Ezekiel 20:1-49 (20:1-44; 21:1-5)

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The “seventh year” of the exile of King Jehoiachin is commonly considered to have been the year 591 BCE. It was on the tenth day of the fifth month (mid-July to mid-August) in this year that some “elders of Israel” (“elders of the house of Israel” [LXX]) came to Ezekiel so that, through him, they could inquire of YHWH. While they were seated before him (20:1), YHWH’s “word” or message came to him. In the Targum, the message is identified as a “word of prophecy from before the Lord.” (20:2) Ezekiel was addressed as “son of man,” reminding him that he was a mortal in the service of YHWH, the eternal God. The declaration of the Lord YHWH for the “elders of Israel” was, “Is it to inquire of me that you have come? As I live, I will not be inquired of by you.” That YHWH would not respond favorably to them is made certain with the solemn declaration in the form of an oath (“as I live”). (20:3) The elders were not in a fit condition for YHWH to deal with them, for they were in line for serious censure. Ezekiel was told, “Will you judge them? Will you judge [them], son of man?” Evidently because the elders had not rejected the course of their forefathers, they were to be reminded about the abominations or disgusting practices of their “fathers” or ancestors. (20:4; see the Notes section.)

The “day” of YHWH’s “choosing Israel” is linked to the time Moses was sent back to Egypt to request that Pharaoh release his people. YHWH’s lifting up his “hand” appears to refer to his declaring his words with a solemn oath to the “seed of the house of Jacob,” the descendants of Jacob, or the people of Israel. He made himself known to them as YHWH their God. The rendering of the Septuagint represents God as taking hold of the people with his hand and identifying himself as their God. (20:5; see Exodus 3:13-17; 6:2-8 and the Notes section.)

YHWH is represented as lifting up his hand, evidently to indicate with an oath the certain fulfillment of his word. He promised the Israelites that he “would bring them out of the land of Egypt to a land [he] had searched out [prepared (LXX)] for them,” a land “flowing with milk and honey.” Of “all lands,” it was exceptionally beautiful. This land was Canaan, a fertile land with good pastures for flocks and herds. This meant that cows and female goats would supply abundant milk. Besides wild honey, the people would be able to obtain much honey from fruits. (20:6; see the Notes section.)

YHWH commanded the people that each one of them should discard the “detestable things of his eyes” (the images of nonexistent deities on which the individual looked with reverent attention). The people were not to defile themselves with the idols (literally, “dungy things” [an expression of contempt]; practices [LXX]) of Egypt. Venerating idols would make the people unclean, for YHWH was their God to whom they were to be exclusively devoted. (20:7)

The people rebelled against YHWH and refused to listen to him. They did not discard the “destable things of their eyes” (the idols on which their eyes focused reverently). Instead of abandoning the idols (literally, “dungy things” [an expression of contempt]; “practices” [LXX]) of Egypt, they continued to defile themselves with them as worshipers of the nonexistent deities the images represented. Therefore, YHWH decreed that he would “pour out” his wrath upon the people, apparently by not shielding them from oppressive enslavement to the Egyptians. He thus brought his anger against them to its finish or completion “in the midst of the land of Egypt.” (20:8)

In order for his “name,” his reputation, or for him himself not to be “profaned before the eyes of the nations,” or before the people of other nations who would come to know about developments in Egypt, YHWH took action for his people. If the Israelites had continued to be enslaved, people of other nations would have concluded that YHWH was not the God who could help his people, resulting in reproach on his name or on him. Therefore, among the nations where the Israelites found themselves, YHWH made himself known when bringing his people out of Egypt before the “eyes” of people of other nations so that they might see his great power. (20:9)

