Ezekiel 18

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Ezekiel 18 focuses on one central idea: individual accountability for one’s own sinfulness. The chapter opens with God’s rejection of the pervasive Israelite idea that the suffering of one generation is the result of the sins of previous generations. The message God wants to communicate through the prophet is that the Israelites in captivity in Babylon and those about to suffer the destruction of Jerusalem have no one but themselves to blame. But yet the idea of corporate responsibility and the effects of sin being felt “unto the third and fourth generation” is found in the Torah. This class discusses how individual and corporate responsibility are complementary, not contradictory.

Next Chapter (eze 18)

We're at Ezekiel 18. What I'm going to do to start off with... The chapter is not too long, so I'm going to read the whole chapter and then go back and cherry pick a few things that we need talk about or that will sort of seem obvious to talk about. So I'm reading from ESV. Again, this is Ezekiel 18. It says:
Ezekiel 18 ESV
The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die. “If a man is righteous and does what is just and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord God. “If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things (though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself. “Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise: he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, does not oppress anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no interest or profit, obeys my rules, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, behold, he shall die for his iniquity. “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die. “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”

Who is Responsible?

Now, this is another famous chapter in the book of Ezekiel. It's famous for a very clear statement of individual responsibility. We should say at the outset that this isn't about... for instance, eternal life was never mentioned in here. This isn't like earning your way to heaven or something like this. Put it in its context. This is about the impending judgment on the people. They go back to this proverb in the first couple verses. I'll repeat those:
The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, [and here’s the proverb:] ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge’?
Now this was apparently a common proverbial statement in ancient Israel. Jeremiah also refers to it in Jeremiah 31:29, which says:
29 In those days they shall no longer say: “‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.’
So you have two prophets mention this. Again, this was apparently an axiom that people in ancient Israel not only heard, but used and put stock in. What it means is that the sufferings of one generation (in this case, the children) are caused by the sins of the previous generations (the fathers). What the past generation did produced an outcome for the new generation. The new generation is suffering and it's because of what their fathers did. And that was viewed as proverbial. "This is just the way it is, the way it should be. This is what we know." Here in this chapter, God is basically saying, "I don't want to hear that." And the reason he doesn't want to hear it is because God doesn't want excuses. God wants to convince them through Ezekiel is, "Look, the reason you're suffering is not because of what your fathers did. It's because of what you have done." This is a statement of individual responsibility, and it's really not put forth any clearer in the
Hebrew Bible than in this particular chapter. Taylor, in his little Tyndale Old
Testament commentary has a couple sentences here I want to read because I think, again, he summarizes this pretty nicely:
Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel saw this [proverb] as a pernicious doctrine, because it inevitably led to a spirit of fatalism and irresponsibility. If the fault could really be laid at the door of a previous generation, those on whom the judgment was falling could reasonably shrug off any sense of sin and accuse God of injustice (‘The way of the Lord is not just’, verse 25).
They were using this as an excuse, and that's why God wants Ezekiel to address it. God just doesn't want to hear it. He’s saying, “This is notthe case. What's happened to you and what's going to happen in Jerusalem (to the people back home) is your fault and their own fault, it's not somebody else's fault.”
And we should talk a little bit about this whole idea. Let's put it in the form of a question. We know that God is rejecting this proverbial statement ("because of what the fathers did, that's why we're under judgment here"). Is that proverb unreasonable in terms of biblical thinking? It actually isn't! It actually wasn't. And there are really two reasons for this. The notion of being punished for the sins of a previous generation (sins of the forefathers), you can find that in the Torah. Exodus 20:5 says:
Exodus 20:5 ESV
You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,
So you can see that somebody can read Exodus 20:5 and come out with this idea.
Secondly, Ezekiel himself has sort of endorsed the idea earlier when he says (and how many times have we mentioned this in the course as we’ve gone through Ezekiel as a book?)... He's constantly referring to the
persistent and unrepentant idolatry of generations of Israelites that have gone before as being the cause of the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem, the cause of the exile.
