Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
EZEKIEL CHAPTER 17
"Son of man: propound a riddle and speak a parable to the House of Israel ." (v 2). In verses 3-10 Ezekiel sets forth the allegory of the great eagle that snatched the top branch of the cedar, taking it to a land of traders and planting instead a spreading vine. The meaning of the symbolism is then explained in verses 11-21.
The great eagle with its long, outspread wings symbolizes Nebuchadnezzar (Rashi on v 2; see verse 12), under whose rule Babylon was flying high and conquering the world. The " Lebanon " to which the eagle came refers the Land of Israel , "for it has good forests which are called Lebanon " (RaDaK on v 3). The top branches of the cedar, which the eagle snatched, symbolize King Yeho-yakim and his mighty warriors, whom Nebuchadnezzar took into exile (Rashi on v 3; see verse 12). The "seed of the land" which the great eagle then planted symbolizes King Tzedekiah (Rashi on v 5; see verse 13), whom Nebuchadnezzar appointed to replace Yeho-yakim's successor Yeho-yachin after his brief three-month reign and subsequent exile to Babylon . Nebuchadnezzar made Tzedekiah swear a solemn oath of loyalty (cf. v 13).
"And it sprouted and became a spreading vine." (v 6). Initially Nebuchadnezzar gave Tzedekiah dominion over the neighboring lands of Edom , Moab , Ammon, Tyre and Sidon (Jer. 27:3, see RaDaK on v 6 of our present chapter) but intended that he should remain the vassal of Babylon . However, when Tzedekiah flourished, he betrayed the eagle that "planted" him, rebelling against Nebuchadnezzar while hoping for "water" and succor from the second great eagle in the allegory symbolizing Pharaoh, king of the other great world power of the time - Egypt (see verse 15). Surely this cannot succeed, HaShem declares, for the first eagle would certainly pull up the roots of the vine and cut off its fruit (an allusion to Nebuchadnezzar's killing Tzedekiah's sons) while the second eagle would utterly fail to defend the vine with the great power and abundant army it had promised (see Rashi on v 9; cf. verse 17). "Shall it not utterly wither when the east wind (= Babylon , which is to the east of Israel ) touches it? It shall wither in the plantations where it grew" (v 10).
"Thus says HaShem: As I live, surely My oath that he has despised and My covenant that he has broken I will put upon his own head" (v 19). The oath that Tzedekiah swore to Nebuchadnezzar was in the name of HaShem, and for that reason it was as if he had sworn to HaShem, so that when he rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar it was a rebellion against HaShem (see Metzudas David on v 19). For that reason God would punish him "upon his own head": this alludes to how Nebuchadnezzar put out Tzedekiah's eyes. In verse 20 Ezekiel prophesies in exactly the same words as he had used earlier (Ez. 12:13) that God would trap Tzedekiah in His snare, alluding to his capture near the exit to his escape tunnel by a party of deer-hunting Babylonians.
Yet the prophecy ends with words of comfort, for "I shall take from the high cedar. and I will pluck off from the top of its young twigs a tender one and I will plant it upon a high and lofty mountain" (v 22). RaDaK (on v 22) explains that the "top of its young twigs" alludes to King Yeho-yachin, who repented in his prison cell in Babylon and fathered She'alti-el, the father of Zerubavel, who led the Judean exiles back to Jerusalem - the "high and lofty mountain - and built the Second Temple. Zerubavel was the archetype of Melech HaMashiach, and Rashi and Metzudas David (ad loc.) explain this verse as a prophecy about Mashiach, who will be from the seed of David and will rule in Jerusalem .
The present chapter is a discourse on the ways of God's justice. It's starting point is a riddle or proverb that has a thrust different from that of the proverbs and allegories in the previous chapters. The inferior vine whose fruits are a pain to the mouth has figured prominently as a symbol of sinful Israel in the prophet's allegories in chapters 15 and 17. But in the people's defiant rejoinder to the prophet, they took the same metaphor and turned it into a glib quip that justified their continuing on their sinful path.
