Neither denial nor despair

Statue of the prophet Habakkuk (or “Zuccone”), by Donatello

Walter Brueggemann has some timely thoughts in his book A Pathway of Interpretation (pp.85f.), where he turns his attention in one chapter to the poem that concludes the book of Habakkuk:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
    and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
    and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
    and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

Habakkuk is believed to have been writing in the late 7th century BCE, as Babylon’s regional power increased and began to threaten the kingdom of Judah, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Brueggemann writes:

There were in Jerusalem, perhaps, two prevailing moods. On the one hand there was, concerning the coming disaster, a sense articulated by Hananiah in Jeremiah 28, a refusal to be realistic about the coming calamity. On the other hand, there may well have been, as the calamity became clear and unavoidable, a sense of hopelessness that always lost.

This looming prospect of political and social catastrophe leads to two possible attitudes, both of which will be familiar to us today:

The twin temptations of denial and despair may have been very powerful in Jerusalem, denial rooted in Jerusalem theology, despair grounded in the awareness of Babylonian power.

“Against both temptations the poet speaks,” continues Brueggemann. In the first half of the stanza quoted above, Habakkuk is blunt in his rejection of denial: the disaster is going to happen, no use pretending otherwise or taking refuge in false comfort. But that is not the end of the story: Habakkuk drags us up out of despair with his insistent “yet,” his affirmation that Israel has not, despite appearances, lost their “ultimate resource and guarantor,” YHWH.

Brueggemann concludes:

The whole is an insistence when YHWH is confessed to be the primal actor in the life of the world, neither denial nor despair is appropriate. Either temptation makes perfectly compelling sense when “the world is without God.” The poem insists, to the contrary, that the world is not “without God.” YHWH is present as strength and saviour.

It is this “alternative rendering of reality” that is the role of this poet and prophet, and a continuing task for the church.


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.