Referencing back to Leviticus 26, God says, "This happens and then this other thing is going to happen." And so Ezekiel, on a number of occasions, has gone back to Leviticus 26 and said, "See, your fathers screwed up and this is why this is happening. So it's not an unreasonable thought for people to think. But, nevertheless, God says here in Ezekiel 18 that he doesn't want to hear this because it isn't true in this situation. That's the key thought. How do we understand this—what I would call an "apparent inconsistency?" (I don't think it is inconsistent and we're going to talk about why.) But how do we parse all this? A couple of things.
I would say first off,there's only an inconsistency here if the present generation wasn't idolatrous and was, in fact, innocent. But that's simply isn't the case. The preceding chapters in Ezekiel make it really, really clear that it wasn't just the generations of Israel in the past who were idolatrous. The preceding chapters make it clear that both the people back in Jerusalem and even the ones in Babylon are not innocent. The ones back in Jerusalem (and we've talked about this in a number of episodes, a number of chapters) are sitting there thinking, "Okay, we've been spared. We've had a couple waves of exile, but we're still here. We have divine favor. It's over and we're okay." They believe they've been spared and they don't clean up their act. They don't stop worshiping other gods. It's very clear.
In Ezekiel 14 (more recently) we saw that even the exiles in Ezekiel's presence were still doing some of these things. They were still in rebellion! So it's really not inconsistent. What God is trying to convince them of isn't, "Oh, Exodus 20:5 is wrong. I made a mistake there. I misspoke." No, that's not what he's saying. It's not to invalidate Exodus 20:5, it's to say, "Look, what's happening to you right now... you have nobody but yourself to blame." And that's why he goes into it in the chapter: "Look, if you're doing these horrible things and you repent, you'll live! I'll spare you if I see repentance." But, of course, the implication is, "I don't see any. It ain't happening."
So you go back and it's quite clear that they don't have an argument here. To reference Ezekiel 14 just to make it a little more clear, remember the group of elders who were sitting at Ezekiel's feet. They come, presumably, in the hope of hearing some oracle about how they're going to get out of here soon or maybe get good news from home. And, of course, that's not what they get. But the reference is to what the elders in Babylon were doing. They brought their idolatry with them.
Ezekiel 15 has the whole parable of the useless vine, referring to the people back in Jerusalem who are still there. The passage very plainly says, "You have acted faithlessly. You're worthless." Again, the useless vine. They don't have a claim. If anything, the remaining people in Jerusalem were even more guilty. You'd think after two waves of exile that they would sort of get the message. They'd get the hint and have a clue. Or they'd have a change of heart. But they don't. So God is saying, "Look, I don't want to hear this proverb anymore that I keep hearing. The soul that sins, itshall die because it hasn't repented. It's your fault, not the fault of the previous generation."
And so here they are. They've got this impending destruction that Ezekiel has
been preaching about to them since the book opened—since we found them in
their situation there by the River Chebar. The people have been barraged with this message: "You're going to get creamed. Bad stuff is going to happen. It's not over. Jerusalem and the temple are going to be destroyed." And Ezekiel goes into all these reasons for it. And then in the context of chapter 18 we hear this, "Well, what are we supposed to do? Our forefathers screwed up and now we're paying the bill." And he's like, "No, no, no, no, no. You're not going to have that excuse (because that's what it is). I don't want to hear it because you're thinking this is unjust. That is not the case. It's not unjust, it's not an injustice. This is, in fact, just because you have not repented. I'm giving you the chance." Again, we've seen from previous chapters that God does extend the chance, but at the same time there's little expectation that this is actually going to happen. But that's the situation. It's not unjust that this is happening. You can't pass the blame off on a previous generation or generations. "This is you, too."
In addition to saying this isn't inconsistent because the present generation in the context is not innocent, I would also say that the Torah doesn't just teach what’s in Exodus 20:5 (this idea of the third and fourth generation and the sins of the previous generation affecting the later generations)... The Torah doesn't only teach that. It actually teaches both ideas: individual responsibility (accountability) and this third/fourth generation thing. So there may be a way to harmonize the ideas, since they're both in the Torah. We need to think about that. We do have passages like Exodus 20:5 about sins of the earlier generations and the subsequent generations—we got that idea. But there's also a rejection of the idea that children should be punished for the sins of their fathers. Deuteronomy 24:16 is pretty plain:
Deuteronomy 24:16 ESV
“Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.
