Ezekiel blog: Probably some parental guidance needed on this chapter

Um. Ezekiel Chapter 23 is rather graphic in its imagery. But, to water it down in anyway would change the essential reason for its existence in the first place.  Because this is the case, it’s useful to ask ‘Why?’  in order to interpret the ‘What?’.

What “What” are we talking about here, anyways?

So in this parable, Jerusalem and Samaria are framed as two adult sisters.  We are told that both sisters (Jerusalem and Samaria) chose a life of prostitution from their youthful days in Egypt.  The scriptural verses go into depths to show that we’re not talking about nice escort girls either.  In any case though, it was under-age sexual exploitation in this analogy.

Time passes, and now the girls are older and on their own, but not much has changed.  Both are still in the prostitution racket, though Jerusalem is even more hardcore about it than her older sister Samaria. (One of the points of astonishment that this chapter conveys.) This displeases God, since Jerusalem was supposed to be not only a holy place, but an example for others to follow.

Even with all this, we are still not to the shocking part of the Prophet’s message in this chapter. Ezekiel goes on to criticize Jerusalem for now courting the surrounding empires, taking them to her private bed chamber, enjoying the benefits of their lustful interest and then dumping them and treating them with contempt.  This is the last straw and God is ready to react.

A severe punishment is described, one that is shocking to western viewpoints.  Jerusalem is to be stripped naked and cast out into the street and then to be treated to punishments common for prostitutes at that time. The violence is extreme, with beatings and humiliations.  At the end of it all, there is physical mutilation in order to “teach” the other cities that look up to Jerusalem to avoid these kinds of behaviors. Jerusalem is set up to be an extreme example.

Gulp. Ok. Why?

First of all, prostitution is being used as a metaphor for idol worship and for the practicing of foreign religious practices – in some cases, not even paying true homage to those, merely the same lip service given to the traditional faith of Israel as well.  I find it interesting that Ezekiel maintains his position that before the 10 Plagues of Egypt, when Israel was finally released from captivity, Israel is portrayed as wantonly pursuing the idol worship of the Egyptians and that it was God who decided to reclaim his people and remove them from that influence.  The book of Exodus has a completely different viewpoint in which the victimized people of Israel are so desperate to practice their faith that they must put up resistance to Egypt and eventually cry to the Lord for deliverance.  Two VERY different views of the Exodus story.

In either case, this is a round about way for Ezekiel to continue his parallelization of the return-to-national-origin theme that has dominated his entire progression of visions and oracles.   And, as I said before, Chapter 23 is very much a commentary on Chapter 22 and Chapter 24.

Back to ‘WHY???’

It seems to me that when prophets choose to use metaphors, imagery and poetry (or some combination of all three), they are usually trying to convey the emotion and gravity of the events, they are giving us a yardstick to measure how significant the events in play really are. The imagery also helps us understand the true nature of the impact of the decisions to whom the messages and oracles are directed.  In this case, the overall emotional sense is one of extreme revulsion.  That is a powerful word as it conjures feelings in the pit of your stomach, an abhorrence to the idea of drawing even on inch closer to the source of discomfort.

So too, the image of Jerusalem playing the role of prostitute is bad enough. But this image actively seeks new lovers complete with a full HD seduction plan. Then she is portrayed as trashing their dignity along with her own by turning away from them in disgust (themes of betrayal of trust as in chapter 22).   Her behavior is capped off in this verse:

v. 39 On the very day they sacrificed their children to their idols, they entered my sanctuary and desecrated it. That is what they did in my house.

 Idol worship, playing host to others regional idol based cults all for political advantage, casting one away in favor of another. Child sacrifice to these same idols, and in the act polluting the very sanctuary.  God is astonished to find this in His house.  He rejects all lip service by the leadership who have shown absolutely no loyalty to anyone and change their attachments at a moment’s whim.  God can not bring himself any closer to a people so bent on defiling themselves.

And so the punishment gets very grim, graphic, and brutal.  Jerusalem will have the same done to her that she did to her ‘suitors’.  She will be shunned, thrown out in the street naked. She will be beaten for her lewdness. Her eyes will be gouged out and her ears and nose cut off.  She will be stoned to death.  In short, she will receive exactly what she had given out to her own people for generations; a quid-pro-quo form of justice: getting what she gave.

