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Genesis The Spoken Word Set 13 Ezekiel and Lamentations
The Spoken Word and the Old Testament recordings
Those familiar with the first nine sets of The Spoken Word, presenting the New Testament writings, will be familiar also with the approach adopted. The scriptural books have been ordered in the general order of their composition according to the best of current knowledge. Although with respect to the New Testament there are areas of disagreement among scholars, there is a broad general consensus about the order of these writings.
In presenting the Old Testament scriptures, The Spoken Word adopts the same broad approach. Here, however, there is much less agreement among scholars as to the order of these books and there is a cavernous lack of clear information with which to work. Furthermore, many of the books are composed of elements originating centuries apart.
So why make the attempt to re-order the Old Testament scriptures at all? I am confident that the The Spoken Word approach answers that question simply through the experience that emerges from engagement with it. To witness the way in which these scriptural writings unfold over a period of centuries, from the late seventh century BC to the first century BC, is to experience the impact of these writings in a wholly new and illuminating way. The Old Testament comes to life in a manner hitherto unimaginable. The traditional canonical order will always stand as the touchstone, and over the years new scholarship will affect our judgement regarding the order of composition, but what happens when we see the writings unfold though time is that we get a new sense of the story of our faith, a sense that speaks powerfully to a living faith in our own time.
The first writing that was, centuries later, to form part of the Hebrew canon, came from the prophet Jeremiah as recorded by his scribe, Baruch. Jeremiah’s prophecies date from the last two decades of the seventh century BC and the first two decades of the sixth century. His contemporaries in Jerusalem were Nahum and Habakkuk, and his sixth century contemporary, living in Babylon, was Ezekiel. It is clear that, for these prophets, no other faith-related documents existed, nor had the ‘history’ of the Hebrew people, from the patriarchs to the kings, been developed except in a rudimentary form.
The prophets Amos, Hosea, Micah, Zephaniah, Obadiah and Isaiah all lived and made their prophetic statements during the years of exile in Babylon in the sixth century, although they projected their words back into the past for cultural reasons. We do not know in what order they appeared on the exilic scene so the order adopted in The Spoken Word is somewhat arbitrary. The probability is that they lived contemporaneously over the last years of the Babylonian empire and, in the case of Isaiah especially, on into the Persian empire, right through to the return to Palestine. The approach adopted here for Isaiah is that one individual lay behind all three ‘periods’ of Isaiah’s writing, his style and content changing in response to the radical transformation taking place all around him over a period of around 20 years.
These prophet writings have been arranged in The Spoken Word as The Faith Makers, as it is in these books that, over a period of a century, we witness the emergence and maturation of the distinctive Hebrew faith. The recordings of these prophetic books cover sets 12 to 15 of The Spoken Word. The text of these prophets, with introductions and companion notes, will shortly be published as The Faith Makers, the first of a series called The Testament Companion. (See www.genesis.net.nz for updated information on these publications)
Simultaneously with the emergence of the prophetic writings, there developed in the years of exile a schematic story of the Hebrew people from the patriarchs to the fall of Jerusalem. It is unlikely that theses stories were written down even by the end of the exile, but the general structure and content had been shaped by the time of the return to Palestine. This process of developing the story of the Hebrew people continued after the return, with the concept of the written law developing over the subsequent two centuries. All these elements were woven together in the story contained in the books from Genesis through eventually to the Maccabees. The Spoken Word sets from 16 onwards (not recorded at the time of these notes) encompass these books under the title, The Myth Makers. These recordings, too, will be supplemented by a companion book of the same title in the series, The Testament Companion.
The final group of writings as recorded in The Spoken Word are the wisdom books. The oldest stratum of the wisdom literature is, like the prophets, embedded in the Babylonian exile and is, in fact, an adaptation of Babylonian wisdom literature. The latest of these writings came into being not long before the time of Jesus. The Spoken Word gathers these together under the generic title, The Insight Makers and these too will have an accompanying book of text and comment.
In making the recordings of The Spoken Word, I have endeavoured to treat the texts not as ‘sacred scripture’ to be solemnly intoned, but as vigorous outpourings of the human spirit in engagement with God, faith and the state of the people among whom the writers lived. The prophets wrote passionately and their writings are spoken in these recordings as I imagine they may have been uttered originally (allowing, of course, for differences in both language and culture). As a storyteller myself, I endeavour to tell the many and wonderful stories in the scriptures as if they were fresh from the first tellers‘ minds. This too, as with the New Testament recordings, is central to the objective behind The Spoken Word experience.
Ezekiel and Jeremiah are the pivotal figures in the emergence of Hebrew religious faith in the sixth century BC, prior to and during the time of the exile. Before the exile, which commenced with the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 598 BC, Hebrew religious life was cultic and polytheistic, indistinguishable from the religious life all the peoples surrounding them. Yahweh, their national protector, was only one of many in their pantheon of gods. The gods took no account of ethics either in what they did or in what they required of their adherents.
Jeremiah and Ezekiel were part of what was initially a small and reviled group of the priests of Yahweh who set out to change Hebrew religion with a message that Yahweh was an ethical god, requiring an ethical life from all the Hebrew people, including the State rulers. They insisted that Yahweh alone was to be acknowledged and worshipped, and that Yahweh’s worship was to take place in Jerusalem and there alone.
Jeremiah stood at the forefront of this message in the years leading up to the fall of Jerusalem and its final destruction in 587 BC. He is the true spiritual father of all subsequent Hebrew religious life (and therefore also of Christianity and Islam). To the end of his life his message was rejected.