YHWH led the Israelites “out of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness,” the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula to the east of Egypt. (20:10) At Mount Sinai in that wilderness, YHWH gave the Israelites his statutes and made known to them his “judgments” or ordinances. (Exodus 19:1, 16-19; 20:1-23:19) The “man” or the person who kept the statutes and judgments or ordinances would live by them. Obedience would mean life for him. According to the Targum, this would mean “living by them in eternal life.” This interpretation apparently relates to life in the world to come, for faithful adherence to the commandments did not guarantee well-being and security in the present life. (20:11; the interpretation of the Targum is also found for the text of verses 13 and 21.) As a “sign” between him and the Israelites, YHWH gave them his “sabbaths” for them to know that he their God sanctified them, setting them apart as his own people. The people were to observe numerous sabbaths — the seventh day of the week as a day of rest from customary labors (Exodus 20:8-11; 34:21; Deuteronomy 5:12-15), the seventh year during which the land was not to be cultivated (Leviticus 25:2-7), the fiftieth year or Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:8-34), Abib or Nisan 14 (Passover), 15 and 21 (Exodus 12:14-20; Deuteronomy 16:1-8), Sivan 6 (Pentecost [Leviticus 23:15-21; Numbers 28:26-31; Deuteronomy 16:9-12]), Ethanim or Tishri 1 (Leviticus 23:24, 25), 10 (Day of Atonement [Leviticus 23:27-32]), 15, and 22. (Leviticus 23:34-36) These “sabbaths” were a sign that YHWH had chosen the Israelites to be his holy or sanctified people whom he had delivered from enslavement in Egypt. (20:12)

Instead of appreciating what YHWH had done for them, the “house” or people of Israel rebelled against him in the wilderness of Sinai. They failed to walk or to conduct themselves according to his statutes and rejected his judgments or ordinances. One example of this was their request for Aaron to make a representation of a god for them when Moses was away on a height of Mount Sinai. Thereafter they venerated the golden calf that was made at the direction of Aaron. (Exodus 32:1-9) Obedience to YHWH’s statutes and ordinances would have benefited the people, for it would have meant life for them. (See the comment on verse 11 regarding the interpretation of the Targum.) The people greatly profaned YHWH’s “sabbaths,” the ones he had given to them. Although the Israelites were told that no manna would be provided on the seventh day or the Sabbath, some of them still left their tents to look for it. (Exodus 16:25-29) On account of the rebelliousness of the people, YHWH declared that he would “pour out” his wrath upon them “in the wilderness,” making a complete end of them. (20:13; see Exodus 32:7-10.)

Although the Israelites deserved to be punished severely, YHWH did not choose to exterminate them out of regard for his “name” or reputation. If he had destroyed all the Israelites, his name would have been profaned “before the eyes of the nations” or the people of the nations who would learn about this. It was before the “eyes” of people of these very nations that YHWH had brought the Israleites out of Egypt. Therefore, if they had perished in the wilderness of Sinai, people from various nations would have concluded that YHWH had bad intentions for the Israelites and could not fulfill his promises to them. (20:14; compare Exodus 32:12, 13; Numbers 14:13-16; Deuteronomy 9:25-29.)

When the Israelites accepted the unfavorable report from ten of the spies who had been sent into the land of Canaan, they began to complain against Moses and Aaron and gave consideration to appointing a leader who would return with them to Egypt. They even wanted to stone Caleb and Joshua for encouraging them not to rebel against YHWH and not to be fearful about entering the land of Canaan. (Numbers 14:1-10) It was then that YHWH “lifted up [his] hand” or solemnly declared with an oath that he would not bring the adult generation that had left Egypt “into the land [he] had given them, a land “flowing with milk and honey.” According to the Septuagint, he “lifted up his hand against them in the wilderness” so as not to lead them into the land. “Of all lands,” it was an outstandingly beautiful land. (20:15; see verse 6 and the accompanying note for additional comments; compare Deuteronomy 8:7-9.) YHWH’s judgment against the people was based on their rejecting his “judgments” or ordinances, refusing to “walk” or to conduct themselves according to his statutes, profaning his sabbaths, and following the promptings of their “heart” or inner selves to pursue idolatry (going after “dungy things” [an expression of contempt]; going after the “thoughts” or reasonings of their “heart” or inner selves [LXX]). (20:16)

