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Ezekiel 26

Chapter 26


Since the accuracy of this prophecy is a subject of controversy among some scholars, I will begin with a brief history of the events leading up to and surrounding Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Tyre.  The controversy stems from the claim that the Babylonians never conquered Tyre as Ezekiel said they would.  My principal sources for this history are the Bible and The Story of Phoenicia by George Rawlinson (former Camden Professor of Ancient History at The University of Oxford, and corresponding member of The Royal Academy of Turin).  The essence of my theory for interpreting the prophecy is in the notes for 29:17.

609 B.C. Pharaoh Neco  conquered Judah, deposed Jehoahaz, king of Judah, and picked Jehoahaz’s brother, Eliakim, (who subsequently changed his name to Jehoiakim)  to reign in his place (Rawlinson 165, 2nd Kings 23:31-35).  For the next three years, Egypt controlled Judah, Phoenicia, and Syria (Rawlinson 166).

605 B.C. The Babylonians (by means of Nebuchadnezzar’s army) took Syria, Phoenicia, and Judah from Egypt and accepted the submission of the kings of these states, allowing them to retain their thrones as his vassals.  Thus, Jehoiakim was still king of Judah (Rawlinson 166-168).

602 B.C. Jehoiakim, with the encouragement of Egypt, rebelled against Babylonian rule, declaring himself to be an independent king (Rawlinson 168, 2nd Kings 24:1).

598 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar brought a massive army into Syria and laid siege to Jerusalem.  Jehoiakim seems to have died, and his eighteen year old son, Jehoiakin, may have been king for about three months by this point.  It was Jehoiakin who surrendered Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar.  Nebuchadnezzar replaced him with Zedekiah, the youngest son of Josiah (and thus Jehoiakin’s uncle).  Then the Babylonians lead Jehoiakin away captive into Babylon  (2nd Kings 24:8-12).  This is the year from which Ezekiel is dating his prophecy in 26:1.  Thus, when he says, “In the eleventh year…, “he means in the eleventh year since Jehoiakin’s exile to Babylon.

588 B.C. January 15 (qtd. in Greenberg 496) Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem again in response to Zedekiah’s rebellion against him (2nd Kings 25:1).

587-586 B.C. “The eleventh year” since Jehoiakin’s exile (Greenberg 529, Zimmerli 33).  In the fifth month (Keil 371) of the eleventh year after Jehoiakin’s exile, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed.   At some point later that same year, Tyre rejoiced over the news that Jerusalem had been destroyed; then, on the first day of some later month in that same year, the LORD delivered the prophetic message of chapter 26 to Ezekiel, who was among the captives in Babylon.

585 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar’s thirteen year siege of Tyre begins.[1] Tyre “was a double city, consisting of two towns, locally distinct, but politically united, one on the mainland, called in later times Palae-tyrus, the other on an island off the coast.  Nebuchadnezzar’s first attack was, naturally on the continental town” (Rawlinson169).   Rawlinson goes on to say that we cannot know how long this siege of continental Tyre lasted, but adds that it lasted, “[P]robably for a very considerable time, since it is more likely that ‘heads were made bald and shoulders peeled’ [Ezekiel 29:18] in the siege of the continental town than in the blockade of the island fortress” (Rawlinson 170).  This siege was successful, and, as Rawlinson notes (169-171), there is no reason to believe that Ezekiel’s description of the sacking of the town (26:8-11) is inaccurate.

571-572 B.C. “The twenty-seventh year” (29:17) since Jehoiakin’s exile.  The conquest of Tyre ended with the capitulation of Island Tyre.  To justify his claim that Island Tyre “must have” surrendered on terms, Rawlinson writes,

Her surrender, though not distinctly stated by any historian, is implied, first, in the very fact of the termination of the siege, for it is inconceivable that the great Babylonian monarch, then at the zenith of his power, should have submitted to be baffled by a little knot of merchants established on an isle not a mile long; and secondly, by the position which she thenceforth occupied towards Babylon, which was evidently one of dependency.  She became an object of hostility to Egypt, Babylon’s rival … and she drew her kings from the hostages which she was compelled to send to the Babylonian court.  … She was not allowed to build her suburb upon the mainland (Palae-tyrus), which remained in ruins to the time of Alexander.  … It was inevitable that, in a contest where a single city, however ‘ancient, spirited, wealthy, and intelligent,’ was pitted against an empire which counted its population by tens of millions, the city should succumb…. (173-174)

