Review of P. M. Joyce, Ezekiel: A Commentary

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Paul M. Joyce, Ezekiel: A Commentary (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, 482; New York/London: T & T Clark, 2007).  Pp. xi + 307.  Hardcover, US$140.00.  ISBN 978-0-567-02685-9.


            Joyce’s commentary on the book of Ezekiel was originally commissioned for the regrettably defunct New Century Bible Commentary Series.  Joyce’s volume continues the scope and format of that series, although publication in the Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Series (formerly JSOTSup) at $140.00 per copy will undoubtedly hamper the wide distribution of this very useful volume.  Hopefully, T and T Clark (Continuum) will be able to release an inexpensive paperback edition in the not too distant future.

            In keeping with the goals of the New Century Bible series, Joyce offers a commentary that focuses especially on the theological interpretation of the book grounded in historical research and literary sensitivity.  Despite the compact format of the series, Joyce manages to pack in a great deal of informative analysis on both the book of Ezekiel and modern scholarship on the book.  Text criticism, although not lacking, appears far less frequently in the commentary.

            Joyce emphasizes that historical context is an important factor in the interpretation of biblical text even when the interpreter must account for the contemporary contexts of both the author of the commentary and its readers.  He therefore emphasizes the sixth century BCE as the historical setting and Babylonia as the political and cultural setting for reading and interpreting the book of Ezekiel.  Joyce is fully aware that the book of Ezekiel is the product of redaction, even in the eyes of the Talmudic Rabbis, who note that Ezekiel is the product of “the men of the great assembly” (b Baba Batra 14b-15a), and Rashi, who notes that Ezekiel did not write his own book because he lived outside of the land of Israel.  Joyce’s discussion of the unity, authorship, and redaction of the book of Ezekiel emphasizes seven criteria, viz., distinctions between poetry and prose, textual witnesses to the book, the use of priestly case law and language, deuteronomistic affinities, grammar and motif, and theological content.

In general, he attempts to stake out a middle ground between the work of Zimmerli, who posited a lengthy and complicated process of traditio-historical growth for the book, and Greenberg, who was far more reluctant to identify the work of later writers.  Although the work includes secondary material (e.g., Ezekiel 38-39; elements of Ezekiel 40-48, and elsewhere), he attributes the bulk of the work to the sixth century prophet Ezekiel.  He recognizes glosses based on the analysis of the MT and at times the LXX, although he rejects Wever’s earlier reconstruction as over-confident and correctly refutes Lust’s contention, based on Chester-Beatty-Scheide Papyrus 967, that the Greek text points to the compositional history of the book.

Joyce’s discussion of theological themes correctly notes that Ezekiel is written as a form of crisis literature insofar as it addresses the theological questions prompted by the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile.  He recognizes that Ezekiel’s means of answering these questions is to posit that Israel itself is fully responsible for the fate that has befallen the nation, but he does not always follow through in the commentary in recognizing that this is Ezekiel’s perspective rather than an established fact (see, for example, his comments on Ezek 8:7 that Jaazniah ben Shaphan has gone astray rather than recognizing that Jaazniah was a member of a family that fully supported Jeremiah).  Insofar as Ezekiel posits a radical theocentrism, Joyce denies the possibility that repentance will avert the disaster in Ezekiel’s theology, and he maintains that the divine will and not repentance will see to the restoration of Israel and the Temple once the punishment is complete.  He correctly stresses Ezekiel’s emphasis on generational rather than individual responsibility (e.g., Ezekiel 18).

Joyce’s thematic emphases unfortunately carry on into his analysis of the literary structure of the book insofar as he posits that the book comprises a number of sub-units based on largely thematic concerns, including Ezekiel 1-3 on Ezekiel’s prophetic call; Ezekiel 4-24 concerning YHWH’s judgment; Ezekiel 25-32 concerning foreign nations; Ezekiel 33, which he identifies as the turning point of the book; Ezekiel 34-37 on the hope for restoration; Ezekiel 38-39 concerning Gog of Magog; and Ezekiel 40-48 concerning the new Temple.  Such a view pushes aside the role of the chronological markers that introduce the various sub-units of the book (and intrude in the sub-units that he defines) in a sequence that extends from Ezekiel’s thirtieth to his fiftieth year, the normal span of service for a Temple priest.  Although Joyce recognizes that Ezekiel was a priest before he was a prophet, he does not push the implications of this identity far enough in interpreting features of the book.  An important illustration is his decision to read the thirtieth year in Ezek 1:1 as a reference to the thirtieth year of exile when he (based on Howie) posits that the work was composed.  But clear evidence for this contention is lacking, so that it is inferred primarily on the basis of brief indications of redaction (e.g., Ezek 1:2-3) and the problematic reference to the twenty-seventh year in Ezek 29:17 that so many scholars attribute to an updating of an earlier reference to Nebuchadnezzar’s delayed conquest of Tyre.  Not only does the thirtieth year provide a foundation for the chronological structure of the book, it points to Ezekiel’s birth in 622 B.C.E., when Josiah began his program of national and Temple restoration, which ultimately informs Ezekiel’s own views of the purging and restoration of Israel and the Temple throughout the book.  Other indications of Ezekiel’s priestly identity and their importance for interpreting the book are often lacking, such as the role of the Ark of the Covenant and Holy of Holies for interpreting Ezekiel’s inaugural vision of the glory of YHWH in Ezekiel 1; the role of Temple and community purging on Yom Kippur for the vision of the destruction of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 8-11; Ezekiel’s reenactment of the Exodus to symbolize exile in Ezekiel 12; the priestly significance of his role as watchman in Ezekiel 3 and 33; the decision not to mourn for his wife in Ezekiel 24; the priestly conceptualization of the impurity of death in Ezekiel 37 and 38-39 and the role of the latter in preparing for the following vision of the restored Temple; and the role of the restored Temple at the center of a restored creation as well as Israel in Ezekiel 40-48, and others.  Ezekiel’s priestly identity informs his prophetic oracles, symbolic acts, and worldview throughout the book.

Joyce’s welcome treatment of Ezekiel in tradition provides extensive discussion of the role of Ezekiel in Judaism, Christianity, and even contemporary culture.  He emphasizes the foundational role of the book in the development of the Merkavah tradition and correctly opines that apocalyptic and Merkavah literature may be related.

Despite the questions raised here, this is a very welcome and useful commentary that will well serve its readers, especially students, if they are able to afford it. 

Marvin A. Sweeney, Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University