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I was recently reading another Q&A about Ezekiel's attitude toward his appointment as prophet. I quote from the answer there:

Daniel Block comments on the week in which Ezekiel sat stunned and bitter,

Ezekiel is infuriated by the divine imposition on his life and the implications of Yahweh's commission for him... The prophet does indeed share some of the hardened disposition of his compatriots.

The characterization of Ezekiel as stunned and bitter and the commentator's assessment that he is infuriated by the divine imposition seem to rest on 3:14-15:

The Spirit lifted me up and took me away, and I went in bitterness in the heat of my spirit, the hand of the LORD being strong upon me. And I came to the exiles at Tel-abib, who were dwelling by the Chebar canal, and I sat where they were dwelling. And I sat there overwhelmed among them seven days. (ESV)

The word overwhelmed (alternatively: astonished, stunned, distraught) is מַשְׁמִים (mašmîm) a hifil participle from √šmm "to be devastated". That would be fine if it were qal or some passive form, but the hifil seems to elsewhere1 carry the expected nuance of causation. HALOT (שמם, hif.):

  1. to cause to be deserted, cause to be desolated...
  2. to cause people to be dumbfounded... [cites Ezk. 3:15]

My hangup is that this seems to need an object,2 and the idea doesn't really reflect the emotional status of the subject. The NASB is unusual in offering causing consternation, which makes sense to me.

How do translations arrive at overwhelmed (etc.), and is that the most likely meaning?


1. The hifil occurs 17 times in the HB; 5 are in Ezekiel. In addition to the text in question:
20:26 (that I might devastate);
30:12 (I will bring desolation);
30:14 (I wil make...a desolation);
32:10 (I will make [people]...appalled).

2. According to my brief survey of the 17 hifil forms in the HB, 14 have some complement — a direct object or עַל־ (never -בְּ as follows here). The exceptions are Ezk. 3:15, Num. 21:30 (“laid waste”), and Job 21:5 (“be appalled”). The Numbers example seems like a plausible intransitive counterpart to the usual meaning; Job 21:5 seems like it might be similar to Ezk. 3:15.

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The Idea in Brief

Ezekiel was despondent, which appears to be the meaning of the ESV translation "overwhelmed." That is, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to prophesy, but he was despondent for several days, which left the exiles in silence.

Discussion

First, the verb מַשְׁמִים (mašmîm) is a hifil participle from šmm "to lie deserted; to lie stiff (with fear); to be terrified". This verb has an objective and subjective aspect. As will be seen later in this discussion, the participle is intransitive and thus the perspective is subjective: that is, Ezekiel was despondent, and this despondency resulted in complete silence. The following excerpt comes from the Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament. Please click on the citation to enlarge.

enter image description here

The full citation provides more information on other aspects of this verb.

Ezekiel appears to have been despondent and thus remained quiet, which is subjective aspect. This particular perspective also comes from several Jewish sources that comment on this particular passage from the Hebrew Bible. That is, these Jewish sources would have been familiar with the Hebrew texts at hand, and therefore qualified to provide relevant insights.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi)

Rashi was a Jewish scholar from medieval times who commented and elucidated the meaning of the Talmud and Hebrew Bible, and so his works remain a centerpiece of contemporary Jewish study today. His comments on the verse appear below courtesy of the chabad.org website.

bewildered: Heb. מַשְּׁמִים, bewildered, a man silenced and unable to speak.

In other words, Rashi took this word to mean that Ezekiel was despondent, which finds support in the relevant Targum as well.

The Targum Jonathan to the Prophets

This particular Targum appeared as early as the second or third century of the current era, and was the paraphrase Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible read in the Synagogue. The following is the relevant portion of the Targum with the proposed translation which follows. Please note the highlighted portion in yellow.

enter image description here

Proposed Translation

14 And the Spirit carried and took me, and I went in bitterness in the rage of my spirit, and prophesying from before the Lord had prevailed upon me.
15 Then I came to the sons of the exile at Tel-Aviv, who were sitting near the River Chebar, and I moved among them. They were sitting there, and I sat there seven days remaining silent among them.

The Aramaic word highlighted in yellow is שׁתק, which appears as an active participle (masculine singular) in the peal stem. That is, the word means remaining silent. This meaning is consistent with the commentary from Rashi.

Rabbi David Altshuler

Rabbi Altshuler was an 18th century scholar who wrote commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. He wrote on difficult words and phrases and their meanings. The following is his commentary on this particular word in Ezekiel courtesy of sefaria.org website.

enter image description here

The translation appears to be:

METSUDAT ZION ON EZEKIEL
מַשְׁמִים: The misery of their wonder and silence was just like the one of the magicians at that one time (Daniel 4).

This perspective also assumes an objective aspect. In other words, in the Book of Daniel the magicians were despondent concerning the visions of King Nebuchadnezzar, who himself was at a loss of words concerning the meaning of his dreams. The logic here is that the exiles at the River Chebar (in similar fashion) were despondent at the silence of Ezekiel, who was "at a loss of words" concerning his own recent visions of divine revelation.

Summary

This brief survey addressed the meaning of this Hebrew verb in light of perspectives from Rashi, the Targum, and one recent rabbinic scholar. That is, the Hebrew word מַשְׁמִים is best understood in as a causative participle with an explicit objective sense; however, there appears an implicit subjective sense as well in the context.

Therefore the subjective sense is explicit: Ezekiel was despondent for seven days. The objective sense however is implicit: the exiles were despondent at his silence.

  • Thanks, Joseph, this is helps a lot. Just to be clear, this would mean that the initial translation offered in the question (ESV, though it looks like I forgot to specify) is incorrect, right? Because “I sat there....overwhelmed” indicates that it describes Ezekiel, but you’re saying it’s about the exiles? – Susan Jul 1 '15 at 11:28
  • Also, it’s a singular participle, and I think Rashi is saying it describes Ezekiel’s bewilderment. The Targum uses a different descriptor of Ezekiel as “silent” that makes more sense as something that would cause the exiles to be dumbfounded (per Rabbinic commentary). But I’m not getting that from Rashi (or, honestly, from the Hebrew text, but I accept the value of the Targum). – Susan Jul 1 '15 at 11:33
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    That’s fine as an interpretation of what was going on, but I’m still unclear on the text+translation of Ezekiel. If šmm means ”to be devastated" and mašmîm means “causing to be devastated”, then the translation of the ESV (and others) “I sat there overwhelmed” is incorrect. Yes? That’s my basic question. (I’d still like to know how the translators got there, but at least being explicit that this interpretation is inconsistent with that translation would be a good starting place.) – Susan Jul 1 '15 at 12:37
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    Thanks! (already had my +1) “...and the text of Ezek 3:15 is also disputed (cf. comms.)” (from your lexicon picture) - hmm... You don’t need to go there, but are you able to tell me what “comms.” is? – Susan Jul 1 '15 at 20:33

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