ALTHOUGH EZEKIEL 41 (or, more precisely, Ezek. 40:48–41:26) is devoted to the description of the temple within the great vision of chapters 40–48, I shall focus attention here on how this chapter, indeed all nine of these chapters, should be interpreted. I shall survey two of the more important options here, and two more tomorrow.
(1) Some hold that this is Ezekiel’s vision of what should in fact be built once the exile has ended and some of the people return to the land. In that case chapter 41 provides specifications for the building. The strength of this view is that it follows up on the many passages in this book telling that the exile will end. Nevertheless one has to say that, read as building specs, this chapter is pretty thin (much less detailed, for instance, than the specifications either for the tabernacle or for the Solomonic temple). Moreover, chapter 41 must be read within the framework of chapters 40–48, and as we shall see, there are numerous features that cannot be taken literally. Certainly there is little evidence that those who built the second temple thought they were bound to follow Ezekiel’s guidelines.
(2) The mid-twentieth-century form of dispensationalism argued for a similar literalism, but held that the construction of the temple and the return of blood sacrifices and Levitical and Zadokite priesthood will take place in the millennium. The sacrifices would look back to the sacrifice of Christ in the same way that the Old Testament sacrifices looked forward. But it is very difficult to square this view with the theology of Hebrews. Moreover, there are many hints that these chapters should not be taken literally. The division of land (chaps. 47–48) is all but impossible for anyone who has seen the terrain. The impossible source and course of the river (Ezek. 47:1–12) strains credulity—and in any case both the temple and the river of life are given quite different interpretations in Revelation, the last book of the Bible. With the best will in the world it is difficult to see how the prescribed tribal purity of Levitical and Zadokite lines could be restored. Intervening records have been lost, so that no one could prove his descent from Aaron. Presumably a dispensationalist could argue that God could reveal the necessary information. But the point is that the tribes have been so mixed up across the centuries that they cannot be unscrambled. The problem is not one of information, but of mixed lines. Thus this interpretation, precisely because it deals with something at the end of time when the tribal lines are no longer differentiable, is even less credible than the previous one.
How, then, shall we interpret these chapters?