October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
January 12, 2004
Ezekiel 16 would be an uncommon text to hear in a weekend service. It is a very long text, 53 verses and over 1500 words. Furthermore, there are three separate depictions of God’s generosity to mankind. However, this is the only prophetic text banned in the Jewish synagogue  and not included in Christian liturgy. This text swept into a dark corner of the Bible, has the potential to cause us to question Paul’s maxim to Timothy that all scripture is useful or even that we desire God’s interaction in our lives. The connecting links in this text are a brutally graphic and pornographic depiction of the deterioration of an incestuous relationship. Realizing the full weight of this imagery, it is difficult to see  promise and opportunity that live within this text and are offered to us. Similar imagery in other stories provides a useful context to understand how this entire story depicts God’s covenant and promise. These stories allow us to glimpse another possibility of redemption requiring the vocal participation of both parties as a more plausible alternative to the restoration in silence that appears only by divine fiat in the story of Jerusalem and her God told in Ezekiel 16.
The Problematic Passage
Ezekiel 16 begins with the attestation that both the narrator and protagonist of the story is God himself. It continues with the metaphor of God adopting and raising the child Jerusalem, after that child’s abandonment by its unfit biological parents, an Amorite and a Hittite. This first section (Ezekiel 16:3-6) on its own is a comfortable and beautiful example of the Judeo – Christian doctrine of God as our rescuer and adoptive father. The specific imagery is evocative of adoption rituals of its day. Ezekiel 16:9-14 repeats the theme of the generosity of God as provider. God, as husband, cares for and adorns His bride, Jerusalem. In between, there is the first problem: the transition from God as Father to God as Lover and Husband.
“Then you grew up, became tall and reached the age for fine ornaments; your breasts were formed and your hair had grown. Yet you were naked and bare. Then I passed by you and saw you, and behold, you were at the time for love; so I spread My skirt over you and covered your nakedness. I also swore to you and entered into a covenant with you so that you became Mine,” declares the Lord GOD. Then I bathed you with water, washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. – Ezekiel 16:7-9 (NASB)
This transition should scandalize the reader. A father comes upon his naked daughter and notices for the first time that puberty has set in. There is blood. He “covers” her. He swears to her and claims her as his property. Sigmund Freud is notorious for suggesting that the desire for this oedipal transition is latent between all fathers and daughters and so a greater scandal may be that it does not shock. A consenting relationship cannot exist when dialogue does not occur between the two parties making love. Silence is not assent, especially when the silent party is not given a voice and the capacity to say ‘No’. A child in need does not have the opportunity to reject or embrace the intrusion of her own self by her provider. Of course, this cannot be incestual rape as we understand it because the actor in the scene is God.
Shame and sin rapidly consume this relationship. A frequent pattern for a young girl who has experienced abuse is later promiscuity. A consequence for a woman forced to bear children that she does not ask for or want at the behest of a husband to whom she have never spoken, not even to say, ‘I do,’ is that she does not care for them well. These two patterns are depicted in Ezekiel 16:15-34 in rather disgusting detail. This section is the preamble to a second problem. Yahweh, the father-husband, reacts to Jerusalem’s reaction to her treatment. This is what He screams at her in His anger:
“I’m going to get all your lovers together, all those you’ve used for your own pleasure, the ones you loved and the ones you loathed. I’ll assemble them as a courtroom of spectators around you. In broad daylight I’ll strip you naked before them–they’ll see what you really look like. Then I’ll sentence you to the punishment for an adulterous woman and a murderous woman. I’ll give you a taste of my wrath! I’ll gather all your lovers around you and turn you over to them. They’ll tear down your bold brothels and sex shrines. They’ll rip off your clothes, take your jewels, and leave you naked and exposed. Then they’ll call for a mass meeting. The mob will stone you and hack you to pieces with their swords. They’ll burn down your houses. A massive judgment–with all the women watching! I’ll have put a full stop to your whoring life–no more paying lovers to come to your bed!” (Ezekiel 16:37-41 MSG)
