By: Reverend Lawrence Boadt, C.S.P., S.S.D.
President and Publisher of Paulist Press in Mahwah, New Jersey,
Professor Emeritus of Scripture Studies at
Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C.,
and author of Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction.
The theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity comes from Ezekiel 37:15-23, in which the prophet Ezekiel performs the symbolic action, undertaken at the Lord’s command, of taking two sticks and joining them together to make a single staff. On one piece of wood he is to write the name Judah, representing the southern kingdom of Israel, and on the other, the name Joseph, representing the kingdom of Israel. By joining them as one, Ezekiel symbolically reunites the nation that had been torn apart by two terrible exiles and was seemingly lost forever. It is part of Ezekiel’s grand strategy which governs all of the last part of his book: to reassure the Exiles from Judah who are trapped in Babylon that God will restore his covenant people back to the blessings and the close relationship they had with God under both Moses in the Exodus and David in the glorious days of the united kingdom. The lesson for all today who pray for the unity of Christians everywhere is that God ‘s promise to restore the unity of his covenant people, proclaimed in Ezekiel, still gives us hope that God intends the unity of his New Covenant people in Christ.
The choice of the Ezekiel passage gives a particular richness to this hope. It is the climactic scene in a great panorama of salvation that the prophet sketches from chapters 34 to 37. Dismayed that the people of Judah had not heeded the dire warnings of the prophets such as himself (but also Habakkuk, Jeremiah, and Obadiah) to turn back from their sinful ways, which included idolatry, politically scheming against Babylon, and oppression of the weak, Ezekiel had watched helplessly as the Babylonians sent the people into Exile and then destroyed Jerusalem itself. Now, with all lost, and himself among the exiles, Ezekiel recognizes that God’s punishment is past and his promise of healing is about to transform death and destruction to life and rebuilding. Starting in chapter 34, he foresees the end of unfaithful kings who pretend to be shepherds of the people, and a new reign of God himself as their true shepherd, establishing a new David as his representative. In chapters 35-36, he portrays the cleansing of the hill country of Judah, ridding it of all its enemies (35:1-15), regenerating the fertility of the land (36:1-15), and cleansing it from the impure practices Judah itself had practiced (36:16-25). Once this is completed, God will instill a new heart and a new spirit in their bodies so that they will never again live by their sinful inclinations but only by the will of God (36:26-38).
In the climactic chapter 37, Ezekiel completes this great vision of restoration by doing two symbolic actions that bring new life to both the people and the nation. In 37:1-14, in the vision of dead bones on the great plain, the prophet repeats God’s own words to bring the dead back to life. And then, in 37:15-23, he restores them to the unity they had when they were closest to God in the days of Moses and David. In 37:24-28, he recapitulates all that has been promised from chapters 34 to 37. It is characterized by four everlasting blessings: possession of the land of Israel, a king like David had been, the healing of their covenant relationship, and God’s promise to dwell in their midst forever. Thus the chapter summarizes three steps in God’s great plan:
|(1) God will resurrect his people from Exile to a new life on the land (1-14);
(2) He will restore the ancient unity of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (15-23);
(3) He will re-establish the ancient covenant relationship (24-28).
The fact that God commands the prophet to act out the oracle he has given him is significant. Ezekiel, of all the prophets, does far more of these symbolic actions than any other prophet. By their nature, they combine words with performative actions, very much like Christian sacraments do. The difference is that our sacraments make present today the grace-filled actions that Christ lived and fulfilled in the past; Ezekiel’s symbolic actions prefigure and make certain a future moment of salvation. Paying attention to the details of his actions can play an important role in interpreting how this oracle can still speak to us today.
(1) First, Ezekiel does not refer to the two “kingdoms” that had actually existed in his day, but goes back to their origins as tribes. Both Judah and Joseph as tribal names bring the reader back to the lists of the tribes as they are described in the days of the Exodus (Gen 35:22-26; 46:8-25; Deut 27:12-13). In fact, there never was a kingdom named after Joseph at all. The northern kingdom that was formed after Solomon’s death normally called itself ”Israel”— although when reduced to merely the area around the capital city of Samaria in 732, it was referred to by the name of the tribal area “Ephraim” by Hosea (5:3, 11, 13, 14; 6:4, 10; 7:1, 8; 9:8, 11, 13; etc.). Thus Ezekiel goes back before their rivalries, ruptures, and even internecine wars to a time when the tribes were unified under Moses.
(2) Ezekiel uses the verb laqach to express his “taking” of the two sticks. This verb occurs frequently of a king who seizes lands or enemies to subdue them and make them subjects to his rule (said of Nebuchadnezzar in Ezek 17:3, 5; 16:39; 23:25; and of God in Ezek 16:61; 17:22; 36:24). Thus the prophet may be signaling that only God can accomplish this reunion of the nation of Israel, both spiritually and politically. God promises to recall them to their ancient loyalty and at the same time defeat the mighty empires of earth which had destroyed the two kingdoms, Assyria in 722 BC and Babylon in 586.
(3) Even the word for two “sticks” (ets) can have more than one meaning. If we take the more ordinary usage as a piece of wood or a stick, it may refer to the sense of pieces of a broken staff of office, or royal scepter. It is used in this sense in Num17:16-20 when each tribe is told to make a staff for its leader with his name written on it as an emblem of its sovereignty. Ezek 19:11 also refers to a staff as a royal scepter. As two pieces of wood joined to make a royal staff then, the sense would be the restoration of the royal scepter of the House of David to rule over both kingdoms once again. On the other hand, the Targum that was written as an Aramaic paraphrase of the Hebrew Bible to help those who did not know Hebrew, says in verse 16, “Take a tablet for yourself and write on it, ‘For the tribe of Joseph’....” In this meaning, two tablets would be combined to make one document, representing the book of divine decrees such as we see in Isa 8:1 and elsewhere. God would then be restoring his original declaration that Israel was to be one people. Most modern translations use “stick,” for ets, but either works.
In picturing the repair of the royal staff of David, then, Ezekiel was boldly proclaiming not just an end to the exile and the return home of its people who were scattered across many foreign nations, but the re-establishment of the original unity of heart and mind of all the tribes with the one God which had characterized the time at Mount Sinai in Exodus 24. It also invites us to explore the prophetic meaning of such a passage for believers today. Although divided into many denominations, just as Israel was into tribes, Christians across the world use this week of Prayer for Christian Unity to pray and hope for a unity of heart and mind together that would reflect the unity said of the first Christian community in Jerusalem in Acts 2:42-47, when they worshipped as one, shared all things in common, cared for the poor, and praised god with joy and sincerity of heart. This unity we pray for will only come about when God in his grace and compassion makes it possible, so part of our prayer will always be “Thy will be done.” But at the same time, each Christian church must examine its own attitudes towards other Christians and acknowledge our common commitment to obedience and service of the one King over us all, seek purification of our harm and distrust toward one another, and seek common faithfulness to his Son in whose name and salvation we all believe. Many important differences of understanding still have to be worked through to achieve unity, as well as healing the distrust and reluctance born of stubborn historical divisions that seriously cloud our efforts. But we can pray all the more confidently with hope and expectation of an ultimate Christian unity when we hear Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of a God who restores oneness to an alienated, divided, and broken people, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.