Review of James Robson, Word and Spirit in Ezekiel
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

James Robson, Word and Spirit in Ezekiel (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, 447; NewYork/London: T & T Clark, 2006).  Pp. xiii + 311.  Cloth, US$140.00.  ISBN 0-567-02622-4.


The prevalence and activities of the Spirit in Ezekiel have long been items of scholarly concern.  In this excellent book, a revision of his Ph.D. thesis (Middlesex University, 2004), James Robson argues persuasively that the divine רוּחַ in Ezekiel is better understood when it is set in relation to the concept of the divine word. 

Robson approaches the book as a redactional unity, datable to the late exile, and focuses his attention intra-textually, seeking to identify relationships between theological ideas found in the text.  His method is also attentive to the “communicative intent” of the text (p. 10), which means that his investigation is undertaken with an eye toward what the book’s audience may have been meant to understand. 

Robson’s central thesis is that the relationship between the divine word and the divine רוּחַ is best understood, not “in terms of the inspiration and authentication of the prophet, but in terms of the transformation of the addressees” (p. 24).  He further asserts that the prophet himself, as he portrays his obedient encounters with the divine word and רוּחַ, is integral to effecting, or at least to modeling, this transformation in the book’s addressees (p. 193).  Ezekiel’s life demonstrates that it is the divine רוּחַ that enables obedience to the divine word and, further, that this life of obedience is possible for his readers.

Robson develops his argument in three major sections.  The first section is introductory.  Chapter 1 provides a history of scholarship of the divine word, the divine רוּחַ and the relation between them.  Chapter 2 provides a sophisticated word study of the divine word in Ezekiel, emphasizing the “communication situations” (Yahweh to Ezekiel, Ezekiel to the people, Yahweh’s statutes, the book to its late exilic readers) in which this term appears (p. 27).  In the second section of the book, Robson focuses more closely on the divine רוּחַ.  Chapters 3 and 4 trace traditional arguments about the relationship of the רוּחַ to prophetic inspiration, and argue persuasively that Ezekiel’s conception of the role of the רוּחַ does not constitute either a development or a return to an earlier conception of prophetic inspiration (pp. 165-67).  Further, references to the divine רוּחַ do not seem to function primarily to authenticate the prophet (though authentication does result from these references).  Rather, they have some other purpose.  The third section of the book explores this other purpose: transformation of the book’s readers.  Chapter 5 explores the ways in which the book of Ezekiel portrays the exiles as disobedient to the divine word (pp. 174-89) and also how it portrays the move from disobedience to obedience that it hopes to effect in some future ideal time (pp. 190-93).  Most importantly, this chapter argues that the prophet Ezekiel is presented as a paradigm, a bridge of sorts to show his audience how Yahweh makes it possible to move from one state (disobedience) to another (obedience).  In Chapter 6, Robson links Ezekiel’s present obedience, as well as the people’s future obedience, to the רוּחַ.  It is the divine רוּחַ that makes possible Ezekiel’s present obedience (demonstrated in passages like 2:2; 3:24; 8:3; 37:1) and it is the divine רוּחַ that can make possible the people’s future obedience, both by prompting their initial response to Yahweh (37:1-14) and by enabling their ongoing obedience (36:26-27). 

While there are many sections of this book that will repay the careful attention of the scholar, three stand out.  First, a major contribution of Robson’s work is his thorough and careful discussion of the relation of the רוּחַ to prophetic inspiration and authentication, not only in Ezekiel, but in other pre-classical and classical prophets as well (Chapters 3 and 4).  Robson’s critique of the standard pictures as well as his conclusion that Ezekiel is neither innovating nor returning to a pre-classical mode when it comes to his ideas about inspiration is persuasive and will give his readers much to discuss. 

Second, Robson’s discussion of the obedient Ezekiel’s role as exemplar for his audience will appeal to scholars interested in the significance of the prophetic persona in the book (Chapter 5).  Most scholars working on the book would have little argument that Ezekiel is obedient; however, one prominent commentator, Daniel I. Block, sees Ezekiel as patently disobedient.  While Robson does respond to Block in several places (pp. 195-96; 200-201), he perhaps could have dealt more directly with him. 

Finally, in his treatment of the divine word (Chapter 2) Robson productively suggests that speech act theory, in particular the concept of illocutionary action, can help explain how Yahweh’s word can seem to have different relations to the different groups to whom it comes.  He appropriates Wolterstorff’s discussion of “divine discourse” in scripture in which Wolterstorff shows that a single act of locution may have multiple illocutionary actions as the locution is re-set and re-heard by different audiences.  Though Robson is most interested in the illocutionary action directed toward the late exilic community reading the completed book (p. 75), his appropriation of Wolterstorff offers a helpful way to think about the audience problems of the book (Babylonian/Jerusalemite; hearers/readers). 

D. Nathan Phinney
School of Theology, Malone College
Canton, OH