Although they deserved to be annihilated, YHWH spared them (his eye looked upon them with pity). He “did not make a complete end of them in the wilderness.” YHWH continued to care for them in the wilderness, making it possible for the younger generation to survive so as to be able to enter the land of Canaan. (20:17; see Numbers 14:22-24, 29-38; Deuteronomy 8:2-4, 14-16.) “In the wilderness,” YHWH told the “sons” or “children” (LXX) of the older generation not to “walk” or to conduct themselves according to the statutes of their “fathers” and not to observe their “judgments” or ordinances (statutes and ordinances that were not in harmony with YHWH’s commands). The “sons” or children were not to defile themselves (mix themselves up [LXX]) with the “idols” (literally, “dungy things” [an expression of contempt]; “practices” [LXX]) of their “fathers.” This required that they shun idolatry and remain exclusively devoted to YHWH. (20:18) YHWH their God commanded them, “Walk in [or conduct yourselves according to] my statutes and observe my judgments” or ordinances, “and perform them.” (20:19) “And sanctify [or treat as holy] my sabbaths,” observing them as times of rest and remembering that they constituted a “sign” between YHWH and the Israelites. As a people, the Israelites had been given these sabbaths, and YHWH was their source. Accordingly, by reason of the sabbaths, the people would “know” or have to recognize that YHWH was their God to whom they should be exclusively devoted. (20:20)

During about four decades of wandering in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, the “sons” or “children” (LXX) of the older generation that left Egypt became adults. They also rebelled against YHWH, not walking or conducting themselves according to his “statutes” and not observing his “judgments” or ordinances. Obedience to YHWH’s statutes and ordinances would have benefited the “sons” or children, for it would have meant life for them. (See the comment on verse 11 regarding the interpretation of the Targum.) Besides disregarding these statutes and ordinances, the “sons” or children defiled YHWH’s “sabbaths” or the sabbaths that he had given them, for they did not faithfully observe the seventh day in the manner he commanded. Therefore, YHWH said that he would “pour out” his wrath “upon them” (“in the wilderness” [LXX]) and bring to an end his “anger against them in the wilderness.” (20:21; see the Notes section.)

Although the younger Israelite generation merited his severe judgment for disobedience, YHWH turned back his hand or withheld the use of his power to annihilate them. He did so in order for his “name” not to be “profaned in the eyes of [before (LXX)] the nations” in whose eyes or sight he had brought the Israelites out of Egypt. The destruction of the Israelites would have caused the people of the nations who came to know about it to reason that he was not a God who could care for his people, and their wrong conclusion would have brought reproach on him. (20:22)

“In the wilderness,” YHWH lifted up his “hand” (as when swearing a solemn oath) to the Israelites, declaring that he would scatter them among the nations and disperse them among the lands. The apparent reference is to his making known to them the future calamities that would befall them for disobedience to him. They would be exiled from their own land and taken as captives to other countries. (20:23; see the Notes section and Leviticus 26:27-33; Deuteronomy 28:64-67.) This would happen to them because they failed to observe his “judgments” or ordinances, rejected his statutes, profaned his sabbaths (the sabbaths he had given them) by not keeping them as required, and set their “eyes” or reverently focused their attention on the “idols [literally, dungy things] of their fathers [or forefathers],” refusing to abandon idolatry. According to the Septuagint, their “eyes” were focused on following the “thoughts” of their fathers or forefathers. (20:24)

In view of the people’s disregard for his statutes and ordinances that would have meant life for them, YHWH abandoned them to their own harmful ways. He is represented as giving them, or permitting them to have, “statutes that were not good” and “judgments” or ordinances by which they could not live, or which proved to be ruinous to them. (20:25) YHWH defiled them or allowed them to be polluted with their “gifts” or sacrifices when they offered (passed through the fire) their firstborn sons. He did not prevent them from engaging in the abominable practice of child sacrifice so that he might bring them to ruin. On account of this severe punishment, they would come to “know” or be forced to recognize that YHWH is the God who does not tolerate unfaithfulness to him. (20:26)

