The Impossible Verses of Ezekiel

Ezekiel 20

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.

(Go to “The Annihilation of Israel”)

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34 Responses to The Impossible Verses of Ezekiel

  1. Grant says:

    I have only superficial knowledge of Judaism and so we would need to consult with the rabbis and Jewish scholars now and through the millennia how tgey interact and understand this, but from a Christian view we should know that for us Scripture is only Scripture when read by the Church with in Life, by the illumination of the Holy Spirit and about Christ and His Gospel. As laid out in Luke in the Road to Emmaus all Scripture is about Him and testifies to Him, it’s truth only disclosed in His light and it can only be read aright in Him and about Him and to Him (so as in Transfiguration Moses and Elijah appesr, representing the Law and the Prophets we only see them and understand them in Christ).

    So we should and must obviously reject any plain reading that would suggest God was calling or suggesting human sacrifice (clearly He would not, He revealed in Christ the same, yesterday, today and forever in Whom there is no shadow of turning would never command such), which includes Abraham and Issac’s story of that matter. That is simply not read to be reading it as Scripture at all.

    When not read as about Christ (which is how it as been opened to us, how as St Paul puts it the veil that darkens our eyes is lifted and is how we are as Christians instructed read the OT) then we are simply reading ancient documents developed over the course of the history of the peoples eho would over centuries form the Jewish people and therefore in whom conflicting ideas and practices exidtef until the more unified editing took place during late Judah and exillic period editing these traditions together (for obvious example see the two creation accounts in Genesis which if read ‘literalky’ outright contradict on another, behend them lies different origins, sources and traditions).

    So this should be no trouble to Christians at all, as long as we remember to read Scripture as Scripture in the manner Christ taught us to read it.

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    • Grant says:

      As perhaps how to preach or discuss these passages of suggested sacrifice of humans to God, or of the herem texts I think would be viewed in line with Christ’s command to take up our Cross and follow Him, that indeed of St Paul’s statement of this that the old man, that of first Adam must died, be destroyed eternally and absolutely, and is put to death in Christ upon the Cross. That is, our illusionary self, the self of death is destroyed with all it’s works, and that as we participate in His Life and salvation, even as the ongoing truth of baptism into the new life of Christ, into the Resurrection unto eternal Life in us, our shadow self, our false self already died in Christ is we allow that reality to happen as we move in pilgrim journey in Christ, His illuminating Truth both revealing, testing and burning away the ‘sacrifice’ of our old selves, the old man put to death on the Cross. In the Gospels this suggested in various parables of splitting in two, of the true wheat from the tares in us, amputation of false eyes to save the body, even the sheep and goats judgment of a division between our shadow self or old man, like the Ringwraiths of Lord of the Rings, in which there no substance, and simply vanish once destroyed, and our true selves hidden in Christ and resurrected in Him. All former things must pass away, and the true self rescued and restored, and in Christ all the order of death is put to death, our old man is put to death, which is a reality engaged in batpism, and is a truth that will continue on through this life and into the future until the ages of ages when God is all in all.

      To read this Scriptures is to proclaim the truth that all that is against Christ will indeed be consumed, all that is illusionary will fade away, and everything that is of death, shadow and twisted enslavement will be consumed, all that is our old man and all the works of the flesh are put to death, sacrificed in the Cross, by death He defeats death, and by death He defeats and destroys the works of death, freeing our true selves of bondage, corruption, ills and deceit, and all tyranny of death. And like the herem texts, I would suggest this would be proclaimed both as Christus Victor, the victory of the Cross and Resurrection, and the defeat and destruction of death, and the resurrection to new Life, and in light of that total and assured victory and rescue of as with Christ and St Paul, a call to take up our Cross. To mortify the old man, to live more according to the Spirit and His fruits and not the ways of the flesh which is a sacrifice to be consumed in the consuming fire of God, which are of our shadow self vanishing in the Light of Christ and His rescuing Life. And as with the herem texts is Christ’s conquest of all strongholds of death, terror and darkness from both without and within, and the liberating of all creation until all is brought under Him and He hands it over to the Father and God is all in all. And it is a call for us Christians within our souls to take within the grace of God and in Christ’s power strongholds and places and areas in the vast expanse areas opposed to Christ, dominated by the old man and where the way of death holds sway, and ruthlessly sacrifice that to God, to take it captive and so allow Christ to expose and liberate and revive the true nature of ourselves there for the captivity, confusion and delusions of sin, darkness and death, and drag all into the light and Life of Christ. And equally what is around us, remember though as St Paul says, our struggle is not against flesh, or against persons, so not violence or dominion which is what we struggling against, the powers of this world and it’s ways, to bring the true power and authority into people’s lives, beginning that reality now that will not be completed until God is all in all, that which is the different power of God’s love revealed in Christ on the Cross, where in Himself He puts all shadow and illusion to death and overcomes it, revealing the true rule of love and of service and loving self-giving. It is a struggle against the powers, principalities and dark powers of this world and the fallen world and system, that must be and will vanish ever before the liberating and life-giving salvation in Christ, where it has been all put to death, and through the Resurrection the true nature of all is raised and restored to free and liberating Life.

