Block, Daniel I. Beyond the River Chebar: Studies in Kingship and Eschatology in the Book of Ezekiel. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013, pp. 238, $30, paperback.
Daniel Block is a familiar name in Ezekiel scholarship, having written the substantial two-volume NICOT commentary on Ezekiel (1997–1998). Block also collaborated in editing Jacob Milgrom’s posthumous publication Ezekiel’s Hope: A Commentary on Ezekiel 38–48 (2012). In addition to his studies on Ezekiel, Block has produced commentaries on Ruth (ZECOT, 2015), Obadiah (HMS, 2013), and Deuteronomy (NIVAC, 2012) and served as a senior translator for the revised edition of the New Living Translation of the Bible. Currently, Block serves as Gunther H. Knoedler Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois.
Beyond the River Chebar, with its predecessor By the River Chebar, is a collection of articles and papers Block has presented over the years. The first volume focuses on historical, literary, and theological aspects of Ezekiel, while the current volume gives attention to issues of kingship and eschatology. Block is forthright that his ideological stance is Christian and his hermeneutical perspective is primarily grammatical-historical. Thus, he gives significant attention to the historical and cultural context from which the book of Ezekiel arose.
The first essay in the compilation provides an overview of Zion theology. Block explains that paradigmatic elements—land, covenant, Zion, and David—are suppressed in Ezekiel but not because the prophet is opposed to Zion theology. Rather, Ezekiel seeks to prevent the misadministration of the past by transforming “his audience’s perception of their relationship with YHWH” (7).
In the following three essays Block discusses kingship and messiah. He explains that although Ezekiel was not fundamentally opposed to the monarchy, the prophet held a negative view of the kings of Judah. In fact, Block contends that Ezekiel utilizes Gen 49:10, typically seen as a prediction of Judah’s power, to instead predict doom.
Block spends a substantial amount of time deciphering Ezekiel’s prophecies in the light of contemporaneous Judean monarchs. Zedekiah is described as “the antithesis of the future David,” and Josiah as the “model for the messianic king” (27, 15). Additionally, Block identifies Jehoiachin as the subject of the riddle in Ezek 17:3–24 and the dirge in Ezek 19:10–14. Block concludes that in contrast to Ezekiel’s disposition toward Zedekiah, the prophet is more ambivalent toward Jehoiachin. The manner in which Ezekiel portrays the king’s exile to Babylon provides a glimmer of hope for the future of the Davidic line.
Ezekiel’s usage of the terms king (מֶלֶךְ, melek) and prince (נָשִׂיא, nāśîʾ) is a perennial point of debate among scholars of Ezekiel. Block adds his expertise to the discussion by suggesting that Ezekiel largely avoids melek because of the term’s association with independence and arrogance, while nāśîʾ more appropriately conveys “the king’s status as a vassal of YHWH” (14). Additionally, the function of the nāśîʾ is facilitative rather than political. The prince is a religious figure and cult patron who ensures harmonious relations between the nation and YHWH. In short, Ezekiel does not seek to eliminate hierarchies, but to redefine existing institutions.
The following three chapters examine the Gog oracle. In chapter 5, Block proposes that the battle of Ezek 38–39 occurs after the restoration of Israel. Gog is thus “the agent through whom YHWH declares concretely that the tragedy of 586 BCE will never be repeated” as well as the means by which the person of YHWH is made known to all nations (125). Chapter 6 deals with the significance of 38:17 within the larger oracle, and chapter 7 deals with the unit’s epilogue.
Finally, chapters 8 and 9 discuss Ezekiel’s concluding vision. Block advocates an “ideational” interpretation, in which physical geographies communicate spiritual realities (172). In chapter 8 Block outlines ten factors for interpreters to consider when investigating Ezek 40–48, and in chapter 9 Block provides his own analysis of the vision.
Block is to be commended for his interaction with Ezekiel’s difficult prophecies and visions, which have puzzled both Jewish and Christian interpreters for centuries. Block’s work continues to press research on Ezekiel forward, especially with regard to the terms nāśîʾ and melek, as well as his ideational interpretation of Ezekiel’s temple vision. Nonetheless, readers may wish for a more robust explanation for the hermeneutical shift from literal to ideational. Block locates actual, historical kings and events in the earlier prophecies of Ezekiel, but sees spiritual realities in the temple vision of Ezekiel 40–48. Although continued discussion and debate over Block’s conclusions will certainly occur, the quality of his scholarship cannot be questioned.
The essays in the compilation cohere well with one another, but unfortunately, a significant degree of overlap occurs. Because each essay was originally intended to stand alone, foundational information is repeated often. For example, Block’s structuring of the Gog oracle is repeated verbatim in chs. 5 and 6, and his evaluation of Jehoiachin is repeated in chs. 2 and 3. Thus, the volume is better suited for researching specific topics than for reading from cover to cover.
Readers who are already familiar with the critical and theological issues surrounding Ezekiel will most readily follow the flow of Block’s argumentation. The scholar provides foundational historical information, but he does not always summarize the scholarly discussions with which he interacts. Copious footnotes are provided so that readers can engage with other critical perspectives as needed. Therefore, this compilation was produced for academic readers and not for a novice in Ezekiel scholarship.
Andrea L. Robinson
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary