I am reading God’s Words in Human Words by Kenton Sparks, a self-professing evangelical Christian who is a professor at Eastern University. I am glad for the arguments Sparks makes in his books in favor of a critical (cynical?) view of the Hebrew Bible. This is an important part of my preparation as I make decisions about my stances on various critical issues in preparation for doctoral studies.
And Sparks has a lot of compelling arguments.
One in particular has gotten under my skin. It is about Ezekiel 20:23-26, a passage which threatens to undermine much that I hold dear:
Moreover I swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations and disperse them through the countries, because they had not executed my ordinances, but had rejected my statutes and profaned my sabbaths, and their eyes were set on their fathers’ idols. 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.
I am writing this blog post as a sort of cathartic exercise in working out some thoughts on the matter. I am not ready to propose any final interpretations. Also, I am going to write in a sort of shorthand which may raise questions for those who are not already familiar with critical scholarship. I do hope that by being concise I get more people to read this post start to finish than if I went on with clear but lengthy prose.
One Critical Take on Ezekiel 20:25-26 (Sparks, pp.91-93)
(1) Start with the theory that the Torah comes from four camps, perhaps none of which originate with Moses: the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 20:22 – 23:33), the Deuteronomic Code (Deut. 12-26), the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26), and the Priestly Code (Exod 25-40; Lev. 1-16; Numb.).
(2) Ezekiel is said to represent a later form of Torah, the Holiness Code, and to oppose the earlier ideas of the Deuteronomist.
(3) Ezekiel was reflecting on the exile and promoting the new Holiness Code (the Priestly Code did not yet exist).
(4) Ezekiel opposed such lax procedures as allowing firstborn animals to be offered outside the Temple area (Deut. 12:15-25).
(5) Ezekiel proposed, right or wrong, that God gave some bad laws in Deuteronomy on purpose to make Israel sin.
(6) How then does Judaism consider the Torah to be of Moses? In the same way that Mishnah and Talmud and the whole tradition is considered to be of Moses.
Rabbinic Commentators on Ezekiel 20:25-26
(1) Rashi: I gave them decrees which are not good, I gave them into the hands of their evil inclination that they might stumble through their sins. (Note: Very similar idea to Paul in Romans 1:24).
(2) Maimonides in Hilchot Teshuvah (The Laws of Repentance): says that sometimes justice demands that God prevent someone from repenting of their sins so that their guilt would increase (as Rabbi Moshe Eisemann reasons in the Artscroll Tanakh Series: Yechezkel).
(3) David Kimhi (Radak, French commentator, early 13th century): because of their rebellion, Israel was scattered to nations where they were forced to live under decrees which violated Torah.
A good reading might be to assume a variation of Kimhi’s idea: God gave Israel over to Canaanite/Egyptian/Mesopotamian customs when they rebelled, exemplified by the sacrifice of children to Molech, which God could have prevented, but did not.
A Lexical Consideration
The NET Bible (free online at net.bible.org) clued me in to two things:
(1) The word used in vs.25 for statutes/decrees/laws uses the masculine plural ending (chukkim) instead of the far more common feminine plural ending (chukkot).
(2) They are not called “my statutes” (chukkotai) as in vs. 24 and many other places in the near context.
(3) These may be considered clues that the statutes in vs. 25 are not Torah statutes (the word is used in a number of contexts in the Bible for customs, as in the customs of the surrounding nations which lead Israel astray).
Considering the Internal Logic of Ezekiel Chapter 20
(1) The entire chapter is about Israel’s guilt for not following God’s statutes.
(2) In order for Israel to violate God’s statutes, they had to know them.
(3) It strains credibility to think Ezekiel could imagine God holding Israel accountable for two sets of contradictory statutes (e.g., “You should have rejected my false statutes in Deuteronomy and accepted the true ones in my Holiness Code.”).
(4) It fits better with the internal logic of the chapter to assume that the statutes and ordinances of vs. 25 are not from God directly, but indirectly.
Proposing a Different Reading
Moreover I swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations and disperse them through the countries, because they had not executed my ordinances, but had rejected my statutes and profaned my sabbaths, and their eyes were set on their fathers’ idols. Moreover I gave them [over to] statutes [of the surrounding peoples] that were not good and ordinances [such as the Moabite custom of passing children through the fire] by which they could not have life; and I defiled them through their very gifts in making them offer [since I did not stop them] by fire all their first-born, that I might horrify them; I did it that they might know that I am the Lord [since now in the exile they see the falsehood of the foreign customs].
One excellent resource on Ezekiel to consider might be Daniel Block’s massive two-volume commentary in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Alas, I only have the second of the two volumes in my library (chs. 25-48), but it is a rather thorough treatment of the text. From what I have gathered in my limited engagement, it is conservative, and he is pretty thorough in explaining various points of view in a text.
