The Word Made Fresh
1Then the man brought me back to the outer gate which faces east, and the gate was shut. 2The LORD said to me, “This gate must remain closed. It must not be opened, and no one can enter by it because the LORD God of Israel has entered by it. 3Only the prince, by virtue of his position, may sit there to dine before the LORD, but he must enter and exit by the entrance gate.”
4Then he brought me through the north gate to the front of the temple. I looked, and behold! The glory of the LORD filled the temple and I fell face down. 5The LORD said to me, “Son of man, pay attention and take note. Listen carefully to everything I have to tell you about the rules in the temple of the LORD and all its laws. Pay close attention to those who can enter the temple and all those who are excluded from the sanctuary. 6Tell those who rebel against Israel that the LORD says, ‘People of Israel, put an end to the sin you commit 7by allowing uncircumcised foreigners to enter my sanctuary and corrupt my temple while you are offering sacrifices of blood and fat to me. They have broken my covenant with all their abominable practices. 8And you have not been responsible for my sacred offerings, but have allowed them to be in charge of my sanctuary in your place.’”
9The LORD God says, “No foreigner who is uncircumcised in heart and in flesh among all the foreigners with my people Israel shall enter my sanctuary. 10And the Levites who withdrew from me, going after idols when Israel went astray, will be punished. 11They will serve as ministers in my sanctuary. They will have oversight of the temple gates and shall slaughter the burnt offerings and sacrifices for my people, whom they will attend and serve. 12Because of their sin in ministering before their idols and drawing the people of Israel away into their sin, I have sworn this concerning them; they shall bear their punishment. 13They may not serve me as priests or come near any of my holy offerings which are most sacred. They must bear their shame and suffer the consequences of the sins they have committed. 14Still, I will place them in charge of keeping my temple and tending to all the work done there.
15“But the Levitical priests descended from Zadok, who kept my sanctuary when the people went astray, will come near to minister and attend me by offering the fat and the blood,” says the LORD God. 16“They are the only ones who may enter my sanctuary, approach my table, serve as my ministers and keep my orders. 17They must wear linen robes when they enter the gates of the inner court. They must not wear anything made of wool while they do their work at the entrance and within the inner court. 18They must wear linen turbans and linen undergarments. They may not wear anything that makes them sweat. 19Then when they return to the outer court where the people gather they must remove the clothing in which they ministered and lay it in the sacred areas. Then they must put on other garments so that they won’t use their vestments to pretend to be holy among the people. 20They must not shave their heads, but they also must not allow their hair to grow long; they can only trim the hair on their heads. 21The priests may not drink wine when they enter the inner court. 22And when they marry it must not be to a widow or a divorced woman, but only a virgin of the family of Israel, or to a widow who was married to a priest. 23They must teach my people the difference between what is sacred and what is common, and show them how to distinguish between that which is clean and that which is unclean. 24If there is a disagreement they shall act as judges, and their decisions must be made according to my laws. They must obey my laws and statutes having to do with my appointed festivals, and they must keep my sabbaths holy. 25They must not be defiled by approaching a dead body unless it is for father or mother, or for son or daughter, or for brother or unmarried sister. In those cases, they are permitted to defile themselves. 26Once they are pronounced clean from these circumstances they must count off seven days. 27Then, on the day they go into the sacred place of the inner court to minister there, they must offer their sin offering,” says the LORD God.
28“And I will be their inheritance,” says the LORD. “You must not give them property in Israel, for they belong to me. 29They may eat the grain, sin and guilt offerings. Everything in Israel that is devoted to me belongs to them. 30The first fruits of all kinds, and the offerings of all kinds shall belong to the priests. You must also give them the first of your dough so that a blessing may be upon your house. 31The priests may not eat of any bird or animal that died alone or was killed by other animals in the wild.”