      To put it as Origen would put it regarding Satan:

      Princ 1:6:3; 3:6:5 “This is why it is also written that ‘the last enemy, death, will be destroyed’ [1 Cor 15:26], that there may be nothing painful left, when death will exist no more, nor anything opposed, when there will be no enemy left.” But the last enemy, who is called “death”, i.e. the devil, “will be destroyed, not in such a way as to exist no more, but so that he may no longer be an enemy and death… [W]e must understand the destruction of the last enemy as the destruction, not of the substance that was created by God, but of the inclination and the hostile will that stemmed, not from God, but from the enemy himself. Therefore, he will be destroyed, not in order for him to exist no more, but in such a way as to be no longer ‘enemy’ and ‘death’.”

      That is at least a sketch of how to read and preach these texts in my view.

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  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    The conjunction is “gam” which is sometimes used adversively, it contains an independent personal pronoun which emphasises the subject of the verb, and the verse really doesn’t say that the could not have life by these judgements, rather that they did not live by them.
    You can therefore (at least in the Hebrew) read the phrase as simply referring back to the previous verse where the Israelites are disobedient and won’t accept God’s laws: “…even though it was I who gave them these no-good laws and judgments they would not live by.” which makes a lot more sense.

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  3. David says:

    I wonder if the agency of Ezekiel 20:25-26 is similar to Romans 1 where it is said that “God gave them up to…” (vv 24, 26, 28)? Not that I understand the Romans situation any better than the Ezekiel one, but if they are related it does cast both in a new light. Both seem (to my puny understanding) to suggest some sort of pedagogical reprobation in response to the rejection of revelation, in the one case, the law of the Sabbath given to the Hebrews, in the other, the knowledge of God seen in creation by all.

    Can someone smarter than I weigh in on this?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Levenson discusses the various ways Jewish rabbis and Christian theologians have dealt with these two verses and the whole question of child sacrifice over the millennia. It’s well worth reading.

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    • bradjersak says:

      David, I think you are largely correct and that Ezekiel itself speaks to this in chapter 14:

      4 Some of the elders of Israel came to me and sat down in front of me. 2 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 3 “Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. Should I let them inquire of me at all? 4 Therefore speak to them and tell them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: When any of the Israelites set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet, I the Lord will answer them myself in keeping with their great idolatry. 5 I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’ 6 “Therefore say to the people of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!

      So the phrase “I will answer them according to their idolatry” would mean something like this: Your idolatry is so deeply rooted in your heart that even if you inquire of me, you’ll hear what you want to hear and continue in your idolatry. I will consent (give you over) to your idolatrous desires so that you will ultimately stumble over them and bottom out on them and finally let go of them willingly… or you can just turn from them now and save yourself the pain.

      The divine strategy here is that the repentance required can’t simply be abstinence from idolatry, because as long as their hearts aren’t captured by divine love, they will resent their abstinence and continue to pine for the idols. Rather, true repentance at the heart level needs to be transformative, not just performative–a wholehearted willing turn back to God. But that may require a process in which God consents to their projected “yes” through the filters of idolatry until their idolatry has run its course and they are done with it.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      To raise a Charles-Williamsy point, assuming for the moment that “making them offer by fire all their first-born, that I might horrify them” correctly translates whatever is in the Hebrew, how does this differ from ‘permitting them to’, ‘enabling them to’ – by sustaining them throughout in the doing of it rather than intervening to prevent them?

      Quoting DBH below, it is well not to “assume that the Father of Jesus really did order massacres (and worse)”, but what of the Pantocratic Theaner within the Zoopoeic Trinity sustaining in every minutest detail the doing of while fully opposing rather than ordering all the massacres (and worse) there ever have been and ever will be?

