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Sep 20, 2020

From Profane to Profound

From Profane to Profound

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: September 2020

Today begins a series on addressing Bible passages that may be roadblocks to people’s faith. In the first installment, we look at a bizarre-seeming passage from Ezekiel. In doing so we establish how we read the Bible (not as an end, but as a window) and move beyond superficial and unstudied treatments. We recognize the deep symbolism in the prophet’s shocking work and how communities faithfulness to God and God’s justice, or lack thereof, is exposed. What we find is a poetic rebuke of a people who have lost their way.
Today's Teaching

“From Profane to Profound”

Before I offer the Scripture reading, an introduction to the sermon series we begin this week on troubling passages in the Bible.  It is my experience that many find a comfortable home in a church such as ours because we are not dogmatic, we don’t push literalism, and we try and honor people’s own beliefs.  Still, I find many still come to church with their fingers with respect to some aspect of what they think the faith is.  They’re not sure about this.  They don’t know if they accept that, and yet it’s clear they presume they are supposed to be sure about this and accept that.  Therefore, they’re feel as though they’re not fully in the fold.  One of the major sticking points for people is the Bible.  Held up as a pathway to faith by the church forever, my experience is for many it is a roadblock or certainly parts of it serve as a roadblock. 

What I want to do over the next few weeks is help remove this roadblock so the way may be made clear.  We will work through some of the strangest most troubling passages to our eyes, grow in our understanding of biblical interpretation, explore context, and find meaning if not an instruction guide for modern life, which is how the church has sadly misconstrued the Bible.  I took many of the passages for this series from an article on Salon.com criticizing Christianity, asking Christians, in effect, to justify them.  Well, challenge accepted.  Rather than avoid these tough passages, we’ll go right at them.  In doing so, we may reframe what taking the Bible seriously means.  Biblical scholar Peter Enns puts it this way:  “Reading the Bible responsibly and respectfully today means learning what it meant for ancient Israelites to talk about God the way they did, and not pushing alien expectations onto texts written long ago and far away.”[1]  Take for example, marriage.  In various portions of the Bible—remember the Bible was written over a vast expanse of time and context—marriage is about a man essentially owning a woman as property, many women in fact.  The ancient world had no concept of the kind of marriage that many of you have, so why would we turn to it for direct instruction about marriage.  We can learn about modern marriage from the Bible, but not primarily looking at marriages in the Bible. Rather we turn to the Bible for the deeper values for faithful living we encounter in it – fidelity, mutuality, reverence, and generous love.

We have been set up, says Enns, to expect the wrong things from Scripture and it inevitably lets us down.  Have you ever felt let down by your reading of the Bible?  Enns writes:  

Sweating bullets to line up the Bible with our exhausting expectations, to make the Bible something it’s not meant to be, isn’t a pious act of faith, even if it looks that way on the surface. It’s actually thinly masked fear of losing control and certainty, a mirror of an inner disquiet, a warning signal that deep down we do not really trust God at all.[2] 

We’ve said a little about what the Bible is not—an instruction guide for modern life.  What is it?  Enns says this, “When we open the Bible and read it, we are eavesdropping on an ancient spiritual journey.”[3] I love that.  Sometimes I say to people in Scripture what we have is people wrestling with their own existence, with their own communal life, and with their relationship with this mysterious one they call God.  In their wrestling, we might find wisdom for our own.  We don’t find a simple list of moral exemplars; we find living breathing characters as broken as beautiful as we trying to navigate this life. 

So, are you ready for today’s reading?  It’s a doozy.  I will note in seriousness that it’s graphic and sexual in nature, it’s shaming, it may be triggering for some of you.  It’s from Ezekiel, and believe it or not the tradition was that no one under 30 should read Ezekiel (which of course probably is the best way to get people under 30 to read it).  In all seriousness, if you’re watching with your younger children, you may choose to have them watch the Sunday School lesson instead.  It’s serious stuff here.

I share it not to be shocking nor to defend it—you get to have your own reaction to it—but to offer that if read well it can indeed have important things to say to us on our journeys and journey together.  If this inadvertently pulls something up in you that you’d like to talk about, I am available to you. 

 Today's Scripture: Ezekiel 23, Selected Verses

23The word of the Lord came to me: 2Mortal, there were two women, the daughters of one mother; 3they played the whore [I do not say that word easily, but it becomes the dominant image in the passage, so I retain it] in Egypt; they played the whore in their youth; their breasts were caressed there, and their virgin bosoms were fondled. 4Oholah was the name of the elder and Oholibah the name of her sister. They became mine, and they bore sons and daughters. (23:1-4a)

5 Oholah played the whore while she was mine; she lusted after her lovers the Assyrians, warriors 6clothed in blue, governors and commanders, all of them handsome young men, mounted horsemen. 7She bestowed her favours upon them, the choicest men of Assyria all of them; and she defiled herself with all the idols of everyone for whom she lusted. 8She did not give up her whorings that she had practised since Egypt; for in her youth men had lain with her and fondled her virgin bosom and poured out their lust upon her. 9Therefore I delivered her into the hands of her lovers, into the hands of the Assyrians, for whom she lusted. 10These uncovered her nakedness; they seized her sons and her daughters; and they killed her with the sword. Judgement was executed upon her, and she became a byword among women.

