Religious Background

Ezekiel – Grace and Glory

Religious Background

a. The Mosaic Covenant

When God brought Israel out of Egypt He made a covenant with the people through Moses at Mt Sinai (Lev 26). The covenant covers the blessings the people would enjoy in the Promised Land if they obey God’s Law and curses that would befall them if they disobey. The blessings (Lev 26:3-13) can be divided into 7 stages, one more abundant than the other and the curses, also divided into 7 stages, one more intense than the other (Lev 26:14-39). However, in this covenant, God also shows His mercy by making a provision for repentance (Lev 26:40-45) and a promise of restoration. Thus the covenant contains all the prophetic utterances of the nation of Israel in a nutshell.

Throughout the book of Ezekiel, the author had referred to the Mosaic covenant that the God had made with the people of Israel. Below is a summary of some of the blessings and curses mentioned in Ezekiel:

Blessings

Ezekiel

Lev 26

Protection against dangerous animals such as lions and bears

34:25

6

God will not forsake His people and will put his dwelling place among them

37:27

11

The people will live in safety

30:18; 34:27

13

Curses

Ezekiel

Lev 26

Poverty, hunger and loss of children 14:15 22
No protection against enemies 14:17 25
Food supply cut off (famine) 4:16; 14:13 26
High places for idol worship destroyed 6:3-6; 6:13; 43:7 30
Destruction and exile of the nation of Israel. Land will be desolate 5:2, 10, 14; 12:15; 20:23 22:15; 31-35
The people will live in fear 21:7,12,15 36
The people will be useless 4:17, 33:10 39

b. Religious History of Israel

When Jeroboam was established as the king of the newly divided northern kingdom of Israel, he was charged to keep God’s laws (1 Kings 11:38). However, fear of divided allegiance of the people led Jeroboam to set up 2 shrines of golden calf worship, one at Bethel and the other at Dan, to rival the Temple at Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:26-28). This new religious syncretism of representing the Covenant-God Yahweh in the form of images is something that is strictly forbidden under the Law (Ex 20: 4-5). The cult of golden calf worship remained in Israel till the fall of the kingdom in 721 BC.

The dynasty of Omri, who established a new capital city, Samaria, openly favoured and introduced Baal worship into Israel. Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, erected a magnificent temple to Baal, and put the prophets who were faithful to Yahweh to death. Her efforts were challenged by the prophet Elijah, and his successor Elisha, who laboured to show Israel who the true God is. However, Baalism remained till it was wiped out by Jehu, the successor to the house of Ahab. Nevertheless, Israel never returned to the LORD but reverted to the golden calf worship till the fall of the kingdom in 721 BC.

c. Religious Background of Judah

During the time of the monarchy, idolatry was re-introduced into Israel by Solomon’s wives (1 Kings 11:1-8). High places for foreign gods like Ashtoreth, Molech and Chemosh were set up. These became a “snare” for the whole nation and subsequent kings, who also continued these abominable practices, thereby arousing the wrath of God (1 Kings 14:22-24).

Godly kings like Asa (1 Kings 11:11-14) and Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:3-4) carried out religious reforms to destroy the high places and bring the nation back to worship God. It was also due to the faith of Hezekiah that Jerusalem was delivered from the Assyrian threats under Sennacherib.

The Sins of Manasseh – However, after the death of Hezekiah, the nation under king Manasseh reverted to the culture and manners of former wicked kings and even went further than what they did in corrupt practices. Manasseh restored the debasing cults of the aboriginal Nature-worship which his father Hezekiah had suppressed, making Judah revert to the Baal-cults introduced through the marriage alliance with the house of Ahab. Furthermore he also practised black magic so prevalent in all the surrounding nations and imported the elaborate worship of the heavenly bodies from Babylon. He imported pagan rites into the Temple-courts and even went to the horrid extreme of human sacrifice (2 Ki 21). As a result of his sins, judgment was pronounced upon Jerusalem: God would destroy the city and send the people to exile (2 Kings 21:10-15). Despite Manasseh’s repentance and subsequent restoration after being taken captive by the Assyrians (2 Ch 33:11-20), the judgment Jerusalem was not retracted (2 Kings 23:26-27; 24:3). Thus it was due to Manasseh’s sins that the prophets Daniel and Ezekiel were carried off with other exiles to Babylon and the city of Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BC.

