Thursday, July 17, 2014

Inspirational Thursday #5: Ezekiel 25:17

It is absurd that, out of the 197 Verses I read for Monday, the random number generator would give me Ezekiel 25:17 to work with on Inspirational Thursday.  But there you have it.

Here, again, is the Quentin Tarentino Version (QTV) translation of Ezekiel 25:17.

But as I mentioned on Monday, that isn't really Ezekiel 25:17.  That's three lines Tarentino paraphrased from a kung-fu movie, followed by a kind of garbled Ezekiel 25:17.  Well, the character of Jules in Pulp Fiction may be one $&*@#% articulate assassin, but you can't expect him to be a stickler for Bible study.

Here's Zeke 25:17 for real: I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I take vengeance on them. It is a very clear example of what I was complaining about on Monday, actually -- that it is discouraging to have God, who is supposed to be setting a high moral tone, portrayed as glorying in revenge and punishment.

For Context:

A Prophecy Against Philistia

15 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because the Philistines acted in vengeance and took revenge with malice in their hearts, and with ancient hostility sought to destroy Judah, 16 therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to stretch out my hand against the Philistines, and I will wipe out the Kerethites and destroy those remaining along the coast. 17 I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them.’”
Here we see that the verse is not, as so many people assume, about Brett's theft of a glowing suitcase from Mr. Wallace, but rather about God's destruction of the city and kingdom of Philistia, a neighbor and sometimes rival of Judea.

It's hard to know how to upstage Samuel L. Jackson with my inspirational image, but the isolated text is definitely about vengeance and the accompanying picture shouldn't be too upbeat.  Let's see what I can find.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Ezekiel 25-32: Bad News for the Neighbors

Starting at Ezekiel 25, we return to a theme that we have seen with our earlier prophets: the Israelites are doomed, but all of the peoples are around them are too. (see eg. Isaiah 17-24)  Ezekiel delivers the bad news to the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Edomites, and the Philistines (25); to Tyre, (26-28); to Sidon (28); and to Egypt (29-32). The section on Tyre includes a “lament” (27) with an interesting section describing all of the merchandise that flowed through that port, and where it came from, which amounts to a little economic geography of the contemporary Levant. Cool! Chapter 31 is an allegory that, in the NIV, is incorrectly titled “Pharoah as a Felled Cedar of Lebanon.” The Felled Cedar of Lebanon actually represents Assyria, in a story meant to unnerve Pharoah. (Read Verses 3 and 18 if you don’t believe me.) It’s kind of surprising to find this kind of editorial mistake in a text as thoroughly-studied as the Bible, for crying out loud, but maybe the scatteredness of the “Lebanese cedar, Assyrian state, Egyptian king” passage threw the NIV committee off their game.

Anyway. With prophecy, it is always reasonable to ask “did it come true.” With the Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, Philistines, Tyrians (?), and Sidonites (??), the answer is of course “maybe! Who knows?” There don’t seem to be many folks around these days who describe themselves as Moabites, for instance. Egyptians are of another stripe altogether, however, and although of course the nation has had its ups and downs over the millennia, there has always been an Egypt. The extravagant capacity of the Nile Valley to produce food has made it a global center of population since before the first harvest. And this makes many of the specifics about Egypt (e.g. “Egypt will become a desolate wasteland” (29:9)) essentially wrong. (If you are into forensic climatology, and who isn’t really, there is a counterargument that could be made here based on the historical aridification of the Sahara.  But, the rightness of that argument is pretty thin relative to the entire prophecy’s wrongness.)

The most famous quotation from Ezekiel in many circles. Not, however, an actual quotation from
Ezekiel.  The verse in question, with the King James language, reads "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." Ezekiel 25:16, the preceding verse, goes
"Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will stretch out mine hand upon the Philistines,
and I will cut off the Cherethims, and destroy the remnant of the sea coast."  Tarantino
got the first three sentences from a kung-fu movie, which should surprise no one.
 I haven’t mentioned this before, but there is a catchphrase that shows up again and again in Ezekiel, and I wince every time I see it. It shows up after almost every prophecy of doom. Here it is in reference to what’s coming for the Philistines: “Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I take vengeance on them.” (17) Why the wince? Well, it’s just such a sulking, childish thing to say. It boils down to “Ha, THAT will show them!” When a fellow adult human talks like that, you’re embarrassed for them, both for their vindictiveness and for their failure to understand human psychology. So, it’s pretty uncomfortable having that language placed in God’s mouth. I understand that God is said to surpass human understanding, and it’s even a logical proposition, but I also recognize petty ignorance when I see it, and so do you.

Honestly, I’m feeling a little bit let down by Ezekiel. He got off to such a great start! And now he’s just another pessimistic political commentator with a conservative agenda and a passion for bringing bad news. One suspects that, then as now, such folks are a shekel a dozen.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Inspirational Thursday #4: Ezekiel 23:48

Here's the verse that the good folks at pointed us towards this week:

“So I will put an end to lewdness in the land, that all women may take warning and not imitate you.”
– Ezekiel 23:48
Taken in isolation, and assuming that "I" is God, this sounds something like a good old-fashioned call to "family values," as they are defined by the more priggish families.  It has a whiff of slut-shaming about it.  That's how it seems to me, anyway.

Let's look at it again in local context:
42 “The noise of a carefree crowd was around her; drunkards were brought from the desert along with men from the rabble, and they put bracelets on the wrists of the woman and her sister and beautiful crowns on their heads. 43 Then I said about the one worn out by adultery, ‘Now let them use her as a prostitute, for that is all she is.’ 44 And they slept with her. As men sleep with a prostitute, so they slept with those lewd women, Oholah and Oholibah. 45 But righteous judges will sentence them to the punishment of women who commit adultery and shed blood, because they are adulterous and blood is on their hands.