In branding Jerusalem a prostitute, God betrays the name that Jerusalem might call Him: pimp. This is one word for a man who rescues a stray waif, feeds her so that she can grow, violates her, adorns her body and later throws her naked in the street to be raped. The God-husband of the story throws the stripped naked child-wife to men to abuse and beat her and then relents of his anger. The pattern of alternating seduction, violation, anger, and contrition is that of a spousal abuser. Finally, the claiming of a woman as property and then prostituting her is sexual slavery. These names explain why Jerusalem, like her mother and sisters, “couldn’t stand her husband and children.” (Ezekiel 16:45)
Problematic even as a Metaphor
As scandalous and horrific as the metaphor in Ezekiel 16 is, it is very important to remember that it is still just a metaphor. However, this metaphor, directly narrated by God, contains elements that go beyond hyperbole and raises more questions than it answers. The metaphor sets the girl up for prostitution and infidelity by the initial scandal that approaches incest and pedophilia. Jerusalem is denied her voice and never speaks throughout the passage. Robbed of speech, she has no power against her abuser/protector and is an object, wholly dependent upon the ephemeral divine whim. God praises her only for her beauty before others in verse 15 and then rebukes her in verse 16 for trusting in that beauty. God chooses to invite her co-adulterers to rape and batter his espoused wife instead of merely removing his protection from her as she went about her dangerous retreat from his presence. In this mockery of justice, she is not allowed to confront her accusers or present a defense or explanation of her actions.
The oddity that we as hearers of God and readers of Scripture must confront is that this is a metaphor attested in scripture as a direct pronouncement by God to represent Himself not just to persecuted and idolatrous Jerusalem but also to us today. This presentation of God as a figure that commits acts which we condemn as reprehensible challenges our source authority to prevent these behaviors. Misused, these scriptures have the potential to condone the actions of a man beating his wife and raping his child.
Situational and Scriptural Context
The nation of Israel, represented by the city of Jerusalem, had fallen into idolatry, apostasy and forbidden contact with other nations. Many of the descriptions are required because of the tenor of the metaphor. These were representative of what God’s people were doing without Him. The murder of infants in the story reflects the actual child sacrifice and murder performed to idols. The bizarre punishment reflects what was actually about to happen to Jerusalem with the destruction of the temple and the Babylonian captivity. By the nature of its content this metaphor elicits an emotional response of indignation and shock on the part of its recipients and this forced them to pay attention to the Lord they had been steadfastly ignoring.
In some ways, it is not at all scandalous and instead has become cliché to speak of God separately in terms of both adopted father and husband simultaneously. These metaphors are part of standard Christian Trinitarian theology. God, the Father, is our parent and Christ, the son, is to be our bridegroom. It is with the aid of the Holy Spirit that we play our own parts and the church plays its part in fostering and furthering the Kingdom of God. Ezekiel 16 uses hyperbole to force us to reevaluate the held-at-arms-length intellectual cliché of the Trinity in personal terms that address our own hearts. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other prophets speak to the virgin daughter of Zion on the behest of God. For Jesus God was Abba, Daddy, but he then went on to speak of the virgin daughters marrying the bridegroom. Paul describes our relationship to God then not as children and parents but as a married couple (Ephesians 5). As a Christian, this relational mixing is a small taste of one’s relationship to the triune God. However, this mixing, at first reflex, we want to spit out and vomit when swallowed as Ezekiel vividly describes since it is both hot and cold at the same time.
Scriptural and Literary Parallels
Marriage between a father and his daughter (representing Yahweh and the city Jerusalem respectively) would not work in our world, but there are provisions and stories of this in the Hebrew Scriptures. The stories of Lot and his daughters as well as those of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar in Genesis cover the shame and the scandal through the exigency of continuing the family line and then discontinuing the sexual relationship, whereas there is neither exigency nor discontinuation in Ezekiel 16. The Levitical laws do not forbid the marriage in Ezekiel 16 on the grounds of specificity as well as the adoption making them not near kin. The Ezekiel parable is more similar to that of Ruth and Boaz. However, that story has almost no scandal in it and could be a model for the hope of the relationship in Ezekiel 16. The differences in the Ruth story may in some part account for the disparate endings as well.
