Monday, August 14, 2017

Parsing Ezekiel's temple

Readers will find themselves embarrassed by these chapters [i.e. Ezk 40-48]. To some extent at least they were presumably presented as normative for the future. Yet the postexilic community, even when adoption of their rulings was within its power, found other models of worship, while the different orientation of the Christian faith has left these chapters outdated. Must one relegate them to a drawer of lost hopes and disappointed dreams, like faded photographs? To resort to dispensationalism and postpone them to a literal fulfillment in a yet future time strikes the author as a desperate expedient  that sincerely attempts to preserve belief in an inerrantist prophecy. The canon of scriptures, Jewish and Christian, took unfulfillment in stride, ever commending the reading of them as the very word of God to each believing generation. L. Allen, Ezekiel 20-48 (Word, 1990), 214-15.

i) This raises a serious issue. Millennial movements and millennial cults routinely make false predictions. What distinguishes a millennial cult from a millennial movement is if the leader and members double down after their predictions fail. To outsiders, Christians who defend the inerrancy of Bible prophecy seem to be guilty of the same special pleading. So we do need to be able to address the challenge.

ii) Allen's final sentence is misleading. The canon doesn't take unfulfillment in stride from the canonical standpoint. To the contrary, the distinction between true and false prophets is fundamental to biblical theology. 

iii) Suppose, for argument's sake, that Ezk 40-48 is a program to replace Solomon's temple. Did exilic Jews really expect that to happen after their repatriation? Solomon's temple, which was far less ambitious, was built by human means. The postexilic community didn't have anything approaching the resources necessary to build the temple complex envisioned by Ezekiel. How could they realistically expect that to happen after returning to Palestine? Wouldn't thoughtful members of Ezekiel's audience find his vision puzzling or idealistic? So that's one of several dubious assumptions underlying Allen's interpretation and assessment. 

Barring supernatural intervention, it would require modern construction equipment to build the temple complex envisioned by Ezekiel. 

iv) Let's consider some other dubious assumptions he makes. A vision of a temple has no date. A vision of a temple doesn't place that structure in the past, near future, or far future. A vision of a temple is neutral on the timeframe. 

As a practical matter, Ezekiel's audience could rule out a past realization. But respecting the future, there's nothing in the vision itself that selects for the near-term or long-term. It's just a verbal description of a mental image of a temple complex. 

v) By the same token, a vision of a temple is not, in itself, a promise, prediction, or building program. Compare it to dreams. Some dreams are ordinary while other dreams are revelatory. But you don't know ahead of time which is which. At best, you only know after the fact if the dream was ordinary or revelatory. If it comes true, then it was prophetic. But that's not something you can discern in advance. 

Moreover, the benefit of hindsight works better in the short-term than the long-term. In the case of any true prophecy, there's an interval between the time of the prophecy and the time of fulfillment. Before then, the prophecy was apparently false. Nothing happened…until it happened! 

vi) Suppose, for argument's sake, that Ezekiel's vision is not a promise, prediction, or building program. Would that still be edifying?

Solomon's temple was destroyed. Ezekiel has a vision of a new temple that, in a sense, will replace it. Even if that's not literal, it could still be meaningful. Not a vision of the future, but a picturesque metaphor or analogy for the future. A way of saying the exilic community has a future. God will restore the Jews to their homeland. The Mosaic cultus will resume. God hasn't given up on Israel. 

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