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  4. Tom says:

    “The problem, as Levenson notes, is that the substitution provision does not immediately follow Ex 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 Ex 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 non-idolatrous act of propitiation but also an especially devout and holy propitiatory act.”

    Levenson’s ‘problem’ seems a bit contrived. He ‘knows’ that priests would have read Ex 22.29’s command without any knowledge of or reference to Ex 34.20’s instruction? He knows this? How? It seem virtually impossible to imagine.

    And – 34.20 can’t be read as merely ‘permitting’ (not commanding) the redemption of first-born sons for those wanting to avoid 22.29’s child sacrifice. Both commands are worded in precisely the same form (imperfects with imperatival force – “You shall give me” [Ex 22] and “You shall redeem” [Ex 34]). I don’t see how one construes 34.20 as providing an alternative to the (supposed) child sacrifice of 22.29. Both (34.20 as well as 22.29) are commands. 34.20 would then define 22.29 and not simply provide an additional command to take its place.

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    • I’ll have to look if Greg Boyd covers this in his massive The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Tom, what’s your opinion on that book? You follow Boyd, as far as I can tell.

      I loved it. I think his approach is brilliant, though, like Enns and all those guys, it simply leaves us with the “humanity” of scripture, that God condescended, etc. I do think Origen’s way of reading scripture is the only way to get the “Divinity” out of texts like this. I’m curious if Origen commented on this passage at all!

      This journal article on Origen’s allegorical interpretation of Joshua seems relevant. I’m assuming that some people on this blog disagree vehemently with the political philosophy being promulgated in the journal, so fortunately there are only about 2 sentences saying anything about it in the abstract and the rest is just using Fr Behr’s new trans. of OFP to help make sense of Origen’s homilies on Joshua. I’m glad Greg Boyd loves Origen, but he doesn’t love him ENOUGH. 🙂

      Origen’s Interpretation of Violence in the Book of Joshua

      I really should pick up Ephraim Radner’s commentary on Leviticus. He wrote the most recent scholarly book defending allegory, and apparently he APPLIES it in his own way to Leviticus. I think much more of this needs to be done. Unfortunately, I find Radner’s prose
      VERY difficult to follow, but I think I’m going to continue through his book on figural interpretation now that I’ve mentioned it.

      His Leviticus commentary. Apparently “K. Barth” gave it five stars on amazon. Haha https://www.amazon.com/dp/B009LL7ERG/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

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      • Tom says:

        Hi Mark. Yes, I reviewed Greg’s 2 vols when it came out and was part of online discussions with him regarding it. I consider Greg a friend and I admire his heart and pastoral passion, but the Christological failures at the heart of that work sunk it on arrival, in spite of its positive aspects.

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      • TJF says:

        I have found a fragment of Origen’s commentary on Ez 20:25. He seems to be saying that the “ordinances” are to be understood to be the “killing letter of the law,” “the covenant of death,” and the diakonia of “condemnation.” The letter and the spirit are ordained by the same voice, but we should only carry out the ordinances of the spirit and not of the letter. He looks to the Apostle and those who broke the sabbath in the temple and those who were circumcised on the sabbath, and David and co. eating from the Bread of the Presence as confirming this interpretation. He says “one law is dissolved, another is kept.”

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          My guess is that Origen is using the LXX.Can you confirm that. Here is Brenton’s translation of the Greek:

          “So I gave them commandments [that were] not good, and ordinances in which they should not live. 26 And I will defile them by their [own] decrees, when I pass through upon every one that opens the womb, that I may destroy them.”

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      Doesn’t Levenson’s argument betray a fundamental (and fundamentalist) misunderstanding of the purpose and nature of the Bible? It seems to presume the absurd notion that the Priests of Israel started off with no religion or cult practices at all, and were standing around with nothing to do until someone came along with a copy of the Bible and said “Look here, God told me to write this.” and they all said “Okey dokey, let’s have a look at it” and started up the whole religious system from scratch by trying to guess what it meant. It’s bonkers.
      The cult and cultic practices self-evidently had to pre-date their being recorded in the Bible, since it’s only by reason of the worship of YHWH existing that anyone would think to write them down. Consequently anything in the Bible about sacrifices and the sacrificial system must either be a straightforward re-statement and codification of existing practices or a prophetic call for them to be changed.
      We know that child sacrifice as a practice predates either code, and anything in the Bible, in fact, so Ex 22:29 can’t be an instruction to start sacrificing children when previously the Israelites weren’t. The story of Abraham (not) sacrificing Isaac seems plainly to refer to redemption of the first born so it is either something of an origin story for the practice or the point is that Abraham is being specially instructed not to redeem Isaac in this case.
      Either redemption of the first born had already been introduced when the code from which Ex 22:29 is taken was written, in which case what has happened is that the code from which Ex 34:20 (or some early instruction) subsequently came along and introduced it, or redemption of the firstborn already existed pre Ex 22:29, in which case the fact that Ex 34:20 is in a separate section tells you absolutely nothing at all. There is no scenario in which anyone is going to be or should be determining how redemption of the firstborn is supposed to operate by looking at the relative location of the Bible of the two passages: by the time they were both in the same book, everyone would have already known full well what they meant, because they were operating the system already.