Pingback: “I gave them statutes that were not good…” « Locust and Honey
Thanks. This section of scripture is interesting. I love your proposed reading of this scripture section.
Here is yet another atypical exegesis…
One of the most baffleplexing verses in the Old Testament is Ezekiel 20:25-26. Biblical scholars have wrestled mightily with it, because it sounds utterly and unfathomably nihilistic.
In the literal translation, as conventionally rendered (word by word), the deity of the Old Testament sounds downright demonic and mean-spirited.
You can look up the standard translation if you like.
But here is my modernized translation, which hardly needs any contorted apologetics or exegesis:
“Becoming Aware of Who or What We Are Becoming”
“I granted them legislative statutes that were unbecoming and unsustainable; I corrupted them through their sacrificial gifts — even at the expense of their beloved children — that I might awaken them in horror so they would realize who and what they were becoming.” ~Ezekiel 20:25-26
That’s what I call the set-up for an apocalyptic revelation (or what we now would call an “Aha!” insight).
That’s also why one of my favorite E-mail signature lines is:
“The Process of Enlightenment Works In Mysterious Plays.”
When Jeremiah talks about the sacrficing their children to Ba’al, God says it did not come to his mind…
Jeremiah 19:5 They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind
by knowing it did not come to God’s mind to do that then we can rule out that God gave them over to that custom of the other nations.
to understand Ezekiel 20:25 we actually have a clue in Exodus 32 and we need to connect it with Ezekiel 20:22… lets look at Exodus 32, and then i will connect it with Ezekiel 20:22
Exodus 32:7 And the LORD said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves:
8They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
9 And the LORD said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people:
10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.
11 And Moses besought the LORD his God, and said, LORD, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand?
12 Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people.
13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.
14 And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.
there we see how really angry God was about the golden calf, he seeked to kill all of Israel bar Moses and make a nation out of Moses…. but it was Moses that said do not do this for it would pollute his name in sight of the Egyptians… so now keeping in mind the polluting of his name being the reason that Moses gave for not killing Israel, lets connect that with Ezekiel 20:21
Ezekiel 20:22 Nevertheless I withdrew mine hand, and wrought for my name’s sake, that it should not be polluted in the sight of the heathen, in whose sight I brought them forth.
so we see that God did not kill Israel in the sight of the egyptians for his name sake, just as Moses had reasoned with him not too… but God was still full of fury and so what did he do, he gave statutes that were not good whereby they should not live, whereby all who open the womb will pass through the fire…
Ezekiel 20:25 Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live;
26 And I polluted them in their own gifts, in that they caused to pass through the fire all that openeth the womb, that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am the LORD.
so by these statutes that were not good, Israel is destin to perish but this way it will not be in the sight of the Egyptians and God’s holy name will not be polluted in their sight.
further more as messianics we can look at something Paul said….
Romans 3:19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin
the law of Moses was given to establish guilt and punishment, and that by the deeds of the law no flesh is justified.
now this part caught my attention…
QUOTE “A Lexical Consideration
(2) They are not called “my statutes” (chukkotai) as in vs. 24 and many other places in the near context.”
well thats why we call it the law of Moses, it was Moses’s reasoning that God should not kill Israel, the law of Moses is not God’s law, it was the alternative to Israel being killed in the sight of the Egyptians.
Ezekiel 20:24 Because they had not executed my judgments (God had told Israel to enter Canaan and exicute his judgment upon the Canaanites but they refused after the report from the spies), but had despised my statutes (10 commandments), and had polluted my sabbaths (10 commandments), and their eyes were after their fathers’ idols (the golden calf, a violation of the 10 commandments).
25 Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live; (613 Mitxvot / the law of Moses)
26 And I polluted them in their own gifts (Animal sacrifice that they had gifted to the golden calf), in that they caused to pass through the fire all that openeth the womb, that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am the LORD.
this really is saying that because Israel was not listening to Gods voice that he gave then the law of Moses that is statutes that were not good…
again i will add something else Paul said…
Galatians 3:19 Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.
the law of Moses was added because of transgressions… the law of Moses was added because Israel was not keeping the 10 commandments… Jeremiah says something about this also….
Jeremiah 7:22 For I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices:
23 But this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people: and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you.
24 But they hearkened not, nor inclined their ear, but walked in the counsels and in the imagination of their evil heart, and went backward, and not forward.
the voice of God had told them to enter Canaan but they did not after they took the council of the spies, they did not go forward into Canaan but went backwards into the wilderness for 40 years… i dare to say that if Israel had followed the voice of God, they might not of even recieved the 10 commandments that were given in the wilderness, maybe even the 10 commandments were given because of transgression, after all Abraham did not have them. and the voice of God had spoken the 10 commandments in Exodus 20, so when the golden calf was made it was in transgression of the voice of God.