I’m only started on the road of studying the prophet Ezekiel, a book which will likely be my area of concentration in Hebrew Bible studies (some possible doctoral work in a few years).
With a little preparatory reading under my belt, I sat down to Ezekiel 1:1-3 today (literally sat in a camping chair under a giant oak tree in front of a sprawling green landscape at a local park). Even in the first few verses issues of mysticism, ecstatic prophecy, and divine control versus human free will came up. Ezekiel is a wild book.
I noted certain phrases. נפתחו השמים “and were opened up the heavens.” אראה מראות אלהים “I saw a divine vision” (with Greenberg taking Elohim as an adjective and mar’ot as a plural of generalization). היה דבר–יי “came the word of Hashem.” ותהי עליו שם יד–יי “and came upon him the hand of Hashem.”
Heavens opening. Divine visions. The arrival of a word from Hashem. The pressing hand of Hashem on the prophet. The book of Ezekiel is dramatic and Ezekiel is not like many other prophets.
Ezekiel and God’s Coercion
Ezekiel is not like the other writing prophets. In some ways he seems more like Elijah and Elisha as well as the other early prophets who were compelled and whose prophecies came with force even pressing against their own wills.
What was it like to be a vessel of prophecy? There are so many different ways people think of prophecy. Some see the oracles of prophets as clever or forceful poems invented by the prophets. Others see the oracles as God-dictated words channeled through the prophet against the will. Everything in between has been suggested.
Moshe Greenberg (Anchor Bible: Ezekiel) notes that the other literary prophets, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, did not use the language of compulsion about the way prophecies came to them. Only Ezekiel did.
Daniel Block (New International Commentary on the Old Testament: Ezekiel) notes that formulas expressing divine coercion are common in Ezekiel. The hand of Hashem compels him seven times, sometimes moving him from place to place. The Spirit of Hashem lifts him to his feet and falls on him. Many lesser expressions fill the book such as “took me out,” “brought me,” “led me,” etc. Block see the hand of Hashem language as a divine pressure exerted on the prophet.
One suggestion has been that Ezekiel felt an inner compulsion and referred to it as Hashem’s hand. But we must be open to the idea that God would exert such pressure directly and in such a way that no one would confuse such an experience with self-compulsion. To deny the possibility of the latter is an indefensible refusal to accept the possibility of the supernatural. The question is not about possibilities, but likelihood. Is it likely that God exerted pressure on the will of an individual prophet? What would that feel like?
Two Types of Prophets
Some have overdone the distinction, but it does seem there are two categories of prophets in the Bible. The early prophets, mentioned in Samuel and Kings, were characterized at times by ecstatic trances, schools in which they trained to be prophets, and wild acts of prophetic zeal. The later prophets, especially the literary prophets, rarely use this kind of language (except Ezekiel). Their words come in visions and similar communication with little or no evidence of a trance or ecstatic state.
Some people have claimed 1 Samuel 9:9 as a basis for a sharp distinction between a prophet and a seer. Seers, allegedly, are the more ecstatic type.
Elijah and Elisha are the early prophets par excellence. The hand of Hashem came on Elijah in 1 Kings 18:46 and he ran faster than the chariots of Ahab for many miles! Elisha was the father figure to a school of prophets.
What does it all mean? Is the prophet-gift something that can be learned? Does it involve trances and ecstatic states? Does it mean losing one’s own will in the Divine will?
Abraham Joshua Heschel on Ecstatic Prophecy
In his book The Prophets (1962, JPS), Heschel addresses the theory of ecstatic prophecy. He details ideas about psychology, orgiastic and ecstatic groups in the ancient world, studies of Israelite prophecy, and so on.
He notes that the ecstatic theory of prophecy is an attempt to understand prophecy in naturalistic terms. Prophecy becomes drunkenness, or the orgiastic experiential cults of history such as Dionysus.
In challenge to ecstasy as the mode of prophecy, Heshcel offers these counterpoints:
(1) In the time between Moses and Amos, “no sign of ecstasy is reported” in the “leading prophetic figures” (Vol. 2, p.134).
(2) Isaiah disparages alcoholic ecstasy as a woe, not a legitimate form of communion with God (Isa. 19:14; 5:11, 22; see Heschel, Vol. 2, p.135).
(3) The Israelite prophets do not, as pagan prophets, seek to merge with God. The line between man and God is uncrossable for Israelites. This is noted by strong language of God’s holiness and transcendence. (ibid., 137).
(4) The personalities of the prophets are not extinguished. They complain, resist, and even change God’s decree about things (ibid., 137-8).
(5) Other than some early prophets who are anonymous, there is no talk of preparing a trance to receive a vision (ibid., 138).
(6) The prophets do not emphasize the indescribable as in ecstatic visions, but put in words what they see and receive (ibid., 140-1).
(7) Israelite prophets share their message communally, not seeking a personal experience for its own sake (ibid., 142).
(8) Israelite prophets speak about real issues, not theories of spiritual existence (ibid., 144).
(9) Israelite prophets do not speak merely of abstract, non-material reality, but present God as actively engaged in history (ibid., 144-5).
(10) Israelite prophets do not tap into impersonal magical forces, but receive from a personal God (ibid., 145-6).
What Then of Trances and Schools?
I think Heschel has laid to rest the idea of trance-inducing, frenzied prophets in Israel. Yet we do know that in some places and times, especially early in Israel’s history, there were trances and schools.
My thought about this is that it is yet another example of God revealing himself even in and through movements with limited understanding. There were schools of prophets, people who sought to enter a trance-like state and become vessels of a divine word. And in some times and places, God gave that word and honored those schools. There is no indication that Elijah and Elisha rebuked these well-meaning disciples.
But we should note that trances, frenzy, and disassociation of mind and body did not become the norm in Israel. Those movements died out.
What Then, About Ezekiel?
Although Ezekiel was in some ways compelled and coerced, the characteristics of his prophecies fit well with Heshcel’s observations listed above. The reasons for God’s heavy hand on Ezekiel are not to be found in theories about schools of prophets seeking oracular experiences and visions.
Theories, to be explored later, include the idea that Ezekiel may have been unwilling as a prophet or perhaps something else. Perhaps being in Babylon, so far removed from the land of Israel, a kind of prophecy more wild and zealous was called for.
To be considered and pondered . . .
Great post Derek!
As you so aptly noted, from its immediate onset, Ezekiel is quite different from the other literary prophets and indeed rich in mystical thought, ecstatic prophesy, and divine control. As such, Ezekiel specifically inspired other great works, including early Jewish mystical texts – specifically the Merkavah literature.
However, in regard to your comment: “we should note that trances, frenzy, and disassociation of mind and body did not become the norm in Israel. Those movements died out.”
As a general rule, I would agree with you, however, these frenzies mystical experiences within Jewish circles continued to exist (even if albeit on the fringe), and especially experienced a renaissance with Isaac Luria, and the further development of Kabbalah (a type of Jewish mysticism).
In fact, all throughout Chasidic literature there is also a wealth of stories about Chasidic rebbes who fall into ecstatic trances, prophesy, heal, etc.
These ecstatic experiences and idea you so rightly point out in Ezekiel interestingly end up flowing into Second Temple literature, the NT, and then into other mystical texts.