Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"I have no pleasure in the death of anyone"

“I Have No Pleasure in the Death of Anyone”

Context: It is worth asking ourselves if disastrous events are Yahweh’s punishment. And if they are, are they fair or just punishments? This is not an academic or moot question. Only a few days ago Japan was subject to a magnitude 8.9 earthquake, the equivalent force of 240 megatons of exploding TNT, followed immediately by a nearly 25-foot tsunami, that left thousands of people dead and tens of thousands missing and injured. Aftershocks of the earthquake continued to register as magnitude 6 and above, volcanic activity has been reported, and every hour brings greater certainty of some disaster relating to the compromise of the nuclear power plants Japan’s energy depends on. If a plague of frogs can be said to be a punishment by Yahweh (Exodus 8:1-15), then surely if there is contemporary divine punishment, this would qualify.

Putting aside the argument what Japan might be punished for, could Ezekiel’s lament of chapter 18 be updated to answer the results of this modern disaster? As a college teacher focusing on the Bible as literature or as a minster leading a study group on faith texts that seek to justify the ways of gods to people, this is a patently legitimate question. The prophets of the Older Testament seek, if not justification for Yahweh’s actions, then to make clear why things have happened as they have. It is axiomatic in their world that there are no coincidences and that the wicked suffer for their behavior. Contemporary prophets, to remain true to this Biblical intent, should insist the same. If we take the words of Ezekiel and what he is trying to articulate seriously, then asking the same question of contemporary disasters that Sixth Century BCE Israelites did of their Babylonian exile is necessary and respectful. Would a contemporary Ezekiel locate the recent disaster in Japan as the fault of its people?

Exegesis: Ezekiel’s Yahweh (and we can call Yahweh “Ezekiel’s” here because there is evidence that this book, in contrast to the oral backgrounds of most Biblical prophecy books, was written, edited, expanded on and preserved, possibly during the prophet’s life and so is a literary construct) begins this chapter by chastising his people’s use of a proverb to explain the suffering of people as payment for their forebear’s misdeeds (:2). “Know that all lives are mine…it is only the person who sins that shall die” (:4).

Brueggemann (2003) argues that the text is not intended to set up a false dichotomy between individual and corporate morality. Paul Joyce (whom Brueggemann quotes) writes, “Ezekiel certainly rejects the idea that the present disaster is a punishment for the sins of previous generations [and] he is not concerned here with the moral independence of contemporary individuals. He takes for granted the general principle of ‘individual responsibility’…but the possibility of Yahweh judging individuals in isolation from their contemporaries is not considered…[The] question at issue is a different one, namely, ‘Why is this inevitably communal, national crisis happening?’”

Ezekiel’s Yahweh goes to great lengths to distinguish between three generations: the first is “a man [who] is righteous and does what is lawful and right” (:5); but “he has a son who is violent, a shedder of blood…” (:10); and if that “man has a son who sees all the sins that his father has done, considers, and does not do likewise…” (:14); each will have a different end. The first “shall surely live” (:9), the second “shall surely die” (:13b), and the third “shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live” (:17). Unspoken but assumed is the idea that the sins of the second generation will also not be forgiven by the goodness of the first and third: “[Each one’s] blood shall be upon himself.” (:13c).

While Brueggemann uses this to forward his argument that, because “the destiny for and verdict upon each generation depends upon adherence to Torah in terms of (a) avoiding idolatry and serving only YHWH, (b) obedient sexuality, and (c) obedient economics” (206), he also explains that the generations are not theoretical but refer to Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Jehoiachin, on whom “the verdict is still out…Thus it is probable that…Ezekiel 18 concerns the destiny of and the theological verdict upon…the generation of exiles led by Jehoiachin” (206).

Locating the text in a specific era does not mean we shouldn’t draw from it to determine contemporary lessons, however; the disaster of the exile is the fault of the second, wicked generation and it is up to the third, exilic generation to expiate its predecessor’s guilt. Yahweh states that “if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right…[none] of the transgressions they have committed shall be remembered against them; for the righteousness that they have done they shall live” (:21-2). There is, of course, no way of knowing if the victims of Japan’s tsunami “lived” or “died” as Ezekiel means the words—that is, whether they lived forever (chayah) or perished (as a nation: muwth)—the reality is that their bodies died, some horribly, but Ezekiel would recognize their deaths as part of a corporate body. As individuals they are not important. While he “echoes Jeremiah’s emphasis on personal responsibility for one’s actions before God…Ezekiel’s work of bringing individuals to repentance and conversion…will begin to build the new community by preparing its individual members to take part in that rebuilding” (Ceresko: 254-5). In other words, individual fates do not sway Yahweh’s decisions about Yahweh’s people, but leaving “behind the pride and pretensions associated with a political state, this community will find a new identity as a people” (255).

“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked…and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” exclaims Yahweh (:23). No one generation is all good or all evil (Michael Coogan’s textual note reads, sardonically, “Ezekiel’s audience is far from an innocent generation”). Individuals who take responsibility and turn from sin will be forgiven. But Ezekiel’s Yahweh recognizes peoples, not people, and for a moment, Ezekiel suggests that Yahweh’s mercy will overtake his judgment. “But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do…None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die” (:24). There is no forgiveness for the wicked. (Presumably the sins one turns away from into righteousness are venial rather than mortal.) When the wicked protest Yahweh’s unfairness (takan, “unmeasured, unregulated, uneven,” suggesting commerce), Yahweh responds, “When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it…Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed….they shall not die” (:26-8). Yahweh holds to Yahweh’s self the right of judgment and urges Yahweh’s people, “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O House of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone…Turn, then, and live” (:31-2).

Lesson Outline: Presenting this in a classroom setting would require a class or study group that has a good deal of previous experience with Biblical texts and with ethical considerations of them. I would assign Ezekiel 16-19 to place the reading in context and ask the question “Is Yahweh justified in bringing disaster on a people who broke covenant with him?” On the day for discussion, after a short discussion—the answer to which I’d expect everyone would agree is “yes”—I’d share background about the Babylonian Exile and a few Hebrew words and expand the question. “Ezekiel and his followers believed that Yahweh had control not only over Yahweh’s covenanted people but over the whole world. Is this true for contemporary Christians? If it is, would a contemporary Ezekiel say that Japan’s earthquake and tsunami were Yahweh’s punishment against the Japanese people for some transgression, perhaps known only to Yahweh?” My follow-up questions would include, paraphrasing Paul Joyce, “From a Biblical perspective, why is this national tragedy happening?”

• Brueggemann, Walter. (2003.) An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY.
• Ceresko, Anthony. (2005.) Introduction to the Old Testament: A Liberation Perspective. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY.
• Coogan, Michael, editor. (2007.) New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV). Oxford University Press.

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