Bible to Life | Roger Wyatt
bringing the Bible to life through a study of the past
by Roger Wyatt | 4th October 2021 | more posts on 'Getting to grips with the Prophets'| 0
Photograph: Lebanese Ruins by Boris UIzibat - Pexels
A reading of Ezekiel 26

The opening prophecy against Tyre, found in Ezekiel 26, has a clear date stamp in its superscription: ‘In the eleventh month of the twelfth year, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came to me’ (Ezekiel 26:1); placing the prophecy to just over six months after the fall of Jerusalem during Shebat 585. The prophecy itself correlates well to the declared date and in verse two the text reads, ‘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”, 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’ (Ezekiel 26:2). The ‘many nations’ to come against Tyre would, in the first instance, be none other than the forces of Nebuchadnezzar, to be followed two centuries later by those of Alexander the Great. The city would go on to suffer many more sieges after these, like wave after wave of attackers crashing against the walls of Tyre; the image that the LORD was no doubt wanting to evoke in those who would hear Ezekiel’s message. Whilst there is a significant amount of documentary evidence for the siege of Alexander in 332, outside of Ezekiel’s prophecies little historical information exists concerning the extended campaign of Nebuchadnezzar; the Babylonian attack on Tyre does receive some attention in Josephus’ work ‘Against Apion’, but it is best described as cursory. Indeed, Josephus’ main source was the now lost history of Tyre, composed by the early 2nd century BCE historian Menander of Ephesus, whom the Jewish historiographer quotes in Apion 1:21: ‘Nabuchodonosor besieged Tyre for thirteen years, in the days of Ithobal, their King. After him reigned Baal, ten years’. Assuming the siege commenced in the spring of 585, the typical starting season of the campaigns of the Babylonians, the city would not fall until the year 573; an extraordinary display of military perseverance unparalleled in the ancient world. Additionally, it is a year of particular significance within the prophecies of Ezekiel for it coincides with the late temple visions of the prophet found in Ezekiel 40-48. As such, the prophecies take on a larger eschatological and prophetic scope than the immediate fall of the city.

Ushu, or Old Tyre (Gk. Palaetyrus), was the mainland part of the city of Tyre and it would have been at the walls of the Old City that Nebuchadnezzar’s campaign commenced. Although, the extended length of the siege indicates that the king of Babylon, after the destruction of Old Tyre, may have turned his military attention to the island part of the city; the Phoenicians had renown as a maritime people and, as such, the Tyrians boasted a powerful navy, long established trade relations with other Mediterranean powers, and were therefore able to resupply the island during the siege. The text of Ezekiel structurally oscillates between the ‘he’ of Nebuchadnezzar and the ‘they’ of the nations – a literary device that helps sequence the events described into two historical moments. With this in mind, verses seven to eleven are clearly rooted in events unfolding in the imminent 585-573 siege: ‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: From the north I am going to bring against Tyre Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses and chariots, with horsemen and a great army’. The prophetic text continues in verses eight and nine with a reference to the ravaging of the settlements on the mainland (Old Tyre) and the construction of siege ramps: ‘he will set up siege works against you, build a ramp up to your walls and raise his shields against you. He will direct the blows of his battering rams against your walls and demolish your towers with his weapons’. The text in the Hebrew is far more suggestive of an extended ‘land siege’ than the English translation conveys: וְנָתַן עָלַיִךְ דָּיֵק וְשָׁפַךְ עָלַיִךְ סֹֽלְלָה וְהֵקִים עָלַיִךְ צִנָּה (wenatan alayiḵ dayeq wešap̄aḵ alayiḵ solelah wehqim alayiḵ ṣinnah lit. and he will heap up against you a siege mound and build against you a wall and raise against you a defence). As such, it seems likely then that the description of the demolishment of Tyre by Nebuchadnezzar’s forces, primarily relates to the destruction of the Old City. Indeed, verse ten describes the arrival of Nebuchadnezzar’s army, the breaching of the wall, and the fall of the city: ‘His horses will be so many that they will cover you with dust. Your walls will tremble at the noise of the warhorses, wagons and chariots when he enters your gates as men enter a city whose walls have been broken through. The hooves of his horses will trample all your streets; he will kill your people with the sword, and your strong pillars will fall to the ground’ (Ezekiel 26:10-11). These verses balance perfectly with the opening declaration of Yahweh, and for her prideful boasting and gloating over the desolation of Jerusalem the city of Tyre would suffer the same fate. Certainly, during the extended campaigns of Nebuchadnezzar into the Levant those that did not accept Neo-Babylonian vassalage paid the ultimate price of desolation. It is a moment also described in the prophecies of Isaiah, and the prophet declares that Tyre was destined to remain desolate for a period of seventy years: ‘At that time Tyre will be forgotten for seventy years, the span of a king’s life’ (Isaiah 23:15). At the end of the seventy years Isaiah 23:17 records, ‘the LORD will deal with Tyre’. What the NIV translates as ‘deal with Tyre’ יִפְקֹד יְהוָה אֶת־צֹר (yip̄qoḏ Yahweh et-ṣor), is perhaps better rendered as ‘will visit Tyre’ or ‘will muster Tyre’, and conveys the meaning of the city being called forth for a particular divine purpose. Indeed, Isaiah goes on in the same verse to announce that ‘she will return to her lucrative prostitution and will ply her trade with all the kingdoms on the face of the earth’ (Isaiah 23:17). It seems likely then, that the seventy year period followed the final desolation of Tyre in 573 and, as the city did, the text reveals that Tyre would return to her position in the ancient world as a significant centre of trade and commerce.

