usually the nation of Israel or segments thereof, but also to foreigners. Those who used their prophetic office for personal advantage were characterized as false prophets. Fifth, when the prophets went forth, they went with a divine message and with divine authority. Indeed, in these call narratives Yahweh poses as the great divine king, who conscripts into his service human ambassadors, messengers carrying his proclamations to their intended audiences. 8 This will become most apparent in the call of Ezekiel.
3 Isa. 6:9–10 ends a call narrative with a similar reference to the audience’s response.
4 Cf. the calls of Moses (Exod. 3:1–4:17), Gideon (Judg. 6:11–24), and Jeremiah (Jer. 1:4–10). For full discussions of call narratives see N. Habel, “The Form and Significance of the Call Narratives,” ZAW 77 (1965) 297–323; Zimmerli, Ezekiel 1, pp. 97–100.
7 Cf. R. P. Gordon, “Where Have All the Prophets Gone? The ‘Disappearing’ Israelite Prophet against the Background of Ancient Near Eastern Prophecy,” BBR 5 (1995) 78–85.