We hear what the people were saying when God challenges the Children of Israel: "What do you mean when you use this proverb concerning the land of Israel , saying: The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge?" (v 1). Metzudas David explains the people's proverb: "The fathers ate the sour grapes that are supposed to set the teeth on edge, yet they did not set their teeth on edge. Then why should the teeth of the children be set on edge if they themselves have not eaten the sour grapes? That is to say: Does it make sense that our ancestors sinned yet spent all their days in tranquility without receiving retribution, and that we, their children, who are not such great sinners as they were, should be punished for their sins?" (Metzudas David on verse 2 of our present chapter).
The true prophets were constantly warning the people that God's retribution was to strike them imminently. Rashi spells out the counter-argument the people were posing in their proverb: "Is this the way of the Holy One blessed be He - that the fathers sin and the children get punished? The kings of Israel sinned for many years before they were finally exiled. We too do not need to fear that we shall be punished for our sins" (Rashi on v 2). To justify their stubborn sinfulness, the people were mocking the entire concept of divine retribution, pointing to the fact that very often complete sinners appear to enjoy prosperity and tranquility all their days.
This chapter's prophetic discourse on God's ways of justice in answer to the people does NOT address the mystery that is the main subject of the debates and discussions in the book of Job: Why do the wicked seem to prosper while the righteous often suffer? Rather, Ezekiel states the inexorable law of God's justice: "Behold, all the souls are Mine: as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine. It is the soul that sins that shall die" (v 4) - "Everyone loves his own possessions and wants them to endure.. 'The soul that sins shall die' because there is then no reason to favor it, but if not for the sin, why should He withdraw His favor?" (Metzudas David ad loc.).
The discourse proceeds to set forth the various corollaries of this basic principle of personal responsibility that is the foundation of God's justice. Verses 5-9 depict the conduct that befits a truly righteous person. Not only does he steer well clear of all idolatry, keeping clean in the areas that are "between man and God"; he also observes God's laws "between man and man", keeping well clear of adultery, business malpractice, robbery and exploitation of the poor etc. practicing true justice. "He is just: he shall surely live" (v 9).
Verses 10-13 depict the opposite case - the son of a righteous man who turns into a robber and a killer, practicing everything that his father rejected. All his father's righteousness will not protect him from the penalty for his deeds. "Shall he then live? He shall not live. he shall surely die" (v 13).
In yet another inter-generational swing, the wicked son gives birth to a son "who sees all the sins that his father did but considers and does not do similarly" (v 14). It is one of the great mercies of creation that sinful parents do not necessarily breed sinful children, and that a new generation can break out of the ways of the old and lead better lives. Verses 14-17 depict the righteous life of the grandchild: "He shall not die because of the sin of his father, but he shall surely live" (v 17).
Verse 20 concludes the first part of the discourse with a restatement of the fundamental principle of God's justice: "The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father and the father shall not bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him."
In a new development of the theme of the discourse, vv 21-23 teach that even the habitual sinner will also live if he repents of his sins and follows the path of justice and charity. The possibility of repentance is the greatest gift of God's compassion - for, "Do I desire the death of the sinner, says HaShem, but surely, rather, that he should repent of his ways and live!" (v 23). This verse figures prominently in the prayers of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
The corollary of the principle that the wicked can repent is that there is also always a danger that the righteous may lapse. "But when the righteous turns away from his righteousness. shall he live? All his righteousness that he has done shall not be remembered." (v 24). This does NOT mean that if a tzaddik sins, all his merits are instantly wiped out. Rather, "our rabbis explained that this verse applies to the case of someone who was righteous but comes to regret his good deeds" (Rashi ad loc.).
"The fathers ate sour grapes - shall the teeth of the children be set on edge?" The people's pungent proverb gave terse expression to their philosophy that there was no such thing as divine justice. But the prophet has answered them with his discourse setting forth the principles of God's ways. "You say: The way of the Lord is unfair. Hear now, O House of Israel: Is My way unfair? Surely your ways are unfair!" (v 25; cf. v 29). A world without reward for good deeds and punishment for bad is a world run amok. But God's world is one of justice and retribution, and for our own benefit we should therefore repent and LIVE.
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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