Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
EZEKIEL CHAPTER 31
The prophecy in this chapter, which continues the series about the coming downfall of Egypt, was received by Ezekiel in Babylon "in the eleventh year in the third month on the first of the month" (v 1) - i.e. at the beginning of the month of Sivan in the eleventh year of the reign of King Tzedekiah, little more than two months before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem on 9 Av.
The prophet challenges Pharaoh, asking him: "To whom do you think you compare in your greatness?" - "i.e. in aggrandizing yourself before God" (v 2 and Rashi ad loc.). For the empire of Assyria achieved even greater heights than Egypt , yet God cast Assyria down. If so, why should Pharaoh think he was any better and could survive?
From the perspective of today's world of mega-superpowers, we may tend to look back on ancient Assyria, which had no cars, airplanes, computers, satellites and other marvels of modern technology, as little more than a short-lived puny forerunner of later empires. We should therefore bear in mind that in its time, Sennacherib's empire comprised the greater part of the known world, extending from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean across the entire Middle East deep into central Asia, while its capital of Nineveh was legendary for its grandeur and sophistication.
The prophet allegorically depicts Assyria as a great cedar. "The waters made it great, the deep set it up on high." (v 4). Targum renders: "It abounded with nations, it was mighty through its allies; it subjected the kingdoms under its rule and put its government over all the countries of the world".
Rashi on verse 6 hints why God granted Assyria such power. "For what reason did Assyria attain greatness? Because Ashur (the founder of Nineveh ) refrained from collaborating in the plan of those in the generation of the dispersal (i.e. to build the Tower of Babel ), as it says, 'Ashur left that land' (Gen. 10:11), when all the people in the world joined together in one network to rebel against God. Furthermore, Ashur listened to the voice of the prophet Jonah and repented from the robbery in their hands".
In other words, Assyria retained a certain moral level in virtue of which it attained greatness. Nevertheless, Assyria fell into the sin of pride and was therefore cast down: "You have lifted yourself up in height. and his heart is lifted up in his height. I have therefore delivered him into hand of the mighty one of the nations." (vv 10-11). Sennacherib had arrogantly supposed that after his other successes over idolatrous nations he would be able to conquer God's city of Jerusalem , but his armies were miraculously wiped out overnight. Assyria still maintained its empire for more than a century after Sennacherib's defeat, but was finally overthrown by "the mighty one of the nations", i.e. Nebuchadnezzar, who had conquered Nineveh in the first year of his reign (Megillah 11b), twenty-seven years before his coming conquest of Egypt.
Verses 12-13 allegorically depict the destruction of Assyria and all those who took refuge in the shadow of this "mighty tree" - i.e. its allies and tributaries. The purpose of its terrible downfall was to teach mankind God's lesson, ".so that none of all the trees of the waters (=the other nations) should exalt themselves in their height. for they are all delivered to death, to the nether parts of the earth in the midst of the children of men, with them that go down to the pit" (v 14). In the words of Metzudas David (ad loc.): "For all of them are destined to die and descend to the nether world, i.e. the grave. Since all of them are going to die, what point is there in swelling with arrogance over their great worldly power and wealth?"
"I made the nations shake at the sound of his fall, with those that descend into the pit; and all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that drink water were comforted in the nether parts of the world" (v 16). Everything in this world reflects and alludes to the upper worlds, and thus the various nations in this world and their guardian angels correspond to the "trees" in the supernal Garden of Eden and are called this in the verse in keeping with the allegory of Ashur as the mighty cedar. The fall of this great tree and the descent of Ashur into hell "was a comfort to the other wealthy and mighty who had already died and were in their graves when they saw that even the mighty Ashur finally met with the same fate. For it is the way of a person who sees the same trouble that befell him strike even those greater than himself to feel comforted" (Metzudas David on v 16).
The moral of the allegory about the fall of Assyria was directed against Pharaoh, who was to be defeated by Nebuchadnezzar eight years after this prophecy, but who apparently still believed he was invincible. "To whom do you think you compare in glory and greatness among the trees of Eden ?" (v 18). Pharaoh and his multitude would suffer the same fate as all the other proud and mighty powers of this world and end up in the pit among the slain uncircumcised nations.
The two prophecies in vv 1-16 and vv 17-32 of this chapter were received by Ezekiel in Babylon "in the twelfth year in the twelfth month" - i.e. in the month of Adar of the year following the destruction of the Temple , on the first and fifteenth of the month respectively. We see that days like Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon, and the 15 th Adar, which was later to become the festival of Shushan Purim, are particularly auspicious for spiritual ascent and prophecy.