This scandal of an adopted daughter marrying her sole provider and caretaker, her father, is also addressed in modern literature. Adrian Lynne masterfully elucidates this theme in his depiction of Nabokov’s controversial 1955 novel Lolita. This story is both that of a predatory pedophile, Humbert Humbert, who despoils a beautiful young girl, Dolores Haze – Lolita, plunging her into a very dark world and the ‘greatest love story of our century’. In the end though, this story is the tragedy that we expected from the beginning. In a less well-known example, Robert Heinlein includes ‘The Tale of the Adopted Daughter’ in his novel/anthology Time Enough for Love. In this story, the near immortal father, Lazarus Long, rescues an ephemeral young girl, Dora, tossed to him out the window of a burning house immediately before she is orphaned. He raises her and then as he is preparing to leave, she exposes that she knows his secrets and asks for a token of their relationship by which to remember him. Long responds to her by entering into a mutual covenant with Dora and then conceiving their first child together. They live happily ever after. Dora eventually dies of old age surrounded by great grandchildren and her husband, Lazarus, singing her to sleep in her own bed.
There are many points of congruence betwixt these stories. In each tale, a unique or extraordinary circumstance causes the very young girl or woman to be rescued from being orphaned. In Ezekiel, the infant girl has been cast out and thrown away. Lolita is orphaned when her mother (a widow since Lolita’s early childhood) is hit by a car. Dora is rescued from a burning house that claims the lives of both her parents. Ruth is a widow and an alien with no means of support. These women are all initially lavished with gifts from their suitors. Dora is given matching rubies. Lolita extorts almost anything that she wants from the tortured Humbert. Ruth is given protection and honor. Jerusalem the bride is given fine food, clothing, and jewelry such that she is known amongst many nations for the beauty bestowed upon her by God, her husband.
For all the similarity of setting though, the stories have radically different outcomes. Ruth/Boaz and Dora/Lazarus both have happy marriages and their stories have happy conclusions. In both of these stories, the woman has a much stronger voice and an older no longer virginal bride is the initiator of the transformed relationship. The husband’s concern for the welfare of his adopted daughter is paramount. Once assured of the woman’s will, the husband-to-be is able to embark the couple on a transformational voyage that bears amazing fruit. In both stories, the strong woman becomes a great-grandmother to multitudes: either pioneers of a new land (Dora) or kings of Israel (Ruth). Heinlein’s protagonist, Lazarus, reflectively describes the effect of this transformation on him after many happy years of marriage:
‘Dora is the only woman I loved unreservedly. I don’t know that I can explain why. .. The longer that I was privileged to live with Dora, the more I loved her. She taught me to love by loving me, and I learned – rather slowly; I wasn’t too good a pupil being set in my ways and lacking her natural talent. But I did learn.’
Lolita and Humbert’s story plays a middle ground in the age, experience, and strength of voice of the girl. Lolita seduces Humbert after he rescues her from camp and his conscience prevents him from ravishing her as he desperately longs. Lolita has control over Humbert emotionally as well as she has control over herself, and she is not afraid to extort Humbert with threats of legal intervention – even though she doesn’t really intend such since they would ruin her fantasy. In Lolita and Ezekiel 16, the woman ultimately finds her voice in escaping her suitor. Tragically, they encounter much worse treatment at the hands of outsiders (Clare Quilty or the surrounding nations) who assist them in escaping the trap of men who confusingly remain both father and lover, simultaneously. Lolita escapes both Humbert and Quilty to marry Dick a young man about her own age with whom she could begin a normal life. Humbert blesses her in this with the proceeds of her mother’s estate even though he still desires her. Humbert experiences his own transformation and redemption in this blessing of Lolita. Only a mad man or a mad god would think or say as he does at this moment in the film:
‘I looked and looked at her and I knew as clearly as I know that I will die… that I loved her more than anything I’d ever seen or imagined on earth. She was only the dead leaf echo of the nymphet from long ago, but I loved her; this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another man’s child. She could fade and whither I didn’t care. I would still go mad with tenderness…at the mere sight of her face.’
