Judah’s History of Sin: The Not-Safe-For-Work Version   1 comment

Above:  Icon of Ezekiel

Image in the Public Domain

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READING EZEKIEL, PART IX

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Ezekiel 16:1-63

Ezekiel 20:1-44

Ezekiel 23:1-49

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This project of reading the Book of Ezekiel is part of a larger project of reading the Hebrew prophetic books, roughly in chronological order.  I know already, based on this larger project alone, that the Hebrew prophetic books are repetitive.  For example, idolatry is, metaphorically, sexual–prostitution and/or adultery.  This metaphorical prostitution is, functionally, pagan temple prostitution, common in the ancient Near East into New Testament times (from Genesis 38:15 to 1 Corinthians 6:15f).  Also, much of the language of this sexual metaphor is Not Safe for Work (NSFW) and replete with shaming.

The Bible is not G-rated.

Ezekiel 16 is not G-rated.  It uses the marital metaphor, also present in Isaiah 8:5-8; Isaiah 49-54; Isaiah 66:7-14; Jeremiah 2-3; Hosea 1-3; Zephaniah 3:14-20.

Robert Alter provides perhaps the most memorable synopsis of Ezekiel 16:

Among the themes of Ezekiel’s prophecies, the most striking expression of neurosis is his troubled relation to the female body.  Real and symbolic bodies become entangled with each other.  In biblical poetry, a nation, and Israel in particular, is quite often represented as a woman.  God’s covenant with Israel–see Jeremiah 1–is imagined as a marriage, and so the bride Israel’s dalliance with pagan gods is figured as adultery or whoring.  This is a common trope in biblical literature, but the way Ezekiel articulates it is both startling and unsettling.

The most vivid instance of this psychological twist in Ezekiel is the extended allegory of whoring Israel in chapter 16.  The allegory here follows the birth of the nation in Canaan–represented with stark physicality in the image of the infant girl naked and wallowing in the blood of afterbirth, then looked after by a solicitous God–to her sexual maturity and her betrayal of God through idolatry.  The focus throughout is on Israel as a female sexual body.  Thus, the prophet notes (as does no other biblical writer) the ripening of the breasts and the sprouting of pubic hair.  The mature personification of the nation is a beautiful woman, her beauty enhanced by the splendid attire God gives her (this is probably a reference to national grandeur and to the Temple).  Yet, insatiably lascivious, she uses her charms to entice strangers to her bed:  “you spilled out your whoring” (given the verb used and the unusual form of the noun, this could be a reference to vaginal secretions) “upon every passerby.”  Israel as a woman is even accused of harboring a special fondness for large phalluses:  “you played the whore with the Egyptians, your big-membered neighbors.”  She is, the prophet says, a whore who asks for no payment for her services.  “You befouled your beauty,” he inveighs, “and spread your legs for every passerby.”  All this concern with female promiscuity is correlative with Ezekiel’s general preoccupation with purity and impurity.

It is of course possible to link each of these sexual details with the allegory of an idolatrous nation betraying its faith.  But such explicitness and such vehemence about sex are unique in the Bible.  The compelling inference is that this was a prophet morbidly fixated on the female body and seething with fervid misogyny.  What happens in the prophecy in chapter 16 is that the metaphor of the lubricious woman takes over the foreground, virtually displacing the allegorical referent.  Ezekiel clearly was not a stable person.

The Hebrew Bible:  A Translation with Commentary, Volume 2, Prophets (2019), 1051

Corinne L. Carvalho comments:

In Israel, spouses were not equal partners; women were legally and socially subservient to their husbands.  Betrothal and marriage were contractual arrangements by which a woman became the exclusive “property” of her husband, even before the actual marriage.  In practical terms, this meant that her husband was her sole sexual partner from the moment of betrothal.  Since men could have more than one wife, adultery occurred only when it involved a married woman; it was a crime, punishable by death, against the sole property rights of a wronged husband (Lev 18:20; 20:10; Deut 22:22).

Ezekiel 16 plays on these elements of marriage.  God is the one who owns Jerusalem, and Jerusalem owes him her exclusive allegiance and fidelity.  Anything less gives him the legal right to punish her.  Ezekiel 16 uses hyperbole and inflammatory rhetoric to achieve a shocking literary effect.  Here, the author utilizes a common metaphor, the city as God’s wife, in ways that border on pornography.  (Modern translations tone down the sexually explicit language of the Hebrew texts.)  It is an image to provoke a response.

–in Daniel Durken, ed., The New Collegeville Bible Commentary:  Old Testament (2015), 1431

Ezekiel 16 concludes on a sexually graphic metaphor of future restoration (verses 59-63).  After all, to “know” is frequently a euphemism for sexual intimacy.

And I Myself will establish the covenant with you, and you will know that I am the LORD.

–Ezekiel 16:62, Robert Alter, 2019

Consider the following verse, O reader:

Thus you shall remember and feel shame, and you shall be too abashed to open your mouth again, when I have forgiven you, for all that you did–declares the Lord GOD.