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      • Tom says:

        Basically, Ian, Ex 22 and 34 cannot have been missed by the priests because priests put those passages in the tradition, right? At least that’s what we should assume.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        I realise I have missed a “not” from the above: the beginning of the third paragraph should read: “Either redemption of the first born had *not* already been introduced when the code from which Ex 22:29 is taken was written…”

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  5. bradjersak says:

    This is a stunning article. In the case of these passages, if I had to preach them, I would take a metaphorical route rather than allegorical.

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  6. DBH has some interesting things to say about this. The idea that “God is good” only became possible to speak with certainty at the resurrection. Prior to that Yahweh presented himself as being comparable to any other pagan deity; jealous for exclusive worship and demanding sacrifice (of children, men, animals, whatever) to keep the economy of birth, life, death cycling around. The immolation of the cross and the oblation of Christs life-as-loving-atonement put an end to immolative sacrifice forever, by revealing that the story of our lives extends past our deaths. Now the only sacrifice that remains is the oblation of loving-acceptance of the divine permission to love.

    The revelation of the perfectly loving Trinity was seen through a dark mirror before the resurrection. The one commanding sacrifice was not “the father of our lord jesus Christ”, but rather “the angel of Israel”. DBH in the footnotes of his NT translation comments on how Paul understood the law and revelations to Moses to have been delivered via an intermediary angel, and therefore the law and revelation that we have received in the old testament is a strange mix of both good and evil. God-as-revealed-to-Israel was indeed the true God, but presented as only an imperfect revelation of the true God. The full and final revelation happened at the cross and resurrection, where for the first time we could unambiguously say “God is love”. It would not have been possible for a Jew to say that prior to the resurrection, as Yahweh is clearly “love but also ….”

    From what i’ve been able to pull together by reading DBH and Paul, every religion has an angel at the top, calling the shots. This angel is not identical to “God the Father of Jesus who is love”, but sometimes the true God works through the angel. Other times the angel does his own thing and the members of that religion mistake the will of this angel for the will of the-one-true-God. So whenever God appears to be commanding evil, I just attribute this to “the angel of Israel”, and whenever God commands something in accord with love, I attribute that to God directly.

    This may sound like marcionism, but it’s a bit more subtle than that. Marcionism just flatly denies that God as presented in the old testament has anything to do with the Father of Jesus. I’m not going that far. My approach is to discern that which is good, true and beautiful in the old testament presentation of God, and affirm that all of this is a true revelation of the Father of Jesus, but wherever things get more sketchy, arbitrary and evil and violent, I will attribute this to “the angel of Israel going off the rails a bit”. To put it another way, God-the-father-who-is-love reveals himself to Israel via the intermediary of the angel of Israel, but because the intermediary angel himself possesses free will, sometimes the message gets lost in translation and we end up with odd and unflattering records in the old testament where God appears to be commanding genocide and child sacrifice. Long story short, our intuitions are correct: God never commands genocide and child sacrifice . If ever it appears that he’s doing this, it’s actually just the intermediate angel having a power trip and messing with us.

    The same logic can be applied to any religion. Taking the narrative of how Islam and the Qu’ran came to be at face value, the Muslim religion is just as much the product of the angel Gabriel as it is of Allah. Muslim apologists go to great pains to establish the trustworthiness of Muhammad (pbuh), but does anyone ever think to question whether the angel that came to him was purely good? The Qu’ran itself admits that some of the verses came from Satan rather than God.

