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].