As at other times, Ezekiel was addressed as “son of man,” reminding him that he was a mortal in the service of the eternal God YHWH. To the “house” or people of Israel, Ezekiel was to say, “Thus says the Lord YHWH, In this still, your fathers [forefathers or ancestors] blasphemed me by their treacherous acts with me.” Through their course of unfaithfulness, the forefathers of the Israelites brought great reproach on YHWH. According to the Septuagint, they “angered him by their transgressions” against him. (20:27)

After YHWH fulfilled his oath-bound promise (having “lifted up” his hand as when solemnly declaring with an oath) to give the Israelites the land of Canaan, the people defiled the land with idolatrous practices. On the locations they saw on every high hill or under every leafy tree or in groves, they established sites to offer sacrifices (“to their gods” [LXX]) and to present the “provocation of their offering” or the offering that provoked YHWH’s wrath against them for their unfaithfulness to him. On the hills and in the groves, the people also made “soothing aromas” or burned incense and poured out libations. (20:28; see the Notes section.)

YHWH is quoted as saying to the people, “What [is] the high place [Abama (LXX); Abana (P967)] to which you are going? And the name it is called is High Place [Abama (LXX); Abana (P967)] down to this day.” The words directed to them should have caused the people to think about what they and their forefathers had done at the high places or sites devoted to idolatrous worship. (20:29)

The question the Lord YHWH directed to the “house [or people] of Israel” through Ezekiel was, “After the manner [in the lawless deeds (LXX)] of your fathers [forefathers or ancestors] are you defiling yourselves, and after their abominations are you whoring?” They were being asked whether they were continuing in the idolatrous practices of their forefathers? Worship of images that represented nonexistent deities constituted prostitution, for it was an act of unfaithfulness to YHWH to whom the people were bound to be exclusively devoted as a faithful wife is to her husband. (20:30)

The people defiled themselves when they offered their “gifts” or sacrifices and caused their sons to pass through the fire, presenting them as a sacrifice to the idols that represented nonexistent deities. To that very day, the Israelites had defiled themselves with their “idols” (“dungy things” [an expression of contempt]). As an unclean or defiled people, they were unacceptable to YHWH. Therefore, the words he directed to the people were, “Shall I be inquired of by you, O house [or people] of Israel?” The answer to the rhetorical question is preceded by wording in the form of an oath. “As I live, says the Lord YHWH, I will not be inquired of by you.” They could not expect any favorable response from him. (20:31; see the Notes section.)

That which would come up into the spirit or mind of the people would never be. They were saying to themselves or thinking that they could be “like the nations, like the tribes of the lands,” serving or worshiping “wood and stone” or images of nonexistent deities fashioned from wood and stone. This would never be acceptable to YHWH. If they were to be his people, they could not be like the idolatrous people of the nations. For any of them to be his people, they would have to abandon all idolatrous practices and be exclusively devoted to him. (20:32)

The “Lord YHWH” solemnly declared (“as I live” [wording in the form of an oath]), “With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with poured-out wrath, I will be king over you.” After experiencing the display of YHWH’s might and the expression of his anger on account of their unfaithfulness, those who benefited from the severe punishment would have him as their king. (20:33) He would bring them out from among the peoples and gather them out of the lands where they had been “scattered among them.” YHWH would do this “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with poured-out wrath.” The action may refer to the power that he would manifest when delivering his people and expressing his wrath against those who had mistreated them. (20:34) Still, YHWH would discipline his people, preparing them to be acceptable to him. He would bring them “into the wilderness of the peoples” and “enter into judgment” with them there, doing so “face to face.” Their experience would prove to be like a second exodus, the first one being the exodus from Egypt. (20:35) As YHWH had “entered into judgment” with their “fathers” or forefathers “in the wilderness of the land of Egypt,” he would enter into judgment with the exiles in Babylonia. The “wilderness of the land of Egypt” may designate the wilderness in the Sinai Peninsula. It was in that wilderness that YHWH repeatedly executed his judgments upon rebellious Israelites. The judgment of the exiles from Babylonia would determine the ones whom he found acceptable. (20:36) Like a shepherd in relation to the sheep, YHWH would make the people pass “under the rod” to examine them “and bring them into the bond of the covenant,” or put them under obligation to adhere to the requirements of the covenant that had been concluded with them. (20:36) Upon making his examination, YHWH would purge out from among the people the “rebels” (“impious ones” [LXX]) and those who had transgressed against him. Although these rebels and transgressors would be brought out of the land of their alien residence, they would not enter the “land of Israel.” At that time, the people of Israel would “know” or come to recognize YHWH as the God who executes judgment against unfaithful ones. (20:38)