The message of these prophecies is directed against Pharaoh king of Egypt . "You thought yourself to be a lion among the nations, but you are like a crocodile in the waters" (verse 2). "You imagined that in relation to the other nations you are like a lion against a flock of sheep, but it is not so, because you are like a crocodile in the waters who has no strength except in his own place in the waters, but the moment he comes up onto the dry land he dies. Likewise, you have power only in your own land" (Metzudas David ad loc.). In other words, had Pharaoh been content with a policy of isolationism without trying to interfere in international affairs, he could have survived, but because he sought to wield influence throughout the world (as when Pharaoh Necho campaigned in the time of King Josiah to try to contain Assyria and when Pharaoh in Tzedekiah's time tried to campaign against Nebuchadnezzar) he came to grief. (Similarly, many Americans today are coming to the conclusion that their country would be more successful if it sought to play less of a role internationally, and that its role as global policeman is endangering its very survival.)
Verses 3ff depict the coming fall of Egypt . "And when I extinguish you, I will cover the heaven and make its stars dark" (v 7) - "All who hear what has befallen you will mourn and be astonished, for each one will be fearful for himself saying that the destroyer will also succeed against us" (Rashi ad loc.).
The final prophecy in this series against Egypt opens in verse 17. It is a lament on the multitude of Egypt , who are destined to be cast down to the very depths of the earth with all the other nations that have and will go down into the pit.
"Son of man: wail for the multitude of Egypt and cast them down, her together with the daughters of mighty nations, to the nether parts of the earth with them that go down into the pit" (v 17). It is the prophet himself who is commanded to cast them down through the power of his words. "Prophesy against him and against all those who deny the Torah, who will go down to the pit of destruction. Here the Holy One blessed be He showed Ezekiel that all those who deny the Torah go down to Gehennom" (Rashi ad loc.).
This concluding prophesy against Egypt is more than merely the continuation of Ezekiel's prophesies about the fall of Egypt at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. It is in the form of an allegory of the Egyptians being taken down to hell and laid in their graves in a certain order or arrangement amidst the various other nations in hell, including Ashur (vv 22-23), Eilam (vv 24-25), Meshech and Tuval (vv 26-28), Edom (v 29) and the "princes of the north" (v 30). A common factor among these nations is that they are punished in this way because "they struck terror in the land of the living" (vv 23, 24 & 27) - i.e. they brought about destruction in the Land of Israel " (Rashi on v 23). In other words, all the nations mentioned are among the persecutors of Israel . The historical roles of Ashur (which exiled the Ten Tribes) and Edom (who destroyed the Second Temple ) require no commentary. Eilam not only sought to capture Abraham's nephew Lot, ancestor of Mashiach (Genesis 14:1) but also aided the Babylonians in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, coming with them to harm Israel (RaDaK on Jeremiah 49:24). Meshech ("Muscovy", Russia ) and Tuval are nations under the leadership of Gog king of Magog who will come up against Israel at the end of days (Ezekiel 38:1).
In the words of the Biblical commentator MALBIM (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Weiser, 1809-79) , on verse 17 of our present chapter:
"This prophecy is very opaque indeed and it is not known what it comes to teach us, but earlier commentators have already commented that this is a future prophesy about the end of days in the time of the war of Gog and Magog, when all the nations will gather against Jerusalem. When the end comes, after Israel will already have settled in the land of Israel, the nations are destined to gather and capture Jerusalem, and Gog, prince of Meshech and Tuval will come from the lands of the north and the west, where the people are uncircumcised and called Edom, while Meshech and Tuval are from among the children of Japheth who dwell in Europe. And there (in Ez. Ch 38) he says that Paras ( Persia ) Kush ( E. Africa ? Pakistan ???) and Phut ( Somalia ?) and Beith Togarma ( Turkey ?) will come with them, all of these being circumcised and adherents of the religion of the Ishmaelites. They will gather with the children of Edom to conquer the land from the hands of Israel, but when they arrive, turmoil will break out among them and each one will make war against his brothers, i.e. Edom and Ishmael will fight against each other because their beliefs are separate, and there God will judge them with the sword and with blood. Here the prophet starts by enumerating Egypt , Ashur and Eilam, who adhere to the religion of Ishmael and are today circumcised. Afterwards he enumerates Meshech, Tuval and Edom and their kings, and the 'princes of the north', all of whom are uncircumcised. The war will be between them. The main downfall will start among the Egyptians, who are close to the land of Israel . They will come at the head and fall. Then the Assyrians and Persians will come to exact vengeance on their behalf and then all of them - both sides - will fall."
"For I have struck My terror into the Land of the Living" (v 32) - "I will put the fear of Me in the Land of Israel, and the fear of man will no longer be put among them" (Rashi ad loc.).
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
© AZAMRA INSTITUTE 5767 - 2006-7 All rights reserved