Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ezekiel 18 and individual responsibility (2)

In my plain reading of Ezekiel, I took chapter 18 to be a milestone, a moving away from the earlier principle whereby the sins of the fathers would be visited upon the children without (apparently) reference to the children’s individual sins. See:

Deuteronomy 5:9 You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,

Exodus 20:5 "You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,

Here in Ezekiel we see the (apparent) change I am referring to:

“Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, 2 "What do you mean by using this proverb concerning the land of Israel saying, 'The fathers eat the sour grapes, But the children's teeth are set on edge '? 3 "As I live," declares the Lord God, "you are surely not going to use this proverb in Israel anymore. 4 "Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine. The soul who sins will die. 5 "But if a man is righteous, and practices justice and righteousness, 6 and does not eat at the mountain shrines or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, or defile his neighbor's wife, or approach a woman during her menstrual period-- 7 if a man does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, does not commit robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry, and covers the naked with clothing, 8 if he does not lend money on interest or take increase, if he keeps his hand from iniquity, and executes true justice between man and man, 9 if he walks in My statutes and My ordinances so as to deal faithfully-- he is righteous and will surely live," declares the Lord God.”

Am I alone in assuming that there has been a change? I don’t take this to be precisely a changing of God’s mind but rather a sociological, societal, change whereby individuals are no longer “breeding true” in the sense referred to in Deuteronomy 5:9 and Exodus 20:5 – at least as I take these verses to infer. Individuals living in the days of Deu 5:9 & Exo 20:5 were moral duplicates of their fathers (it seems to me), but in Ezekiel’s day that was no longer the case.

Here is the ICCs G. A. Cooke writing in 1936 agreeing with me (p. 194) “The popular view is wrong; national misfortunes are not to be explained by the sins of the fathers, vv. 1-4. There can be no question of the divine justice. Each man will be treated exactly as he deserves; he is responsible for himself, and no one else can take his place, vv. 5-20. . .

“In a style which reflects the labour of his thought, the prophet is feeling his way towards a general principle . . . If we are being punished for the sins of the fathers, what avails the moral struggle? And is it just? A note of self-acquittal, fatalism, despair, can be heard in the people’s voice, and something deeper still, a question of God’s justice. Ezekiel detects the point at once, and argues it out.

“God deals with men as individuals responsible for their conduct; neither the sins nor the righteousness of others can affect the issue; the bad will ‘die,’ the good will ‘live,’ that is, forfeit or enjoy God’s favour, as each deserves. And similarly in the case of each man’s life: there is no such thing as a bondage which cannot be broken; each is free to renounce his past, whether for good or for evil. And the sinner can always repent; the door is open; God is ready to welcome the sinner who turns to Him. . .”

Does Ezekiel’s teaching appear elsewhere? Not exactly; Cooke writes “This line of teaching was not entirely strange. Jeremiah had seen that the old tribal conceptions must give way to a more spiritual religion, based upon personal relation to God (Jer. 14, 15, 17:10, 31:31-34). Both prophets quote the saying about the sins of the fathers; but whereas Jeremiah declares that it will cease to be uttered in the ideal future, Ezekiel says now.

Cooke goes on, “The nation was on the verge of ruin. According to popular beliefs, if the nation fell to pieces, the national religion would perish too; it was urgent, therefore, to insist that each man, however much involved in the general ruin, could enter into direct fellowship with God. Yet neither prophet dreamt of teaching a purely individualist type of religion; their aim was to build up a nation out of converted individuals.”

Still, “The responsibility and freedom of the individual lie at the root of all moral living; to have proclaimed this as the outcome of God’s justice and desire for man’s recovery was Ezekiel’s great achievement. . .”

That is, more or less, the way I understood Ezekiel’s eighteenth chapter, but Paul Joyce “one of the world’s leading scholars of Ezekiel” has a different opinion. In his Ezekiel, A Commentary (2009), page 24 he writes: “This chapter has been seen as a charter for individual responsibility. However, it is vital to see that the context of the whole discussion is one in which Ezekiel and his audience have already been exiled. The situation is one of national calamity, which has to be explained. . . Ezekiel cleverly manoeuvres [his fellow exiles] towards acknowledging that they are in fact sinful [that they are not unjustly being punished for the sins of their fathers] and the justice of God is vindicated. . . So not even these passages support the view that Ezekiel is the great exponent of individual responsibility some have portrayed. . .”

Surely we need a better explanation of the significance of God’s justice being vindicated by his not punishing the exiles for the sins of their fathers. Is God being just by punishing the exiles for their own sins rather than for the sins of their fathers? If so, was he unjust in the days of Exodus and Deuteronomy when he behaved differently? If Ezekiel had reiterated the Exodus & Deuteronomy principle and merely told his fellow exiles that they shouldn’t feel self-vindicated for they too had sinned, that would support of Joyce’s argument, but Ezekiel isn’t saying that. Going on at some length he describes individuals, some of whom behave righteously and some unrighteously. The righteous shall live, Ezekiel tells his fellow exiles, but the unrighteous shall surely die. No doubt Joyce is right in seeing Ezekiel stripping away his fellow exiles self-justification, but he is wrong, it seems to me, by not recognizing that in the process Ezekiel has abrogated an earlier principle whereby sins of the fathers are visited upon their children and replaced it with a principle of individual responsibility.

Neither Joyce nor Cooke wish this new principle of Ezekiel’s to be seen as advocating an individualistic religion, but I never took Ezekiel to be making that argument. The situation in Ezekiel’s day (I believe) was that the Jews had become individualistic through a variety of causes, e.g., exposure to the ideas of foreign nations, and through self-study of one kind and another. They were no longer like the generations of the days of Exodus and Deuteronomy; so a different law or principle was needed.

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