Monday, July 28, 2008

Interview with David Reimer on Ezekiel in the ESVSB

David Reimer is Senior Lecturer in Hebrew and Old Testament Studies at New College, the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. (See some of his selected publications here.) Dr. Reimer, who is filling in on Justin Taylor's blog this week, contributed to the ESV Study Bible by serving as an OT consultant, introducing the poetic and wisdom literature, and commenting on Ezekiel.

1. Why did you write the notes on Ezekiel?
My connection with the ESVSB project came about initially through my friendship with "the two Gordons" (Wenham and McConville) who were already involved with the ESV's Anglicized edition. When the possibility of my participating in the ESVSB was broached with the editorial team, of the books then available, Ezekiel was the one that best matched my previous studies.

There is perhaps a slightly deeper answer, too. A fundamental component of my "academic" study of the Bible is the commitment that it should serve the church, and the ESVSB project was one way for that purpose to be expressed.
2. Have you written or lectured much on Ezekiel before?
Some. My close study of the Hebrew text first began as a grad student in Toronto at the feet of John Wm Wevers, who had written the New Century Bible Ezekiel commentary. (I mean "at the feet of" quite literally, by the way. We would sit round his desk, while he reclined in his office chair, slippered feet planted firmly on the desk in front of us!) Since then, I have lectured on Ezekiel here in Edinburgh (until a curriculum revision put an end to that), and have also supervised some Ezekiel PhD theses.
3. Your notes on Ezekiel in the ESVSB are essentially a mini-commentary on the book. Would you walk through your process of research and writing for this project? How did you move from an ancient book that many people consider boring and irrelevant to producing something both pithy and helpful?
It is a "mini-commentary", although at a final 40K-ish words (not all of them mine!), it isn't even so "mini"! But I wasn't starting from "scratch", and I assume this was the case for most if not all contributors. That graduate-student class with Wevers was 25 years ago.

In practical terms, I first worked out how many words-per-chapter I had to work with. The editorial team was clear that the coverage of notes should be fairly even throughout the book. So between BibleWorks and a spreadsheet, I allotted my word-quota to Ezekiel's forty-eight chapters. I next set up my own personal "triglot": Hebrew, ESV, and Septuagint in parallel columns. [See picture below.] That became the basis for roughing out my queries and notes.

How to produce "something both pithy and helpful"? While I knew I needed to take decisions about all aspects of the text, I thought it would help to find out what a "typical" reader might want to know, so I drafted in my son just to see what kinds of issues he would raise. He sat down with Ezekiel 1 and wrote me a list of questions. Basically, he wanted to know everything! While that might be "helpful", it wasn't going to be "pithy"! Inevitably, readers will have questions that the notes cannot answer, but the exercise gave me an insight into the kinds of things that could arise in a reader's mind.

Structurally, Ezekiel is a very "tidy" book: typically, I could just move through a chapter at a time. Anyone who knows the book, though, will realize that chapters 1-3 are quite special—not the easiest of passages to begin with! There are other "difficult" passages, too: especially the (in)famous Gog of Magog (chs. 38-39), and the final vision of restored Israel in chs. 40-48 whose fine details might seem trying to the modern reader's patience. I can't recall spending time on making things interesting or relevant, though: inevitably, I was challenged and moved, even by the intricacies of Ezekiel's altar measurements which are, of course, still saying something about the nature of God's relationship with his people. The Gog passage did take me by surprise—one can hardly work through that account which at first seems so obscure without sensing something of the majestic sovereignty of Ezekiel's God.
4. How would you concisely describe what Ezekiel is about?
Living in a period of social and political upheaval and disorientation, Ezekiel speaks for a holy God to the people who both bear and profane God's name. God's own reputation is central to Ezekiel's ministry: in Ezekiel's oracles, God does not act primarily for the sake of mercy, or covenant, but because his own reputation is bound up with this people, Israel.

The concise expression of Ezekiel's theology can be found in 36:22: "It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came." Pretty much the whole of Ezekiel's thought can be derived from this verse.
5. How did you come up with the design for the temple plan that is included?
In spite of what seems like an overwhelming amount of detail in the temple vision, especially in chs. 40-43, it remains insufficient for developing a "blueprint" for Ezekiel's renewed temple. Every commentator struggles with how to make sense of the details we do have, and how to fill in the gaps. Like others before me, I plotted what Ezekiel gives us, then compared my impression with previous commentators. (Kalinda Stevenson's monograph, The Vision of Transformation: The Territorial Rhetoric of Ezekiel 40-48, was also extremely helpful.)

The actual schematic readers will see in the ESVSB came about as a result of pondering the wealth of graphic resources in Daniel Block's Ezekiel commentary, and working out how to offer some of that richness in a more compressed manner. There followed a process of iterations between Justin [Taylor], the in-house designers, Maltings (the illustrators for the project), and myself. I hope the end result is both clear and helpful!
6. What are some of the most useful commentaries (beginner, intermediate, and advanced) on Ezekiel?
For all that Ezekiel has a reputation for being a prophetic oddball (and that's saying something!), his book has enjoyed the attention of some fine commentators. Limiting myself to one example for each level, my choices would be:
  • Beginner: C.J.H. Wright, The Message of Ezekiel: A New Heart and a New Spirit (The Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove & Leicester: IVP, 2001). A sensible and helpful treatment by a scholar wise in the ways of engaging the gospel in the wider world.
  • Intermediate: J. Blenkinsopp, Ezekiel (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990). Blenkinsopp would certainly not identify himself as an evangelical! But he is an insightful and stimulating commentator, and the format of this series makes it a very readable "handbook".
  • Advanced: D.I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 1-24 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997); and The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 25-48 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). This is a heavyweight, in every way. Block's industry astonishes me, and it would be churlish to ask for more from a commentary than what Block provides in this one.
7. What advice would you give to pastors who are contemplating preaching expository sermons through Ezekiel?
First, check, where you will see that Ezekiel shares with Obadiah and Nahum the distinction of being the only prophetic books never to have been the focus of a John Piper sermon in 28 years . . . then ask yourself why you want to preach on it!

Seriously, though, I do believe that Ezekiel's voice still demands to be heard today. As Walter Brueggemann has put it, Ezekiel is the prophet of "tough love", and that's not always easy to hear. After judging how long an Ezekiel series your people might be able to take (!)—be warned it's the fourth longest book in the OT—then you can work out which passages might best take them on a journey through Ezekiel's landscape. One thought for a brief series might simply be to follow Ezekiel's vision sequence (inaugural vision, chs. 1-3; first temple vision, chs. 8-11; the valley of dry bones, 37:1-14; and the final temple vision, chs. 40-48). You could always spread some of those out over more than one week. That would at least provide a structure both for the main outlines of Ezekiel's message, as well as a framework for people to dig deeper into the book themselves.

You should also go and get Thabiti Anyabwile's sermon from the 2007 Desiring God Conference for Pastors and take in that powerful exposition of Ezekiel to get a feel for just what the book has to offer.
8. What advice would you give to lay people reading Ezekiel in the ESV Study Bible?
Be patient! Read slowly! Be prepared to encounter an unfamiliar world. Get to know the narrative flow of Judah's story in this period. But more and more I am seeing the benefits of simply reading slowly, not just for "lay people", but for all who wish to grow in their encounter with the Bible.