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"I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of His wrath." (Lain 3:1)
"Now there was a wall all around the outside of the temple area. The length of the measuring reed in the man's hand was six long cubits, each being a cubit and a handbreadth in length; so he measured the thickness of the wall." (Ezek 40:5)
In the biblical vision as epitomized in Ezekiel, the temple was destroyed and the people exiled because of God's rage at the sins and crimes of the house of Israel. Biblical writers such as the author of Lamentations bear witness to the rod of God's wrath. The angry and violent denunciations that permeate much of Ezekiel's book give way to a final vision in a totally different mode, the language of measurement and geometry. (1)
In their geometric and numerical emphasis, chapters 40-48 of Ezekiel stand in striking contrast to the other chapters of the book, which are much more imagistic, poetic, and extravagant in language. These final chapters outline an ordered, systematic picture of God's restoration. The book as a whole--as has been noted by ancient, medieval, and modern readers--is extreme in its language, replete with violent imagery of bloodshed and mutilation, and lurid in its sexual detailing of Israel as a harlot. It is marked by seeming inconsistencies and puzzling passages (e.g., 20:25: "Moreover, I [God] gave them [Israel] statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live") that have challenged readers and interpreters beginning with Ezekiel's contemporaries (e.g., 33:30-33).
My thesis regarding the role of these final chapters is twofold: First, that geometry bounds and binds both God and humankind, taming the wildness and extravagance of each. (2) The prophet portrays both the extreme perversity of the people and God's own struggle between intemperateness and the relenting of his wrath.
Second, I suggest that the emphasis on geometry and measurement serves as an attempt to calm the disturbances caused by persistent moral and theological problems that are recalcitrant to definitive solution. Geometry repairs, as it were, "cracks in the wall," the areas of contradiction and tension that strain belief and faith in the divine order. (3)
What are the areas of wildness, the realms of things out of control, for which this kind of measurement and regulation is needed? I will distinguish among five areas, first discussing the "wildness" in the earlier chapters of the book and then taking up the taming and transformations in chapters 40-48:
1. Extravagance of visions, language, and of symbolic acts in the book of Ezekiel
2. Violence and bloodshed perpetrated by the people
3. Sexual betrayal as an image of the people's betrayal of God: The image of the female in Ezekiel
4. The "Old Self" and the "New Self' of the people: measurement and morality (43:10-11)
5. The wildness of God; "That you may know I am Yahweh" and "for the sake of my name"
Background of the Thesis
A convergence of my professional interests as a clinical psychoanalyst and my activity as a teacher and writer in the borderlands between psychoanalysis and literature led me, a few years ago, to this reading of Ezekiel. (4)
In my clinical work, I have encountered people who use measurement, geometry, and precise structural detail as psychological defenses. Various forms of obsessive-compulsive behaviors--highly ordered, precisely counted, and ritualized--are often employed in the service of warding off painful affects, forbidden aggressive and sexual thoughts, and at times painful memories of traumatic events. (5)
For example, a man struggling to contain his chronic frustration and anger typically dreams of something wildly expanding or exploding, but there is always an accompanying precise measurement. He dreams of a plot to assassinate Hitler in a bunker, with a powerful bomb placed undemeath a concrete table almost entirely filling the room. There are exactly six inches between the edges of the table and the walls of the bunker.
In my studies of modern drama, especially the so-called Theater of the Absurd, (6) have noted the juxtaposition of geometric precision and human chaos, the "dramatic" counterpoint between mathematical, geometric precision, and the chaos and absurdity of the dramatic situations. (7) Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi (1896), considered the first play of this genre, begins with a professor-geometer who has discovered a method for enabling polyhedrons to reproduce, clearly superior to the messy interactions needed for human reproduction. The plays of Samuel Beckett, presenting scenes of death, desolation, despair, and lack of connection, repeatedly introduce measurement and dimension. Endgame (1955), which portrays a kind of post-apocalyptic survival scene, opens with one of the protagonists (Clov) going through the classic arithmetic exercise of doubling the number of grains placed on each successive square of a chessboard, which is soon followed by a statement of the precise dimensions of the kitchen, the room adjacent to the room where the "action" is taking place. Similarly, Beckett's Imagination Dead Imagine has as its stage setting two barely alive bodies, each in a semi-circular space, lying at very precise angles to each other. Measurement and precision in this genre of writing enhance the dramatic absurdity by deflecting the audience and actor away from the underlying pain presented in the plays. From a different era, there is the experience of Albrecht Durer, who reports his own dream of apocalyptic disaster: A waterfall is flooding the earth while he, the dream observer, is measuring the angle between the waterfall and the vertical wall over which it is descending. (8)
My supposition is that the geometric vision is defensive, adaptive, and, potentially, creative--a way of struggling with problems of evil, contamination, and imperfection, including imperfection in the relationship between God and human worshippers. We yearn for some geometric and arithmetic precision because our desires and passions are terribly imprecise, indeed at times verging on the chaotic and the unbounded. The beauty and elegance of mathematics inspire awe in us, contrasting with the persistence of a certain ugliness and lack of grace in our innermost world, let alone in the external social and political world. Geometry cleanses, orders, and puts strict, defined boundaries in place. The geometric dream attempts to resolve intractable human aggression, including the lust for power and the attendant injustices of that lust. It delimits the chaos of sexuality, replacing the messiness of family relations, procreation, and gender differences with clean lines and bodies. Right angle triangles are neater than family triangles. Measurement defends against pained awareness of the flaws and contradictions in our moral universe, but of course cannot definitively repair and reconstitute that universe. At the same time, there is the possibility that the use of geometry and measurement have a "progressive" and not only "regressive" potential; some new idea or ideal is being articulated, and/or a powerful aesthetic is being developed with psychological and spiritual potential of its own. (9)
