Good morning! Today’s three chapters (Ezekiel 15-17) deploy detailed metaphors to describe Jerusalem’s relationship to God. Prophets use metaphors and analogies with some regularity. They are accessible to more people and have a way of sticking in the imagination. Jesus himself used metaphors often in teaching—he used them in stories that we now call “parables”. They play on everyday experiences and knowledge (such as that of vines, eagles and trees in chapters 15 and 17) to illumine and persuade in the course of a conversation. This is how vines, eagles and tress in chapters 15 and 17 convey feelings about Jerusalem’s disobedience of God and conduct during Babylonian occupation. So far, so good. However, the metaphor that gets such detailed exposition in Ezekiel 16 plays on anti-woman stereotypes that (thankfully) have diminishing traction in communicating anything about the divine. Comparing Judah to a loose woman ignores the actual experiences of “comfort women” and others whose bodies and souls suffered from the conquest of one invading army after another. Furthermore, such a construct limits how we understand the roles that God might play in liberating all who are oppressed, women especially.
The metaphor plays on damaging stereotypes about women, overdone assumptions that are still with us thousands of years later. Briefly, Ezekiel compares Jerusalem to an abandoned newborn, wanted by nobody and thrown away. Yet God shows compassion and encourages its growth into adulthood, at which point God marries Jerusalem and spares no expense or trouble in taking care of “her”, but offered every good thing. Already we can see the tropes of “woman as helpless” and “man as provider”, which leave no room for female agency.
Here’s when things go from bad to worse. According to Ezekiel, the wife of God chose infidelity rather than faithfulness to the one who had showed her such care. We can recognize this way of talking about worship of other gods because other prophets have said similar things. However, to “get” the parable, one must share the prophet’s assumption that wealthy women have wandering eyes. What’s more, the response of God (as a scorned husband) fits a classic scenario of domestic violence. The powerful and jealous man suspects the woman of infidelity, and brow-beats her into submission, sometimes literally and other times by withholding goods or threatening shameful exposure. These are all means by which God in the metaphor responds to Israel, and we are to assume that they are all justified. “Reality” is constructed (by abusive men and by Ezekiel here) such that wrongdoings are all the woman’s fault, and therefore she “deserves” the punishment coming to her. Thankfully, these assumptions are more likely called into question today, when we are more attuned to listen for a woman’s own experience, show compassion, and refuse to treat anyone abused as though they deserved it. Even though we will encounter it again in the prophecy of Hosea, using domestic violence as stock for a theological symbol is reaching the end of its shelf life these days. The metaphor is broken; thanks be to God.
Before closing, let’s take a moment to remember different scriptural and theological resources which are counter-examples for how to respond to such a metaphor. Rather than presuming God is a jealous husband, some feminist and womanist theologians have wondered how we might think about God as the woman in this situation. We can also remember what Jesus does with a woman caught in adultery and exposed to public shame (while the partner with whom she was caught is nowhere to be found). Rather than joining in her public humiliation, Jesus tells her accusers that those without sin should cast the first stone. Another prophet gives us words for thinking beyond the categories of the past: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8) Metaphors may be reinterpreted, and that too is the work of an ever-creative God. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Ezekiel 18-20. Thanks for reading!