The brutality is fearsome indeed. And we congratulate ourselves that we are no longer in the barbaric ages where this sort of thing was considered a just punishment.  But are we really so sophisticated as that?  Perhaps we should keep in mind the lesson that Ezekiel offers when we harm others in the name of our own righteousness. Is that justice? or is it a mark against us when we come crying for forgiveness and mercy.

Consider this story from last week’s news releases.  It seems that people are so ready to condemn not realizing that this could and probably will come back on all of us:

http://edition.cnn.com/2015/05/27/americas/guatemala-girl-burned-mob/index.html

There is a line tacked on to the end of the chapter that seems to infer that this is an example to all actual women.  However, Ezekiel’s message has always been to the people as a whole, and the reference to Jerusalem as an unfaithful woman stands as a stark contrast to the imagery that Jesus himself used of the bride preparing for the groom; an image used again more specifically in Revelations.

The message is for the whole world, not just for a sub-demographic.

-Deal with it.

 

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Ezekiel blog: Betrayal to the point of losing it all

ProphetWritingImageHere we go into Ezekiel Chapter 22.

Honestly, I think that chapter 22, 23 and 24 of Ezekiel all sort of run together in to one continuous macro-chapter. Chapter 23 is pretty graphic and blunt and is also where Ezekiel comments on the bluntness of chapter 22. Then, chapter 23 brings it all into reality in very grim and sad circumstances.

How do I pull all of this apart? I started by doing what I’ve been doing all along, I read several biblical translations of chapter 22 and then read a bunch of different commentaries. By this point in the book, most of the commentaries are hopelessly lost and not much help and it’s really quite stunning the wide variance of interpretive approaches for those that have stayed in the game.

It is a short chapter, but I find it overlayed with almost a bullet list of thematic morals. I thought I would list these and try to sort through them – in no particular order.

Point 1) Subtle message of hope to the people in exile, the silver is not in the kiln because it has already been taken away (to Babylon).

In working with different ores, the smelting process separates out the impurities making it easier to extract the precious metal. Such is the case with silver and the dross left behind. The narrative of Ezekiel focuses on the dross which is used to describe the people of Jerusalem – something to be discarded and no longer of use to God. Blunt and to the point. The hidden message though, is that the valuable part of the ore has already been taken away in the form of the Israelites in bondage under Babylon’s rule. They didn’t see it that way, but in this way, God has preserved the best part of His people. They are captive, yes, but they are free to follow their faith for the most part and they are allowed to live. Not so for the prideful people of Jerusalem.

Point 2) God’s willingness to profane himself to make his point
Dispersal of His chosen among the nations (fortelling of the upcoming rollcall).

God is willing to send His people away to live out among the nations, knowing full well that they may pick up elements and practices that do not conform to the purest way of life laid out for them from the beginning. In this way, God is willing to profane Himself in order that his people may be saved and redeemed in the future. The mention of the nations here is a prelude to the upcoming chapters in which God gives stern warnings, admonitions, and judgements in a sort of roll call. This roll call of the nations is also an element of the book of Judges which brings us back to the method Ezekiel was using to draw his people into a remembrance of their faith.

Point 3)  God’s remorse at not being able to find even one (a tossback to Abraham) who would do the work.

What’s a good narrative without drawing on the imagery of founding fathers, great leaders of the past, pinnacles of faith that everyone knows well. Ezekiel, being a priest of the Temple, knows well the history of his people and especially the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was Abraham who pleaded on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Gamorah negotiating in terms of a certain number of righteous people among the inhabitants. God is saying, “…don’t even go there. I’ve already checked and can not even find one who will do the work.”

Point 4) Condemnation of the Prophets who whitewash and tear at the people like lions

Following up on the previous point, Ezekiel pens condemnation of the self-named prophets who have provided false validation to the leadership of Jerusalem. These are the people who blandly downplay the social injustices that are committed in the streets of Jerusalem, who stomp out dissent with false oracles, and who give the leadership a free pass for each offense as a divine right to oppress.

Point 5)  Confusion of translations of Ezekiel source texts / confusion of commentators.

As a personal observation, there is a lot of confusion over these verses in the various translation. Going to the source documents does not make this task any easier – though the translations have become for fluid and consistent over the centuries. Many of the earlier commentaries struggled with the concepts here and later commentaries sort of drifted over the context by using general terms such as “further judgments of Israel”. For me, I looked back at earlier chapters and saw the themes that Ezekiel himself had forwarded and we see here a return to those same themes: a prioritization of sin, a condemnation of social injustices, a calling out of the false self-named prophets, and an overarching call to a return to faith.

