Thursday, 17 October 2013

Ezekiel's Prophecy About Tyre

The claim is often made that Ezekiel's prophecy regarding Tyre is especially accurate, with the implication that it must have come from God. Is that really the case?

Geographical Background

The city of Tyre was built on a rocky island about half a mile from the mainland (in fact, the original city was a little way inland). It had a port on the north side and another on the south. A city also grew on the adjacent mainland, and according to three preserved letters this was called Ushu.

A Pheonician city, Tyre became very wealthy by trading throughout the Mediterranean. The variety of goods traded is actually recounted by Ezekiel in the Bible. Its island location allowed it to withstand several sieges. A couple of centuries after Ezekiel's time it was eventually breached by Alexander the Great (in 332 BC), who built a causeway from the mainland to the island, and it was later captured by both the Saracens and the Crusaders. There is still a city there today (the fourth largest in Lebanon), and the northern port is still in use, though the island is now connected to the mainland, and the southern port has silted up.

See also here and here.

Political Background

Prior to Ezekiel's prophecies, the Assyrian empire was in decline, and Nebuchadnezzar II was able to defeat them (and their allies the Egyptions) in 605 BC at Carchemish, the year before he was made King of Babylon.

From here:
After Carchemish, Nebuchadnezzar II campaigned throughout most of Philistia, completely destroying every city in his path. Unfortunately for Philistia and Judah, they failed to recognize the strength of the Babylonians and had decided to ally themselves with Egypt for protection. Despite several pleas for help, the Egyptians never responded.
Judah later surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar II, but then rebelled and were forced to surrender again, leading to the Babylonian exile. Failing to learn anything, and again at Egypt's prompting, Judah rebelled, and this time Nebuchadnezzar razed the city, flattening both the palace and the First Temple in 586 BC.

It was the following year that Nebuchadnezzar turned his attention to Tyre. He laid siege for 13 years, and it looks as though eventually a compromise was made, and Tyre agreed to pay tribute. Although the city on the mainland was devastated, Nebuchadnezzar never captured the island of Tyre.

See also here.

Biblical Background

Ezekiel was one of the priestly caste that was exiled to Babylon. It was there that he started to prophecise, and he seems to have specialised in prophecising the destruction of cities. Most of chapters 1 to 24 are predicting the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem. Remember, he had already lived though Nebuchadnezzar besieging Jerusalem twice, and neither ended well. Chapter 24 indicates that the third seige was underway at this time.
Ezekiel 24:2 “Son of man, record this date, this very date, because the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem this very day.
So Ezekiel is predicting the destruction of Jerusalem when it is besieged for the third time by a king with a history of levelling captured cities. Prophecy? Or bleeding obvious?

I would suggest that rather than prophecising, Ezekiel was rationalising why his God would allow the great city of his chosen people to fall to a gentile king.

Chapter 25 prophecises the destruction of Ammon, then the destruction of Moab, then the destruction of Edom, and then Philistia. In each case, Ezekiel says the destruction will be because of the way these cities treated Judah, but the reality is that destruction was coming anyway because that was Nebuchadnezzar's plan, and he was in the habit of razing cities to the ground.

The Prophecy of Tyre

The destruction of Tyre is predicted in chapter 26. Again, this is justified because of some offence Tyre has commited against Judah. The problem with the prophecy is that Nebuchadnezzar never actually conquered the city, so the prophecised destruction failed to appear.

This is no matter for Biblicists - it is enough for them that it happened eventually. In 332 BC, some 253 years later. Think about that for a moment. The Bible is clear that this destruction is because Tyre profited from the destruction of Jerusalem:
Ezekial 26:2 “Son of man, because Tyre has said of Jerusalem, ‘Aha! The gate to the nations is broken, and its doors have swung open to me; now that she lies in ruins I will prosper,’
How can it make any sense to deliver this punishment 253 years later? All those involved were long dead by then.

What Ezekiel prophecised was that Tyre would be attacked by Nebuchadnezzar, but Nebuchadnezzar had already attacked and razed numerous cities, so this was a safe bet. Sure, Ezekiel throws in some details about horses and siegeworks, but this is a guy who has lived through two of Nebuchadnezzar's sieges personally. He knows what they are like. There is nothing remarkable there.

"He" versus "they"

Some commentators have made a big deal about the use of "they" to refer to many nations and "he" to refer to Nebuchadnezzar. Okay, fair enough. But does that mean that destruction 253 years later is really what Ezekiel meant? Not if this was done to punish the peoople living there and then.
Ezekial 26:3 therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against you, Tyre, and I will bring many nations against you, like the sea casting up its waves. 4 They will destroy the walls of Tyre and pull down her towers; I will scrape away her rubble and make her a bare rock.
In fact, chapter 27, a lament for Tyre, mentions numerous nations that Tyre traded with. Macedon, the home of Alexander the Great, is not mentioned. This is not a prediction of attacks by Macedons, Saracens and Crusaders over the next thousand years or so - this is a warning that Tyre's trading partners will not help the city when it is under seige  - presumably an analogy to Tyre not helping Jerusalem when that city was under siege, and presumably they did in fact help Tyre, given the city survived for thirteen years.

A Ramp

Most translations mention a ramp:
Ezekiel 26:8 He will ravage your settlements on the mainland with the sword; he will set up siege works against you, build a ramp up to your walls and raise his shields against you.
Could this be a reference to the causeway built by Alexander the Great? The short answer is no. The "he" refered to here is clearly Nebuchadnezzar (and not "they", which might just be twisted to refer to Alexander the Great). This is a reference to siegeworks, presumably standard procedure by Nebuchadnezzar, as seen by Ezekiel during the sieges of Jerusalem.

God admits defeat

Later, Ezekiel was forced to acknowledge that Nebuchadnezzar had failed to raze Tyre, and puts a curious spin on it:
Ezekial 29:17 In the twenty-seventh year, in the first month on the first day, the word of the Lord came to me: 18 “Son of man, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon drove his army in a hard campaign against Tyre; every head was rubbed bare and every shoulder made raw. Yet he and his army got no reward from the campaign he led against Tyre. 19 Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am going to give Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he will carry off its wealth. He will loot and plunder the land as pay for his army. 20 I have given him Egypt as a reward for his efforts because he and his army did it for me, declares the Sovereign Lord.
Clearly it is not God's fault that Nebuchadnezzar failed, after all God is only all-powerful, sometimes that is just not enough. But God does reward Nebuchadnezzar for his troubles. This is the same Nebuchadnezzar who exiled 3000 Jews to Babylon, and destroyed and looted the First Temple, remember, so kind of odd that God would feel so good about him.

Is it possible that Ezekiel is trying to rationalise away Nebuchadnezzar's success in Egypt?


Naturally I could be wrong about some or all of this. It is impossible to know quite what happened so long ago. But one thing I am sure of, Ezekiel's prophecy is a very poor argument for Christianity.

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