Every preacher has a list of favorite texts of the Bible that he loves to preach on. They touch something deep within him or her and unleash intellect, imagination, and passion in service of the gospel. For me, my favorite texts include the parables of Luke 15 (“What woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it?”), Christ’s calling of Zacchaeus (“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today”); all of the resurrection stories (“Why do you look for the living among the dead”); Johannine texts like John 1 (“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father”), John 6 (“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”), John 8 (“Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am”), John 14 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me”), Rev 21 (“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more”); Pauline texts like Romans 5 (“Christ died for the ungodly”), Romans 8 (“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”), Gal 2 (“For if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”), Gal 4 (“But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir”), Col 2 (“For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross”), and Eph 2 (“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus”). So many wonderful evangelical texts. So many more could be mentioned.
Every preacher also has a list of biblical texts that he or she finds impossible to preach. For the life of me I do not know how to preach the herem texts where God commands the slaughter of the Canaanites (men, women, and children) or the multitude of appalling judgment texts in the Prophets. These impossible texts share one common feature: they attribute to God attitudes and actions I deem unfitting for the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Absolute Love does not ordain horrific or unjust suffering. Absolute Love always wills the good of his creatures. I suppose that makes me a crypto-Marcionite. Thank God for Origen and his allegorical exegesis. As Fr John Behr recently remarked: “Unless you’re reading Scripture allegorically, you’re not reading it as Scripture” (OnScript podcast).
All of this by way of introducing Ezekiel 20. This is a text that I would never freely choose to preach on. I doubt I would even allude to it in a sermon. You might want to read this chapter before reading on.
Elders of Israel come to the prophet of Ezekiel and ask for a word from the LORD. The word they receive is certainly not one they came to hear. “As I live … I will not be inquired of by you” (Ezek 20:3). YHWH then relates a version of Israel’s history that none of us ever heard in Sunday School or catechism classes, citing three events: God’s self-revelation in Egypt, the exodus, and the entry into the promised land. Each event, as Robert Jenson remarks, “is made to be nothing but an instance of Israel’s unfaithfulness” (Ezekiel, p. 155). Even before the exodus, the prophet tells us, the LORD was angry with his people because of their refusal to abandon their idolatrous practices: “Then I thought I would pour out my wrath upon them and spend my anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt” (Ezek 20:8). Only because of YHWH’s faithfulness to his name did he not abandon or destroy them. So also throughout their wilderness wanderings and their entrance into the promised land.
And then comes the impossible two verses:
Moreover I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not have life; and I defiled them through their very gifts in making them offer by fire all their first-born, that I might horrify them; I did it that they might know that I am the LORD. (Ezek 20:25-26)
My brain immediately fired off the question “Where does God command Israel to practice child sacrifice?” Answer: Exodus 22:29:
The first-born of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do likewise with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall be with its dam; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.
Oh, I’ve read that before. That verse commands child sacrifice? Was I asleep in Fr Joe Hunt’s Old Testament class when this was discussed? The respected Jewish scholar Jon Levenson discusses the topic in his book The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. In the first chapter we learn that scholars vigorously debate whether Israel ever practiced child sacrifice in their worship of YHWH. At the heart of the debate lies the above-quoted verse from Exodus. Does it mandate the ritual killing of the first-born? At first glance it certainly seems to, but consider Exodus 34:20:
The firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the first-born of your sons you shall redeem. And none shall appear before me empty.
I remember this verse too. God provides an escape from the sacrificial mandate by way of redemption. I have always read Exod 22:29 in conjunction with Exod 34:20, along with the story of Abraham and Isaac (Gen 22). The problem, as Levenson notes, is that the substitution provision does not immediately follow Exod 22:29. It belongs to a separate legal corpus. Because of this separation it’s easy to see how the priests of Israel (particularly under syncretistic pressures) might have interpreted this law as expressing the LORD‘s primary cultic will, with Exod 34:20 providing a permitted way for parents who wish to save their first-born sons. The sacrificial offering of one’s child to YHWH would then be plausibly judged not only as a licit and nonidolatrous act of propitiation but also an especially devout and holy propitiatory act.
