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Leaning on the tree of life

The exile and the promise/ 18 - The honest words we must say sometimes and the hope we harbor

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire10/03/2019

«ln the middle of the town square and on both sides of the river there is a tree of life that bears twelve fruits every month; the leaves of the tree serve to heal the nations»

The Book of Revelation

In any form of self-legitimation of power, the gifts received are considered to be the fruits of one's own personal merits, and the power in question to come from an external source (God or the people). Hence, the gratuitous nature of any talent received is effectively canceled, and the logic of the crocodile or monster returns, and sooner or later we end up repeating: "The Nile is mine, I made it for myself ".

«I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, you great monster lying among your streams. You say, “The Nile belongs to me; I made it for myself"» (Ezekiel 29,3). Egypt in the Bible is the expression of many things. Its first images are of slavery, forced labor, plagues, and then liberation and Easter. The Egyptian pharaohs were also a symbol of the most radical form of idolatry, due to their status of divinity. The root of the sin of Egypt lies in fact in the religious attitude of its pharaoh, who claimed to be the master of the Nile. The crocodile-Leviathan of the Nile feels like God himself, and therefore the creator and master of the world.

The oracles against Egypt were pronounced by Ezekiel a few months before and after the siege by the Babylonian troops of Nebuchadnezzar II, which lasted for about a year and a half. During these months, there was a great hope among the leaders of the people of Jerusalem that they would be saved by a military intervention from Egypt, in particular by its young pharaoh Hophra (Apries), who had just come to power. Just like Jeremiah, however, Ezekiel is convinced that the long-awaited help from Egypt is only an illusion, a vain consolation that prevented the people from accepting the only possible outcome: the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple and the exile of the people Judah. Instead, the leaders of the people, inspired and supported by the constant preaching of false prophets, continued to wait for the arrival of the Egyptians and thus ended up exhausting themselves in a long, unnecessary and wearing siege.

In order to understand, or at least capture some aspect of these oracles against Egypt, we must try to imagine and see Ezekiel proclaiming them in the streets of this land of exile. A land in which families were busy rationing the last remaining cereal and very little water they had left, and cooking their loaves of bread while feeding the ovens with dung (as Ezekiel himself prophesied at the beginning of his book, Chapter 4). From that land of exile, Ezekiel announced to an exhausted people that Nebuchadnezzar's hand was led by YHWH, that nothing good would come from Egypt, and that the only right choice was to surrender. It is not impossible then to imagine the profound and radical dissonance between the words of Ezekiel and the feelings of his people. He would have been criticized, silenced and hated by the very people, to whom his calling had sent him.

But Ezekiel does not stay silent, he cannot keep quiet; it does not change his prophecy, which he had been repeating for at least five years, when he first began his activity as a prophet in exile. It cannot change it. True prophets do not adapt their prophecies to the needs of the "consumers", they do not have a commodity to sell, but only a voice to listen to and obey. They have no choice, and there is no escape. A prophetic calling is one of the most terrible vocations under the sun – as true back then, as it is today. It always operates ‘counteractively’. People were seeking comfort and consolation and Ezekiel revealed their illusions and false hopes: «Then all who live in Egypt will know that I am the Lord. You have been a staff of reed for the people of Israel. When they grasped you with their hands, you splintered and you tore open their shoulders; when they leaned on you, you broke and their backs were wrenched» (Ezekiel 29,6-7). For the faltering people of Judah, Egypt is a crutch, which breaks under the weight of its body, injuring it. Nothing more or different from this. Ruthless and harsh words indeed.

Among these prophecies against Egypt, we also find an oracle dated many years later (571), which appears to be the last of Ezekiel's public activity, which in total lasted around twenty-two years. An original and controversial prophecy, but particularly important because it speaks of a failed prophecy, of a prediction that has not come true: «Son of man, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon drove his army in a hard campaign against Tyre; … yet the king and his army got no reward from the campaign he led against Tyre» (Ezekiel 29,18). Many years earlier (Chapters 26-28), Ezekiel had prophesied the fall of Tyre and its destruction at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. He now notes that the Babylonian king had recently completed his long siege, but Tyre had not been destroyed or pillaged.

