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.