Josiah’s Reforms – After Manasseh’s death, Amon, his son, undid these reforms, and public discontent grew to such an extent that he was assassinated (2 Kings 21:19). He was succeeded by the godly king Josiah who introduced massive religious reforms to rid the land of all forms of idolatry and turn the people back to worship God upon finding the Book of the Law (2 King 22:11-23:25). Nevertheless his reforms could not reverse God’s judgment upon Jerusalem (2 Kings 23:26-27); they only delayed them (2 Kings 22:18-20).

Fall of Jerusalem – However, immediately after the death of Josiah, religious apostasy again set in. This resulted in the invasions of the land by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. The Temple and the palace were looted and large numbers of people were deported to exile, among them the prophets Daniel and Ezekiel. The people of Judah mistook this as an act of desertion by God, and more than ever sought refuge in a mixture of gods from Babylonia, Egypt, Persia and elsewhere. Ezek 8 and Ezek 9:1-11 describe this syncretism which made itself felt even in the temple-house in Jerusalem. The people were incapable of being correction and were ripe for destruction. A final siege of Jerusalem which lasted from 588-586 BC resulted in the Fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the city and Temple and the exile of the people as predicted by Ezekiel in Ezek 3-24.

d. Detestable Practices of Judah

These are the detestable practices of Judah that resulted in the judgment and downfall of nation. Some of them are condemned by the prophet Ezekiel.

Idolatry (Ezek 8:5-13) – The worship of the gods of neighbouring nations of Phoenicia, Canaan, Moab (i.e. Baal, Melkart, Astarte, Chemosh, Molech, etc.) were particularly rampant in Jerusalem, while the old Semitic calf-worship seriously affected the state religion of the Northern Kingdom.

The main forms of idolatry were the use of graven and molten images, pillars, the asherah and teraphim.

The special enticements to idolatry as offered by these various cults were found in their deification of natural forces and their appeal to primitive human desires, especially the sexual; also through associations produced by intermarriage and through the appeal to patriotism, when the help of some cruel deity was sought in time of war. Baal and Astarte worship, which was especially attractive, was closely associated with fornication and drunkenness (Amo 2:7, Amo 2:8; compare 1 Ki 14:23), and also appealed greatly to magic and soothsaying (e.g. Isa 2:6; Isa 3:2; Isa 8:19).

Sacrifices to the idols were offered by fire (Hos 4:13); libations were poured out (Isa 57:6; Jer 7:18); the first-fruits of the earth and tithes were presented (Hos 2:8); tables of food were set before them (Isa 65:11); the worshippers kissed the idols or threw them kisses (1Ki 19:18; Hos 13:2; Job 31:27); stretched out their hands in adoration (Isa 44:20); knelt or prostrated themselves before them and sometimes danced about the altar, gashing themselves with knives (1Ki 18:26, 1Ki 18:28).

“Weeping for Tammuz” (Ezek 8:14-15) – Tammuz was the name of a Phoenician deity, the Adonis of the Greeks. He was originally a Sumerian or Babylonian sun-god, called Dumuzu, the husband of Ishtar, who corresponds to Aphrodite of the Greeks. The Babylonian myth represents Dumuzu, or Tammuz, as a beautiful shepherd slain by a wild boar, the symbol of winter. Ishtar long mourned for him and descended into the underworld to deliver him from the embrace of death. This mourning for Tammuz by women was celebrated in Babylonia on the 2nd day of the 4th month, which thus acquired the name of Tammuz. The rites of Tammuz included a divine marriage of the king annually to the fertility goddess in the person of a temple priestess. Ezekiel considered the vision of the women weeping of Tammuz in the temple as one of the greatest abominations that could defile the Holy House (Ezek 8:14).

Worship of the Sun (Ezek 8:16-18) – The worship of the sun as the most prominent and powerful agent in the kingdom of nature was widely diffused throughout the countries adjacent to Palestine. The Hebrews were well acquainted with the idolatrous worship of the sun during the captivity in Egypt. The sun images were called chammanim in Hebrew (Lev 26:30; 2 Chron 14:5, 34:4); they were stone statues to solar Baal or Baal Haman in Carthaginian inscriptions. The temple at Baalbek was dedicated to the worship of the sun. Manasseh was the one who introduced direct sun worship (2 Ki 21:3,5). Worship was directed to the rising sun (Ezek 8:16-17). The horses dedicated to the sun (“Chariots of the Sun”, Ezek 8:16) were kept at the entering in of the house of God in the portico at the western side of the outer temple court. This is an insult to the only true God, in His own house.

During Josiah’s reform, he destroyed all the chariots and removed the horses consecrated to the sun (2 Ki 23:5, 11-12). However, after his death this worship resurfaced and was condemned by Ezekiel (Ezek 8:16).