“I can believe that God is good, but I will not believe in a God that is nice.”
So said (more or less) a friend of mine who isn’t much of a believer at all. But I share the sentiment. We moderns have done something worse than made God all-good — we’ve made God all-nice. (Liberal Protestants especially want a nice God, a God who somehow does nothing troubling or violent while at the same time challenging and toppling every prejudice and power structure.) “The God I know would never command his people to do that,” a seminary colleague once said of one of the nastier bits of the Old Testament — specifically, Deuteronomy 7, where God commands Israel to show no mercy and exterminate or expel the Canaanites.
My colleague — who is a pastor I respect dearly (and note, she is an ELCA pastor, and I am not) — isn’t the only person I’ve ever met who has trouble with some of the things God is recorded as doing to Israel, or asking Israel to do, in scripture.
We have a problem with the notion of God being Good, some kind of morally intelligible form of goodness to us. I always tell people I do Bible studies with to drop the “omnis” — omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent — because those ideas of God simply get in the way of really encountering God in the story, and seeing how God really meets us. Goodness, honestly, is a notion I think I ought to ask people to rid themselves of. At least some idea of goodness that makes sense to us.
“God is good,” we can say (and reply, “All the time!”), but frankly, I’m hard pressed to explain what God’s goodness really means. Aside from the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
I bring this all up because there’s a lot of talk about marriage these days, what with courts and legislatures creating rights for homosexuals to legally marry (and while countries now voting to approve such a thing). Many conservative Christians point to scripture and say “the Bible teaches that marriage is one man and one woman,” citing a couple of passages in Genesis (one echoed later by Jesus in his talk on divorce) that seem to suggest the purpose of marriage is partnership, procreation, and companionship.
Sure, why not? I have a wonderful marriage — my wife Jennifer is my best friend. We’re incredible companions and reasonably good partners. We don’t have children, but as I’ve said before, not through lack of trying. However, as I have noted in my life, there are all kinds of marriages, and lots of couples aren’t partners or companions.
The problem I have with this use of Genesis is that the story which follows is full of a great deal of polygamy (and polygamy outlawed by revelation at that), and none of that is really condemned (unless we look at the teaching itself to condemn Abraham’s marriage to his half-sister, Lot’s drunken orgy with his daughters, and all the rest). Scripture doesn’t grudgingly accept men with more than one wife (or concubines), it doesn’t say anything about it at all.
(Well, until Paul writes out a couple of job descriptions.)
Yes, the church has long taught monogamous marriage, but the early church also had to deal with polygamy as well. I recall reading that Clement of Alexandria read Jesus’ admonition against divorce as a proclamation that men who came to the faith with more than one wife should be allowed to keep them. Apparently, the teaching on monogamy was such that some bishops required disposing of extra wives, something that left women (and likely children) vulnerable. The church might not sanction polygamous marriages, but it would accept them under certain conditions.
(Hmm… What if, as a Muslim, I’d Islamically married more than one wife? Then we all became Christian? How would the church have dealt with that? Why am I even asking? I know exactly what kind of high-octane freak-out there would have been.)
Some supporters of this more traditional understanding of marriage also point to the relationship of God and Israel, or Christ and the Church, as a “marriage.” And here they are scripturally on far more solid ground. God is Israel’s spouse — the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah declare it so:
4 “Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
for you will forget the shame of your youth,
and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
5 For your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called.
6 For the Lord has called you
like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
says your God.
7 For a brief moment I deserted you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
8 In overflowing anger for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
says the Lord, your Redeemer.
(Isaiah 54:4-8 ESV)
31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:31-32 ESV)
However, the problem we have with all this is that the notion of “marriage” here is subject to our very idealized and romantic understanding of it. The church — being us — is the “bride of Christ,” and we wrap that in a notion of marriage in which everyone is happy and nice and good and pure and all will be happy ever after.
Thankfully, we have scripture to disabuse us of that notion. Thanks to Ezekiel, scripture actually delves into this metaphor in brutal and gory detail, using it extensively in Ezekiel 16 and 23. It is not for the faint of heart, this description of God and Israel (and thus God and church) as spouses. Because it is an awful, no good, very bad marriage.