46 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Bring a mob against them and give them over to terror and plunder. 47 The mob will stone them and cut them down with their swords; they will kill their sons and daughters and burn down their houses.

48 “So I will put an end to lewdness in the land, that all women may take warning and not imitate you. 49 You will suffer the penalty for your lewdness and bear the consequences of your sins of idolatry. Then you will know that I am the Sovereign Lord.”

Now this is of course deeply unpleasant stuff, and an example of why, as I mentioned on Monday, an informed response to Old Testament prophecy would have to be more along the lines of the fear of a angry and jealous God, as opposed to an embracing of the love and mercy of God.  For the Sovereign Lord who proposes to give people "over to terror and plunder" is frankly not coming across as very loving, or very merciful.

Except, local context hasn't really clarified our verse of the week either, because Ezekiel 23 is actually a long political cartoon in which "those lewd women, Oholah and Oholibah," represent Samaria and Jerusalem in the time before the Babylonian exile.  God isn't condemning two women to terror and plunder, but two countries.  And the approximate meaning of Verse 48, finally, is that God plans for the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem to show that lewdness in a nation is not to be tolerated, and that the countries of the world will take note of this example and clean up their act.

These subtleties don't really come across in my inspirational image.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Ezekiel 19-24: Prophecy by Analogy, Prophecy by Doom

Ezekiel, from a triptych by Duccio, c. 1310.
As I continue to make my way through Ezekiel, some of the excitement I felt during its cinematic opening passages has really worn off.  Here in the center Chapters, there is no longer much in the way of narrative pulse.  Each Chapter sits more or less unto itself, and shows Ezekiel in what I called last week "doing prophecy," which is to say communicating the messages that he says God has given him.

Prophecy by Analogy is exemplified in Ezekiel 19, which has two stories about "your mother."  In the first, "your mother" is a lioness whose sons, although they are great lions, are eventually captured and taken to Egypt and Babylon.  In the two, "your mother" is a vine that was once very verdant, until the weather changed and withered it.  These stories are introduced as a lament concerning the princes of Israel.

Prophecy by Doom is a reasonable name for Chapters in which the prophet's message is a rebuke coupled with a threat.  I have often heard the Old Testament, or at least the books of prophecy, dismissed as nothing but a relentless threat of imminent woe, and I'd always assumed it was just so much stereotyping.  But no, there is a ton of Doom Prophecy, and it is certainly not entertaining reading.  Ezekiel 20 is a representative example, as Ezekiel, speaking for God, complains through several paragraphs about how the people of Israel worship idols, and don't keep the sabbath, and so he's really going to punish them now.  In isolation -- and perhaps to Ezekiel's listeners -- it might be sobering and disturbing, but in the context of the Bible it is further rehashing of very familiar themes, with an angry, ranting edge that does not always seem entirely stable.  There are of course those who emphasize the fear of God -- the god-fearing -- and, if we are to trust the prophets, they have a much greater weight of scripture on their side than those who celebrate the love, mercy, wisdom, or justice of God.

Chapters 21 and 22 follow in the Prophecy by Doom line, and like most of the Book of Ezekiel they are mostly warning of the impending destruction of Jerusalem.  So, in its way, is Ezekiel 23, but here we are back in the mode of Prophecy by Analogy.  Chapter 23 reprises a metaphor from Chapter 16, which casts Jerusalem and the Israelites as a depraved and sluttish prostitute.  It is a bit much.  The Jerusalem-prostitute (her name is Oholibah) sees pictures of Babylonian men, and gets so hot and bothered that she sends messengers asking them to come to her, to the bed of love (17) and do the obvious thing.  There she lusted after her lovers, we learn, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses. (20)  I believe the Judean leadership is being criticized here for too accommodating a foreign policy; Ezekiel is clearly not one to hesitate over "going negative" with political rhetoric.

There is another analogy in Chapter 24, which claims to be a prophecy from the first day of the final siege of Jerusalem.  It involves cooking a meat stew.  The more interesting part of the Chapter for me is the second half, in which God announces to Ezekiel that he (God) is going to kill his (Ezekiel's) wife, but that he must not grieve or mourn.  So I spoke to the people in the morning, and in the evening my wife died, Ezekiel reports. (18)  Then the people asked me, "Won't you tell us what these things have to do with us?" (19)  Ezekiel tells them that just as God has handed him a terrible loss and will not countenance grieving, God is about to give all of them a terrible loss -- the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple -- and he will not countenance any mourning out of them, either.

So, this is not cheerful stuff.  There is one passage, the end of Chapter 20, that strikes me as quite funny.  It has classic comic timing, and a punchline that subverts a stern and solemn lead-up with an ingenuous (but not unreasonable) question that kind of undermines the mood.  But is it supposed to be funny?  I certainly doubt it.  But here, you be the judge:
45 The word of the Lord came to me: 46 “Son of man, set your face toward the south; preach against the south and prophesy against the forest of the southland. 47 Say to the southern forest: ‘Hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to set fire to you, and it will consume all your trees, both green and dry. The blazing flame will not be quenched, and every face from south to north will be scorched by it. 48 Everyone will see that I the Lord have kindled it; it will not be quenched.’”

49 Then I said, “Sovereign Lord, they are saying of me, ‘Isn’t he just telling parables?’”