    Anyway. Enough rambling. The summary of the matter is that we should draw a distinction between God-the-father-of-jesus and the-God(angel)-of-Israel, because such a distinction is invaluable in sorting the good from the evil while we read the OT. However the distinction is not one of complete unrelatedness; wherever the God-of-Israel reveals himself to be good, this is simultaneously a revelation of the goodness of the-one-true-God. Whenever the God-of-Israel reveals himself to be evil and arbitrary, the one-true-God has nothing to do with it.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      I am not sure I am about to go along with the idea of there being angels mistaking for or filtering God’s word, but it seems to me certainly the case that any reading of the Bible has to assume God’s character is as revealed in Jesus. (As DBH points out below this same character of God is also asserted independently in the Rabbinic tradition.) I would say, at the very least, if you come across a “hard” passage in the Bible which appears to contradict this character then, until you can understand how it is compatible with that character (whether as a figurative or allegorical meaning, or a mistranslation, or what-have-you) you have to accept plainly you do not understand that verse or what it is doing there, and have no business relying on it or drawing any conclusions from it.

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  7. Geoffrey McKinney says:

    “And I on My part gave them statutes that were not good and laws through which they would not live. And I defiled them with their gifts when they passed every womb-breach in sacrifice, so that I might desolate them, so they might know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 20:25-26, translated by Robert Alter)

    I read this passage as making a point with such violently extreme language that the speaker cannot possibly expect his hearers to understand the language in a literal manner, as when Christ told us to hate our parents and to gouge out our eyes and to cut off our hands.

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    • DBH says:

      That would be the comfortable assumption. I doubt it was what the author wished to convey, however. Ezekiel seems to bes explaining away a barbaric practice, but not denying that it also mysteriously came from God. This is a problem.

      Marcion was something of a fundamentalist and literalist, and therein lay his error. He was preferable to modern fundamentalists, who just swallow the abominable verses without qualm and assume that the Father of Jesus really did order massacres (and worse). Thus the modern fundamentalist worships at once the God of love revealed in Christ and a blood-soaked war-and-tempest god who was the Israelitic equivalent of Marduk or Ba’al Hadad or Indra or Thor (all versions of the same deity, incidentally).

      But what Marcion perceived as a clean division was already, in Paul, a particularly murky ambiguity. Marcion, for all his simplistic reductionism, was not just some exotic floating in from the margins. He believed he was following the true gospel of the God of love.

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      • DBH says:

        Though I should say: The God of justice and love, revealed in the prophets and in Christ and in Rabbinic tradition.

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      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        I can’t see, though, how it makes sense for Ezekiel in this one verse to be conceding that what he is condemning is actually in the law and judgements of YHWH, when in all preceding and following verses what he is railing against the Israelites for is *breaking* that same law. It seems to me that if one follows what I understand to be the Greek in the LXX that what must be being said is that it is the twisting (and thus not in reality following at all) of the law to make it authorise or command child sacrifice that makes it not good, and not give life, or, I would say, if following the Hebrew, Ezekiel is sarcastically referring to laws God himself has provided as being held “not good” in the eyes of the Israelites because they are (as he repeatedly denounces them for) not following them. In either case, I don’t think Ezekiel should be understood as saying God (for whatever reason) actually gave bad laws demanding child sacrifice.

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  8. Tom says:

    One could approach Ezekiel as navigating the line between God’s granting Israel what they insist upon and God’s knowing that what he accommodates is as such not at all good (though granting it is in the long run is in the best interest of God’s purposes).

    We see this at work when Jesus enlightens Israel regarding the true nature of Mosaic instruction regarding divorce. Moses (well, ‘God’ per Deut 24) permitted it, not because divorce is good. It’s not. But because permitting it was the unfortunate cost of maintaining covenant relationship with a hard-hearted people.

    Sometimes this is evident within an OT text without needing to wait for the NT to shed its light. Israel demands a king to be like their neighbors. Samuel complains to God. God recognizes the evil of Israel’s request, revealing it to be a rejection of him (God). But then God accommodates Israel’s request. Why? Because while you may wish you had 4 aces in your hand, you have to play the cards (the ‘generation’) you’re dealt.

    Jeremiah 7 suggests the same (or a very similar) thing regarding the whole sacrificial system when he disputed that it had its origin in God’s will at all (7.21-22): “Add burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat the flesh! For [God speaking] I said nothing to your fathers when I led them out of Egypt and I commanded nothing concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. Instead I gave them this command: hearken to my voice, for then I will be your God and you will be my people.”

    Ezekiel is an example of the same – another way to ‘hand over’ a covenant partner to an evil they insist upon. What else can one do with the passage if Christ is where and how we’re to read the Scriptures?