Whilst the reader could be forgiven for thinking that the events of verse twelve describe events of the same historical moment found in verse eleven, in fact over two centuries may separate the verses. The ‘he’ of the preceding verse has become once more the ‘they’ of the nations who, Ezekiel has already been informed in verse four, ‘will destroy the walls of Tyre and pull down her towers’. The now personified city is told that the coming attacker ‘will plunder your wealth and loot your merchandise; they will break down your walls and demolish your fine houses and throw your stones, timber and rubble into the sea’. Such were the exploits of Alexander the Great (who may have been more motivated by the desire to plunder Tyre than history records) when he arrived at the walls of Tyre during his 332 campaign in events described by the 1 BCE Greek historian, Diodorus of Sicily. In book seventeen of his great work Bibliotheke Historike Diodorus recounts, ‘In Phoenicia, he accepted the submission of all the other cities, whose inhabitants readily gave him a favourable reception, except for Tyre’ (Book 17 § 40:2). The text continues to record how Alexander wished to sacrifice to ‘Tyrian Heracles’ after the great battle of Issus against Darius III. The Tyrians refused him entrance as they ‘wanted to please Darius and show him how unwavering their loyalty was to him’ (Book 17 § 40:3), they also anticipated, according to Diodorus, being greatly rewarded. Alexander, unwilling to suffer the Tyrian contempt ‘immediately set about demolishing Old Tyre, as it was called, and he had men in their tens of thousands carry stones with which to build a causeway, two plethora wide’ (Book 17 § 40:5). The causeway ‘advanced with surprising rapidity’ (Book 17 § 41:1) and after a siege of ‘seven months’ (Book 17 § 46:5) Alexander assaulted the city from land and sea, breached the wall, and personally crossed the parapets over a gangplank: ‘Nevertheless, the Tyrians fought a defensive battle, and with cries of encouragement to one another they barricaded the streets, but only a few of them survived the fighting, and more than seven thousand were cut down’ (Book 17 § 46:3). The fate of the inhabitants of the city who had dared to defy the Macedonian leader was severe and their treatment would serve as a warning to the world: ‘Alexander sold the children and women into slavery and crucified all the men of military age, who numbered at least two thousand’ (Book 17 § 46:4) – Alexander then proceeded to depose the king and left one of his generals and closest friends, Hephaestion, to appoint a new one.

To add to the complexity of the two historical events interlaced within the same text, a third prophetic scheme can be detected (signified by the use of ‘I’, to indicate something that Yahweh was going to do) - typical of the prophetic literature the two historic “falls of Tyre” foreshadow an end-time apocalyptic event, theologically commensurate with the fall of Babylon. In fact, verses four to six hold all three prophetic time-zones in balance, namely, the scrapping of Tyre (apocalyptic) the plundering of Tyre (Alexander’s conquest) and the ravaging of the mainland (Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion):

‘I will scrape away her rubble and make her a bare rock. Out in the sea she will become a place to spread fishnets, for I have spoken, declares the Sovereign LORD. She will become plunder for the nations, and her settlements on the mainland will be ravaged by the sword. Then they will know that I am the LORD.’ (Ezekiel 26:4b-6)

