Like a collection of classic literature gathering dust on a shelf, Ezekiel remains an admired but closed book for many. We know it is important, but we don’t read it. However, random highlights are embedded in our consciousness; if not the valley of dry bones vision, then the battle of Gog and Magog, or the eight chapters describing a temple. These visions play a large role in the end-times theology of many, even if they remain unread! In fairness, Ezekiel can be a difficult book, not least due to the cultural and historic distance between ourselves and the ancient prophet from the East. A sure guide to the book of Ezekiel, Daniel Block has contributed two collections of essays that sit alongside his massive and magisterial commentaries on the book. I have already reviewed his first, and in this review, I will discuss the second, entitled Beyond the River Chebar.
Beyond the River Chebar
Beyond the River Chebar is dedicated to the final chapters of Ezekiel, so I expect it is the more attractive of the two books. Block’s essays play out as follows:
- An essay on Ezekiel’s attitude towards Zion theology (1)
- Three essays on kingship and the Messiah
- Ezekiel’s dismantling of royal ideology (2)
- Ezekiel and Jehoiachin (3)
- Ezekiel’s Messianic hope (4)
- Three essays on the Gog vision
- An overview of the Gog and Magog vision (5)
- A new look at Ezekiel 38:17 (6)
- Reflections on Ezekiel 39:21-29 (7)
- Two essays on the temple vision
- Ten interpretive keys (8)
- Ezekiel and sacred space (9)
The first two chapters reveal Ezekiel’s rhetorical strategies. He refuses to allow Israel to continue with sinful confidence that the Lord will protect Zion and the kingly line. In the case of the latter, Block displays that Ezekiel dismantles confidence in the king by means of his portrayal of a) Israel’s past kings, b) present kings, and c) future promises of kingship. Ezekiel casts Israel’s previous kings in a negative light and “never mentions a king of Israel or Judah by name” (p12), except for a future king portrayed as a new “David” (Ezek 34:23, 24; 37:24, 25). When it comes to present kings, Ezekiel couches his references through tangled language that require unpicking. For example, Ezekiel 19 depicts a lioness with two cubs. Eek 19:3-4 refers to Jehoahaz, who was the only king of Judah taken to Egypt (2 Kings 23:34). Ezekiel’s strategy then is to describe the kings of Israel and Judah through symbolism that allows him to avoid ascribing them any honour. This meant that Ezekiel’s hearers and readers would not rely on them, as in God’s eyes, their importance and power has been relativized.
The overview of the Gog and Magog vision was also particularly interesting. Block spent less detail explaining exactly of what and when the vision speaks, but instead provides an excellent investigation of the texts. By the end, I grasped the outline and rhetoric of these chapters and was better prepared to consider the question of fulfillment.
As with the previous book, Beyond the River Chebar is let down by poor editing at times. Examples include a list of five items, with the first four listed as a) to d) but the final is “fifth” (p4) and virtual repetition of material in a few of the chapters, such as p41-42 in p93-94. This book is a collection of essays over several years, so it is unsurprising that some material would be repeated when essays cover similar topics, but this could have been avoided in the final book. None of these problems sabotage the book, but they hinder its impact and effectiveness a little.
I was personally a little disappointed by chapter 6, Gog in Prophetic Tradition: A New Look at Ezekiel 38:17. The chapter explores the role of the Gog vision and what the Lord could mean by His questioning if Gog had been predicted in advance. Block has a provocative and unorthodox conclusion to the question that runs “contrary to the delusion of Gog himself, the misunderstanding of of 2,300 years of interpretative tradition, and the misreading of all the modern translations” (p143). According to Block, what has been missed by virtually everyone is the possibility that the answer to the Lord’s question is simply “no”! Gog has not been predicted in the past. I’m unpersuaded, but this is not what disappointed me. What I missed was an exploration of the LXX reading of Num 24:7, “his king shall be higher than Gog”. In The Messianic Hope (and here) Michael Rydelnik argues that we should adopt the Septuagint’s translation as better reflecting the original, and thus Balaam predicts the one who defeats Gog (Jesus), not one who defeats Agag (i.e. David). It was disappointing that Block didn’t consider this issue, although perhaps he does in his commentary.
More troubling for many will be Block’s conclusions regarding the Gog and temple visions. He certainly does not follow a traditional dispensational understanding of these passages; however, all readers can benefit from his work, even if they disagree with his conclusions. Aside from the chapter on interpreting the temple vision, these essays are less concerned with fulfillments and moreso with textual analysis.
As with those great works of literature, Ezekiel is worth the effort. So too with these works, help is often appreciated. Beyond the River Chebar would be helpful for students, pastors, and patient readers of Ezekiel. For an introduction to Ezekiel, it would be best to look elsewhere. However, as a series of in-depth studies on key sections of Ezekiel 38-48, this book is highly recommended.
Many thanks to Wipf & Stock for providing a copy of this book in exchange for review. Their generosity has not affected my opinion of this book.
- Publisher: Wipf & Stock
- Paperback 256 pages