I found this to be enlightening in many ways. Firstly, to see how some of modern theology has been derived from faulty old translations of Ezekiel and then been layed down like veneer on the newer translations without actually reviewing the texts themselves. For instance, I read one commentary who inferred references to the anti-christ as described by John in Revelations. While there are connections between the book of Revelations, because John assuredly derived some of his imagery from Ezekiel and Daniel, this isn’t one of them. A careful reading of more modern translations reveals that Ezekiel was focused on the existing so-called prophets who validated the abuses that the leadership of Jerusalem were committing – something I’ve mentioned earlier.

In a simplistic approach to reading biblical scripture, it’s often the tendency to look for rules to follow in order to establish a qualification checklist as to whether a person is “good” or “bad”.  This is not really the purpose of scripture as a whole, and even less so for apocalyptic writers of the Old Testament period.  Yes, prophets like Ezekiel and Isaiah and Daniel and Jeremiah were very aware of what we call Talmudic law. Much of the Mishnah had been figured out by then – though codified later.

But, the prophets, at least the four major prophets of the Old Testament era, were focused more on the spiritual condition of the people as well as the spiritual condition of the ruling elite (or lack thereof).  By the way, did you ever notice that their are four main prophets of the Old Testament which balance out the four Gospels of the New Testament? Hmmmm. So when reading through prophetic writing, it is important to keep firmly in mind that the prophet has a multi-layered message going on that speaks to the reality of the situation – that is the definition of revelation eg. to reveal.

Now when Ezekiel begins listing out the sins of Jerusalem, I am struck by a couple of things. Firstly, the list greatly resembles the earlier list we are provided when Ezekiel is defining personal responsibility when it comes to sin. Secondly, The prioritization of these “greater” sins over the minutia offenses that populate much of Leviticus and especially the Mishna. Third and lastly, is is amazing clear that each of these sins in some way represents a betrayal of trust and/or a failure to live up to commitment. Lets walk through them, starting in verse 7:

  • Treated father and mother with contempt
  • Oppressed the foreigner
  • Mistreated the fatherless and the widow
  • Despised the Holy things and desecrated the Lord’s Sabbath
  • Slanderers (false accusers)
  • Idol worship by eating at mountain shrines and participating in cult  related “lewd” acts
  • Dishonored their father’s bed (intrude on parent’s privacy or marriage – also incest)
  • Violate women during their period
  • Seduce and have sex with neighbor’s wife
  • Seduce and have sex with daughter-in-law, or his sister (the word violate is also used which can mean to abuse)
  • Accepting bribes to commit murder
  • Taking interest and making profit from the poor  (social injustice)
  • Extorting unjust gain from your neighbors
    – All proof that you have forgotten the Lord says Ezekiel.

This is a very interesting list, don’t you think. These are the top priority “sin” items that Ezekiel, a fully trained and authorized Priest of the Temple as well as a Prophet of the Lord was concerned about. Most of these sins can be traced back to either the Ten Commandments section of scripture, or to various passages in Leviticus.  All of these sins have something in common. They all deal with various forms of betrayal of trust and breaking of covenants. Sometimes this betrayal takes the form of taking advantage of the powerless and vulnerable which is a familiar theme for anyone who has seriously read through Ezekiel.   It is for these sins that God is launching the destruction of Jerusalem in Chapters 22-24.

What is also interesting is what is not on this list. For example, there is no mention of things like:

  • pre-marital sex
  • abstaining from various foods
  • abstaining from various beverages or wines
  • failure to maintain dress code
  • intermarriage of races or among foreigners
  • failure to regularly attend a synagogue or church
  • failure to read scriptures regularly
  • homosexual relationships
  • requirements for public display of faith (faith for show)
  • Swearing or course language
  • Dancing
  • Getting tattoos
  • Piercings
  • Listening to the wrong music
  • wearing the wrong kind of clothing
  • being poor
  • being one of ‘those’ people

Top of the list of reasons, then, as to why God is sending destruction upon Jerusalem is no that He is an angry vengeful God who is going through a minutia checklist of sins and adding them up like a score card. No, instead the top reasons have to do with betrayal of faith, betrayal of trust, lack of mercy, and social injustice against the vulnerable and poor of their own population on a mass scale as perpetrated at an institutional level by the leadership of Jerusalem.   This dysfunctional civic eco-system has been building up for generations. It has been warned against for generations.  This is a pivotal point in time when everything is about to change.