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    • Grant says:

      To be honest, I find the broad typological, figurative and allegorical approach based on Christ Himself is (as I probably badly argued above) is the only approach to the OT for Christians, and is the way to as you say read it as Scripture where Christ is the where and how and lens by which to read them. In that He is the Word of God, not the texts themselves, in that it is He who reveals the Father, He is the One that casts the shadows perceived by the Jewish people in their history, by prophets, holy people and the development of those traditions to the final forms of OT books we have, by as in Plato’s cave they did not understand for they saw not what cast it, He is the One who lift the veil for it to be read aright (as St Paul says that without that is to read it under a veil and not to understand), He opens it as is the key that provides how we should read it.

      I find this approach everywhere in the NT, and so I find some of the straining and at times full on mental gymnastics done to accommodate plain readings of OT texts pointless and unnecessary. Marcion was correct and onto something in stating the simple truth that a plain reading allot of the OT doesn’t agree with God revealed in Christ, and attempts of Christians to keep surface readings don’t deviate for Marcionism, they agree with it and his mistaken approach. But instead of rejecting it, they keep the readings and either just bolt this on to a chimeric and twisted image of God which results, or produce convoluted explanations of God actively seeming to participate in practices that were terrible because of the situation they were in and participate in enabling terrible systems enslaving them and even leading to suffering and death because they were unable to listen (they weren’t much more likely without divine illumination through Christ’s earthly life and the birth of the Church).

      It’s not really to you Tom, and I’m probably not educated enough on the matters to perhaps see it all, it’s more to the general trend, seen by me even in responses here, coming for a good place, to defend God but I don’t see the point and I don’t see it succeeding. It’s not just here, there are the demands of stoning of adulterers etc, and numerous other death penalty commands set against Christ rejecting that practice (and that revelation of the Cross), or people who sleep with non-Israelite getting speared (with the non-Israelite in question) and the act called righteous and the text praising it, the above reading (and even Abraham’s story) that would at least seem to read in the direction of human sacrifice, that seem to require us to twist the logic of the text to deny it, genocides commanded and praised, God killing by the thousands, and so and so on, in ways that directly contradict how and who Christ reveals God, who cannot change is. Or say how Satan in Job is depicted as a faithful servant of God carrying out his assigned purpose to accuse and test, similar with the angel of death, depicted as carry out God’s purposes rather then death being an enemy. And of course we see as you note some later prophet books seeming to react against such practices, which relate a better grasp of the shadows they were seeming but it emphasizes a historical echo that likely, as with their neighbours that much of what appears here arose from the Semitic tribal customs and beliefs that were common to many of the people in the Levant and near East, some of which came to form Israel,

      I think trying to defend a plain reading with God ‘accommodating’ and so effectively enabling and endorsing such situations is far more theological damaging and troubling and opens Christians it easy (and I would feel somewhat justified attack) to both an apparent incompetence of God and His enabling of evil. It seems to me better to accept these are documents formed by a Bronze age/Iron age near Eastern society with for much of it’s time similar beliefs and views as those around them, and over which even as they developed and did see true revelation, it was shadows in that through the religious understanding and systems they knew, it was shadows being grasped at. Sometimes with greater clarity, sometimes less but all mixed in with a structure and intermixed with the systems of which they were a part and interacted with and which formed their moral, theological and social make-up and world-view understanding (one which changed over time as the various peoples came together with differing Yahwahist beliefs, and they differing historical periods, influences and understandings). All they saw was mediated through this understanding which still hung over what they saw and understood, and they did not understanding what they saw clearly, again mistaking shadows for what casts them, as with Plato’s cave.

      Only with Christ is what is being communicated through the life and traditions of Israel, rather then the rituals, customs and writings themselves can be seen.

      I just think to accept that, to accept what they were as surface writings the results of, and not to think that the surface representations represent either God’s actual actions, intents, revelation or communication, or aiding or abetting destructive and immoral practices to ‘accommodate’. It seems to show God as either incompetent or malevolent in relation to those people.