Rawlinson goes on to argue convincingly that, while the army which Nebuchadnezzar brought from Babylon was geared to wage a land battle rather than a naval one, the Babylonian king could easily have had the means to force Island Tyre to surrender.  He notes that “the real trust of Nebuchadnezzar was, no doubt, first, in his ability to collect a powerful fleet from the other Phoenician cities, which had already submitted to him; and, secondly, in the pressure which he could exert on Tyre by the occupation of all her territory except the island” (172-173).  Amélie Kuhrt also concludes that Tyre fell to Babylon, writing that the proud island city “was incorporated into the Babylonian imperial system sometime after its [Tyre’s] fall[2]” (591).  And H.W.F. Saggs, in his The Greatness That Was Babylon, simply writes that “the city of Tyre was finally taken in 571 B.C. and a Babylonian provincial administration set up there” (143).  The debate over the accuracy of Ezekiel’s prophecy concerning Tyre, therefore, does not usually focus on whether or not Babylon conquered Tyre; the majority of historians appear to concede that Babylon did conquer Tyre.  The debate concerns the manner in which Ezekiel said Babylon would conquer the city.  Those who believe that the prophecy fails as a prediction of the future point out that Ezekiel says that Tyre will be annihilated (26:14), but it was not.  They also note that, in the same verse, he says Tyre will never be rebuilt, but it has been rebuilt, even after Alexander’s violent conquest. And finally, they interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s failure to take plunder from the city (Ezekiel 29:18) as a contradiction of 26:12.  For my own interpretation of these points, see the notes in the corresponding verses.

v. 4: I believe that there are two reasonable ways of interpreting whom “they” signifies here (and, thus, who the “many nations” of v. 3 are).  One is that it refers to Babylon and its client nations.  The other is that it refers to all the nations who have ruled/conquered Tyre over the years (Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Arabs, the Franks, etc.).  I believe it refers to the latter.  For my reasons, see notes on v. 12.

Vs. 7-11: These verses, which clearly refer to Nebuchadnezzar, describe a successful siege conducted against a land-based city, i.e., Palae-tyrus or mainland Tyre.  Weapons such as battering rams, chariots, siege works, ramps, movable towers, etc. would not have been used in an attack on Island Tyre; therefore, these verses do not describe such an attack.  As Rawlinson notes, “All the methods of land warfare would have been inapplicable” to the attack on the island portion of Tyre (171).  Nina Jidejian confirms this opinion, writing that “much of this [vs. 7-14] refers to the siege of the mainland city” (54).

v. 12: There are two ways of interpreting whom “they” signifies here.  One is that it refers to Nebuchadnezzar’s men.  In the isolated context of this prophecy, I cannot see anything particularly unreasonable in this interpretation.   However, the second way, which interprets “they” as a reference to all the nations who have ruled/conquered Tyre over the years (Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Arabs, the Franks, etc.), seems more reasonable to me.  I do not believe this verse refers to Nebuchadnezzar/Babylon because the statement “they will take your wealth as spoil” does not describe Nebuchadnezzar’s experience of conquering the city, whereas everything leading up to this shift from “he” to “they” does describe Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of the city (see notes on vs. 7-11).  Given the fact that Ezekiel does not treat subsequent statements like “he and his army received no compensation from Tyre” (29:17) as a contradiction of this prophecy, I do not believe he ever intended for 26:12 to refer to Nebuchadnezzar.  If he had actually meant for this verse to refer to the Babylonians specifically, he would have had to defend himself against so glaring a contradiction, but he never does this.  (See also notes on 29:17.)  Therefore, I believe he refers here to all the nations who have conquered Tyre over the years, since this interpretation allows the plundering to be something which these conquering nations accomplish collectively rather than (necessarily) the work of Babylon alone.  This conclusion allows me, in turn, to see the “many nations” of v. 3 as a reference to these same conquering nations.