It's a very clear statement of individual responsibility that works both ways. So how do we parse all this? Block here, in his commentary, has a good statement. I want to throw this in:
Exod. 20:5 deals explicitly with the divine administration of justice, while Deut. 24:16 is designed to rein in abuses in human judgments. Humans are not to punish innocent persons for the sins of their guilty fathers. Only those individually guilty of death penalty offense will be put to death. You don't punish an innocent child for the crimes of the parent.
Another thought is, it would only be contradictory if the visiting of the iniquity of the fathers on the children means (catch the wording here) judging the children for the sins of the fathers. That's an important term. Exodus 20:5 might mean that what God is doing is not judging the innocent for the guilty, but it might mean not removing the children (the later generation) from harm's way or from the consequences of the sins of their fathers. Those are two different thoughts. One has God judging a later generation for the crimes of an earlier one. (I'm using the word "judging" there deliberately, like judging the innocent for the sins of somebody else.) But the language there ("visiting the iniquity upon the later generations") could just mean that God is allowing the consequences of the sins of the fathers to play out in the lives of later generations who didn't commit those sins, those crimes. That latter approach leaves room for the suffering of the innocent being a by-product of someone else's transgression. And that, frankly, is... We've all known how that works in real life. But that's different from being judged for someone else's transgression by a God who knows better—who knows you didn't do that.
A related thought: If Deuteronomy 24:16 forbids humans from punishing the innocent for crimes they didn't commit, would God really have a lower standard for himself in Exodus 20:5? I don't think so. One can clearly see that it's certainly God's prerogative to providentially allow (that is, not intervene) someone to suffer the fall-out of someone else's sin (in my case, my mom and us), but does he have the prerogative to judge the innocent for the crimes of someone else? That is the very thing he forbids people from doing in Israel. So what I'm suggesting is if he forbids it to people (his own children in the nation of Israel), that's probably not the right way to read his own prerogative in Exodus 20. God would have little integrity if he did that.
One last thought. I think it's interesting that Ezekiel actually adjusts the wording of Deuteronomy 24:16. Again, this is the verse about "don't punish the children for the crimes of the fathers”—this restriction on an abusive human system here. Ezekiel adjusts the wording in that verse and he transforms it from a judicial restraint (warning human authorities not to punish the innocent for the crimes of somebody else) to God's providential prerogative. Is this a subtle transition away from theocracy during the exile? I'm suggesting it might be.
A last question (again, this would be one that many people probably think about when we read Ezekiel 18): What about corporate responsibility? Everybody would think of maybe Joshua 7—the Achan incident. Is this a contradiction to Ezekiel 18 and its emphasis on individual responsibility? I think we need to think a little bit about corporate responsibility. Typically, when we hear Joshua 7 with Achan preached, or we hear somebody talk about corporate responsibility, the way we process that is something like, "one person sins and then the people associated with him get punished." It's very easy to parse it that way. But we might consider another aspect of this (and maybe even the primary aspect in the Ancient Near Eastern culture), and that is that you have somebody sin, therefore the community must hold him responsible. And if it doesn't (or didn't), then we have a problem, then the effect of all this is going to widen. So salvation history— think about it—begins with God relating to humanity corporately (the Eden situation). There were only two people, but think in those terms. So I think when we think about corporate responsibility, this actually works more than one direction, more than one way. Think about salvation with Jesus. Because of what one person did, everybody benefits who believes. So it actually cuts both ways. I'm sort of getting into that to preface something that I'm going to bring into the discussion here, because I'm going to go to a particular article here in a moment.
While modern people define themselves as individuals, Israelites were more likely to define themselves as members of a community of individuals sharing a common ancestry. The community was represented by each of its members, including those in its past, present, and future. As Robertson Smith states, “The members of one kindred looked on themselves as one living whole … of which no member could be touched without all the members suffering." This communal solidarity meant that any community member could implicate the whole community either in blessing or punishment. . . The term “corporate responsibility” likewise conveys the idea of a corporate society composed of members responsible both for themselves and the group.