      I guess to me this retains the impulse to treat the OT as a revealed history of God’s relation through Israel and an accurate depiction of Israelite history, rather than seeing it as a reflection of that developing culture’s stories, customs (and changing customs) and an editing of that understanding of events through mythic, legendary lens. It would be as if people were to take the Iliad or Greek myths as historical accurate depictions, or the Germanic cycle of stories, or the story of Sigurd or Beowulf, or Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of Britain as a accurate depiction of the history of the British Isles. And with the OT, of God’s own actions and intentions in relation to that, and to keep this impulse from the start seems wrong-headed to me and bound to misguide, rather as St Iraneaus says, Christ gives the image by which we read and form the mosaic of the OT to, in HIs image we see what the shadows in it are pointing to. Rather than trying to break a thread of seeing genuine revelation thread from other practices that God ‘accommodates’, often when even these elements are inextricably bound together, I continue to advocate for seeing Christ as a transformative light bring the Truth through the medium of the OT rather than what the OT is saying in the surface reading, it is the environment, the historical life and embedded culture(s) that reflects Him in a inspired reading that reaches through to Him, rather than the documents on their own. On their own, they are just a historical document, no more accurately communicating who God is, then the Iliad. To read it that way, to retain that approach is to read it with the veil over our eyes, and to not understand what it truly is saying as Scripture, which leads then to problems above.

      I think, we should just accept that as themselves the OT reflects these beliefs and practices that occurred in Bronze age societies in that area, and were thought at times to be of God, or their god, depending how early that tradition goes, as would be expected, and those aspects remained deeply embedded in Israelite culture. And it’s only with Christ transforming that, by reading it as about Him, about His Incarnate life and about the life of the Church in Christ (as Hebrews says, it was written as Scripture for us the Church) to we both read it as Scripture and are freed from needing to do convoluted reasoning and mental gymnastics to attempt to say either the text isn’t saying what on plain readings it clearly seems to say, or that God is enabling those practices and endorsing them because the Israelite kept being so difficult or similar. That doesn’t really dismiss the problems, it just becomes bad from another direction (along with God being deceptive, rather than He that is Truth).

      Again, maybe I am missing something, as I admit fully I’m a layman here without the learning and knowledge of many participating in this discussion and am perhaps being over simplistic, but I guess these are my thoughts in relation to this issue and your question at the end of your comment 🙂 .

      Liked by 2 people

      • Tom says:

        Grant: [1] I think trying to defend a plain reading with God ‘accommodating’ and so effectively enabling and endorsing such situations is far more theological damaging and troubling and opens Christians it easy (and I would feel somewhat justified attack) to both an apparent incompetence of God and His enabling of evil. It seems to me better to [2] accept these are documents formed by a Bronze age/Iron age near Eastern society with for much of its time similar beliefs and views as those around them, and over which even as they developed and did see true revelation, it was shadows in that through the religious understanding and systems they knew, it was shadows being grasped at. Sometimes with greater clarity, sometimes less but all mixed in with a structure and intermixed with the systems of which they were a part and interacted with and which formed their moral, theological and social make-up and world-view understanding…

        Tom: Thank you Grant. I wanna read through comments a 2nd time to make sure I’m following ya. But from what I can tell, I wouldn’t especially disagree with you. The bracketed [1] and [2] are mine. I mark them to say this: [1] and [2] aren’t mutually exclusive. I certainly agree with everything you say in [2]. Maybe I worded myself (my [1]) poorly, but all [1] says is that God’s staying in covenant relationship with Israel (which he must do in terms of [2] for the purpose of Incarnation) is already an act of accommodation. By ‘accommodate’ I don’t mean ‘endorse’. Concretely, if Israel is the ancient Bronze Age traveler you describe (which is true), God doesn’t wait till Israel matures beyond that, gets everything right, to only then covenant with Israel in accomplishing his ends. For better or worse, God stands in covenant relationship with Israel. It may not be the best PR in the short-run (“My name is blasphemed among the nations because of you”) but there’s no incarnation and redemption if God is to wait for a more worthy partner

        I should probably note that when God concedes (re: divorce, monarchy, blood sacrifice, etc.), it’s as an act of judgment (in my view). God hands Israel over, but within the horizon of his covenant love and pursuit. I don’t find this particularly troublesome.

        To be clear, though. When I read an OT passage that describes God commanding genocide, I don’t assume the text gets God right (i.e., God did command it but only to accommodate Israel’s bloodthirst). Sometimes Israel simply coopts Yahweh for her own purposes. I’m fine noting that and leaving things there, without also construing the text in terms of types (genocide as a type of spiritual warfare, suppression of subjugated peoples as a type of struggle against sin, etc.). As you say, Israel composes their texts with “greater and lesser clarity.” Christ defines that measure. Sometimes nothing of an OT text remains in which case I leave the text as judged, as a reminder, and move on.

