Friday, July 19, 2013

The Prince of Tyre

No matter how much I study, it's harder for me to recognize what is NOT in the Bible than to learn what IS there. For instance, when I read Jesus' birth narrative in Luke 2, I picture the magi coming to visit the baby in the manger. But the magi aren't present in Luke; they are only mentioned in Matthew 2. I have been so influenced by the popular nativity scenes that I read into Luke what is not there.

This phenomenon is not reserved for New Testament narratives. Consider this passage from Ezekiel 28:

Eternal One: Son of man, sing a lament for the prince of Tyre. Tell him this is what I, the Eternal Lord, have to say: 
"You were a paradigm of perfection, human life at its best.
You had everything a leader needs: immense wisdom and perfect beauty.
You lived in Eden, God’s garden.
You were clothed in magnificent splendor, covered in jewels:
Sardius, topaz, diamond, beryl, onyx, jasper,
lapis lazuli, turquoise, and emerald.
All the mountings were made of gold,*
prepared for you on the day you were created.
I anointed you the guardian of the garden and stationed you at your post to protect it.
You were on the divine mountain, the holy mount of God.
There you walked among the fiery stones.
You were entirely pure from the day you were created,
until wickedness crept in and was found in you!
Too much buying and selling—a greedy obsession!
You became motivated to violence and did wicked things.
Polluted and disgraced, I drove you off the mountain of God!
I expelled you, O guardian protector, from the fiery stones.
Your heart swelled with pride because of your beauty and talents.
     Your hunger for fame, your thirst for glory corrupted your wisdom.
This is why I drove you to the ground
and made an example out of you before a company of kings.
You desecrated your sanctuaries
by pursuing sin after sin and cheating in business.
I set a flame inside of you, and it devoured you completely.
I reduced you to a pile of ashes on the ground,
a sight for all to see.
All the nations who know you are appalled at what has happened to you.
The end of your story is a horror:
you are gone, never to return" (Ezekiel 28:11-19, The Voice).

If you frequently attended Sunday school when you were a child as I did, you recognize this passage as a description of Satan. I learned from well-intentioned teachers that he was the near-perfect, beautiful, and beloved angel of God who was expelled from heaven. Those characteristics were attributed to Satan by a handful of third- and fourth-century theologians who minimized the literary and historical context of chapter 28. Ezekiel wasn't writing about Satan; he was prophesying about a very human monarch named Ethbaal II.

As Ezekiel was writing, Ethbaal was in his island capital of Tyre enjoying the riches of his nation's trade, influencing Mediterranean society, and claiming to be a god. When Jerusalem was razed in 586, Ethbaal assumed Tyre was unconquerable, so he did not adequately prepare his capital for an attack from Nebuchadnezzar. Ezekiel recognized that Ethbaal's behavior and attitude were offensive to God, who had made Babylonia the administrator of His justice on earth. As Ezekiel went on to prophesy in chapter 29, Nebuchadnezzar did indeed attack Tyre, and he carried the royal family to exile in Babylonia effectively ending Tyre's dominance of nautical trade in the region. Knowing the context, I see that those theologians would have been right to say Satan is present in the passage. It just isn't about him; that claim takes interpretation one step too far.

Satan drove Ethbaal to his sinful actions. Satan does the same to me. If I read these verses as a biography, then I miss the Ezekiel's recognition of how Satan likes to work in my life and what can happen when I am at odds with God and His people. I should learn from Ethbaal's mistakes and not allow Satan to distract me from worshiping the one true God.

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