Chan Chu So Wah Professor (Biblical Studies)
Shortly after Solomon died, Israel split into the northern and southern kingdoms. In 722 BC, Assyria put an end to Israel, the northern kingdom, and exiled its people to various parts of the Assyrian Kingdom. On the other hand, Judah, the southern kingdom submitted to Babylon, the newly arisen dominant Near Eastern power after Assyria. Then people of the southern kingdom were first exiled in 597 BC, marking their time of displacement. A decade later, Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon besieged Jerusalem again and ended the 400-year-old Davidic Dynasty. In 582 BC, the third exile took place.
Being exiled is being forced to leave one’s ‘place,’ and ‘place’ is a prerequisite of a person’s existence. For a human to exist at all, he must have a ‘place.’1 A ‘place’ is formed from the interaction of humans and their particular locations. Therefore, a ‘place’ must have its historical and cultural dimensions. ‘Place’ is related to a community and never individualistic.2 When the Israelites were taken into exile, they were cut off from the land of their history, culture and beliefs, and their belief system must have been overturned and core beliefs uprooted. Some scholars put out four pillars of their core convictions: Yahweh’s covenant with David, Yahweh’s residence in Jerusalem, Yahweh’s ownership of the land of Israel, and Yahweh’s covenant with Israel.3 Nonetheless, the exile had started an unusual history for the Israelites.
The prophet Ezekiel was exiled and displaced with his people in 597 BC. Born as a priest, he had to live in the unclean land of the gentiles those five years. Even if he had reached the age of thirty (Ezekiel 1:1-2) he could not serve in the sanctuary according to the Israelite tradition as others of his age would. This, for him, was an additional level of displacement. However, the Book of Ezekiel recorded not only the prophet’s displacement, but also that of Yahweh.
According to the Near Eastern cultures, a deity is exiled (see Isaiah 46:1-2; Jeremiah 48:7) when his/her idol is removed from its original location and brought to the victor nation, so as to show that this deity is powerless to protect its worshippers (see 1 Samuel 5). The displacement of Yahweh is first seen in Ezekiel 1-3, where He came to Ezekiel “in the land of the Chaldeans by the River Chebar”. The Scriptures also give an account of how He left His temple which was His abode. In Chapters 8-11, in a vision the prophet was taken back to the Jerusalemic temple. He saw before his eyes scenes of the Israelites’ acts of idolatry, and the gradual departure of the glory of God from the temple (Ezekiel 9:3, 10:3-4, 10:18-19) which finally settled on the hill east of the city (Ezekiel 11:23).
From the narrative we see that Ezekiel has reinterpreted the concept of the divine exile of Near Eastern. He emphasizes that Yahweh’s displacement was not due to Israel’s defeat and hence being taken into exile with the people. Rather, it was because of the idolatry of Israel that Yahweh chose to leave His temple and left it to be destroyed. Hence, while the prophet and the people were displaced involuntarily, Yahweh out of His own will chose to displace Himself. The LORD was indeed displaced, but He was willing to manifest Himself to Ezekiel in the foreign land. Chapters 40-48 relate how His glory returned from the east to the temple (Ezekiel 43:1-2; see Ezekiel 44:4). He is the LORD who, though displaced, was able to return home.
Despite the difference, both Yahweh and the Israelites experienced a separation from their ‘place’. However, God chose a unique way to respond to the displacement.
At that time, those who were not exiled but remained in Jerusalem believed that those who were far away from the land of Israel were also ‘far from Yahweh.’ But “[t]hus says the Lord GOD: Though I removed them far away among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone.” (NRSV, Ezekiel 11:16). The Hebrew word for ‘a little while’ can be temporal in meaning (as in NRSV), but it is more likely to mean “to a less extent” (as “a diminished sanctity” in Tanakh).4 Although Yahweh was displaced in Babylon, He had set His mind to settle in there and become a ‘sanctuary’ for the exiles. Even though this sanctuary was ‘little,’ it became a blessing to the exiles.
Yahweh responded to His displacement by making the ‘place’ which did not belong to Him His own ‘place’ and to which He belongs. Once He commanded the Israelites to build the temple in the place He chose so that He could take His abode there. At the time of exile, He stated that He would dwell by the River Chebar of Babylon, and promised the people that He would be a sanctuary to the exiles in the place where they were displaced.
What Yahweh had done was ‘placemaking’ and that set an example for Ezekiel and the people. In Ezekiel 1-5, the prophet witnessed what kind of a sanctuary Yahweh had become for the exiles, and how Ezekiel should ‘make a place’ as a response to Yahweh’s ‘placemaking’. In Chapter 1, through the ‘visions of God’ manifested to Ezekiel, he was to note that while he was displaced and could achieve nothing, he should still fix his eyes on Mighty One who reigns on His throne and can travel freely without any limitation. In Chapters 2-3, the LORD commanded Ezekiel to be a ‘watchman’ for the house of Israel, and whether the ‘impudent and hard-hearted’ people listen or not, he was to speak to them faithfully. In Chapters 4-5, the LORD charged him to perform a series of uncomprehensible symbolic acts, to show the fate of the Israelites and also for the prophet to show his solidarity with “your people” (Ezekiel 3:11) whom he was sent to rebuke, even to the extent of forsaking all and giving himself for them.5
Chapter 18 contains a passage that is significant to the exiles. The Book of Ezekiel is highly theocentric. Salvation depends solely on God’s own action, but not on the repentance of man. He Himself gives a new heart and a new spirit to His people so that they could walk in His statutes and keep His commandments (Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:26-27). But here, quite unusually, the people were called to repent. Not only did Yahweh commanded the Israelites to turn from their transgressions, He even asked them to “get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit” (Ezekiel 18:31), so that they became worthy of having God as a sanctuary among them. Even though external circumstances were restrictive, those in displacement could still respond faithfully on a personal level and become one who was after God’s own heart, and thereby making a place in where one was displaced.
Ezekiel was not able to respond to his displacement on his own. But Yahweh was willing to become displaced with the exiles and He promised to make His place in the land of displacement. This became the foundation by which Ezekiel could respond to his displacement by making his place there. The experience of the prophet’s displacement urges us to be in solidarity with others, humble oneself, bear witness to God, proclaim faithfully, be a watchman, live a life that is after God’s own heart at all levels. There is no record of Ezekiel ever returning to his homeland. In fact, displacement reveals the true essence of living, just as we do not know when today’s ‘state of displacement’ will end, or whether it will end at all. But we can be sure that Yahweh is displaced with us, and where we are displaced, there He will become our ‘little’ sanctuary. Let us turn and observe His action, behold His presence, and make our place where we are displaced!