        Grant: I guess to me this retains the impulse to treat the OT as a revealed history of God’s relation through Israel and an accurate depiction of Israelite history, rather than seeing it as a reflection of that developing culture’s stories, customs (and changing customs) and an editing of that understanding of events through mythic, legendary lens.

        Tom: I don’t suppose the OT is all revealed history and an accurate depiction of things. I grant the mythologies, changing customs, and biased editorial processes, though we can’t suppose it’s pure mythology top to bottom without historical relevance. The texts can be a mixture of both, no?

        All that said, what do you do with Christ’s explanation of the evil of, say, divorce as a divine concession to Israel’s hard-heartedness? Is Jesus also confused about the goodness of God? The historicity of Moses or of divorce isn’t the point, or even God’s actually having permitted divorce as Jesus describes. The point is it Christ’s view (of God and Israel), and Christ is presumably the standard by which we read.

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        • Grant says:

          I don’t think I’m in to much disagreement with much above though divorce I would respond that Christ in the medium of the people, time and place He was Incarnated in, in a means and manner understandable. In terms of marriage He was revealing it’s true and full calling, of the uniqueness and permanence of it’s union drawing on and illuminating what is in the second creation account. The allowance is that as in everything for Israel and all humanity for that matter, having the same sense I feel as ‘even you, being evil, would you give… ‘ as the fallen and confused state of Israel, only seeing the shadows cast by the Incarnation in their evolving life and culture. This being reflected even in the depictions that are of having a number of wives without a clear sense this deviated from God or Yahweh’s will, probably for long the opposite. And instinct to move to single marriage wasn’t seen as move in Israel alone but seems to be a cultural move seen in a number of near East, Mediterranean and European cultures (for example it was the case in Greek and Roman cultures for quite a while).

          To me, this fits in with the concept of ignorance and blindness inherent to humanity and without the revelation of Christ and the Pascal understanding were seeing shadows of that Incarnation that reverberates throughout time past and future into which they are rooted and where the covenant they over time sensed was rooted in, but only dimly sensed and reached for through the Bronze age/Iron age norms, mores and understanding they knew, trapped as we all were in darkness to which Christ came to free, shadows expressed through those societal practices they couldn’t fully see or form the true picture off, the veil still upon them, that life hidden within to be revealed by Christ’s transforming light, shining through and freeing to see past the shadows to He who casts them.

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  9. Maximilian says:

    Dear DBH (taking my chances addressing you and not the author of the piece since I saw you in the comments), will you please write a book (where arguments can be more fully developed than in articles) on God as He is presented in the Old Testament, addressing these issues? While there are of course lots of competent theologians who have done so I think there are many who would be interested to see your thoughts developed even further.

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  10. TJF says:

    I just recently bought Andrew Louth’s “Discerning the Mystery.” I like to flip through books and get a general idea of them before reading and it just so happens I flipped to the end of the chapter titled “Return of the Allegory” and he ends it with a quote from Pascal’s Pensees. “Everything that does not lead to love is figurative. The sole object of Scripture is love.” I think we often complicate the hell out of things, when it really is that simple.

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  11. TJF says:

    I am also just reading through Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy by Stephen R.L. Clark and he was citing parallels between ancient mythologies regarding the will of the gods to human affairs. He says that Apollo was considered the god of rationality and clear seeing, but also of prophetic madness, enigma, and chaos. He was the one who declared Socrates the wisest of all men and then proceeded to lead him on a path that led to his death. Daphne became a laurel bush, Hyacinth and Coronis were killed, and Croesus was told to wage war on Persia and in doing so he would destroy an empire (it was his own empire that was destroyed!). Clark sees a similar line of thinking in Ez 20:25-26 as well as 1 Kings (3 Kings) 22:19-23 where God says He made prophets lie to King Ahab purposefully. The point that these ancient peoples were trying to convey, according to Clark, was that oracles are neither clear nor unambiguous, they don’t get their authority from rational thought, “nor did the god intend to do us good.”

    It’s an interesting interpretation and I think can be made on the Origenist assumption that God condescends to speak through us through babytalk. It does seem to be to be unworthy of God to force people to lie against their will, to sacrifice children, and to deliberately cause us harm.

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  12. Pingback: An Exercise in Denying God’s Sovereignty: Assessing Ezekiel 20:25-26 In Context  – Triggermanblog

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