Through Ezekiel, the Lord YHWH declared that the people could go ahead and serve or worship their idols (literally, “dungy things” [an expression of contempt]). They could, however, not expect his favor. If they refused to listen to him, he would not permit his “holy name” to be profaned by the “gifts” or sacrifices they would me making to their idols (“dungy things”). According to the Septuagint rendering, the people were admonished to forsake their “practices” or their wayward course of life. (20:39)

YHWH would recognize as his own people only those who rejected idolatry. On his “holy mountain, on the mountain of the height of Israel [on a high mountain (LXX)],” is where the entire “house of Israel” would serve or worship him in their land. For Ezekiel’s contemporaries, the “holy mountain” was the eminence in Jerusalem on which YHWH’s temple stood. It was there that YHWH would be pleased with the repentant people or would accept them as his own. He would require them to go to the temple and bring their “contributions” or offerings and the “firstfruits” or choicest of their offerings “with all [their] holy things.” These “holy things” may designate all the other offerings the people would bring to the temple. According to the Septuagint, God would look upon, apparently with favor, the “firstfruits” of the people and the “firstfruits” they had set apart “in [or among] all [their] sanctified things.” (20:40)

As if they were like a “soothing aroma” (possibly meaning like the odor from sacrifices or incense), YHWH would be pleased with the people or accept them after he had delivered them from those who had kept them captive as exiles and gathered them from the lands to which they had been scattered. Upon his having acted for his people, YHWH would be “sanctified” in them, or by what he had done for them, “before the eyes of the nations.” The people of other nations would witness YHWH’s act of deliverance and thus would come to see YHWH as the God who cares for his people. (20:41)

The house or people of Israel would come to “know” or recognize that YHWH is the God who fulfills his word. This would occur when he would bring them back to the “land of Israel,” the “land” that he swore (as when lifting up his hand to make an oath) to give to their “fathers” or ancestors. (20:42)

Upon being restored to their land, the people would regretfully remember their former ways and all the acts by means of which they had defiled themselves, and they would “loathe,” or be ashamed of, themselves (literally, “in [their] faces”) for all the evils or wrongs they had previously committed. The Septuagint says regarding the people, “You will strike your faces for all your evil deeds [injustices (P967)].” The expression “strike your faces” may here denote a gesture of sorrow and shame. (20:43)

By the manner in which YHWH would deal with them for the sake of his “name” or reputation, the people would “know” or come to recognize him as the God who acts according to his word. The “house of Israel” would then recognize that they did not merit his favorable attention, for they had acted corruptly. (20:44)

YHWH’s “word” or message again came to Ezekiel. The Targum refers to this message as a “word of prophecy from before the Lord.” (20:45 [21:1])

