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The Rhetorical Function of the Book of Ezekiel by Thomas Renz
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Apr 01, 2011

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Read from April 01 to 15, 2011

Although this book served as a useful refresher course for approaches to the prophecy attributed to the prophet known as Ezekiel and though it agrees with my prejudice that there was, indeed, a Jewish prophet during the 6th century BCE who preached and performed symbolic actions for the displaced community, I was generally disappointed with the book. Part of that is my fault. When I’m looking for a rhetorical critical approach to a book or text, I am interested more in what Thomas Renz describes as “stylistics” (the preferred term of my first Bible Scholar Hero, Luis Alonso-Schokel) or the Muilenberg School (another scholar whose work largely influenced my own relatively insignificant oeuvre of “rhetorical criticism” [amounting to one dissertation only available as a reprint of the dissertation itself or on microfilm and one paper delivered at the SBL Pacific Region during my days as an adjunct professor at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary’s Southern California Center, as well as a few simplified lectures to interested pastors]. Still, the work of those earlier “stylistic” or “rhetorical” scholars is important to me in determining the structure, meaning, and purpose of texts and I use those more literary cues in structuring lectures and sermons.

Renz goes back to Aristotle for his approach to rhetoric, being more concerned with reconstructing the credibility of the speaker (ethos), use of traditional (in this case, primarily “legal”) material (logos), and emotional delivery and response (pathos) (p. 144) as a means of delimiting the rhetorical unit (p. 13), discovering the speaker/writer and hearer/reader dialectic via understanding the historical situation (pp. 13-14), exploring the text to assess the basic issue at stake in a text (p. 14) [unfortunately, from my perspective, reducing the literary polyvalence that seems present from a purely “stylistic” perspective], examining the arrangement of the text from a more “stylistic” perspective (p. 14) [though Renz’ approach seems negligible in this regard], and to overview the effectiveness of the unit in terms of meeting its goal. To be frank, Renz’s approach appears to enter the realm of circular argument to me. When I use the stylistic cues to determine the structure and purpose of the text, I feel grounded in the text and less susceptible to assumption (or presumption). At times, I feel like Renz asserts his position and accepts/rejects evidence based on the initial assumption rather than developing his assertion from the evidence. To be sure, I don’t radically disagree with most of Renz’ conclusions, but there are times he rejects positions that seem acceptable to me.

For example, Renz goes to great lengths to bifurcate between the prophet’s original audience and what Renz presents as the “implied” audience of the book [the readers]. Why not assume a continuity of both? His argument seems to hinge on the fact that Ezekiel calls the original audience (the exiles who still identity with the Zionist past of a Jerusalem under judgment) a rebellious household (p. 138, or adulterous wife, p. 147) while the implied readership needs to be open to repentance in order to participate in the hopeful future promise by God (p. 139). Yet, with the continuing biblical emphasis on repentance and reconciliation (in ALL Old Testament prophets and New Testament “prophets,” too), why wouldn’t Ezekiel be speaking to a “rebellious household” in hopes that some would turn back? Renz builds off one of Ezekiel’s early visions (the scroll in Chapters 2 and 3) and God’s words “whether they hear or refuse to hear.” (p. 138) He says that since Ezekiel cannot count on his audience responding positively, they can’t be the “implied audience” with the positive future open to them. The bottom line, however, is that the “implied audience” could easily be a subset of the “rebellious household,” as well as a later readership confronted with similar decision points. That is the type of reasoning that gives me pause in accepting the arguments within this book.

At other times, I found myself wanting to remind Renz of that age-old axiom, “Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.” When Renz discusses Ezekiel 9 (where the man in linen is supposed to mark those who are to be separated and, presumably, saved as per the 144,000 in John’s Apocalypse). Renz takes the fact that the man does not report back on the number or even the existence of any who are so marked as evidence that none were marked (pp. 186-7). Yet, it is entirely possible that the ones saved/rescued were not mentioned because it was understood by Ezekiel’s audience, the exiles, that whatever few people were rescued from the destruction of Jerusalem were to be joined with the exiles in having an opportunity to be part of the New Israel.

