This being Shabbat HaHodesh, we read a special haftarah, from near the end of the book of Ezekiel. Though part of the Hebrew canon, one can hardly consider Ezekiel’s writings, especially those in the last 9 chapters or so, as normative or mainstream. In it, we receive Ezekiel’s vision of a restored Temple. They are difficult to understand at best, and clearly conflicting with Torah at worst.
The book is dated, primarily, to the time of the Babylonian exile, so perhaps Ezekiel was sharing a vision of what the restored “second” Temple would be. Yet Ezekiel’s vision is so at odds with what other sources (notably the Torah, inasmuch as one can consider it as referring to any fixed Temple in Jerusalem at all-an viewpoint which is not entirely clear at all, except perhaps in redactive hints added to the text once the first Temple and priestly cult were a reality) that scholars have always struggled with it.
Some prefer to interpret Ezekiel’s vision of that of the yet-to-come “Third Temple.” As we know, there are those today who labor tirelessly to prepare for that eventuality. Having written papers on this topic for my graduate work, I can tell you that I find most of these “Third Temple” movements quite scary. In addition, so many of them have ties with right-wing fundamentalist Xtian groups that are trying to help bring about the “Third Temple” so that it might pave the way for the final battle and the second coming and the rapture and all that (yes, I know I’m conflating some very different Xtian theologies.) Fundamentalist farmers in Montana working with pious Jews in Jerusalem to breed a perfect red heifer, for example.
If you can say anything definite about Ezekiel’s vision of a Temple, be it second or third, it is that his descriptions are detailed to a fault. Things are so well thought out that there are even traffic patterns for worshippers (those who go in the south gate come out the north, and vice versa.)
Such detail is often a literary device. It creates a certain amount of verisimilitude by providing detail. This makes the text all the more palatable and believable for the people, at least in those times. In our own times, this level of detail only seems to make things worse. How ironic that in our times, we seem to want more left to the imagination – yet our airwaves are full of reality shows, films that depict things in graphic detail, etc.
Providing detail is great, but detail can also trip you up. My favorite example of this has always been from the NBC sitcom “Family Ties” with Michael J. Fox as the erstwhile Republican-leaning teen in a family headed by a liberal public television employee. Set decorators on TV programs often strive for reality-and they have gotten a lot better at it over the years. Sometimes, they just get things wrong (or perhaps their directors, producers, or actors insist on a change over which they have no control.) Whatever the reason – perhaps larger sizes were too awkward to handle – the fridge on Family Ties was always stocked with one-quart containers of milk. I just can’t imagine any household with that size family (was it five, I forget) in those days that actually bought milk in quarts. Half-gallons or gallons maybe, but quarts? Liberal, environmentally-conscious parents buying quarts of milk?
Ezekiel’s level of detail trips him up as well. His detail includes things that contravene Torah and other sources. Corroborative detail is something that can come back to bite you in the tukhis. That is probably why, in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Mikado” Lord High Executioner Koko bristles at the corroborative detail his compatriots supply to the Emperor in describing the fictitious beheading of Prince Nanki-Poo in the song “The Criminal Cried…” There can be too much of a good thing.
I know. I’m ridiculously verbose. I’m prone, like Ezekiel, to provide ridiculous levels of detail, to consider every nugget of possibility in arguments and situations, etc. Invariably, they trip me up. There’s a lot to be said for “Keep it simple, stupid!”
Yet one wonders, if Ezekiel had “kept it simple” if his vision would have made it into the canon, and if we would still be discussing it today?
Simplicity or verisimilitude? Something to ponder this Shabbat.
©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester