Prophecy & Revelation
Dear Ones in Christ:
One of the most controversial aspects of Judeo-Christian sacred scripture is correct interpretation of its meaning. The breadth of the material it encompasses and the length of time over which it was written (3,500 - 4,000 years), presents much to consider. Let’s focus on the topic of visions and how they have bearing on the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation.
Ezekiel, the first prophet to receive the call to prophesy outside the Holy Land, is said to have written between 597 - 587 BC, during his captivity in the Babylonian Exile. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, and his vindication by his skeptical compatriots, his prophesies changed to the promise of salvation (meaning freedom from captivity) and a new covenant. The Jewish Study Bible, Tanakh Translation, produced by the Jewish Publication Society, says Ezekiel was a priest of the House of Zadok who considered himself a watchman for Israel, with the task to warn of impending spiritual danger. He speaks in the imagery of priestly practices and his description of a divine throne-chariot is based upon the description of the Ark of the Covenant. The Book of Ezekiel begins with judgment and concludes with consolation. According to rabbinic tradition, a group of scholars that were believed to have lived in the postexilic period wrote Ezekiel. Yet, the Mishnah advises: A rabbi should not expound upon Chapter One of Ezekiel to a single person unless he is a sage, fully competent in Jewish tradition. This is important to us because Ezekiel 1 holds the key to understanding the imagery of the Book of Daniel*.
The Book of Daniel was written during the persecution of the Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes (167 - 164 BC), as the Jews were suffering one of the worst periods of their history. Antiochus Epiphanes wanted to Hellenize the Jews, so he outlawed the Jewish religion by making it a capital offense to circumcise children, to possess a copy of the Torah or to observe the Sabbath. He had his troops desecrate the temple by erecting an altar to Zeus, "the abomination of desolation," and sacrificed swine on it. Jews were being forced to honor Zeus and to eat swine. Those who refused had to hide or die. The author of the Book of Daniel uses code language to encourage these Jews. He employs the literary convention of speaking through symbols, as if it were a vision or a dream, to deliver a message of consolation to the persecuted, which they will recognize and understand, but will not be understood by their persecutors. In his vision of the heavenly court, Daniel’s descriptions are those of Ezekiel 1:4-28. Examples:
The Book of Revelation, too, was written during a time of persecution. Domitian (who ruled from AD 81-96) had made a law forcing everyone to take part in religious ceremonies in honor of state gods. If Christians refused to participate in these ceremonies they were subject to criminal charges and those who would not address Domitian as "Lord and God" were to be killed. The author of the Book of Revelation uses the same literary form as did the author of the Book of Daniel, and for the same reason. His target audience would understand his message, but their persecutors would not be able to decipher it. And he uses Daniel’s vision-imagery as his code in delivering a message of hope to those undergoing that contemporary persecution. Further, he prefaces his vision by declaring the convention he uses by calling it "the revelation of Jesus Christ... by sending his angel to his servant... ". (Compare this convention with Daniel 2:7, in which the servant delivers the message)
The convention of speaking as if of a future event when addressing current events is particular to apocalyptic writing precisely because the message must be veiled in circumstances of extreme persecution. As we can see, first, one has to have studied extensively to be able to understand Ezekiel 1, and second, one has to understand Daniel’s purpose and code words from Ezekiel in order to grasp The Book of Revelation’s symbolism.
Without ancient tradition to draw upon, all sorts of far-flung fantasies will continue to plague unwary Christians. Therefore, it is important not to be misled by preachers who possess insufficient knowledge of scripture, but to take heed as Jewish wisdom counseled concerning The Book of Ezekiel. Of those who teach a message of fear, Matthew reports Jesus words, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You traverse sea and land to make one convert, and when that happens you make him a child of Gehenna twice as much as yourselves" (Matt 23:15).
Apocalyptic literature always speaks of an end time, and that time is always our contemporary time because, should we not do what is right in the present bad things will happen. We have a direct effect on the outcome because we are intended to be partners with God in an ongoing creation.
Just as in the era of the Hebrew Testament, the New Testament books instruct and instill hope under even the most terrible of circumstances. Their objective is to foster engagement in an on-going relationship with God, not just to talk about God. Then, there is every cause to rejoice because our God is a God of infinite love. As Jesus said, "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32).
Peace and the grace of our Lord be with you all,
Bp. +Elaine André
*Note - Readings from the Book of Daniel appears only twice in the three-year Lectionary cycle:
Feast of the Transfiguration - Cycle B (Dan 7:1-18)
33 Sunday of Ordinal Time - Cycle B (Dan 12:1-13)