On the other hand, I was encouraged by some of Renz’s insights. I had always perceived Ezekiel and Jeremiah as being similar books with Ezekiel being heavier on the idea of visions. Renz makes interesting distinctions between the Book of Ezekiel and books attributed to other prophets: 1) Ezekiel is more often the object of divinely initiated actions than the subject of those actions, 2) Ezekiel is not really a mediator between God and the people, but a keen observer who shares God’s inevitable actions with the people, 3) Ezekiel’s audience clearly seems to be the readers as opposed to other prophetic books where the prophet is speaking to an existing crowd and by transmission, the readers, yet Ezekiel (more often than not) identifies the readers with those existing at the time of his ministry (p. 138). The last point may seem slightly confusing because there is a difference between Ezekiel’s hearers (contemporary) and his readers (both contemporary and later), but the way the book is written, it would have been difficult for the contemporary audience to know what Ezekiel had gone through and why he was motivated to speak his speeches without the narrative background in the text. Since we don’t know whether or not Ezekiel recounted the narrative portions before delivering the speeches (usually assumed that he didn’t), the readers are presumed to have the most complete account and best chance for an understanding.

I liked Renz’ presentation of Chapters 38-39 as two windows with four frames each and the demonstration of how the four frames (pericopes? Oracles? Speeches?) balanced with each other (p. 119): 1) the gathering of troops for Gog (38:2-23) versus the slaughter of those troops (39:1-8); 2) the motivation of Gog (38:10-13) versus the despoiling of Gog (39:9-10); 3) the offensive advance of Gog (38:14-16) versus the burial of Gog (39:11-16); and 4) the judgment of Gog (38:17-22) versus the devouring of Gog (39:17-20). This idea of God destroying this version of the foe from the north should have been comfort to an exilic community hoping for restoration after their repentance (p. 118, n. 149).

I particularly liked Renz’ division of the book into a first half that challenged the exilic community to disassociate themselves from Israel’s idolatrous past and, the second half, to sign on for hope in the restored future promised by God (p. 153). He is consistent in maintaining this focus and I think it helps me mentally glue the book together in a much more profound way. I agree with Renz on the use of ruah (wind, breath, spirit) in Ezekiel 37. It is clear that there is an emphasis on the Spirit of the Lord in this chapter, but the repetition is very likely to be used for wind and breath, two natural forces, in order to emphasize God’s initiative even BEHIND the natural forces (p. 202). Some scholars are uncomfortable with any kind of polyvalence in the use of the same word within a context, but Renz handles this issue logically. Further, Renz engaged in an extensive word study with regard to the use of goy and goyim for Israel. It hadn’t registered to me that goyim wasn’t a derogatory term yet when Ezekiel was ministering (and when the book was collated/edited). Recognizing that Israel was being treated on the same footing as other “nations/peoples” even in word choice was most enlightening.

The Rhetorical Function of the Book of Ezekiel convincingly demonstrates that the book is effective in speaking to the danger of ethnic dissolution (either continuing to be absorbed into the idolatrous religion of the Babylonians, accepting Babylonian nationalism and identity, or both) by emphasizing the necessity of exclusive loyalty and devotion to Yahweh (p. 234). He cites the dissolution of Phoenician culture as a poignant example of such dissolution through syncretism (p. 233) before drawing this conclusion. In addition, I hadn’t really thought of how influential the Book of Ezekiel would have become to devout Jews after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans (AD 70, 70CE). In particular, the chariot-throne vision sparked an emphasis on understanding God’s transcendence and immanence (p. 241). Renz does not fall into the trap of earlier scholars in assuming that the book was written/edited to advance the Zadokite priesthood (p. 243) but implies the discontinuity that I have always been concerned about: Ezekiel spends a lot of time on the ideal of a new temple and community, but very little on the idea of a new priesthood (p. 244).

Finally, Renz sees the book preserved as testimony to both the credibility of Ezekiel (and his message) and the future needs of the “New Israel” to be dependent upon God’s restorative work (pp. 245-6).
Even though The Rhetorical Function of the Book of Ezekiel wasn’t what I was expecting and I found myself questioning and arguing many points in the margins of the book, I believe it was a beneficial experience and broadened my perception of God at work. It also encourages me to continue the study I’ve begun in this book with a hope toward eventually writing a paper using stylistics to examine the chariot-throne vision and scroll-eating vision more thoroughly.

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Reading Progress

04/06/2011 page 100
33.0% "Sometimes, I resonate with it, sometimes I write negatively in the margins."
04/14/2011 page 192
64.0% "Sometimes, I'm finding well-structured arguments and, at other times, what would seem like an argumentum ex nihilo."

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