So within corporate responsibility, there's this idea that the community needs to be helping, needs to be holding unrighteousness in check so that the innocent aren't affected by what the community might do. One could read the Achan story even as merciful, in that God could have just turned against the whole of the people—all the Israelites—for the sin of one. But he doesn't do that. Some scholars have noted along this trajectory that Exodus 20:5 (this thing about the third and fourth generations) might not be understood correctly, either. Here's Block again with a nice summary statement:
The biblical tradition stresses two major aspects of God: justice and mercy. The Bible gives attention to both, but clearly, divine mercy ultimately triumphs. Theologically speaking, if this were not so, it is unlikely humans would continue to exist (Genesis 8:21, Psalms 52:3, 130:3, and Ezekiel 20:44). Theologians and biblical scholars who celebrate Ezekiel 18 do so precisely because they believe it proclaims both God’s justice and his mercy. According to Ezekiel 18, God is just, insofar as he punishes only the guilty and never the innocent; he is merciful inasmuch as he allows even the guilty to repent of their evil behavior. Upon initial reflection this line of thinking seems quite compelling. But once one begins to think about this theology at greater length certain problems emerge.
To begin with, this theology of retribution does not accord with our common human experience. This point is eloquently made by Klaus Koch in his discussion of Ezekiel 18. “It may seem right and just that each individual alone should bear the fruits of what he does; but none the less, general human experience tells us that children also have to suffer when their parents suffer. The ties between the generations, and collective liability, cannot be entirely abrogated, even in a nation. (We only have to remember, for example, the intensive discussion that went on after 1945 about the collective guilt of all Germans; or today’s anxiety about the burdens laid on future generations by our present treatment of the environment.) If we take this everyday experience into account, does not Ezekiel go too far?” [ That’s the end of the quote from Koch.] Here Koch is only mentioning the intense connection between the various individuals in different generations. The theological difficulty is exacerbated when one goes further, as Ezekiel does in chapter 18, and advocates that a person’s past deeds will have no effect on his current state (vv. 21-32). Ezekiel 18 introduces this radical individualizing of retribution to help the nation see that there is room for repentance, but it is clear that if one takes this theology to its extreme, it no longer speaks to our experience.
If you compare the individualism that people sort of tend to like (you get punished, you get judged, for what you do—your individual sins)... They like that, but then if they go to Genesis 18, you get the opposite picture. In Genesis 18, Abraham appeals to God's sense of justice: "If you can find just a handful of righteous people in Sodom, will you spare the city?" and that whole idea. It's, in fact, arguing for mercy—and God listens. Abraham wants a whole city to survive because of a handful of righteous people, and God accepts the reason. We know the story— God accepts the reasoning. In that sense, you have the corporate thing that's morally superior (at least that's how most people today would look at it).
As we wrap up, the point here is that the Bible holds both individual and corporate responsibility in tension. It isn't just corporate judgment that is in view (like with the Achan story). It's also corporate mercy that's at stake. God could just wash his hands of the whole affair (humanity) in light of his demand for perfection. But he doesn't do that. He never does that. He may or may not exercise corporate judgment (as in the case of Joshua 7). We have to assume God had his reasons for doing that; we're not told in the narrative whether Achan was aided and abetted and all that stuff. And again, people say, "Well, it wasn't that because the cattle got punished, too." Okay, but let's be realistic. That doesn't exclude the possibility that there were others guilty in the mix. Of course, you could have others that were innocent. God could have judged the entire community, but he doesn't. Maybe the right way to read it is he does limit the judgment to the third and fourth generation horizontally, and God is actually merciful but he has to make the point so that the community takes the responsibility to guard itself and its members against sin. Maybe that's how we should read that.
Again, you can't just throw out the corporate idea because God certainly exercised corporate mercy to his own children (Israel) and to his own children (us—the Church) when he transferred the righteousness of one individual (Jesus) to sinners. So if you want to throw out the whole corporate view that is so prevalent in the Hebrew Bible (and dare I say “biblical thinking”), you're probably only thinking of Achan or one of these other examples. There aren't many of them, but they're there. But if you throw it out, look at what you lose!) It's pretty telling.
So maybe we should try to view these things in light of God's wish—God's desire—to not just judge a group for the sins of one (to take a skewered perspective), but maybe God (as in Ezekiel 18) says, "Look, why will you die, O house of Israel?" The message that you can still repent is going out to a group, not just to one or two people, and it has gone out to a group—both in Ezekiel's generation and generations before that in terms of the prophets. God didn't just sneak this positive message in: (mumbles) "If you repent then you'll live, but don't tell anybody." No, it's been spread abroad. He says:
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