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.

 

Advertisements

Ezekiel blog: Little gems

Ezekiel chapter 16 – final stretch

My wife is a big fan of watching the BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice”.  Over the years of watching that production with her, I’ve also developed an appreciation for period pieces like that story.  One of the things that made watching that mini-series so fascinating was observing how every time we followed the story, my wife would recognize some new gem of insight about the motivation of the characters, or extract some new connection between events.  She would express such excitement about these discoveries and insist that I get it too.   Yes, guys, real men can watch chick-flicks.

What does this have to do with the end of Ezekiel though?   In many ways, verses 35-63 are like reading a very complicated story over and over again.  The same context is repeated eg.  Israel had a bad history, current practices were terrible, and God enacts judgment followed swiftly by punishment.  Ezekiel takes us through this as if he’s trying to be sure that we get the circumstances. No disrespect intended, but he seems to have been very anal that way.

But along the way, we are treated to little bits of gained insight that Ezekiel has prized from the narrative.  Here are some of them that stand out to me:

1. It is because Israel did not remember her humble origins that God brings it all down on her head.  So: remember where you come from.

2. “Hey, you wanted all these lovers and all this attention?  Then I’m not going to step in and stop it when things get totally out of control.  Maybe an overdose will scare you enough.  ”  Yikes, hope I don’t need an intervention like this in my life.

3. God really doesn’t like proverb quoters.   I’m not talking about the book of Proverbs, but those annoying little platitudes that really don’t express any kind of real theology or faith, but are used as pseudo-religious bandaids of the moment.  Proverb-quoters….you know who you are.  Pay attention to this chapter for real.

4. Crimes of Sodom:   Arrogant, over-fed, and unconcerned.  Haughty and unresponsive to the poor and needy.   We all know what happened there.  Uh-huh, ‘nough said.

5. Ok, I know I said ‘nough said, but Sodom only measured up to HALF of how bad Israel was being at this point. That’s HALF as bad, and they got blown off the map.  What were you saying about God’s patience?

6. “Israel ! You broke our covenant! ”   God takes covenants very seriously.  It’s a big deal….and something God will work very hard to create, protect, rebuild, and recreate when necessary.

7. More on covenants, this is the one thing that God believes can actually be healed with Israel.  It’s the one thing in the entire chapter that is discussed in future tense.  God says He “will remember” and He “will establish”.   The object here?!  If he can find hope in such a disaster of a situation, then he can find hope for each one of us.

8. My anger will END. I will turn away my anger and be jealous no longer. When I make atonement for all that you have done…. etc. etc.

Can you imagine what a boost this must have been to Ezekiel who is still sitting out there in the desert wondering what is to become of his people who have been chased from their ancestral home and away from their spiritual center place? To hear that there will be a time when the covenant will be renewed and a time when anger will be turned away. At last some good news and something to hope for.

I’ve heard again and again how the Old Testament seems to be focused on an “Angry” and “Vengeful” God. In this chapter, I see quite the opposite. This story is about a long suffering and patient beyond patient God. He wants to bring His anger to an END. And can anyone doubt what He has in mind for the phrase “atonement for all that you have done”? There is a group within the Christian community who dismiss and ignore the Old Testament because it appears to have little to do with the New Testament message. From my perspective, I find a rich connection between the two collections of written scripture….as did the original believers in the message of Hope.

And now, I am done with Chapter 16. Thanks for hanging in there with me if you are reading along.

 

 

Ezekiel blog: Still in Chpt 16, and how not to gain popularity.

I remember working for a very large company once in Wisconsin.  The management there was fond of using the phrase, “Will this be good for the business?”  This seems to have been their only moral compass to guide their decision making process.  Not surprisingly, when the company stock took a small dip, the managers walked out into the main office floor and randomly fired enough people right there, on the spot, in order to make up the cash flow deficit. These people were happily sacrificed for the supposed “good” of the company.

Which brings me to the fact that I’m still digging around in Ezekiel chapter 16.  There is so much here and symbolism at so many levels, it’s taking a long time to sort through it all.   The commentaries are almost useless in many instances, many of them falling back to literal association attempts.  I’m hovering somewhere between vs 20 and vs 35.  Ezekiel is expanding on the accusations against Israel.

We are pressed constantly to appreciate the odd condition of prostitution that Jerusalem had created. In the middle of all this there is a reference to the sacrifice of their children, to which again the commentaries make a direct reference to actual child sacrifice of pagan religions in the area. I’m not so sure that is what Ezekiel is focusing on.

To be sure, the children are always targeted when religious extremity rears its fanatical head. Just look through news, current and past, and you will find religious zealots attacking schools, kidnapping children.  Add to that the political extremes which constantly try to pass laws of one flavor of another which affect how children learn, or what they have access to learn. It’s here, it’s there. The language and culture of origin may be distant or right here in our own backyard.  Extremism is just another form of idolatry, so this should not be a surprise. You can tell it is idolatry, firstly because it is created by humans (though often supposedly in the name of God), secondly because of the unforgiving (when is God not forgiving) nature of its demands, and finally how you are required to love it but it does not love you back.

However, all that aside, I think Ezekiel is addressing something more fundamental here.  Elsewhere in scripture, the children of Israel are always the people, the common citizens of the country.  These people are being sacrificed in Ezekiel’s eyes to avarice of the rulers of Jerusalem.  We saw this earlier in the book of Ezekiel.  But, ….sacrificed??

