Your prophet is problematic: is Ezekiel a misogynist?

Fig. 13: Hodegetria icon from Kaftun (11th201313th c.).
Hodegetria icon from Kaftun (11th-13thC) (src)

In many ways I love the Book of Ezekiel: the astonishing vision with which it opens; the promises of restoration for God’s battered and exiled people, and so on. Reading it recently, though, I’ve struggled with some aspects of it (to which I’ve presumably become more sensitised since I last read it): namely, Ezekiel’s use of language and imagery that can only really strike the modern reader as violently misogynistic in nature.

Chapters 16 (“Therefore, O whore, hear the word of the Lord”and 23 (“When she carried on her whorings so openly and flaunted her nakedness, I turned in disgust from her”) are the most glaring examples. But even a glorious passage like chapter 36:16-end (with its promise that “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you”) starts with this:

their conduct in my sight was like the uncleanness of a woman in her menstrual period.

And yes, I know this is referring to OT laws on ceremonial cleanness, and forms part of wider prohibitions on blood in ceremonial contexts. But it is still language that looks shocking to modern eyes, and which (as has been pointed out to me on Twitter, leading me to edit this paragraph) can cause real distress today.

Having issued something of a cri de coeur about this on Twitter, yesterday afternoon I found myself drawn to restart reading Rowan Williams’ book Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin, which I’d first started a few years ago but somehow got distracted from finishing.

The book is based on icons of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and in the opening chapter Dr Williams discusses the Hodegetria, “she who points the way.” He highlights how, in most depictions of this icon, the Mother of God is pointing to her Son, thus providing an example of how we are to point people to Jesus rather to ourselves. But we should also note how, in many versions of the icon (such as that shown above), Jesus gazes back at his mother, demonstrating God’s love for us, his people.

As Williams writes:

God is not content for me to say only, ‘Forget me, I don’t matter’, because God’s attentive love looks to me, assuring me that he is, to adapt the scriptural phrase, ‘not ashamed to be called my God’, not ashamed to be who he is and to be identified as who he is in relation to me, even though I am a mess.

The allusion is to Hebrews 11:16, “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God” (see also Hebrews 2:11, “For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters”). In Hebrews 11, the writer is referring to the Old Testament people of Israel, the “crowd of witnesses” who lived “by faith”. It is these of whom God is “not ashamed”:

Throughout the biblical story, God accepts identification in terms of those he works with — the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Lord God of Israel, the one whose ‘body’ is the community of Christian believers. There is no safe and pure self-identification for God except the mysterious affirmation of the divine freedom to be identified as the God who chooses a recalcitrant and mutinous people (‘I will be what I will be’, as Exodus 3:13 is best translated).

The lesson I draw from that is this: just as (astonishingly) God is “not ashamed to be called my God,” so he is not ashamed to be called Ezekiel’s God. Yes, Ezekiel lived in a patriarchal and misogynistic society, and his writing reflects this. But we neither need to whitewash what he says — as if misogynistic language ceases to be misogynistic when it becomes “sacred Scripture” — nor to cast him aside as the “problematic” relic of a bygone age.

Just as God is not ashamed to be called Ezekiel’s God — just as Jesus is not ashamed to call Ezekiel (and me) his brothers, and hence Ezekiel and me brothers of one another — so we should not be ashamed either of how, and through whom, God has chosen to work and to speak.

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7 thoughts on “Your prophet is problematic: is Ezekiel a misogynist?”

    1. I was quoting those as shorthand. What I had in mind was more extended passages such as:

      How sick is your heart, says the Lord God, that you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen whore; building your platform at the head of every street, and making your lofty place in every square! Yet you were not like a whore, because you scorned payment. Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband! Gifts are given to all whores; but you gave your gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from all around for your whorings. So you were different from other women in your whorings: no one solicited you to play the whore; and you gave payment, while no payment was given to you; you were different.

      Therefore, O whore, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whoring with your lovers, and because of all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, therefore, I will gather all your lovers, with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated; I will gather them against you from all around, and will uncover your nakedness to them, so that they may see all your nakedness. I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring blood upon you in wrath and jealousy. I will deliver you into their hands, and they shall throw down your platform and break down your lofty places; they shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful objects and leave you naked and bare. They shall bring up a mob against you, and they shall stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords.

      Or this:

      She lusted after the Assyrians, governors and commanders, warriors clothed in full armour, mounted horsemen, all of them handsome young men. And I saw that she was defiled; they both took the same way. But she carried her whorings further; she saw male figures carved on the wall, images of the Chaldeans portrayed in vermilion, with belts around their waists, with flowing turbans on their heads, all of them looking like officers—a picture of Babylonians whose native land was Chaldea. When she saw them she lusted after them, and sent messengers to them in Chaldea. And the Babylonians came to her into the bed of love, and they defiled her with their lust; and after she defiled herself with them, she turned from them in disgust. When she carried on her whorings so openly and flaunted her nakedness, I turned in disgust from her, as I had turned from her sister. Yet she increased her whorings, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt and lusted after her paramours there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose emission was like that of stallions. Thus you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when the Egyptians fondled your bosom and caressed your young breasts. […]

      I will direct my indignation against you, in order that they may deal with you in fury. They shall cut off your nose and your ears, and your survivors shall fall by the sword. They shall seize your sons and your daughters, and your survivors shall be devoured by fire. They shall also strip you of your clothes and take away your fine jewels. So I will put an end to your lewdness and your whoring brought from the land of Egypt; you shall not long for them, or remember Egypt any more. For thus says the Lord God: I will deliver you into the hands of those whom you hate, into the hands of those from whom you turned in disgust; and they shall deal with you in hatred, and take away all the fruit of your labour, and leave you naked and bare, and the nakedness of your whorings shall be exposed. Your lewdness and your whorings have brought this upon you, because you played the whore with the nations, and polluted yourself with their idols.

