The Prophet Ezekiel and Women

(Apologies to those who tuned in hoping for Children’s Literature Part Two: that’s next time. This week we’re back to the Bible.)

A while ago (here: I posted a little rant about the apparently unfulfilled prophecies in the prophet Jeremiah. Now it’s the turn of the prophet Ezekiel to feel my wrath. I’ll try not to repeat myself too much.

What do most of us know about the book of Ezekiel?

There’s the awesome vision of God on a throne with angels (chapter 1), and there are the dry bones (chapter 37.)  A little bit more digging in the memory might bring out the two images of the watchman (chapters 3 and 33) which can easily be read as blaming you personally for the eternal fates of every person you haven’t spent all your time evangelising. (Surely a wrong interpretation.)

There’s the condemnation of shepherds/leaders, with the promise of God as the good shepherd (chapter 34), and the visions of the glory of God first leaving the Temple (chapter 10) and then returning as a sign of hope (chapter 43).

Ezekiel is 48 chapters long, and there’s a lot more. Like most of the prophets the book follows a pattern of condemnation of Israel/Judah and other nations, predictions of disaster, and then comforting prophecies of eventual restoration and vindication (which personally I don’t think have yet been fulfilled, but that’s in the Jeremiah post.)

Ezekiel however is the one who annoys me the most.

In the Bible, nations are frequently personified as female. Babylon, for example, is a tyrannical, arrogant and promiscuous queen, from Isaiah to Revelation. And in particular when a prophet wants, or is led, to criticise the nations of Israel and Judah, they are often (not always) presented as women. One might think this a bit odd, given that contemporary politics and society were surely run by men. (The historical books, by contrast, tend to analyse the good or bad spiritual state of Israel/Judah by reference to the behaviour of the king.)

Occasionally this symbolic national female is positive and triumphant (especially in Isaiah’s comments on the Assyrian invasion) but more often she is portrayed negatively. Israel and Judah are repeatedly condemned as adulterous wives or prostitutes, usually at the same time. See Jeremiah and Hosea, as well as Ezekiel. (Amos, despite his “cows of Bashan” passage, is more even-handed.)

In chapters 25-32 Ezekiel condemns various other nations in the persons of their kings, such as Pharaoh. But although the individual Jewish human beings he condemns are male priests (Jaazaniah and Pelatiah in chapters 8 and 11) still Israel and Judah are female.

I dislike in particular chapters 16 and 23. Jerusalem in chapter 16 is a “foundling” whom God rescues and beautifies, only for her to become a prostitute. Then in 23, Israel and Judah are sisters Oholah and Oholibah, who “played the harlot” (RSV) or “became whores” (the Message) and are going to be punished.

I don’t think I want to quote these chapters. You can read them for yourselves, and see if you agree with me that if these were not in the Bible, we would condemn them as not merely unpleasant misogyny, but actually violent pornography.

How many men over the centuries, seeking a “holy” excuse for ill-treating a wife or girlfriend, may have found one in these passages? We don’t know, but I can’t believe the numbers aren’t high.

These things aren’t often talked about. My recent Bible reading notes understandably don’t cover every chapter of every OT book, and recently we did the whole of Ezekiel in two weeks – first week on chapters 1-11, second week on chapters 34-38. Maybe next time it’s his turn, we’ll do chapter 16, and I’ll find out what the modern take on it is.

For now I’ll just say that some parts of Ezekiel are revolting.

And yet.

On the other hand.

The Bible isn’t a romantic book, and many of the most famous human marriages (Mary and Joseph, Abraham and Sarah, Ahab and Jezebel, Boaz and Ruth) get by without tenderness or love expressed at all. All right, Abraham mourned for Sarah when she died, as so he should, but he said nothing nice during her lifetime, and he actually treated her abominably.

But Ezekiel… Chapter 24: “Also the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, behold I am about to take the delight of your eyes away from you at a stroke, yet you shall not mourn or weep nor shall your tears run down…’ So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died.”

There is no other mention of Ezekiel’s wife, but there are few more vivid expressions of love in the Bible. The passage gives rise to theological questions, but also to simple empathy. (There is a rather sweet poem by John Piper here:

So did Ezekiel like women, or didn’t he? I wonder.

Love from the PPI Blogger 

Next post (on Children’s Literature) will be on 8th May. Incidentally, I’m hoping in the long run to persuade at least two of you to post about your own favourites: you know who you are! Any other volunteers?)

  • Matthew Perry

    25th April 2020 at 8:13 am Reply

    I hope that, in the interest of balance, you will write about Song of Songs at some point. A picture of love and celebration of sexuality, particularly female sexuality.

  • Matthew Perry

    25th April 2020 at 8:17 am Reply

    I would disagree with your assessment that there is no tenderness expressed between Ruth and Boaz, I read the book as a tender love story.

  • Stephen Hall

    28th April 2020 at 9:59 am Reply

    You are perhaps not a Quentin Tarantino fan, but I’m prepared to wager the best known passage from Ezekiel is 25:17 as repeatedly (mis)quoted, and in the final scene ingeniously interpreted by the Samuel L Jackson character in Pulp Fiction.

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