My Favorite Biblical Errors: Ezekiel

Ezekiel 37

Usually, people who claim that they read the Bible literally also claim that the Bible contains no errors. Yet one of the reasons I so admire the Bible and consider it authoritative is that it dutifully records its own errors.

One of my favorites is the prophecy of Ezekiel against Tyre in chapters 26 through 29. For three whole chapters, Ezekiel rails against the city of Tyre. Since he believes that the army of Babylon is God’s chosen instrument of wrath against Jerusalem, he is excited to see it lay siege to Tyre.

(When you read this, you have to imagine Samuel L. Jackson’s voice.)

They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down its towers. I will scrape its soil from it and make it a bare rock.  It shall become, in the midst of the sea, a place for spreading nets. I have spoken, says the Lord God. It shall become plunder for the nations, and its daughter-towns in the country shall be killed by the sword. Then they shall know that I am the Lord. (Ezekiel 26:4-6)

As I said, for three whole chapters this goes on, with Ezekiel relishing his poetic destruction of the city.

Only one problem: It didn’t happen. Babylon laid siege to the city for three years, but you can’t successfully lay siege to a seaport. I imagine the guards on the walls of Tyre yelling down to the Babylonian tents, “Hey, guys! We’re having a fish fry today! Can you smell it? Oh, hey, what are you having for dinner? Aww, thin gruel again? So sad!”

At the end of three years, the army gave up. So, naturally, Ezekiel went back and tore up his manuscript, right? Or maybe he wrote, “Oops, my bad.”

Nope. He just turned his attention to Egypt!

Mortal, King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon made his army labour hard against Tyre; every head was made bald and every shoulder was rubbed bare; yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labour that he had expended against it. Therefore, thus says the Lord God: I will give the land of Egypt to King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon; and he shall carry off its wealth and despoil it and plunder it; and it shall be the wages for his army. I have given him the land of Egypt as his payment for which he laboured, because they worked for me, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 29:18-20)

Nice save, Ezekiel! So, naturally, Babylon conquered Egypt, right?

Nope again.

My favorite theory is that Ezekiel became the model for the story of Jonah, which was written to be read not literally, but as a satire of the hellfire and brimstone prophets. Jonah is a frustrated prophet who fumes when God fails to destroy Israel’s enemies. In contrast to Ezekiel’s logorrhea, Jonah just stomps part way into the city, utters one line, turns around and stomps out. He wants so much to see the bad guys punished that he wraps himself in his own private hell of resentment and bitterness. God, in contrast, can’t bear the thought of hurting the children or even the cattle (Jonah 4).

There is a dialogue going on in the pages of the Bible, where competing theologies are trying to describe God’s history with God’s people. I don’t deny that there are authors who believed that God would punish cities by starving their populace, so that families would be torn apart, people raped and sold into slavery (Deuteronomy 28:30-34), and parents would be forced to cannibalize their own children (verses 54-57). Job, Jonah, and Ruth (among others) critique that theological view. And for Christians, Jesus is the final repudiation of that theology (Matthew 5:43, John 9:3, Luke 13:4, Mark 15:34). Good and bad things happen to people not as God’s rewards or punishments, but because stuff happens. What God makes out of it, and us, is where grace happens.

Anti-religious detractors like to point out these errors and blood and guts passages in order to portray believers as foolish or barbaric, but for me, these errors are awesome. The editors and compilers could have edited out Ezekiel’s mistakes, but they didn’t. They could have harmonized the gospels, the creation stories, and the histories of the monarchy, but they didn’t. The Bible is not a monologue—it is a dialogue. To me, that’s what makes it believable. What’s even more cool is that we are invited to participate in the dialogue, which doesn’t end even when you close the book and the people say Amen.

This Sunday, the sermon topic at Saint Junia’s preview service will be on the Two Creation Stories (Genesis 1-3). I’ll be sharing why it’s perfectly reasonable for Christians to believe in evolution, considering that we already have more than one creation story in the Bible. Come join the dialogue!

2 thoughts on “My Favorite Biblical Errors: Ezekiel

  1. There’s just a little bit that you’re leaving unsaid here. You might consider some of the following:

    1. The destruction of Tyre is described as coming by the hand of Nebuchandnezzar and “many nations” (26:3). Apparently, the Babylonians did conquer the mainland city of Tyre while Alexander the Great mopped up the rest by building a seige work to the island portion centuries later. The fish fry probably stopped at that point. If you read 26:11-12 you can see that Ezekiel changes from “he” (probably Nebuchandnezzar) to “they” (Alexander and others). You’re not being fair to the text by attributing the entire prophecy to Babylon.

    2. The prophecy against Egypt doesn’t necessarily come at the hands of Babylon. 29:1-16 does not specify who will conquer or when it will happen. 29:17-18 returns to Nebuchanezzar and his frustration over not getting what he wants from Tyre. 19-20 could reasonably have happened since the Babylonians had defeated Egypt under Necho before the seige of Jerusalem. They were a vassel state of the Babylonians which would have meant constant tribute.

    3. There is also the possibility that the Egyptians repented in which case God may have relented from His planned destruction. This is a biblical pattern which can be seen clearly in the life of Ahad who received a prophecy of early death only to receive addition years of life because he repented with tears. If the prophecy concerning Egypt was to take place at the hands of the Babylonians what we could be seeing is not an error on Ezekiel’s part, but a revelation of the mercy of God toward those who repent.

    I think this is the message your congregation needs to hear. God forgives those who repent of their sin. Saying the Bible has errors and excusing particular sins because the Bible is probably wrong at those points is well meaning but ultimately harmful to your hearers.

  2. There are certainly ways to make the text consistent, but I don’t really see a reason to do so except to defend the idea that the text can’t have contradictions. If the only way to interpret the prophetic words in a way that makes them fit the historical situation is to remove them from their context, then that makes the interpretation suspect, in my opinion.

    Claiming that Babylon sort-of succeeded seems to go against Ezekiel’s words in 29:18-20. Did Nebuchadrezzer “sort of” get paid for his efforts by deposing king Ithobaal? Building a siege works certainly falls short of what he predicted in 26:10-14. I’ll admit I’m no Middle East historian—I’m relying on the scholarship of Kathryn Darr, among others. But the textual evidence alone indicates that Ezekiel got carried away. I’m not scorning him. I think it’s charming, actually.

    Joel, we simply have different takes on the authority and inspiration of the Bible (and, I’m sure, many other theologically-related things). The Bible never claims about itself that it is inerrant. That is a modern claim that some people make about it. In fact, the ancient Jewish sages loved to say that “The Torah has 70 faces,” meaning that like a gem, you could read it from multiple angles and interpret it many ways. I find it delightful that the compilers of the Bible did not try to edit out the discrepancies between the two creation stories, or the four gospels, or the two histories of the monarchy (does God incite David or does Satan?), or the two interwoven Noah stories (one pair of animals or seven?), or the different Exodus traditions (one where they have livestock and the other where they have no meat), or the contradiction that Cain’s descendants were the ancestors of various technologies, only they weren’t because they were wiped out by the flood. Eventually, one winds up spending so much effort harmonizing these things that it becomes clear that consistency is something we project on the Bible, and isn’t even something you’d even expect for a collection of 66 books by as many authors over a thousand years. If I were after consistency, I’d read the Koran—written by one author and dictated by an angel! (Which is far more suspect to me than a book compiled by a community *with* errors).

    There are certainly ways to make these things consistent by hypothesizing various scenarios that aren’t in the text, but I believe *that* is what is ultimately harmful to hearers—insisting on interpretations that disregard what the text actually says.

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