Take this anyway you like. But like I said before, this is from a Prophet beyond reproach with every credential possible, and this is what he wrote.  He was concerned about character, not rules, commitment and abiding by covenants instead of choosing betrayal, and he was concerned about faith.

Later y’all.

 

 

 

 

Ezekiel blog: What’s with the signpost?

More of me blogging my way through Ezekiel – trying to find some fresh air and some open country.  Wrapping up some final thoughts on Ezekiel 21.

I can’t let this chapter go without commenting on some other drama that is going on in Chapter 21.  It seems our exasperated prophet is required to go back to his earlier method from way at the beginning of the entire book. Remember all his symbolic acts and signs which were designed to draw attention to overlooked truths of his people’s current situation?  Yeah, so here we go again.

Ezekiel is told to draw out roads to both Jerusalem and to the Ammonites (and their insults).  There is supposed to be a fork in the road and at that point Ezekiel is supposed to put a sign post pointing the way to Jerusalem so that the King of Babylon can speedily move on to his appointed conquest.

Ok. Pretty sure that the King had his own scouts and had a fairly good idea of where the major city of Jerusalem was. So what’s with the sign post?

Firstly, I’d like to draw attention to the fact that we are told explicitly who the players are here. We know that the “Sword” is the King of Babylon, because it plainly is written in those terms. Ezekiel is all about very clear and plain explanations and identifications.  This assertion I’m making here flies fully in the face of common attempts of interpretation for the four major prophets of the Old Testament. Usually we readers are treated to mystical descriptions and sound bytes on the History channel about how the prophets hid secret messages in their writings, or how it’s hard to identify who they are talking about in their oracles. Rubbish. It only requires the proper framework – a signpost – at the right point to help follow the narrative.  Ezekiel, along with the other prophets was not concerned in the least about leaving clues to help identify explicit historical events. He, and the other prophets, were trying to minister to their people and restore their faith. That was the goal and that was the message.

In the case of Babylon, we are given some behind the scenes information here.  It’s not an accident.  A road is being prepared and it’s a road that is meant to be traveled. What’s more, God will use the language and methods of the Babylonian tradition to send a message. God speaks to the King in a way he can understand, and by this the King chooses to complete the work of subduing Jerusalem.

Now, here we are given a taste of something unusual.  Notice that God is clearly choosing a non-Jew, a non-Priesthood person, to convey His work.  Babylon is the instrument of action in delivering the judgment. Here, at this point, the Temple is to be destroyed. It is no longer the place of God’s habitation. We’ve already established this when Ezekiel was called out into open country in the middle of the desert. It is to be a perfect destruction lasting 70 years. And at the end of that time, another man “Cyrus, King of Persia” is chosen by the Lord to pave the way for the people of Israel to return and rebuild the Temple.  Again, the instrument of the Lord’s work is someone not of the Holy People, someone from outside the establishment of their faith.

Do we get the message here that Ezekiel is trying to portray?  God established back in Judges that if the people abandoned their faith and followed other gods and idols, that He would destroy their places of power and might. The people have lost their faith. Ezekiel is saying, “…see, God is doing what He said He would, when we have not done what we said we would do.”  So the trick is to then get God to say something else that he would do and stick to our side of the covenant this time – to have faith. And, it is 70 years later that Daniel repents on behalf of all Israel and asks if they can go home and rebuild the covenant.   Book of Ezra – great stuff – go read it.

God chooses his servants where ever they may be. They are known by their response – they hearken and obey the call. That servant may not be one of the fold. That servant may not fit the standard image established by the majority.  That servant may not be of the pure people. But that servant belongs to God. Who are we to say otherwise against the Lord’s appointed.

And God draws roads and pathways through the desert and mountains so that the work may somehow be accomplished. God sends prophets to set up sign posts that point the way.   And sometimes, there is more than one objective to what God is trying to accomplish.  In this case, guess who’s next.  Take a number, Ammonites….and all your insults.

It appears that God does not take well to name calling and insults.  Words to the wise listener.