Yehezkiel 40-48

The final nine chapters of Yehezkiel (Ezekiel) pose a sharp contrast to the preceding 39.  They take on a heavily concrete tone, instructing the generation of the return from the Exile on the building of a new temple and the reestablishment of the monarchy.  Instead of being a prophecy for Yehezkiel’s contemporaries, these chapters are a “message in a bottle” to future generations.  Many of the passages sound suspiciously like new commandments.  The prophets do not deliver new commandments, but Yehezkiel is not solely a prophet.  In these final chapters, Yehezkiel speaks to us with the authority of a priest.  In that role, he has the authority to hand down judgments and reforms, so long as they do not violate Torah, and his instructions to the generation of the return should be read in that light.  The whole section is so concrete that there is very little to say about it.  I will, however, provide a brief synopsis and a few comments.

Chapters 40-2 provide detailed Temple measurements and descriptions.  If, like me, you have trouble visualizing verbal descriptions, these are difficult chapters to follow.  On the bright side, there isn’t much of anything theological about them.  However, it is common for these chapters to be interpreted as instructions for the building of the Third Temple (the Second having been destroyed in the year 70).  Such an interpretation is incorrect.  Yehezkiel records in these chapters the appearance of Shlomo’s (Solomon’s) Temple as it appeared before its destruction.  This does NOT mean that the First Temple was originally built to these specifications.  A perusal of the books of Melechim (Kings) will indicate that the Temple was refurbished multiple times in the generations following the death of Shlomo.  There is no reason to believe that those succeeding kings did not add their own modifications to the original design or remodel to keep pace with the style of their times.

By the time the Chaldeans destroyed Shlomo’s Temple, it looked like the Temple described by Yehezkiel.  Yehezkiel knew that know one who had seen that Temple would survive to see the building of the next, and so preserved detailed measurements and layout information for the generation of the return.  And we have no reason to believe that the builders working under Nehemiah’s authority did not adhere to Yehezkiel’s instructions.  Granted, the Second Temple that the Romans destroyed had been significantly altered by Herod to the tastes of his time.

Chapter 43 instructs the Israelites not to rebuild the Temple until they are ready to be obedient.  Moreover, it instructs the prophet not to publicize the details of the design until it is time to rebuild.  The design being included in the canon indicates that such a time came and went.  The chapter also indicates that Hashem no longer wishes for the kings of Israel to be interred near the Temple.  He wishes the entirety of the mountain top to be considered as part of the Temple precincts (and therefore free of cadavers).  So long as the honoring of the dead and idolatry are put away from the house of Israel, Hashem will keep His name in the next Temple and will remain close to His people.  As always, the “forever” is conditional on our actions.

Chapter 43 also provides instructions for the building of the altar and the dedication ceremony of the new Temple.  Most importantly, though, it identifies the descendants of Zadok as the priests who will serve in the next Temple.  By this point in time, the priesthood had divided into factions, including the Zadokites, who would eventually become the Sadducees. 

Chapter 44 continues to outline the renewal of the priesthood.  All the descendants of Aharon who are not Zadokite will be punished for their forefathers’ idolatry by demotion to the role of Temple servants.  The Laws concerning the cleanliness of priests are then reiterated for the benefit of the descendants of Zadok.  And the chapter reiterates that foreigners are not permitted to the Temple (this is not a reference to converts, as a convert would be circumcised in “both heart and flesh”).

The beginning of the chapter is interesting, as it forbids anyone from entering the Temple via the eastern gate, but dictates that “the prince” will eat his bread in the gate.  This instruction is interesting on two counts:

  1. Hashem wishes that future leaders of His people be allowed less opportunity to stray from the Law.  The prince will eat at the Temple, presumably for the purpose of regular religious study and to help lead the congregation in rituals outlined in chapter 46, but also indicating that the priesthood will, in future take a more active role in advising the prince.
  2. Yehezkiel refers to this future leader as “the prince,” not “the king.”  He has no illusions that the monarchy will be reinstated in full.  Instead, he expects that the future leaders of the Israelites will serve under some other temporal authority–such as the Persian emperor.

Chapter 45 provides the dimensions of the Temple precincts, the Temple, and the royal lands on either side of the Temple that belong to the prince.  The chapter then provides a reiteration of various Laws found in the Torah.

Chapter 46 provides instruction for the observance of rituals surrounding Shabbat and the new moon.  Since Yehezkiel himself was a priest, he had intimate knowledge of the customs the priesthood had developed surrounding their mandated rituals.  This chapter includes some of those, including the Temple’s mechanism for crown control at 46:9.  It also includes reforms to the monarchy, reinforcing property rights and the obligation of the prince to preserve the royal property for his sons’ inheritance.  Not only do these reforms ensure the continued existence of royal lands, but they prevent the development of undue power among the nobility and prevent the prince from enriching himself beyond his rights or through the oppression of his subjects.  These had all been problems before the Chaldean conquest, and reform was needed.  This chapter also reinforces the role of the prince as a representative of the people and as one of the people–almost a “first among equals.”

Chapter 47 concerns the reestablishment of the boundaries of Israel and the allotment of land within Israel to the various tribes.  Note the passage at the end of the chapter:

So you shall divide this land among you according to the tribes of Israel. You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the sojourners who reside among you and have had children among you. They shall be to you as native-born children of Israel. With you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe the sojourner resides, there you shall assign him his inheritance, declares the Lord God. -Yehezkiel 47:21-23 (emphasis mine)

In this passage, Yehezkiel emphasizes the earlier precedent that there is no distinction to be made between the native born and the convert:

And it shall come to pass, if they will diligently learn the ways of my people, to swear by my name, ‘As the Lord lives,’ even as they taught my people to swear by Baal, then they shall be built up in the midst of my people. -Yermiyahu (Jeremiah) 12:16

Finally, chapter 48 completes the details of the allotment of land to the tribes, priests, and prince, as well as the dimensions of the holy city.

We do not know if any of these allotments or reforms were put in place when the Temple was rebuilt.  We do know, however, that Hashem eventually withdrew His name from the Temple again and His people suffered under the curses detailed in the covenant for their iniquity yet again.  However, the details of a prophecy do not need to come to pass to be fulfilled.  As we see in the book of Yonah (Jonah) and in Yermiyahu’s reference to Micah (Yermiyahu 26:18), prophecies are sometimes fulfilled by being averted.  Under Persian rule, the Israelites were permitted to reestablish Yehudah as an imperial province.  It was ruled by a Davidic prince (Zerubavel), and the Temple was reestablished by a zealous and contrite people.  Moreover, Yehudah was favored among the Persian principalities, and the other provinces were required to pay tribute to Yehudah and contribute to the building of the new Temple.  The prophecy that the kingdom would be established forever was certainly averted by the Israelites falling back into idolatry.

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