The Book of Ezekiel
God instructs Ezekiel to condemn false prophets: “Prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are prophesying.” Try saying that three times quickly.
Ever since Jeremiah, the Lord has been complaining about bogus prophets who deliver encouraging news, but this is the first time He singles out female prophets. Among other threats, He vows to “tear off” their veils.
Ezekiel is truly the prophet of redemption, a more merciful and forgiving messenger than his predecessors. At the beginning of the chapter, several Israelite elders request a meeting with Zeke. The prophet is dubious, because these elders are notorious idol-worshippers. But, in a Nixon-goes-to-China moment, God tells Ezekiel that of course he must minister to these heretics. Ezekiel tells them that they can still be saved if they reject idols and abominations. That’s Ezekiel for you! He’s always willing to offer the second chance, always holding out the possibility of grace. (It’s worth noting that this puts him much more in line with modern religious practice than unbending Isaiah and Jeremiah.)
Here’s a funny anomaly, and a moment of less mercy. God explains that the current faithlessness of the Israelites is so bad that even the best men would be in trouble—even “Noah, Daniel, and Job” would only be able to redeem themselves, not their families. The anomaly? Daniel and Job haven’t happened yet! (Daniel comes after Ezekiel in both the Christian and Hebrew Bibles. Job is before Ezekiel in the Christian Bible but after it in the Hebrew Bible.)
The theological implications of the passage are more troubling: Remember that during the flood, God’s most drastic punishment, Noah was permitted to save his wife and children. But now God says even the most righteous can’t protect their kids. This suggests that God considers the infidelity of the Judeans even worse than the antediluvian sins.
This just slows us down on the way to my new favorite Bible chapter …
First of all, read this chapter yourself. Come on, just go read it. Right now. It’s so good, you won’t begrudge the five minutes.
You’re back! How did you like it? Wasn’t it as good as I said it was? You think it’s a little bawdy? A little rude? Maybe, but doesn’t it sound true?
Chapter 16 is the story of a bad marriage, a dreadful marriage, the world’s worst marriage—as told by the wronged husband. His name is God. Her name is Jerusalem. They meet cute in the desert when she’s just a baby. He mentors her. She grows up into a raving beauty. What hair! What a figure!
“I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love.” The mentor becomes the lover. The Lord marries her: “You became mine.” It’s all wine and roses for a few years. He buys her high-thread-count sheets, hand-tooled shoes, and incredible jewelry. (She even gets a nose ring!) Men all around the world hear about the Lord’s bride and what a hottie she is.
But—there is always a but in these stories—everything soon sours. “You trusted in your beauty, and played the whore because of your fame, and lavished your whorings on any passerby.” She makes herself male idols and plays with them. She’s a nymphomaniac—”insatiable.” She prostitutes herself to the Egyptians and Assyrians, but that isn’t enough. “You multiplied your whoring” with the Babylonians.
At this point the divorce lawyers should have been called, and restraining orders should have been issued, but instead the fight continues. Forget: “That’s no way to load a dishwasher!” Forget: “You sound just like your mother.” Forget: “If your father tells that joke one more time …” Imagine the worst marital fight you’ve ever heard, times a thousand. This is conjugal Armageddon!
“How sick is your heart says the Lord God, that you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen whore.”
Then He realizes she’s even worse than a whore, because at least a whore gets paid! She does it for free!
God invites all her lovers to visit her. They strip her naked and set a mob on her to cut her to pieces. At last, God’s rage is exhausted. At the end of the chapter, He promises to remarry her—but only if she shuts up: “I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, in order that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I forgive you all that you have done.”
Wowza! This chapter is like the bad parts of Portrait of a Lady, Madame Bovary, Married With Children,and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? rolled up into a putrid ball of rage. Why is it extraordinary? First, it has the rhythm of all great stories. There is a slow build. The innocence of early love rattles into irritation, then rage, then homicidal fury. Second, it is driven by God’s genuine passion. For most of the Bible, God is a furious father, disappointed in his faithless children. But in this chapter He is a jealous husband, a role that is much more terrifying and persuasive. “Jilted husband” makes more sense than “angry dad.” Parents are disappointed with their kids and frustrated with their kids, but rarely so furious with them that they kill them, banish them, and humiliate them. But wives and husbands do that to each other all the time. Sexual jealousy is the greatest crazy-maker we have. And what is God’s fury at our idol-worshipping if not sexual jealousy? We have found other men to satisfy our deepest “spiritual” needs. Is it any surprise that enrages Him and pushes him to homicide against His beloved?
I won’t dispute that Chapter 16 is unsettling in its violent misogyny and sexist in its depiction of marriage. But it’s psychologically penetrating like few other chapters in the Bible. I can’t get it out of my head.
The Babylonians offer the Judeans a sweet deal: They can have their own Jewish king, as long as they pledge fealty to Babylon. God wants them to take the deal, but King Zedekiah rebels and ruins the whole neat arrangement. Jerusalem falls, most of the population is exiled to Babylon, and the remainder flees to Egypt. God, like Neville Chamberlain, is happy to appease the Babylonian invaders. A vassal kingdom in the Promised Land would be better than Diaspora all over the world.
This is an extremely modern chapter. It’s so modern that I wonder if it’s a key source for contemporary Christianity and Judaism. Is it? Revisiting the individual responsibility theme of Chapter 14, God says that we are all responsible for our own sins. In earlier verses, God promised to hold the children and grandchildren of sinners accountable for their ancestors’ crimes. Now the Lord says we’re all on our own. “A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own.” God also emphasizes again that sinners can redeem themselves with good behavior. And, despite the high body count and murderous glee of earlier books, the Lord insists that He doesn’t want anyone to die: “Repent, therefore, and live!”
Chapter 20 through Chapter 22
God builds His case against the Judeans, then foretells the Babylonian conquest—again. He explains how we have betrayed Him at every opportunity, recasting the story of Exodus and the 40 years in the wilderness as one act of idolatry after another. Then He details the Judeans’ various sins—incest, Sabbath breaking, fraud, extortion, idolatry.
And they blew their one chance. “I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one.”
“Stand in the breach”is a wonderful, evocative phrase. (I don’t seem to be alone in thinking that. A quick Google search suggests “stand in the breach,” and the alternate translation “stand in the gap,” are very popular with American evangelicals!)
Many readers—with nudges and winks—recommended this chapter as the sexual high point of the Bible. Several of you hinted that it was a chapter that you paid, um, special attention to as teenage boys. I must confess—I’m a little bit disappointed. To me, this is like a tawdrier version of Chapter 16—but with twins. The gist is this: There are two sisters, Oholah and Oholibah. Oholah is Samaria, and Oholibah is Jerusalem. (Let’s just say that they put the “ho” back in Oholah and Oholibah.) Both of them get married to the Lord. Unfortunately, they were whores in Egypt before they married God, and then are whores with Assyrians after the marriage. The language is cruder than Chapter 16: Men “fondled her virgin bosom and poured out their lust upon her”; “[men] whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose emission was like that of stallions.” But the message is the same: The Israelites betrayed God with other gods and bad allies. And they are punished as they were in Chapter 16: All their old lovers gather and cut them to pieces for their “wanton whoring.”
I can see why this chapter catches the eye of the 16-year-old boy set—especially since many translations render “bosom” as “nipples”—but it doesn’t move me as much as Chapter 16. Chapter 16 is a more sophisticated, passionate, and dramatic version of the same story. Chapter 16 is God’s failed marriage, as told in the New Yorker. Chapter 23 is God’s failed marriage, as told in Penthouse.
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