The book of Ezekiel speaks to a group of deportees taken to Babylonia in 597 BCE, where they were resettled in the ancient equivalent of a rural refugee camp. The book depicts a community made up largely of former residents from Jerusalem, which Ezekiel overwhelmingly calls ‘Israel’. The book is in many ways a strange one: highly repetitive, full of fantastic imagery, disturbing in its image of the deity, obsessed with the homeland, compulsively focused on the past, and exceedingly anxious about apostasy.
Many of these features can be made sense of by bringing Ezekiel into conversation with modern social-scientific research on involuntary migrations, together with new information about the circumstances of Ezekiel’s deportee community in Babylonia. In the latter case, it is important that that the Babylonians tended to resettle deported population groups according to geographical origin, in rural parts of the countryside that the Babylonians wished to develop for their own economic gain. So, the king and his family were taken to the capital and kept in the palace, but the majority of the deportees from Jerusalem were not.
This is significant because migrant communities respond to displacement differently depending on the circumstances in which they are resettled: whereas urban, cosmopolitan environments tend to encourage migrants to integrate with their host communities, rural, mono-ethnic environments favour the development of more isolationist survival strategies, which view group identity in exclusivist terms and perceive interaction with the host society as highly dangerous.
Such tendencies are quite apparent in Ezekiel: interactions with outsiders—especially those that lead to the worship of gods other than YHWH—are repeatedly blamed for Jerusalem’s defeat, eventual destruction, and the deportation or death of its inhabitants. This is part of a narration of Israelite history that views the Israelite past in highly negative terms: the most sustained and most famous example occurs in chapter 20, in which Ezekiel recounts a history of Israelite sin that goes all the way back to Egypt. The grim narratives of Jerusalem’s misdeeds in Ezek 16 and 23 also participate in this historicising imperative, and in its identification of foreign influences as the root cause of Israel’s demise.
Israel’s sinful past also explains why Israel no longer lives in its land. The importance of this issue is highlighted by several unique phrases, including ‘homeland of Israel’, ‘hill country of Israel’, ‘high hill of Israel’. Ezekiel uses this language in a vociferous rhetorical battle over the land, insisting that the deportees retain their right to the land, even though they no longer live in it.
These kinds of disputes are some of the most intractable long-term problems produced by involuntary displacements, as land and other property are contested between those who have vacated their homes under some form of duress and those who occupy them in their absence. Palestinian claims to land now populated by Israelis are perhaps the most well-known modern example, but the same issue continues to frustrate discussions of Greek and Turkish claims over Cyprus. Thinking in terms of deportee identity, it is notable that migrant identities can effectively coalesce around such conflicts: Ezekiel’s repeated assertion of the deportees’ claim to the land are part and parcel of its attempts to re-establish a stable Israelite identity, one that is grounded firmly in the dirt of the homeland.
Indeed, Ezekiel’s repeated invocations of the homeland respond, fundamentally, to the deportees’ need for grounding and stability. Whether we are aware of it or not, our sense of self and sense of community are deeply knit into the fabric of our physical surroundings. These are denied when people are displaced. Ezekiel’s assertions of a persistent Israelite attachment to the homeland are designed to counteract the geographical and social turmoil experienced by the migrant community at Chebar. Ezekiel’s references to ‘the homeland of Israel’ are, more literally, references to Israel’s dirt—the earth and the soil of the homeland. The deportees no longer live on that land, and may never return to it, but memories of and claims to it root them in the promise of its physical persistence.
For more, see C. L. Crouch, Israel and Judah Redefined: Trauma and Empire in the Sixth Century BCE. Society for Old Testament Study Monograph Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021.
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