–Ezekiel 16:63, TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures (1985)

I feel too abashed after reading Ezekiel 16.

My library contains a variety of editions and versions of the Bible.  The Children’s Living Bible (1972) is one of these.  The artwork depicts a smiling Jesus holding lost-and-found sheep, smiling at children wearing attire from 1972, and generally smiling.  The volume also includes Ezekiel 16.  I imagine a child reading Ezekiel 16 and asking a horrified parent about the contents of that chapter.  I also imagine that parent’s horror that the tyke was reading a volume that included the term, “son of a bitch” (1 Samuel 20:30).  Just wait for Ezekiel 23!

Ezekiel 20 continues the themes of idolatry and apostasy.  The text dwells on the sabbath.  This suggests that the sabbath had become important, as a substitute for the Temple, during the Babylonian Exile.  The sabbath is foundational in the covenant.  The sabbath is also a sign of a free person in the context of liberation from slavery in Egypt.  And to keep the sabbath is to emulate God, the creator and original keeper of the sabbath.

God, as depicted in Ezekiel 20, is not worthy of emulation, respect, love, and awe:

  1. God, according to 20:9, 14, 22, and 44, acts selfishly, to preserve the divine reputation.
  2. God gave the people “laws that were not good and rules by which they could not live (20:25) then promised to destroy the people as punishment for obeying the bad laws and disobeying the impossible rules (20:26).

Chapter 20 exists in the shadow of Ezekiel 18–about individual moral accountability to God.  The verdict on the people of Judah, in the yet-future context of the Fall of Jerusalem (586 B.C.E.) is damning.

Ezekiel 20 concludes on a note of future restoration, but not for the sake of the covenant people:

Then, O House of Israel, you shall know that I am the LORD, when I deal with you that I am the LORD, when I deal with you for My name’s sake–not in accordance with your evil ways and corrupt acts–declares the Lord GOD.

–Ezekiel 20:44, TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures (1985)

I wonder how many agnostics and atheists grew up devout, with this understanding of God, or one close to it.  That theology may explain their current spiritual status as they properly reject that understanding of God yet go too far and remain out of balance.

Ezekiel 23 returns to the imagery of idolatry as harlotry.  It also returns to the category of Not Safe for Work.  (What was it with Ezekiel and sex?)  Break out the plain brown wrappers again, O reader!  The text speaks of the Babylonian Exile as punishment for persistent, collective, and unrepentant idolatry.

Some G-rated details (There are some.) require explanation:

  1. Samaria, the capital of the (northern) Kingdom of Israel, is, metaphorically, Oholeh, “her tent.”  One may recall that, in the theology of the Hebrew Bible, the Presence of God dwelt in a text then in the Temple.  We read of the fall of the Kingdom of Israel and of the causes of that collapse.
  2. Jerusalem, the capital of the (southern) Kingdom of Judah, is, metaphorically, Oholibah, “my tent is in her.”
  3. Ezekiel 23 condemns the kingdoms’ foreign alliances.  This is an old Hebrew prophetic theme, albeit one other prophets presented in less graphic terms.

I try to maintain a spiritual and theological equilibrium.  The God of Ezekiel 16, 20, and 23 is a self-absorbed, abusive, and misogynistic monster.  This is not my God-concept.  Neither is the God of my faith anything like a cosmic teddy bear or a warm fuzzy.  No, the God of my faith holds judgment and mercy in balance.  I do not pretend to know where that balance is or where it should be.  The God of my faith also loves all people and models selflessness.  Neither is the God of my faith a misogynist or any kind of -phobe or bad -ist.  The model for the God of my faith is Jesus of Nazareth, God Incarnate.  I read stories of Jesus having harsh words for those who deserved them and compassion for the desperate.  I understand Jesus as being stable, unlike Ezekiel, apparently.

Ezekiel clearly was not a stable person.

–Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible:  A Translation with Commentary (2019), 1051

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JUNE 27, 2021 COMMON ERA

PROPER 8:  THE FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST, YEAR B

THE FEAST OF CORNELIUS HILL, ONEIDA CHIEF AND EPISCOPAL PRIEST

THE FEAST OF SAINT ARIALDUS OF MILAN, ITALIAN ROMAN CATHOLIC DEACON AND MARTYR, 1066

THE FEAST OF HUGH THOMSON KERR, SR., U.S. PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER AND LITURGIST; AND HIS SON, HUGH THOMSON KERR, JR., U.S. PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER, SCHOLAR, AND THEOLOGIAN

THE FEAST OF JAMES MOFFATT, SCOTTISH PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER, SCHOLAR, AND BIBLE TRANSLATOR

THE FEAST OF SAINT JOHN THE GEORGIAN, ABBOT; AND SAINTS EUTHYMIUS OF ATHOS AND GEORGE OF THE BLACK MOUNTAIN, ABBOTS AND TRANSLATORS

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One response to “Judah’s History of Sin: The Not-Safe-For-Work Version

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  1. Pingback: The Regeneration of the Land, With the Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones | BLOGA THEOLOGICA

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