By the time of the late monarchy and early exile, though, the great prophets had come to believe that child sacrifice is iniquitous under all conditions and circumstances. Thus Jeremiah:
For the sons of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the LORD; they have set their abominations in the house which is called by my name, to defile it. And they have built the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. (7:31; cf. 19:4-6)
Yet Ezekiel, also a fierce opponent of child sacrifice, acknowledges that God commanded the sacred slaying of the first-born and that it was once dutifully practiced by Israel and no doubt still was. The terrifying contradiction cannot be ignored: by worshipping YHWH according to the command of YHWH, Israel had become an unholy abomination in his eyes.
Why then did God impose this heinous, death-dealing law? Why set such a devious trap? As a punishment for Israel’s idolatry and iniquities, answers Ezekiel! If Israel insists on dishonoring the Sabbath and worshipping graven images, then the LORD will institute laws that do not give life. If she insists on killing her first-born sons, then the LORD will command her evil desires. In this way he binds the totality of Israel’s history in “one guilt: the sins of Israel in the land are one with her sins in the desert, and in such a way that the punishment of both is one, that is decreed before the sins in the land are ever committed” (Jenson, p. 157). But to what end? To bring Israel into the abyss of Babylonian horror and devastation and thus to the knowledge that YHWH, and he alone, is the true God. Levenson elaborates:
At first blush, the meaning of these verses [Ezek 20:25-26] seems clear: the sacrifice of the first-born is indeed an abomination, just as Jeremiah thought. But, whereas Jeremiah vociferously denied the origin of the practice in the will of YHWH, Ezekiel affirmed it: YHWH gave Israel “laws that were not good” in order to desolate them, for only as they were desolated, only as they were brought to humiliation, could they come to recognize YHWH and obey his sovereign will. Here, as often in the Hebrew Bible, God’s goodness conflicts with his providential designs: he wills evil in order to accomplish good. The evil that he once willed is the law that requires the sacrifice of the first-born. The good toward which this aims is Israel’s ultimate recognition and exaltation of him as their sole God. (p. 5)
Or as Jenson puts it: “Thus the Lord, by his own account through Ezekiel, once commanded great evil, to bring evil to its self-annulling perfection” (p. 158).
That God might once have commanded evil strikes at the heart of both Jewish and Christian faith. Nor is the scandal diminished by the explanation that he did so to achieve a greater good. Is Torah to be trusted as the way of life? Is the LORD to be trusted as perfect goodness and love? Or are we forced to admit that the Scriptures are not inerrant and therefore do not always faithfully reveal the divine character and will? Following the antinomic hermeneutic of Martin Luther, Jenson grasps the biblical nettle and refuses an easy escape:
Surely we must at least acknowledge that modern theology’s frequent picture of God as transparently good and kind cannot be squared with scripture—again, however we treat the present passage. His ways to his purposes for us are devious, at least by any standard of straightforwardness available to the fallen and redeemed creatures who actually exist and can worry about such things. If the Lord is—as Ezekiel precisely in our passage asserts—his people’s utterly committed lover, we must admit that this love often indeed passes our understanding. Christians see both the guarantee of this love and the revelation of its off-putting mystery in the sacrifice of the only beloved Son. If we try to penetrate beyond that, perhaps the Lord will “horrify” us also. (p. 159)
At this point I must depart from Jenson and register my dissent. I cannot admit the possibility that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ would ever command evil, would ever do evil. Nor can I avail myself of the long-standard response that God’s love “passes our understanding.” As David Bentley Hart has so ably argued, that “solution” puts us on the road of contagious equivocity, thereby reducing “all theological language to vacuity” (“God, Creation, and Evil,” p. 11). And so I find the two impossible verses of Ezekiel impossible to preach.