Jerusalem and Yahweh’s story is much darker. Jerusalem is not tenderly cared for by her father after the initial rescue, indeed there is the suggestion that he leaves her naked and still in her own blood until such time as she is ripe for him to spread his skirt over her and marry her. Jerusalem does not have Lolita’s opportunity to escape and marry a young man of her own choosing. Instead, she is tormented by Yahweh, her unchosen husband, who strips her and throws her to the outsiders from whom she tried to escape to be violated, raped, and beaten.
There is a sense within Ezekiel 16, as in all these stories, that the events are not in accord with the father/husband’s plans. It is undeniable that the various suitors all deeply desire relationship with their young brides. Although, in the latter parts of Ezekiel 16, Yahweh has a very strange way of showing His desire for relationship. The level of intensity of Humbert’s desire for relationship and renewal closely mirrors that shown by Yahweh in verse 53, 60, 62, and 63 when despite everything that Jerusalem and God have done to each other as husband and wife he still speaks of renewing covenant, restoring fortunes, and forgiveness. This bit at the very end is the third section that on its own Christian pastors may use in sermons prefiguring and pointing to Christ without fully exposing the scandal of the earlier parts of the chapter.
God is a Trinity of parent, lover, and co-parent and we need to respond as child, lover, and co-parent. It is only by the grace of God that we may be saved as we lie kicking in the blood of our birth. It can also only be after our voiced response to that salvation and to subsequent gifts that we may travel beyond ourselves and our shock to a partnership with God our Lover in creating and bearing and raising the kingdom. Even the most loving intrusion, apart from an assenting voice claiming adulthood and embracing the entrance of the divine, is the bloody rape of an adolescent. How much then out of fear do we remain as children, refuse to grow up, deny our post-pubescence, and (as in the metaphor) consummate our betrothal to God? Instead, we often remain taller children or enter a celibate marriage that bears no fruit. Unless we confront the scandal of God’s love, we will pay for the affections of unworthy suitors with blood: His, our children’s, and ours. We cannot say, ‘I do,’ until we are ready to go to bed with God and bear Our children in our own blood and pain. Only then will we enter into Ruth or Dora’s happily ever after rather than another repetition of Jerusalem or Lolita’s tragedy.
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Day, Linda. ‘Rhetoric and Domestic Violence in Ezekiel 16.’ Biblical Interpretation vol 8, no 3. © 2000. p. 205-230.
Day, Peggy L. ‘The Bitch had it Coming to Her: Rhetoric and Interpretation in Ezekiel 16’. Biblical Interpretation vol 8, no 3. © 2000. p. 231-254.
Harris, Laird, Archer and Waltke eds. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Moody, 1980.
Heinlein, Robert A. ‘The Tale of the Adopted Daughter’. Time Enough for Love. © 1973.
Lyne, Adrian. Lolita. © 1997. Based upon the book of the same name by Nabokov, Vladimir. © 1955.
Malul, Meir. ‘Adoption of foundlings in the Bible and Mesopotamian documents. A study of some legal metaphors in Ezekiel 16:1-7.’ Journal for the Study of the Old Testament , Vol.no 46 (F 1990), p. 97-126.
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Shields, Mary. ‘Multiple Exposures. Body Rhetoric and Gender Characterization in Ezekiel 16.’ Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion , Vol.14 (Spr 1998), p. 5-18
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 Shields, p. 6.
 Actually little of Ezekiel shows up in the various liturgies, primarily 36:16-28 and 37:1-14 which are included in Easter Vigil for all three years. http://www.textweek.com/lamentations_ezekiel.htm
 The transliteration of the Hebrew word for the unpronounceable personal name of God.
 Yahweh was somewhat unique, in the ancient world, in never demanding child or human sacrifice. The only reference to human sacrifice to Yahweh in Hebrew scripture is Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac which is prevented by God’s provision of a ram.
 Peggy Day expands further on this idea.
 Isaiah 30, 31, Jeremiah 31.
 As attributed to the reviewers from Vanity Fair on the cover of Lolita.
 Heinlein, p. 326-327.