I am bringing together several topics of interest in this post. First, I recently reviewed the ZIBBC (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Encyclopedia) here and recommended it as a resource to everyone who loves study. The set on the Hebrew Bible is $157.47 on amazon (five volumes, full-color, beautifully bound).
Second, because of some discussion the last two days about Christmas, Hanukkah, intermarriage, and so on, the issue of Tammuz and Ezekiel 8 came up.
Although Ezekiel was a prophet among the exile community in Babylon (having been deported in 597 with Jehoiachin), he was transported in spirit visions at times to Jerusalem and gave messages for the Jerusalem community. Were these messages for the exile community even though they spoke about Jerusalem? Or did messengers take Ezekiel’s words to Jerusalem? Or should we see these messages as being for both communities?
In Ezekiel 8:14-15, the prophet sees a vision of women in Jerusalem weeping for Tammuz.
The ZIBBC has a number of helpful comments and tools to help understand this passage. First, the commentary helpfully introduces the book of Ezekiel and helps the reader understand the time and place of the book. On the page where this passage is explained, the ZIBBC in a short space gives the reader the historical and religious background information needed.
On the left margin of the page is a picture of a cuneiform tablet, a clay tablet fire-hardened after having been impressed with a stylus (an instrument for making impressions on the clay) in the writing known as cuneiform. The tablet is the Myth of Dumuzi.
Dumuzi is the older Sumerian name for Tammuz, and means “the good offspring.” As a fertility god, Tammuz was called on in Babylonia to provide healthy animal and human babies. His power was believed to be over fertility for animals, plants, and people.
Tammuz is the shepherd god, similar to gods in other nations as the mythologies of the ancient world have many interconnections. In Sumerian texts he was known as “Dumuzi the shepherd” or “Dumuzi of the grain.”
Ezekiel’s text is the only place where Tammuz’s name is mention and there is a deliberate slighting of his power evident on the text. Ezekiel does not name the god Tammuz but does something subversive, calling him “the Tammuz,” making him “a mere object or a fetish.”
In Sumeria and Babylonia there were ritual mourning periods at the end of the month of Tammuz (roughly June-July) and the image of Tammuz was brought out. Tammuz, though a story involving Ishtar (Ashtoreth, in German Eostre, the goddess from whom Easter received its name), Tammuz dies after every summer and is reborn every spring. The weeping for Tammuz marks the beginning of his journey down into the netherworld (Hades, Sheol, the underworld, they are all connected ideas).
As you can see, this myth of the dying and ever-resurrecting god is the myth explaining the seasons.
In the Gilgamesh Epic we read about this annual rite:
For Tammuz, the lover of our youth, thou hast ordained wailing year after year.
What Ezekiel was seeing was the unfaithfulness of the people of Jerusalem.
–He saw a wall with symbols of unclean animals and creeping things, indicating Jerusalemites were eating unclean food (8:10).
–He sees the seventy elders of Israel in their rooms using censers in private worship of idols (8:11-12).
–He sees the women of Jerusalem weeping for Tammuz (8:14-15).
–He sees the men of Jerusalem with their backs to the Temple, facing the rising sun and worshipping it (8:16-17).
All of these visions serve as a reason for the withdrawing of God’s presence from the Temple. It is not that God is abandoning his covenant promises but that Israel has abandoned the covenant. When the Temple is destroyed, as noted later in Ezekiel, God’s presence has already been removed.
God has not failed. God’s people have failed to maintain the statutes of the covenant. Judah and Jerusalem are unfaithful.
But though God punished and pulls away, he does return. The book of Ezekiel portrays not only the end of God’s protection, but also regathering, restoration, and redemption.