There is no implication that during either the sieges of Nebuchadnezzar or Alexander Tyre was ‘scrapped clean’ (סָחָה saḥah), moreover the spreading of fishermen’s nets is an image to feature in the vision of Ezekiel 47 in which the prophet sees fishermen along the shore of a revitalised Dead Sea: ‘from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets מִשְׁטוֹחַ לַֽחֲרָמִים (mištowaḥ laḥaramim)’ (Ezekiel 47:10 cf. Ezekiel 26:5, 14). As such, the prophecies taken together represent two alternative visions of the future, the complete removal by Yahweh of Tyre as a centre of wickedness (in the end the city will just be a place for drying nets), and the restoration of the land of Israel as the home of righteousness and peace. The chapter completes by referencing this far off end of the city with a chilling description of Tyre’s ultimate end. Yahweh declares that he will desolate Tyre and ‘bring the oceans depths’ over her before bringing her down into the pit, ‘to the people of long ago’. Ezekiel then concludes the prophecy with the announcement, ‘“I will bring you to a horrible end and you will be no more. You will be sought, but you will never again be found,” declares the Sovereign LORD’ (Ezekiel 36:19-21).

If the text of Ezekiel, and indeed that of Isaiah, is to be taken at face value, Nebuchadnezzar’s campaign, and ultimate victory against Tyre, was far more dramatic than the history books have described it, it was an event equivalent in some way to the fall of Jerusalem - it would also be followed by a period of desolation lasting seventy years. It would not be the end of Tyre however, and as prophesised the city would prosper again. Even after Alexander’s definitive and cruel victory over the city Tyre soon recovered and indeed played an important role in the Wars of the Successors. As such, the return to her trade spoken of by Isaiah more likely belongs to the beginning of 4th century BCE. Finally, the descriptions of the reaction to the fall of Tyre found in verses fifteen to eighteen most probably reflect the reactions of varying elements of the three prophetic time zones who would witness the fall of the great city. Certainly, the coastlands of Ezekiel’s near future, who the prophet laments would tremble ‘on the day of your fall’ and be ‘terrified at your collapse’, did indeed face economic collapse:

‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says to Tyre: Will not the coastlands tremble at the sound of your fall, when the wounded groan and the slaughter takes place in you? Then all the princes of the coast will step down from their thrones and lay aside their robes and take off their embroidered garments. Clothed with terror, they will sit on the ground, trembling every moment, appalled at you.’ (Ezekiel 26:15)

The prophetic function of the city of Tyre in the writings of Ezekiel have a scope and reach that extends far beyond the immediate historical context into which the prophet was speaking. Although an important centre of commerce Tyre also boasted a rare religious history, claiming to be the birthplace of Europa (after whom Europe is named) – her father Agenor was the king of Tyre. The story of Europa was well known in the ancient world; she is seduced by Zeus, who had assumed the form of a white bull, and taken to the island of Crete (she is generally pictured, therefore, on the back of a bull). As such, in the book of Ezekiel, Tyre may prophetically function as a metonym for what would be lands to the north and west of the land of Palestine – that is, the land of Magog (see Ezekiel 38:1). It should also be noted in conclusion that this chapter has, throughout the history of its interpretation, been commonly dismissed as unhistorical because of Ezekiel’s statement ‘You will never be rebuilt’ (Ezekiel 26:14); Tyre clearly was rebuilt, over and over again. However, those that struggle to understand such statements fail to consider the pattern of biblical prophecy that always reaches towards the end time destiny of the kingdoms surrounding Israel. Tyre as such, when scrapped clean is presented by the prophet as an everlasting memorial to the cost of wickedness and the mistreatment of God’s people.

Not 586 as is commonly cited.
For a discussion of the idea see my work on Gog and Magog, in my collection of essays on the book of Ezekiel, ‘The Journey of Bones’.
The wages of her prostitution are destined to be given to God’s people. Probably a reference to the Tyrian shekel which was used the accepted currency for the payment of the temple tax.
Diodorus of Sicily. The Library, Books 16-20: Philp II, Alexander the Great, and the Successors. Waterfield, Robin (trans) (London: Oxford University Press: 2019), 112.
See my work on Gog and Magog, in my collection of essays on the book of Ezekiel, ‘The Journey of Bones’.
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“I see the branch of an almond tree,” I replied. The LORD said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled.” (Jeremiah 1:11-12 NIV)
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