11 Her sister Oholibah saw this, yet she was more corrupt than her sister in her lusting and in her whorings, which were worse than those of her sister. 12She lusted after the Assyrians, governors and commanders, warriors clothed in full armour, mounted horsemen, all of them handsome young men. 13And I saw that she was defiled; they both took the same way. 14But she carried her whorings further; she saw male figures carved on the wall, images of the Chaldeans portrayed in vermilion, 15with belts around their waists, with flowing turbans on their heads, all of them looking like officers—a picture of Babylonians whose native land was Chaldea. 16When she saw them she lusted after them, and sent messengers to them in Chaldea. 17And the Babylonians came to her into the bed of love, and they defiled her with their lust; and after she defiled herself with them, she turned from them in disgust. 18When she carried on her whorings so openly and flaunted her nakedness, I turned in disgust from her, as I had turned from her sister. 19Yet she increased her whorings, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt 20and lusted after her paramours there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose emission was like that of stallions. 21Thus you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when the Egyptians fondled your bosom and caressed your young breasts.

46 For thus says the Lord God: Bring up an assembly against them, and make them an object of terror and of plunder. 47The assembly shall stone them and with their swords they shall cut them down; they shall kill their sons and their daughters, and burn up their houses. 48Thus will I put an end to lewdness in the land, so that all women may take warning and not commit lewdness as you have done. 49They shall repay you for your lewdness, and you shall bear the penalty for your sinful idolatry; and you shall know that I am the Lord God. (46-49).  HERE ENDS THE READINGS. 

I wonder what words you would use to describe what you just heard.  Bizarre?  Offensive?  How about disturbing?  Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great Jewish theologians and Civil Rights activists of the 20th century, opens one of his books with this line:  “This book is about some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived…”[4] His book was on the prophets, prophets such as Ezekiel.  Disturbing, offensive even…and that’s the point. 

Now let’s pause for a second because there are two levels of offensiveness in this passage, and the first may be getting in the way of the second.  The first is that we are offended by the way women are depicted in it.  It plays into all the destructive tropes we know:  women are subject to their passions, they’re oversexualized and yet slut-shamed at the same time, they are the downfall of men, it’s always their fault.  What’s the oldest story in the book, yes that book?  Blame Eve.  I submit we are right to be offended by that.  While we still have a ways to go, we have awakened somewhat to the need for equality among the sexes and the genders.  We can recognize how comparing the people of Israel, God’s chosen ones in Scripture, as whoring women when they are unfaithful inadvertently and undeservedly leaves a stain upon womanhood. 

That’s not how Ezekiel is trying to offend, but Ezekiel is trying to offend the reader, his audience.  That’s what prophets do.  They offend the sensibilities of the culture, particularly of the powerful in the culture, the rulers, as a way of showing how those sensibilities are corrupt, askew, unfaithful.  It’s sort of like protest.  Have you ever noticed how people get want protest to be a certain way, not disruptive, not offensive, and certainly not destructive, but the point of protest, if it’s properly construed, is to illuminate precisely how the dominant culture is in fact destructive, unjust.  Prophets offend because they culture in which they live is offensive; its sensibilities deserve to be offended because they are not appropriate sensibilities. You cannot attempt to correct someone’s behavior or norms while simultaneously upholding them.  

So, Ezekiel intends to be offensive, but his point isn’t that about women, that they are intrinsically whores.  We can and should name how that’s problematic.  His point, this second level offensiveness, is how the nation has strayed from God and God’s justice, seduced by other ways of being, by other powers.  In the passage, the daughters Oholah and Oholibah, represent Samaria and Jerusalem respectively.  These are the capital cities of the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel, two daughters of the same mother.  Notice, incidentally, the positive feminine image for God here, as mothers of these two, as well as her two offspring, these capital cities. But, they have forgotten who they are, where they came from, their divine parentage, their values, evidenced by how they are acting a fool on the world’s stage.  Ezekiel holds up an offensive image as a mirror, with the hope it will call them back home to their better selves.

We’ve done you a disservice if we’ve taught you the Bible, church, is only about making you feel better about every choice you or we make as a people.  The life of faith should be comforting, but it should also be correcting.  The biblical witness is both comforting shepherd and challenging prophet.  Both aid us.  We may not like the terms the Bibles writers used as they chronicled their wrestling.  We may choose different terms, but can we not gain something for our wrestling by reading of theirs?  Stay with us over these next several weeks.  Have your roadblocks removed, your faith renewed, and the way be made clear.  Amen.

Quotes, Questions & Prompts for Reflection, Discussion, and Prayer

“Reading the Bible responsibly and respectfully today means learning what it meant for ancient Israelites to talk about God the way they did, and not pushing alien expectations onto texts written long ago and far away.”

― Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It

1. What are some things you were taught about the Bible or the faith that you now realize were harmful, misleading, or simply what you struggled to accept?
2. How have common understandings of the Bible’s treatment of women shaped our society?
3. What role should the Bible play in our faith?
4. Are you drawn to the Bible? Comforted? Repelled? Bored? What is your experience of it?
5. How might he use of the feminine to describe the people be a resource for understanding communal life?

 

[1] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets Vol. 2 (New York:  Harper, 1955), xi.