The power and truth of a prophecy lies in its source. Unlike false prophets, a true prophet bases his legitimacy on the true voice that speaks to him and that he / she in turn refers to the people. The oracles are not theological speculations nor ethical treatises, but quotes from YHWH. The predictive aspect of any prophecy was important, because it was one of the tests used to distinguish it from false prophecies. Hence, both prophets and people held it in high esteem. However, it was not and still is not its most essential aspect. In his oracles against Tyre, Ezekiel finds himself having to announce a destruction, suggested to him by God, years later he has to admit that that destruction has not occurred. Here, Ezekiel shares a fate similar to that of Jonah, who was sent to prophesy the destruction of Nineveh, which did not end up happening; or to that of Christ, who announced the Kingdom of the Beatitudes to us, which we are still waiting for, together with His return. We know that the biblical God is a God capable of changing his mind. He is not afraid of showing himself a repentant God, who threatens punishment which he then withdraws, who asks to offer a son on an altar and then sends the ram. We know this. We also know, however, that something else extremely important could also be hiding behind these wrong predictions by the prophets.

A prophet is not the master of the words that he proclaims. If he actually believed this, he would be too similar to the crocodile-Leviathan-pharaoh. It is precisely this non-possessive aspect, which makes it right and, at the same time, radically fragile and vulnerable. He announces a word that knows how to be true, as true as his calling; but he has no way of knowing if that voice will say different things tomorrow than the equally real and true ones today, if it will change its mind. Because the words he announces, are the words of a voice that is an eternal present, and therefore the present of tomorrow could change both the present of today and that of yesterday. For this reason, no honest prophet relies on the future to base the truth of his present, and when he does (true prophets do this too: it is one of their most common mistakes) he will face sensational denials. Knowing how to live with this lack or need of tomorrow is part of the profession of being a good prophet, which is not true because it makes prophecies come true, but because it listens to and transmits a voice.

Somewhere in his soul, perhaps Ezekiel also feared that even his great prophecy about the fall of Jerusalem might end up being disproved by the facts one day, that YHWH could change his mind and save her from destruction. Perhaps he desired and hoped for it, as an exiled priest perhaps he prayed that his words would be denied by a repenting act by his God. Perhaps, until the day before the end of the siege, while still prophesying the end of the holy city, at night he prayed to YHWH secret that his words would not come true. Only those who do not really know life or the Bible can think that true prophets truly like their prophecies of doom. They are only the announcers of words of which they have no control, words which they sometimes do not love and sometimes in their depths hope and pray will eventually be denied. Just like us, when we sometimes have to say words of misfortune to those who ask us for our opinion, (about a disease, about the end of a relationship, about a possible call…). We pray in our depths that life will deny those honest words that we must say, but that we cannot not say if we want to remain true. Any faithfulness to the word requires a love greater than our happiness, even when that word takes the name of a friend, a wife, a son, or even when it takes our own name. Like yesterday, when we heard a clear word that called us by name and entrusted us with a task, and today when we hear another equally clear voice telling us the opposite. Even in these cases, either we can force that voice into the frame of our needs for consistency, or we can love the truth of those words more than ourselves and continue to walk on new roads, with a newfound freedom.

The oracles about Egypt end with a funeral song (Chapter 32), where we find one of the few references in the Old Testament to life after death. Unlike Egyptian culture, biblical humanism is not interested in paradise because it is too fond of life and the God of the living. Once again, Ezekiel shows his literary talent and his great culture and knowledge on the traditions of his neighboring people. The mythical image of the cosmic tree is particularly beautiful and evocative, Ezekiel uses it to describe the beauty and power of Egypt, which like an immense cedar tree rises in the center of Eden: «I made it beautiful with abundant branches, the envy of all the trees of Eden in the garden of God» (Ezekiel 31,9). An immense and beautiful tree, so tall its top branches reached into the clouds, and for this very same reason ends up suffering the same end as the Tower of Babel: «Because the great cedar towered over the thick foliage, and because it was proud of its height, I gave it into the hands of the ruler of the nations, for him to deal with according to its wickedness. I cast it aside» (Ezekiel 31,10-11). The myth of the cosmic tree is found in many cultures, from China to Babylon. We also find it in the Christian Middle Ages, when a Franciscan tradition (The Lignum vitae of San Bonaventura and Ubertino of Casale) wanted to make the tree of the cross coincide with the tree of life of Eden. And while we continue to follow our crucifixes on our own cavalries, no one can take away the hope of one day seeing those wooden arms in bloom, and in that moment realize that, without knowing it, while we were crying out in abandonment, we were actually leaning on the tree of life.

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