As at other times, Ezekiel was addressed as “son of man,” reminding him that he was a mortal in the service of the eternal God YHWH. The prophet was told to set his “face toward the southern region” (Thaiman [Teman in Edomite territory], LXX) and then to make a proclamation (literally, “drip”) “against the south” (“look upon Darom” [LXX]) and to “prophesy against the forest of the field of the Negeb” (or “south” [the “forest (or grove) leading to Nageb” (LXX)]). The thought underlying the Hebrew word “drip” in connection with the utterance of the prophet suggests that the proclamations would be like water to those listeners who were thirsting for the word of YHWH. Here, however, the idiomatic expression “drip” may basically mean “proclaim.” In the Negeb, the arid region south of the mountainous territory of Judah, there are no forests. Therefore, in this context, the Hebrew expression for “forest of the field” may be understood to denote “scrub land.” (20:46 [21:2]; see the Notes section.) To the “forest [or scrub land] of the Negeb,” Ezekiel was to say, “Hear the word of YHWH. Thus says the Lord YHWH, Look, I will kindle a fire in you, and it will consume in you every green tree and every dry tree. And the intense flame [literally, flame of flame] will not be extinguished, and all faces from south to north [from east to north (LXX)] will be scorched by it.” The people were to listen to the message from YHWH, and the word for “look” served to focus their attention on this message. On account of the devouring fire, nothing would escape the flames. All “faces” or everyone throughout the affected region would experience the calamity. (20:47 [21:3]) At the time the destructive fire would be unleashed, “all flesh” or everyone would “see,” “know” (LXX), or recognize that YHWH had kindled it and that it would not be extinguished. (20:48 [21:4])

Instead of taking to heart the serious message Ezekiel proclaimed, the people seem to have considered his illustrations, likenesses, or parables entertaining. They heard what he said but did not act on the word of YHWH that he made known to them. Apparently this caused him to exclaim in discouragement, “Ah Lord YHWH! They are saying of me, Is he not a composer of proverbs [more literally, one who likens likenesses]?” The thought the people were expressing appears to be that Ezekiel was an expert in formulating proverbs, parables, or likenesses and, therefore, was someone they found entertaining as a speaker. (20:49 [21:5]; 33:30-32; see the Notes section.)


In verse 4, Rahlfs’ printed text directs the question to Ezekiel, “Will you punish with punishment?” The oldest extant Greek text (P967), however, quotes the Lord as saying, “Will I punish with punishment?”

The oldest extant Greek manuscript (P967) contains a partially preserved shorter text for verses 5 and 6. It omits the words, “saying, I am the Lord your God, in that day …” The concluding part of verse 5 continues with the words, “and I took hold of them with my hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt.” Also, in verse 5, it says “Israel,” not “house of Israel.”

In the last phrase of verses 6 and 15 of the Septuagint, the land of Canaan is identified as a “honeycomb beyond”, or in comparison with, every other land. The text of verse 6 in P967 does not contain the Greek word for “prepared.” It indicates that the land was one that God swore to give to the “fathers” or forefathers of the people.

In verse 12, the Masoretic Text contains the words that may be rendered “I [am] YHWH,” and ancient manuscripts of the Septuagint read, “I [am the] Lord.” The text of the oldest Greek manuscript (P967) is longer. “I [the] Lord [am] their God.” As elsewhere in this manuscript, both the words for God and Lord are abbreviated.

In verse 21, the Septuagint does not end with the phrase “in the wilderness,” but it appears earlier in the text. The oldest extant Greek manuscript (P967) begins this phrase with the conjunction “and.”

The Septuagint rendering of verse 23 represents God as lifting up his hand against the Israelites.

In verse 28, the oldest extant Greek manuscript (P967) does not mention that the people’s sacrifices were made “to their gods.” It states that they “sacrificed their sacrifices there.”

The Septuagint wording of verse 31 differs somewhat from the reading of the Hebrew text. “And by the firstfruits of your gifts, by the things you have set apart, you have defiled yourselves in all your thoughts to this day. And am I to answer you, O house of Israel? [As] I live, says the Lord, I will not answer you [literally, if I will answer you] and [or even] if it will arise upon this your spirit.” The phrase about the “spirit” may mean that God would not answer even though the thought that he would do so would come to mind of the people.

In verse 46 (21:2), the proper names in the Septuagint (Thaiman, Darom, and Nageb) are basically transliterations of the Hebrew words.

The rendering of verse 49 (21:5) in the Septuagint differs somewhat from the extant Hebrew text. “And I said, By no means Lord, O Lord. They are saying to me, Is not this a parable [or likeness] being spoken?”