When a portion of the Hebrew leadership was taken into captivity and 598, among them was a young priest-in-training by the name of Ezekiel. The exile to Babylon would have been a tremendous blow to the young man for not only was he cut off from his priestly vocation in the temple, it was taken as axiomatic that Yahweh had no presence or authority outside the boundaries of Palestine. To Ezekiel, therefore, together with all the exiles, there could be no further connection with the god.
The vision of Ezekiel by the River Euphrates (i.e., in Babylon), recounted in the first chapter of the book, revolutionised Hebrew religion for it broke the boundaries constricting their understanding of Yahweh. With this vision, Ezekiel became a prophet of Yahweh, the next in the great chain that began with Jeremiah and came to its consummation with Isaiah at the end of the exile. Ezekiel stands at the head of an extraordinary procession of prophets during the years of exile that were to fundamentally reshape Hebrew religion and literally “make the faith”, a faith that in essence is still ours today.
In the six years that followed his call, leading up to the final and complete destruction of Jerusalem, Ezekiel’s message was essentially the same as that of Jeremiah, who was prophesying at the same time in Jerusalem. That message was that Yahweh was going to destroy the city because the rulers, the priests and the people were failing to hear the call of Yahweh to worship Yahweh alone and to live ethical lives. Ezekiel spoke these words to the exilic community but, parallel to Jeremiah’s experience, his message was rejected.
While sharing the same message, however, the two prophets were very different. Ezekiel’s prophetic experience was highly visual and ecstatic, bordering on the bizarre. It is not helpful to try to rationalise these visions but best simply to accept them as described.
Ezekiel’s ministry and message falls into three sections. The first occured from his call and lasted to the destruction of Jerusalem. It was a message of judgement and punishment upon the people who refused to listen and change their ways.
The whole tenor changed after Jerusalem fell and the second phase began in which a new day started to dawn into the darkness of the exile, this phase culminating in the extraordinary vision of the valley of the dry bones. Yahweh’s grace was going to completely re-create the Hebrew people and change the entire nature of the relationship with them. A new covenant was to be established.
This then led to the third and culminating section of Ezekiel’s ministry, captured in chapters 40 to 48 and dated precisely to the year 573 BC. In this sequence of visions, Ezekiel was given the foundations for Hebrew religion as it was to be re-created upon the return to Palestine. The most extraordinary element in these visions was that Ezekiel was able in any way to envisage such a return, for this is more than 20 years before Babylon was conquered by the Persians. At that time it would have seemed hardly realistic to imagine that the people would ever return to Palestine. That Ezekiel could transcend the despair to see such a beginning is what marks him out as the great creative figure of Hebrew spirituality.
The chapters 40 to 48 strike us as unreal and arcane. As uttered in their time, however, they were revolutionary and laid the foundations for the whole subsequent development of the Hebraic/Christian tradition down to our own time. The model that Ezekiel would have drawn upon was his experience of Babylonian religion and its temples, adapted into the religious vision of Yahweh.
The five poems that together comprise the book of Lamentations were probably written close in time to the destruction of Jerusalem and express in powerful language the horror of that time and the struggle to make sense of what was happening.
The New Jerusalem Bible translation
I use the New Jerusalem Bible for these readings and I am grateful to the publishers (Random House (US) and Darton, Longman & Todd), for their permission to read from their translation. There are a number of good translation options available but, to my ear, only one, the NJB, captures the sound of words with vividness. Others are essentially literary compositions, their focus being upon the printed page. The NJB is not without its weaknesses but, on the basis of the sound of its words, it stands head and shoulder above other contemporary translations.
David Guthrie, 2010
Any gift that I may have that is expressed in these readings is just that—a gift received from the Spirit through the person of others. I owe an inestimable debt to my speech tutor of student days, John N. Thompson and to Dr Raymond Foster whose enthusiasm for Jeremiah and Ezekiel set me on the path of a love for the scriptures. To my son, Jonathan, I owe all my skills with the computer, enabling the technical side of these recordings, while my wife, Barbara, and daughter, Ruth, have been my unfailing support, encouragement and critics. Strangely, the centrepiece of this acknowledgement belongs to five children, my grandchildren, for whom I ventured into recording in order to create for them disks of stories and music.
The manner of the gift
How did it come about that I created these recordings? The story commences in mid-2006 as I was emerging from a long period of illness. During this period the daily morning and evening prayer offices of the church were my sustaining support. I began to record these offices and publish them on my website and on podcast, receiving considerable affirmation and support from many for the initiative.
The early broadcasts were poor in quality both from the standard of equipment and my technical inexperience, but both gradually improved and the standards rose. Initially, I recorded each day’s office as a complete entity, but found that this consumed an immense amount of time, recording, editing and making ready for broadcast and also brought variable quality, dependent as it was on my pressure, health and wellbeing on each day.
The logical next step was to record whole books of the New and Old Testaments and then break up the recording into the tracks corresponding to the daily lections and that is what I proceeded to do. From that point it became a near-inevitable step to conceive the publication of the recordings in themselves, while a parallel development of conceptualisation took place regarding the philosophy behind the recording and their ordering, as recounted above. And so these recordings came to be. They remain for me indelibly planted in the spirituality of the prayer offices; for me, a gifting of the Spirit through me to the church.
For the prayer offices: www.genesis.net.nz
David Guthrie, 2010
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OLD TESTAMENT (New Jerusalem version), Set 13: Eze...