In spite of the enormous importance of prophecy, we have very little biographical information on any of Israel’s prophets, with the exception of Jeremiah, and practically none about their lives prior to their call to prophetic service. Ezekiel in particular has disappeared almost completely behind the book that bears his name. From the dates appended to various sections (see the table of dates in the Introduction), we know that he was active from 593 to 571 b.c..; that, like Jeremiah, he belonged to a family of priests; that his father’s name was Buzi; and that his wife died at the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem in 588 b.c.. The extraordinary symbolic acts that he was commanded to perform, some of them virtually impossible, the violence and at times crudity of the language he used, and the loss of speech with which he was afflicted (3:26; 24:27; 33:21-22) have given rise to various diagnoses of physical, psychological, or psychosomatic disorders—epilepsy, catatonia, schizophrenia—all of them speculative. The fact of the matter is that from the perspective of the biblical authors the prophet is first and foremost an instrument or agent for a particular task at a specific juncture of history. The focus, therefore, is on what he says and does rather than on matters of personal biography.
The title of this as of other prophetic books provides a minimum of chronological information. The careful reader will, however, note that we have here a combination of two different introductions, one in the first person (v. 1), the other in the third person (vs. 2-3). Only the latter gives us a firm date:
The fifth of the month: namely, in the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin, the word of Yahweh did indeed come to Ezekiel, son of Buzi, the priest, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal.
Jehoiachin was the ill-fated king of Judah who, after reigning for a mere three months, was deported by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 598 b.c.., and spent the next thirty-seven years in captivity, or at least house arrest, in Babylon (II Kings 24:8-12; 25:27-30; he is also mentioned by name in contemporary Babylonian records). The year of Ezekiel’s call was therefore 593 b.c.. The practice of dating from the beginning of Jehoiachin’s reign is adopted throughout the Book of Ezekiel, and so this precise piece of information may have been added when the Ezekiel dossier was organized either by Ezekiel himself or by a disciple. It also serves to explain the reference to the fifth of the month in the other part of the introduction (vs. 1 + 3b), which, however, has “the thirtieth year.” A great deal of effort has gone into the attempt to explain this “thirtieth year.” The targum (Aramaic paraphrase read in synagogue worship) explained it with reference to the finding of the law book in the temple during Josiah’s reign (II Kings 22)—an interesting hypothesis that is chronologically on target. Other hypotheses are listed in the commentaries (e.g., Zimmerli, Ezekiel, 1:113-115). The view proposed here will not end the discussion, but it is worth considering. Since it would be very confusing to date according to two quite different systems, the reference is probably to the prophet’s age at the time of commissioning. Ezekiel belonged to the Zadokite priesthood, and, according to ritual law, thirty was the minimum age for assuming the office of priest (Num. 4:30). The mysterious divine effulgence (the kabod) which appeared to Ezekiel was also thought to appear at the climax of the ordination service (Lev. 9:6). So it is possible that Ezekiel was called to be a prophet in the same year in which he was ordained priest, perhaps during the act of worship accompanying the ordination.
In what follows, there is at any rate a clear connection with worship. The description of the divine throne is reminiscent of Isaiah’s vision of a heavenly liturgy of which temple worship was the earthly counterpart (Isa. 6). The location is near the Chebar canal, which, according to Babylonian sources, looped around the city of Nippur in the plains of southern Iraq. From the time of the exile it was common for diaspora communities to settle near water, since living in a land defiled by idolatry necessitated rituals of purification. It was by “the waters of Babylon” that other deportees worshiped (Ps. 137), and the practice is attested down to early Christian times (Acts 16:13).
Ezekiel is introduced as a diaspora prophet. He is among the deportees (1:1), and it is to them that his message is addressed (3:11). These communities were trying to pick up the pieces of their lives after passing through a terrible trauma. Their land had been devastated, the temple destroyed, many of their friends and relatives were dead, missing, or left behind, and they had to begin a new life from scratch. If we have not gone through something like this kind of experience, we will find it hard to imagine the impact on the tacit assumptions, religious and otherwise, that govern our lives. Survivors of the Holocaust would not have this problem. The questions are as easy to formulate as they are difficult to answer: How can one continue to believe in the reality of a God who is unable to prevent these things from happening? Or in the goodness, not to say justice, of a God who could prevent them but chose not to do so? The dilemma is stated succinctly by Archibald MacLeish in his play J.B., a modern rendering of the Book of Job:
If God is God, He is not good,
If God is good, He is not God.
We shall encounter this problem at several points in the book and shall have occasion to note how Ezekiel’s prophetic activity took up the challenge of this disorientation and loss of meaning forced on his contemporaries by the disasters through which they had passed.