Back to my earlier example about hard working people being sacrificed for the “good” of the company.  (And by the way, that’s not the only time I saw that kind of business stupidity being delivered from so called managers.)  It is common for management/leadership/ruling class to look upon the rest of humanity as disposable to the needs of the moment. The passages of these interim verses of Ezekiel mention the involvement of the rulers of Jerusalem with other surrounding nations.  High places were built to satisfy the whims of these other nations.  That kind of thing demands resources – the kind of resources that can be extracted from a population of people who are vulnerable or in debt.  Yes, they probably were sacrificed in order to secure a certain amount of status with the national peers of Israel.  And,  as I mentioned before, it is always the children who suffer the most. Given the circumstances, I have no doubt that families were torn apart, or forced to work for extended periods of time in order to bring these perilous acts to a conclusion. And none of it was hidden from God – as Ezekiel goes into extreme detail.

All of this for what?   Ezekiel compares Israel to a prostitute. However, there is a big distinction made.  An actual prostitute expects payment for services rendered. Israel was paying their so called customers for the honor of being a prostitute in Ezekiel’s eyes.  Quite backward, but neither situation being desirable in any form.

What is the message here then?   The question to ask is why was the leadership of Israel so insecure that they believed they must pacify their peers, live up to imagined expectations of the very nations that they were in a position to influence in a positive way?  It was a total desire to be popular, to be secure, to know and control the dynamics.  None of that can be described as faith.   Faith does not demand that the nations leadership be passive and uninterested players either. But it does demand that they listen to the voice of compassion, of justice for their citizens, that they hear the cry for fairness and have an openness to the guidance of the Spirit which often advices to Be Still, have patience, watch God at work, and err on the side of being mindfully charitable of and to your neighbor.

It is often said that the old testament is about an Angry and Vengeful God – one who is quick of temper and who offers no mercy of compassion.  Over and over again, as I read Ezekiel, I see quite the opposite.  Here, in these paragraphs, we see God patiently working with Israel and the other nations over generations, trying to move them into a better state; until a breaking point is reached and all forward progress has been lost.   I see parallels between the parables of the Gospels and the pleas for social justice from the prophets.

Oh well, next blog will be on to the pronouncements of judgment in chapter 16.  I’m sure that will be filled with all kinds of fun.  And we will see if there is any hint of charity, mercy, or compassion left to be had.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ezekiel blog: there’s yet hope…

Ah, at last we find a brief oasis from the dire verbiage of Ezekiel thus far.  Here in Ezekiel chapter 14 (the first half) things finally come back to home….so to speak.  At least, Ezekiel has concluded his visions about Jerusalem and is now sitting in his house in an interview with the local Elders of Israel in their shared captivity in Babylon.  What, pray tell, could be on their minds?

Imagine you are captive in a foreign land, and you keep hearing from this new prophet with exotic visions that the destruction of your homeland, and everything you are familiar with is a done deal.  Two options come to mind.  1) Fine!  just plug in to the local religions/cults and get back to normal, or 2) Totally freak-out and feel lost with no connection to what you believe is true.  What do you do?

Ezekiel receives a vision from God answering these very human states and it is here that we become familiar with some interesting expressions:  “Idols of the heart” and “Stumbling blocks before their face”.   Rather interesting.

Idols are static representations of human projections of affectionate fervor.  We have these around today, no need to look very far.  We even make fun of it with expressions such as “Teen idol”, or “I have a relationship with my phone”, or “my car is my baby”.  These things are not God and do not have the capacity to LOVE YOU BACK.

The elders of Israel in captivity turn out to be just as human as you and I find ourselves, beset by the same doubts and longings for better times. They fall prey to the same things that make us stumble.  And here is the Spark of Hope I mentioned in the title.

God say to Ezekiel, “I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel,…”   Hearts is the word used here.  Not mindless obedience and not fearful subservience. God, the creator of us all, it would seem, wants His people to respond to Him out of genuine affection and love for the principles He has brought out through the course of these visions.  Fraudulent religious posturing, hypocritical lip service, lack of charity, absence of mercy, no social justice; these are all symptoms of what God did not want and still does not want.

What a mission statement then, for our creator on high:   To recapture their hearts away from the idols they worship.   And to this, Ezekiel is told to proclaim a message that is much like an open door to a people who have been chased away from everything that was most familiar.  It is a simple message, and one that has been echoed by every prophet. It is the olive branch offered to a headstrong people, it is the ray of hope that all is not lost entirely – that there is still yet a way back held open for the willing.

“Repent!  Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices……”

What are idols again?  Things not of God, but made of Man, things that do not LOVE YOU BACK. Things that demand and require all of your energy, but only give you the appearance of a soulful relationship with your creator. Sadly, idols can appear both outside of religious structure and worse, inside the very walls of churches as we see them today. Idolatry happened back in Chapter 8 in the very temple of God,…what would make us so very different today in our high-tech multi-media church buildings made of drywall and fine art?

So ask yourself, in what you do everyday, to the things you pour all of your love and energy into, whether it is church related or not,  does it heal your soul? does is LOVE YOU BACK? Does it engage your heart with Charity, Mercy, and Social Justice?  or…does it require fearful adherance, subserviance, and mindless obediance? It’s hard to admit these things and it’s even harder to let go. I’ve had to face my own idols and come to the conclusion that a great many of them come from my own integration of the expectation of other people’s desires into some core religious and philosophical ideas.  I know this sounds vague, but it true for me.  All I can say is that idols come in all forms, figures, places, times and appearances.  but the true temple of God, ….your heart and my heart….must be swept clean of all of them.  And about those people who can do that,  God tells Ezekiel,  “They will be my people, and I will be their God….”

Keep trying, Keep trying.  This chapter, the first half of Ezekiel ch 14 vs 1-11 is a voice of counsel that it is never too late, especially to those who’ve had their lives completely turned upside down, and where nothing seems to make sense, and where everything that was familiar is now gone.  There is one who stays with us, way out here in open country.