(Yes, I know, Hosea does this too. But not like Ezekiel.)
I’m going to ask that you keep a Bible handy. I will quote lengthy passages of both chapters, but you should have them handy anyway.
So, Ezekiel begins chapter 16 this way:
1 Again the word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations, 3 and say, Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. 4 And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. 5 No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born.
6 “And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live! ’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live! ’ 7 I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare. (Ezekiel 16:1-7 ESV)
Now, this passage is both incredibly tender and very, very creepy. Tender, in that God proclaims Israel as something of an abandoned baby, a child no one wanted, left to die. And God found this baby — the parentage almost suggests illegitimacy — adopts it, cares for it, makes it live when it was going to die. “I made you flourish,” God says to Israel. You owe me your life, God is saying.
Creepy, because it’s clear Israel is a young woman, and God looks upon Israel … as a woman. God comes off as a bit of a pederast here, and that’s only confirmed in the following verses:
8 “When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine. 9 Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. 10 I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk. 11 And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck. 12 And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. 13 Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. 14 And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord God. (Ezekiel 16:8-14 ESV)
God takes possession of the nubile, young Israel. Now, after some years, God finally covers Israel’s nakedness. A marriage is consummated here in the covenant God makes with Israel. This is quite possibly the holiest sex act in the Bible. And because of this, God bathes and dresses and adorns Israel with fine clothes and jewelry. This beautiful young woman is known among all the peoples of the world because of her beauty — which has been bestowed upon her by hew husband, the Lord God.
However, Israel would betray this understanding.
But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore because of your renown and lavished your whorings on any passerby; your beauty became his. (Ezekiel 16:15 ESV)
Israel trusted not God, but the things God had given her. And so, infidelity becomes a metaphor, a way of explaining, idolatry. Israel takes the fine gifts of God — clothes, jewelry, even “my bread that I gave you” — and builds shrines to false gods, lavishes them on her lovers, sacrifices to those false gods. Israel even sacrifices her “sons and daughters, whom you had borne” to God, to those false gods. Israel’s sins are idolatry and, more importantly, ungratefulness:
And in all your abominations and your whorings you did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare, wallowing in your blood. (Ezekiel 16:22 ESV)
Israel was so enamored of herself, of her beauty, of her fame, of how good it felt to make love to every handsome stranger who wandered by, that she forgot who made her beautiful, who gave her fame, and why she was beautiful.
God outlines Israel’s infidelities — Egypt, Philisita, Assyria, Chaldea. And yet God says Israel was no mere prostitute, for Israel gave herself away not just for free, but paid her lovers:
32 Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband! 33 Men give gifts to all prostitutes, but you gave your gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from every side with your whorings. 34 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; therefore you were different. (Ezekiel 16:32-34 ESV)
This is Israel, the spouse of God, as a whore. Worse than a whore, for she earns no wages from her infidelity.
And what does God have in store for His faithless wife?
35 “Therefore, O prostitute, hear the word of the Lord: 36 Thus says the Lord God, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whorings with your lovers, and with all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, 37 therefore, behold, 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 every side and will uncover your nakedness to them, that they may see all your nakedness. 38 And I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring upon you the blood of wrath and jealousy. 39 And I will give you into their hands, and they shall throw down your vaulted chamber and break down your lofty places. They shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful jewels and leave you naked and bare. 40 They shall bring up a crowd against you, and they shall stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords. (Ezekiel 16:35-40 ESV)
God’s answer is: violence and destruction. Actually, the passage suggests a gang rape. (Ezekiel 23 is even worse.) This will satisfy the Lord God’s anger at Israel’s infidelity and ungratefulness.
