Back to Angles

Back to Angles

Pulp Prophet
With a .45 aimed at you, Ezekiel suddenly comes alive.

by David Holzel

  Nothing like a little Bible study over breakfast to start your day off right. A couple of guys delving into the eternal mysteries along with coffee and a muffin.

So what if they have guns pointed in each other's face and someone is most likely going to end up dead?

That's the educational environment presented in "Pulp Fiction," Quentin Tarantino's edgy exploration of ultimate issues. I've seen the film twice and the Torah hasn't looked the same since.
"And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers..."

There's this passage I got memorized -- Ezekiel 25:17," Jules Winnfield, the expletive-spouting gangster played by Samuel L. Jackson, explains at gunpoint to Pumpkin, a two-bit crook played by Tim Roth, whose robbery of a diner has disturbed Jules' breakfast.

"I been sayin' that s--- for years. I never really questioned what it meant. I thought it was just a cold-blooded thing to say to a m--f-- 'fore you popped a cap in his a--.

Jules is like many of us who view the Torah as an inaccessible relic. But with a .45 automatic trained at your frontal lobe, the need for understanding suddenly becomes more urgent. Suddenly the text comes alive and the average man finds himself a partner in revelation. Here is Jules' text:

"The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness. For he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children.

"And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you."

 Fire and brimstone, all right. This Ezekiel is a pulp prophet, his vision a sensationalist soliloquy from filmmaker Tarantino's muse, rather than the actual Hebrew Scriptures.

But if ever there were a prophet suited to "Pulp Fiction's" joyful excess, Ezekiel (Yechezkel in Hebrew) was it. Prophet of doom and consolation during Israel's first exile, Ezekiel's 48-chapter opus begins with his rococo vision of God's chariot. So powerful was the prophet's imagery that it became the starting point of Jewish mysticism.

Chapter 16 contains Ezekiel's lurid account of a nymphomaniacal adulteress. And in chapter 37, the book of Ezekiel's best-known episode, God shows the prophet a valley of dry bones and asks, "Son of man, can these bones live?" With his assured and eloquent pronouncement that the dead would live again, Ezekiel provided the Jewish people in its long exile the hope of being restored to life in Israel.

Compared to these, the original chapter 25 verse 17 is a rather tame promise of destruction against Israel's neighbors Ammon, Moab, Edom and the Philistines. It ends similarly to gangster Jules' version: "And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord when I shall lay my vengeance upon them."

Tarantino embroiders the prophecy with familiar biblical images of shepherds, the valley of darkness, brother's keepers, and selfish and evil men.

And so the scene is set: Jules' gun is pointed at Pumpkin. Pumpkin's girlfriend, Honey Bunny, is pointing her gun at Jules. And Jules' partner, Vincent, played by John Travolta, has his weapon aimed at Honey Bunny.

At this moment, Jules enters into some slick biblical hermeneutics. He considers his life of violence, and the miracle he believes he witnessed before breakfast that has made him give up crime. Ezekiel is now more than his segue to murder.

"Now I'm thinkin'," he tells Pumpkin, "it could mean you're the evil man. And I'm the righteous man. And Mr. .45 here [partner Vincent], he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness.

"Or it could be you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. I'd like that.

"But the truth is you're the weak and I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin'. I'm tryin' real hard to be a shepherd."

Everyone survives breakfast. Jules and Vincent slip out of the diner. And I go to look up Ezekiel 25:17.

Photo by Linda R. Chen / Miramax

Back to Angles