* Measurement and Excess in the Book of Ezekiel: The Order of the Temple and the Disorder of the People
In his final vision, Ezekiel is transported back to a high mountain in the land of Israel where he is shown the structure of the new temple:
In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after the city was struck down, (10) on that very day, the hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me there. He brought me, in visions of God, to the land of Israel, and set me down upon a very high mountain, on which was a structure like a city to the south. When he brought me there, a man was there, whose appearance shone like bronze, with a linen cord and a measuring reed in his hand; and he was standing in the gateway. The man said to me, "Mortal, look closely and listen attentively, and set your mind upon all that I shall show you, for you were brought here in order that I might show it to you; declare all that you see to the house of Israel." Now there was a wall all around the outside of the temple area. The length of the measuring reed in the man's hand was six long cubits, each being a cubit and a handbreadth in length; so he measured the thickness of the wall, one reed; and the height, one reed." (Ezek 40:1-5)
The contrast between "measurement" and "excess" forcefully confronts the reader in the transition from the two preceding chapters, 38 and 39, to 40-48, the vision of the restored (and improved!) temple and commonwealth. Chapters 38 and 39 recount the final assault on the people of Israel by Gog of Magog and Gog's cataclysmic defeat:
the mountains shall be thrown down, and the cliffs shall fall, and every wall shall tumble to the ground.... With pestilence and bloodshed I will enter into judgment with him; and I will pour down torrential rains and hailstones, fire and sulfur, upon him and his troops. (Ezek 38:20-22)
In contrast, 40-48 contain detailed and precise architectural measurements of space and of land. (11) Measurement, boundary, geometrical precision, recurrent right angles, squares, rectangles, cubes (but no circles or triangles)--these constitute the main substance of Ezekiel's last prophetic vision. The temple is laid out according to a plan that essentially uses squares as the modal form for the holiest parts. The temple enclosure, a square of 500 cubits, is substantially larger than the temple of Solomon. The entire city of Jerusalem is 4,500 cubits square.
These chapters conclude with new divisions of the land for the priests, the Levites, and the twelve tribes (ten of which had been taken into Assyrian captivity over a century before and were never again to be heard from). That plan is also exceedingly geometric, precise, and symmetric. The allocations for the tribes are rectangular, stacked one on top of the other, from north to south. (12)
God may come down and reside in this temple and city, a place that will be definitively demarcated from the realms of moral and ritual impurity. Rituals are detailed in these chapters, and they are differentiated according to degree of holiness just as the sites of their performance are spatially differentiated. The rituals of the temple are designed to maintain the ongoing process of purging, the purification of inevitable sin and pollution.
This vision dramatically contrasts with the earlier temple vision in Ezekiel 8. On September 17, 592 B.C.E., Ezekiel is divinely transported back to Jerusalem to see the still-standing temple and witness the abominations being perpetrated there by the house of Israel. God then removes his presence (chapters 10-11) and foretells the destruction of the temple and the exile of the remaining people to Babylonia. In the vision of restoration, the divine presence--the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or "glory"--returns to the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, with the city renamed "The Lord is There" (Ezek 48:35).
* The Plan of the Temple (13)
The basic temple plan consists of a series of squares and rectangles and the solids composed of these. Following Stevenson's analysis of 40-48, we can see how the square (and the cube) is the more holy shape, the shape of the holy of holies, the altar, the spaces of the inner court, the house, and the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("building"). The pressing need is to provide spaces and structures for purging the impurities of the people that led God to drive them into exile. "The relationship between the Holy of Holies and the Altar is at the heart of the ideology of Ezekiel, and is expressed in the architectural layout of the House. The Holy of Holies is the symbolic dwelling place [of God's "glory"] and the Altar is the place of purgation." (14)
The priestly theology to which Ezekiel is heir focuses on the role of the temple and of temple ritual for dealing with the sins and impurities of the house of Israel. Greenberg on Ezekiel (15) and Milgrom on Leviticus (16) have demonstrated that the temple is a place of purgation, continuous and periodic, of the impurities of the people. There are impurities of ordinary living (genital discharges, menstruation, sexual intercourse, certain illnesses, touching impure objects, and corpse contact) that render a person unable to enter sacred spaces, as well as the impurities of idolatry and violations of social-justice commandments. (17) The land of Israel also requires periodic purgation, and therefore when the cumulative sins of the house of Israel exceeded the capacity of the temple to achieve purgation, they were expelled from their land.
The temple--the place where the redemptive, purifying rituals can take place and the glory of God can dwell--has gradations of space that range from holy to profane (or "common" as some translations have it). In the rebuilt and renamed Jerusalem, there is still a high priest, but there is no longer a king. The previous royal civil order was contaminating, generating corpse pollution, debauchery, and idol-worship. Instead, there is to be a new office, the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "prince," with delimited sacrificial duties. The imminent historical context is the community of the exiles, purified by their experience of sin and redemption, reclaiming residence in the land that belongs to God but is in fact still inhabited by compatriots who did not go into exile. (18) The political structure is perfectly balanced, symmetrical, and hierarchical, literally and figuratively. The previous hierarchy of kings, priests, and (false) prophets has not fulfilled its role-specific obligations, yet hierarchy is needed to control the disorder and violations denounced throughout the book. (19)
Cook and Patton elaborate further on the …