God then speaks of Israel’s family, claiming that in her ways, Israel is “the daughter of her mother, who loathed her husband and her children; and you are the sister of your sisters, who loathed their husbands and their children.” (Ezekiel 16:15) Israel is compared unfavorably to her sisters Sodom and Samaria, who didn’t sin anywhere near as much as Israel did:
49 Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom:she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it. 51 Samaria has not committed half your sins. You have committed more abominations than they, and have made your sisters appear righteous by all the abominations that you have committed. 52 Bear your disgrace, you also, for you have intervened on behalf of your sisters. Because of your sins in which you acted more abominably than they, they are more in the right than you. So be ashamed, you also, and bear your disgrace, for you have made your sisters appear righteous. (Ezekiel 16:49-52 ESV)
What’s expressed here is also a kind-of atonement theology: your sins are worse than your sisters, and so because of that, they have been made righteous. God then promises to restore both Sodom and Samaria, while Israel will have to live in her sin and disgrace for some time to come.
But that is not the end. The Lord God then makes a very specific promise to Israel:
59 “For thus says the Lord God:I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath in breaking the covenant, 60 yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish for you an everlasting covenant. 61 Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you take your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and I give them to you as daughters, but not on account of the covenant with you. 62 I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, 63 that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I atone for you for all that you have done, declares the Lord God. (Ezekiel 16:59-63 ESV)
A time is coming when Israel and God will renew their vows, when Israel will remember and be grateful and will live as the Lord God’s loving, devoted, and faithful spouse.
What is most interesting here is the last verse — God himself will atone for what Israel has done (בְּכַפְּרִי־לָךְ֙). The aggrieved partner, God will make the relationship right. It does not say here how that will happen, only that it will. And in doing so, this relationship — in which God took Israel and made Israel God’s own beloved — will be set right.
Israel will have no say in the matter.
Ezekiel 23 is structured much the same way, except that it is more graphic (Israel lusted after her paramours in Egypt “whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue was like that of horses,” v20) and God takes two nubile sisters as wives — in clear violation of the command God gave to Israel at Sinai in Leviticus 18:18. One of the sisters is killed, and this only prompts the other sister on to new acts of lewdness. There is also no hint of redemption coming in Ezekiel 23, for even when the surviving sister is “worn out by her adultery” men “will continue to use her for a whore.” (v43)
And eventually, Israel will be made to pay the penalty for her infidelity, in violence and “terror and plunder.” (v46)
First off, let’s state the obvious — this is an awful marriage. I would tell any man married to such a woman to leave her, because there is no point in putting up with such faithlessness. And I would tell a woman married to a man who did and would allow the things God is commanding … well, such a man would be in prison. At least I hope he would be.
This is not a nice, sentimental, happy marriage. God is not a nice husband. Israel is not a nice spouse. They are not partners or companions. There’s not a shred of niceness anywhere here. So, when we think of ourselves as “the Bride of Christ,” even as God is remaking this relationship, restoring the covenant, and has atoned for our sins of infidelity, remember this is where we’ve come from. And in some ways, I think this is still who we are, too often thinking we are the authors of our own beauty and strength and renown.
We too can very easily slip into infidelity and ungratefulness, failing to remember whose we are.
Moderns, including Christians, have made a fetish of choice. We choose to follow God, we choose to be church, we choose to do the right thing. It’s both democratic and egalitarian, this choosing. But there’s no choice here, just God extending his garment and “taking” us to be His. (Maybe because no one else wanted Israel/church, which is odd, given she was naked for all to see.)
God chose, not Israel.
God chose, not the church.
If anything, it seems as if God has fallen in love with Israel, and this story — told the way it is — is the story of a tired, angry, and even somewhat remorseful God. It is not a sentimental story because ours is not a sentimental God, and the story comes from an age which would not have known what to do with the kind of romantic sentiment we expect, that we see as normal. “I love you,” God said to Israel, “and you returned my love with faithlessness. What I am to do with you?” And yet God refuses to abandon Israel — refuses to divorce Israel and seek another. Instead, God allows Israel to sin, to be ungrateful and unfaithful, letting the record of that sin be His judgment, proclaiming the horrific consequences to come, promising that someday, the marriage vows will be renewed, and the relationship of faithfulness and gratefulness restored. Because God will make it so.
God loves us, the church, His wayward bride. It is right, I think, to see us as slowly living into the promise at the end of Ezekiel 16, a promise that is both right now and not yet. But even in a story as horrific as this (because all we have is the past we have lived, and not some ideal), we know that we are His and he will not let go. No matter what we do. We are his. He is faithful. He is always faithful.