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William Blake's "The Death of the Wife of the Biblical Prophet Ezekiel"

Ezekiel was a priest who served the Jerusalem temple before he was exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BCE (Ezek 1:1–3). In the Babylonian exile, Ezekiel functioned as a prophet during the turbulent years leading up to and following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. From exile, he addressed both the Judean exiles with him in Babylon and those who remained in Judah, a fractured community threatened with disintegration and loss of communal identity. Ezekiel’s messages targeted the wrongdoing of Judah that led to the exile. He also offered hope that Judah’s scattered exiles would return home.

How did Ezekiel’s priestly background influence his message?

Ezekiel presents a theological explanation for the exile that is informed by his priestly worldview. According to biblical texts that describe the Jerusalem temple, God’s invisible presence dwells in the innermost room, enthroned above the ark (1 Kgs 8:4–11; 2 Kgs 19:15). Ezekiel assumes this reality and warns that the temple’s sacred spaces have not been properly guarded (Lev 10:10; Ezek 22:26). Because sinful behaviors defile the temple and have gone unchecked (Lev 16:11–16), the temple can no longer house the divine presence. Ezekiel thus describes the departure of God’s presence from the desecrated Jerusalem temple, which makes way for the city’s ruin (Ezek 8–11). Ezekiel, however, anticipates the return of the divine presence to the temple following the purification of Israel (Ezek 36, 37, 43).

What is Judah’s sin according to Ezekiel?

Ezekiel’s criticisms of Judah and Jerusalem’s sins are very much concerned with religion and politics. Specifically, Ezekiel critiques the people for social injustice and improper worship practices such as idolatry and child sacrifice (Ezek 8–11; 20:25–26; 34). He also criticizes the ruling elite for their relations with other nations (Ezek 16, 17, 23), which he sees as evidence for their lack of trust in God. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel advocates for Judean cooperation with the Babylonians, surmising that a revolt would not end well for Judah. The Judean King Zedekiah, however, withholds tribute and seeks Egyptian assistance to resist Babylon. Zedekiah’s actions violate a treaty that obligated Judah to remain loyal to Babylon. Ezekiel argues that Zedekiah’s actions amount to a broken covenant with God (Ezek 17:12–21). In response, Nebuchadnezzar lays siege to Jerusalem, burning the city and deporting more of its populace (586 BCE).

Ezekiel relies heavily on symbolic language and actions to convey Judah’s sin and the approaching doom of Jerusalem (20:49). The death of Ezekiel’s wife, for example, becomes a symbol for the destroyed temple (24:15–24)—a loss that is felt deeply by Judeans. Furthermore, the use of a marriage metaphor is one way that Ezekiel critiques Judah’s leaders and their international politicking. Jerusalem, representing Judah’s leaders, is depicted as God’s unfaithful wife who seeks refuge in the arms of her lovers, the foreign nations (Ezek 16, 23). The metaphor takes aim at Jerusalem’s shifting loyalties and alliances with Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. But its graphic imagery and portrayal of God as an enraged husband and Jerusalem as a punished woman have often troubled interpreters. It may be, as some scholars have suggested, that the violence featured in the extended metaphor echoes the trauma of war and exile. After all, comparable images involving violence and nakedness occur in the context of warfare scenes elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Isa 20:3; Jer 30:6; Lam 5). Still others caution that the metaphor may reveal negative assumptions about women by portraying them as immoral and promiscuous, especially if subjected to a literalist reading.

What does Ezekiel’s vision of restoration entail?

For Ezekiel, restoration involves the purification of Israel, the exiles’ return to the land of Israel, and the return of God’s presence to a rebuilt temple in a transformed city (Ezek 40–48). The prophet says that the land will be transformed from its barren state to an Eden-like setting brimming with life (36:35; 47:1–12). Ezekiel also pictures the restoration of Israel as the revivification of bones and disinterred corpses (37:1–14). Resurrection, as Ezekiel describes it, does not involve individual resurrection of the dead. Rather, it concerns the life of the nation: Israel’s scattered people, like the scattered bones (37:1-10), will be reunited and will return to the land of Israel (37:11-28).

Ezekiel emphasizes God’s role in Israel’s transformation. The community languishing in exile is directed to exercise moral responsibility in their current context. Ezekiel counsels his audience not to blame previous generations for their present circumstances (Ezek 18; 33:10–20). But the renewal of people and land are ultimately interpreted as divine acts. God purges Israel by bringing about the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple whether or not the community responds with repentance. God will also give the people a new heart and spirit so that they can make good on covenant obligations (11:19–20; 36:27–28). 

Ezekiel seeks to defend God in the Babylonian defeat. He argues that Judah and Jerusalem’s erring ways led to exile and dishonored God in the sight of the nations (Ezek 36:20–21). Restoration, therefore, must vindicate the divine name so that the nations will know God’s power (20:33–44; 36:16–32; 39:21–28).

Did you know…?

  • The fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE occupies a central place in Ezekiel’s messages.
  • Ezekiel draws on priestly literature and ideas to explain the catastrophe of exile and to foster hope for the future (see Lev 26; Ezek 4–6; 14; 34).
  • Ezekiel employs the image of female infidelity to critique an audience of ruling elites for their political engagements (Ezek 16, 23).
  • The idea of resurrection featured in Ezek 37 concerns the restoration of the nation Israel rather than individual resurrection from the dead.

Image Credit: William Blake, The Death of the Wife of the Biblical Prophet Ezekiel, c. 1785, pen and black ink and wash over graphite, 13 5/8 x 18 7/8 inches (cropped). Courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

  • Sara Wells, PhD, is affiliate assistant professor of Old Testament and Assistant Director of Teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary. She is coauthor with Christopher B. Hays of “Gradations of Degradation: Ezekiel’s Underworld as a Temple of Doom,” Old Testament Essays 33.3 (2021): 490–515.