      In any other context, that sort of language would be seen as violently misogynistic in nature. Given that I (a) believe the Bible to be the Word of God, and (b) don’t believe God to be violently misogynistic, that’s where the problem arose for me.

      It might well be that more careful/informed exegesis would help me out with this; all I’m saying in this post is that what actually helped in the immediate term was Dr Williams’ encouragement to come at things from another direction; to be more patient with the Bible (which is always important with “difficult” passages).

      1. I have never struggled with these passages – perhaps I’m not sensitive enough.

        To my mind, the whole point is the lurid OTT nature of Israel’s unfaithfulness. It’s in the same prophetic tradition as Hosea: the behaviour of God’s bride (Hosea’s wife) is contrary to every expectation. Misogynistic societies may depict ‘whoring’ women as a depraved class. Ezekiel (and Hosea) depict Israel as a sui generis ‘whore’ in acting contrary to expectation.

        Outside the pagan cultic context, prostitution was frequently linked to penury (as it still frequently is). To have a husband and to run off into self-exposing prostitution is ridiculously depraved—the opposite of stereotypical—making Israel’s sin all the more inexcusable.

  1. Have you tried putting the shoe on the other foot?

    It just occurred to me that once the impulse of modern perception strikes, one could take it’s standing for granted and ask God and Ezekiel to explain themselves and their language. In the end you decided to be patient with them. However, the whole analysis implicitly grants that they’re rightly the defendants.

    Alternatively, upon the modern perceptive impulse one could ask it to explain itself.

    “In any other context . . .” Well it’s not any other context. Why is it that modern perception has a right to judge any particular thing by how it appears in any context of it’s choosing?

  2. I think the key exegetical point is really the most obvious: this language might well be offensive to our ears [1], but we should learn from that how much more offensive is sin to God. This was not intended to be a genteel piece of domesticated poetry to which the Israelites might listen, stroke their beards thoughtfully and murmur how very true it all was, after all! They were supposed to hear, to tremble and to repent. Shock was the order of the day, and in that sense I suspect that its effect carries across the centuries very, very well.

    [1] I remember discovering some of these more lurid sections of Ezekiel as a child, maybe young teenager, and being stunned at the savage imagery.

    1. I think it’s easier to be stunned-yet-appreciative of savage imagery that is distanced from one at the remove of gender. That is, it’s harder to read passages like

      “Therefore, Oholibah, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will stir up your lovers against you, those you turned away from in disgust, and I will bring them against you from every side— 23 the Babylonians and all the Chaldeans, the men of Pekod and Shoa and Koa, and all the Assyrians with them, handsome young men, all of them governors and commanders, chariot officers and men of high rank, all mounted on horses. 24 They will come against you with weapons,[d] chariots and wagons and with a throng of people; they will take up positions against you on every side with large and small shields and with helmets. I will turn you over to them for punishment, and they will punish you according to their standards. 25 I will direct my jealous anger against you, and they will deal with you in fury. They will cut off your noses and your ears, and those of you who are left will fall by the sword. They will take away your sons and daughters, and those of you who are left will be consumed by fire. 26 They will also strip you of your clothes and take your fine jewelry. 27 So I will put a stop to the lewdness and prostitution you began in Egypt. You will not look on these things with longing or remember Egypt anymore.

      28 “For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to deliver you into the hands of those you hate, to those you turned away from in disgust. 29 They will deal with you in hatred and take away everything you have worked for. They will leave you stark naked, and the shame of your prostitution will be exposed. Your lewdness and promiscuity 30 have brought this on you, because you lusted after the nations and defiled yourself with their idols. 31 You have gone the way of your sister; so I will put her cup into your hand”

      which is, to be frank, glorifying ritualised and sexualised violence, including violent disfigurement against women if one is in fact a woman. Yes, it’s a metaphor, but it’s a metaphor that affects one part of the audience more directly than another part, especially since — as you mentioned “stroking beards” — the part for whom the metaphor is less directly applicable are the visible/important/official audience.

      1. I’m not sure that appreciative has quite the correct connotations for my response, but this is the kind of discussion that is fraught with linguistic traps. I was struggling for some time with the right words to describe the understandable, negative reaction to this passage: shock? revulsion? disgust? Words like difficulty and discomfort have a precision that makes them accurate, so far as they go, but almost certainly inadequate.

        All of which is to say: I agree, it can be hard for a man to understand exactly the response that women will have in reading a passage like this, and that knocks on, almost inexorably, into difficulties in any attempt to discuss the shock and how it sits in relation to the way that we understand the passage. As a result of failing to perceive the knock-on effect, I failed at doing justice to the first part of that relationship. I think the most appropriate apology will be to acknowledge this and bow out.

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