If such an unannounced shift in pronoun reference (i.e., the shift from “he” = Nebuchadnezzar to “they” = subsequent conquering nations) seems too disjointed to be believed, note what Daniel does in Daniel 11:9-11. In v. 9, “the king of the south” is Ptolemy III, but in v. 11 it is Ptolemy IV, and there is no hint in the narrative itself that the reference has changed.  If one could not tell from history that v. 11 is talking about another “king of the south,” there would be no way of knowing that this latter king is different from the former.  Such unannounced shifts in reference are a stylistic feature of prophecy; at least Ezekiel provides us with a new pronoun, a plural one, when he makes the reference shift from “Nebuchadnezzar” to “the many nations.”

v. 14: This verse has proven to be the most problematic for those who believe that Ezekiel’s prophecy predicts the future.  Tyre has been rebuilt and exists as a city even today.  Still, I genuinely believe that the key to understanding what Ezekiel meant in this chapter is in the fact that he never addresses any contradiction between the events of his own day and this prophecy.  In order to retain his credibility as a prophet, Ezekiel would have had to address any contradictions (real or perceived) between this prophecy and the actual facts of the siege.  Since he does not do this, I conclude that he saw no contradictions.  This, then, convinces me that one should interpret this prophecy in a way that does not contradict the actual events of Ezekiel’s day (events which Ezekiel’s critics would have been pleased to point out and which would have discredited the prophet in the eyes of most of his followers).

Of course, his contemporaries would not have survived long enough into the future to see Tyre’s subsequent incarnations and thus call his prophecy into question as moderns can when they note that Tyre was rebuilt, but at least they could have noted that the island was never annihilated to begin with (a critical first step in never being rebuilt).  If Ezekiel meant for Nebuchadnezzar to be the instrument by which God made Tyre into a “bare rock,” and if Nebuchadnezzar did not reduce the island of Tyre to such a condition, then I believe the prophet would have felt compelled to address this contradiction.  Since he does not address it, I suspect that he neither saw a contradiction nor perceived that his audience would see one.

Therefore, if the actions of this verse apply to Nebuchadnezzar, they must be examples of hyperbole, or poetic exaggeration, which Ezekiel’s audience would not have interpreted literally.  If this is the case, saying that Tyre would be a bare rock or that it would never be rebuilt would be an exaggerated way of saying that Tyre would be conquered and humiliated by Nebuchadnezzar.  If, in fact, Tyre did not literally suffer annihilation, Ezekiel’s contemporaries would not have seen this as a contradiction of the prophecy so long as they understood the prophet to be hyperbolic.  For instance, if somebody says, “That man is as strong as a gorilla,” what he really means is that the man is very strong, not that the man would literally win an arm wrestling competition with a gorilla.  Nobody would truly consider this statement to be false, even if in fact such a completion were arranged and the man lost his arm over it.  It is only false if the man’s strength is not remarkably greater than that of the average man.   So here, Ezekiel’s statement is false only if Nebuchadnezzar never conquered and humiliated Tyre.  Below are some other examples of hyperbole in the Bible.

Certain Benjamites “could sling stones at a hair and not miss” (Judges 20:16).  In other words, they were exceptionally good with slings.

In John 12:19, the Pharisees say, “Look how the world has gone after him,” but they mean only that an alarming number of people are following Jesus.

King Solomon was said to have “made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones…” (1st Kings 10:27), which is another way of saying that Jerusalem enjoyed extraordinary prosperity under Solomon.

Speaking of King Hezekiah, the writer of 2nd Kings 18:5 writes that “after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor any who were before him.”  Just a few chapters later in the same book, the writer is describing King Josiah.  He writes, “Now before him there was no king like him…nor after him did any arise like him” (23:25).  If one interprets these verses literally, they must contradict each other, but, of course, the writer here is not speaking literally.  He is using a hyperbolic figure of speech, an exaggerated way of saying that these were great kings.

[1] Both Brandon Fredenburg and Nina Jidejian date the siege from 585-572 B.C.  I am following this date (as opposed to Rawlinson’s, which has the beginning of the siege in 598 B.C.) because 26:7 seems to treat the siege as a future event (relative to 587-586 B.C.) and because the prophecy of 29:17 (dated at 572 B.C.) seems likely to have been given fairly soon after Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Tyre.

[2] Emphasis mine.


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