1-3: The east gate is a focal point in the visionary description of the temple-to-be. At the beginning of the vision Ezekiel and the angel/architect had entered through the east gate (40:6). After touring the whole temple compound Ezekiel had seen “the glory of the LORD” enter the temple through the east gate and take up residence in the temple (43:4). Now he finds the east gate sealed, and is told that it will remain closed. Only the “prince,” whom we have met before (34:23, 37:24) and will meet again in later chapters, may approach the gate, but only for ritual purposes and he must enter and leave the area through a side door. He is allowed this special permission “because he is a prince.” It is a privilege of office. The reason for the permanently closed gate may be to symbolize God’s promise never to forsake his people again. Some scholars think it also has to do with a Babylonian New Year’s ritual which involved the ceremonial opening of a gate for the entry of one of their gods. Israel’s worship of their God is not to resemble Babylonian worship.
4-8: The east gate being permanently closed, Ezekiel re-enters the temple compound by way of the north gate to the front of the temple where God’s glory now resides; in awe he falls on his face, and is told that he must see to it that foreigners will never again be allowed to enter the temple. It was the influence of foreign religions that caused Israel’s decline in the first place, and Ezekiel is being told that contingency must be guarded against. When the exiles were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, proof of lineage was required and the expurgation of foreigners from among the citizens was a primary emphasis of the reformers (see Nehemiah 13:1-3), as well as the expulsion of foreign wives (Nehemiah 13:23-25). While such exclusive requirements might offend the “inclusive” attitude of many moderns, it is in fact practiced throughout modern societies. In the Roman Catholic Church only the priests may administer the sacraments, and in most Protestant denominations only ordained or licensed clergy have that privilege. Clubs and lodges and other organizations have similar boundaries; it is simply a way of protecting the identity of the group. The concept of the “holy” is by its very nature exclusive.
9-14: Not only must foreigners be excluded, but Levites may never serve as priests; that is, they may not perform the priestly functions of offering sacrifices or conducting other rituals. Levites may only serve as attendants. Curiously, this restriction is referred to as their “punishment” for having participated in the worship of idols.
15-16: The priests are also Levites, of course, for they are descended from Levi, but they are more narrowly defined as being also descended from Aaron and here their number is even more narrowly defined as being descended from Zadok. Zadok’s ancestry can be traced back to Aaron through his son Eleazar. He was the son of Ahitub, the son of Amariah, the son of Azariah, the son of Miraioth, the son of Zerahiah, the son of Uzzi, the son of Bukki, the son of Abishua, the son of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron (Ezra 7:2-4. Ezra was himself descended from Zadok.). There is evidence that he was the first high priest of the original temple in Jerusalem that Solomon built (see for example 1 Kings 1:39).
17-19: God gives Ezekiel (who was himself a priest [see 1:3] and likely a descendent of Zadok) strict regulations about the priests who are to serve in the temple. They must wear linen garments just as Aaron was instructed to do (Leviticus 16:4, 16:23), but whereas Aaron only wore the linen garments when in the most holy place of the sanctuary, the priests now will be required to do so whenever they are in the inner court where sacrifices are offered. Sweating is not allowed because sweat is a bodily emission that would render them unclean. They must not wear those linen garments in the outer court so as not to “communicate holiness to the people.” Holiness is a dangerous condition!
20: They may not shave their heads, a restriction not mentioned in the earlier books, but it is noted in Numbers 8:7 that non-priestly Levites must shave when they are consecrated. Thus, not shaving would serve to separate the priests from the other Levites.
21: The priests may not drink wine when they are to enter the inner court, a prohibition that goes back to Leviticus 10:8-9.
22: The restrictions about who they may marry date back to Leviticus 21:7.
23: Observing the division between clean and common is mentioned as early as Leviticus 10:10-11.
24: This order seems to place the administration of justice squarely in the hands of the priesthood, an arrangement that throws up lots of “red flags” for some of us. However, the very next line has to do with appointed festivals and Sabbaths, and so it is likely that the “judging” mentioned here has only to do with religious observances.
25-27: These prohibitions and rules date back to Leviticus as well.
28-31: The compensation received by the priests is to be as it was spelled out in Leviticus. Apparently in the intervening years some priests became wealthy, and some became land holders as well, thus compromising their commitment to God.
Serving God was serious business back then. We may not want or need to be so particular in our duties in church or synagogue, but we must be faithful in making sacred those places where we worship and learn about God. When we enter a place set apart for worship, we become caretakers of the faith.