On the river vision in Ezekiel 47
Written for a Religious Studies course on the book of Ezekiel (in the Tanakh and Old Testament); An attempt to understand the purpose and meaning of a vision in Ezekiel 47
The best ways to analyze religious text are relative. However, whether trying to discern why Ezekiel was written, its use for the ancient Hebrews, or its impact on present day religions, ultimately, a scholar needs to determine the earliest meaning of the text–however possibly skewed by translations and redactions. When available, historical evidence aids greatly in finding how the text could have matter to or been interpreted by ancient Hebrews. Regardless of historical validity, though, theological claims exist. In order to define these claims, a scholar must compare the text to other texts of the same author, era, tradition, and cultures that could have influenced it. Ezekiel specifically, with its abundance in detailed visions, is best dealt with by analyzing the allegorical claims and how they manifest into theological ones. This comparison requires a linguistic analysis. The book of Ezekiel concludes with a vision of a temple, its city, and a river that replenishes all it touches. With little knowledge of Ezekiel’s content, we can assume this prophesy describes the house of Israel’s return to glory. However, only by comparing it to likewise texts can we hope to discern what the water symbolizes and its most accurate intended theological claim.
In chapter 47, Ezekiel envisions water flowing from underneath the not-yet-rebuilt temple. A man leads Ezekiel through the deepening water as it extends out from the temple. In verse 5, the water has become so deep that he calls it a “river that [he] could not cross […] a river that could not be crossed,” (NRSV, Ezekiel 47.5). The obvious conclusion as to the symbolized water, is that it makes the house of Israel flourish as in the metaphors of its previous glory. We can compare chapter 47’s river to Ezekiel 17, where two vines were planted by “abundant waters” and so grew out, symbolizing past Israel kingships. Conversely, in v22-24, the replanted twig, a prophesied kingship after the exile in Babylon, does not need water. Instead this twig remains atop a hill, connecting Earth to the Heavens, a “dry tree” YHWH has made flourish without water (17.24). If this vine does not need water, then we must assume that the kingship requires something different from the city of the temple, and that the water in 47 is not intended to make the house of Israel flourish. In 47.8, the river is described as fresh, and when it enters the sea, causes the sea to become fresh, too. The water in this verse appears to purify rather than dilute the “stagnant waters” that it runs into. Perhaps the kingship would not need purifying, as the house surely did. Furthermore, instead of the river sustaining a vine or tree that is the house of Israel, it restores a land of plants and fishes that will in turn sustain Israel (47.9, 12). This sustenance can be likened to nearby Egyptian mythology where water represents the source of life and fertility (Geyer, 125). However, other theorists claim the trees still do represent Israel, and if so, the fishes would be Israel as well (Manning, 39). It may be note worthy to compare this claim to the lions of chapter 19; the house of Israel would no longer have a roar and be docile and abundant. Finally, a theorist states that the waters in Ezekiel represent prophesy, words from the author (Manning, 39). Theologically this would indicate that the waters coming from the temple are the teachings from a purified priesthood that would continually replenish YHWH’s peoples, for “The LORD is There,” as long as the waters–words–flow, (48.35, 47.12).