Within the prophetic sections of the Hebrew Bible, Ezekiel represents a moral, geographic, and literary turning point. Isaiah and Jeremiah wrote their books in the land of Israel. Ezekiel writes from the perspective of being a foreigner in a foreign land.
Ezekiel's writings may be called bridge literature. His writings form the transition between the Judaism of the First Temple Period and the Land of Israel and the Judaism of the Diaspora. Ezekiel does not write about a Judaism practiced by a free self-governing nation but rather as a prophet of a Judaism that must speak to people living as best that they can as a minority in a foreign land. Ezekiel then had to combine the Judaism of rationality with that of hopeful mysticism.
Ezekiel's book is not easy to read. His language is hard to discern and his ideas are problematic, so problematic that its inclusion in Hebrew Cannon was considered highly questionable. Ezekiel, both the man and his book, are a challenge. His literary work is highly ethical and moral, filled with passion and conviction; yet his mental states are questionable, falling into trances or being "struck dumb" for periods of time.
Ezekiel did not write as a politically free man, but as a captive member of the household of Judah's King Jehoiachin. Ezekiel's writings address a nation under occupation (or exiled).
Yet despite his physical exile, we read about a soul that soared toward heaven and an imagination that could not be contained. Thus, we know the book's first three chapters in the original Hebrew as the Ma'aseh Merkavah, the Chariot Chapters. These chapters describe God as coming in a chariot surround by angels. Some argue these chapters are the basis for mysticism; others question the prophet's mental state.
We know at least the outlines of his life. He was born about 2,600 years ago. We know that he lived close to the River Chebar in the heart of the Babylonian farmlands. This was the area where many, if not most, of the Judean exiles lived. It appears that he lived a "normal" life, was married and was a homeowner. According to his book, he was a widower. On the other hand, according to the customs of the day we might call him a bit strange. He shaved his head and beard, self-imprisoned himself in his home for more than a year and ate nonkosher bread.
According to Ezekiel, his life occurred at a time of national moral decline, and for Israel a period of great turmoil. Do his life actions serve to underscore the turmoil through which the people Israel were passing? Ezekiel is a modern prophet in the sense that just as in our own age, he addresses not only the "we" but also the "me." As such, he speaks directly to the individual and not just the nation. Ezekiel develops the doctrine of personal responsibility. He reminds us that the doing of right and wrong is a personal choice, and that we are personally responsible for the choices that we make.
Ezekiel's influence on not only Judaism, but also on other western religions is enormous. He combines the ideas of ritual and righteousness, the need for both tradition and for social justice. He understood that idealism and righteous cannot be a pure philosophical or ethical system, but rather that these ideals had to be incorporated into the lives of real individuals. Ezekiel succeeded in combining the beauty of ritual with the demands of prophetic social justice, the theater of the spiritual with a dedication to a life based on ethical idealism and behavior.
Ezekiel's message is that God desires that the wicked not die but turn from their wicked ways and live. Ezekiel's message is one of hope and personal change, that the gates of repentance and change are always open; that we can turn our lives around. He is the prophet who argues that to serve God we need more that mere ritual, we also need to speak less about justice and instead practice justice by incorporating its ideals into every aspect of our lives. As our nation prepares to celebrate the Fourth of July and independence from British tyranny, Ezekiel's challenges live on well into our own day.
• Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He directs the Center for Latino-Jewish Relations and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.