In this excerpt from Fierce: Women of the Bible and their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex, and Salvation, author Alice Connor reflects on two chapters of Ezekiel – Chapter 16, the allegory of an unfaithful wife, and Chapter 23, the allegory of the sisters, Oholah and Oholibah – both stories dealing with the judgment of “wicked” women.
I am straight up furious about these two chapters. Why the hell is this in the Bible? … Portraying God who created us and loves us and wants the best for us as an abusive lover is counterproductive and viscerally damaging. What does this say not only to people who have been abused but also to the rest of us? God is slow to anger, except when he’s not. God is so angry with you for whatever it is you’ve done that he will make your life miserable and then let someone murder you. Or everything bad that happens to you is punishment from God (“you” being an individual or an entire nation, take your pick). I can’t believe that. I just can’t.
Too many women in the history of humanity have been abused by husbands or lovers in exactly this way. The woman may or may not have done something wrong, the husband gets angry and hurts her, and then his anger is sated and he apologizes, saying he’ll never do it again. “I’m so sorry, baby. Why you gotta make me so angry?” And then it starts all over; it’s a cycle. …
And we are supposed to be revolted: Ezekiel is performing for us, trying to make us see how hurtful our behavior is. We are almost blind to it. We bemoan how numb we’ve become to violence, how we can’t be shocked anymore, and it’s true. Disasters happen, we are rightfully sad, we send off a check, and nothing changes. After a while, we end up with outrage fatigue; things are [awful] out there, but we don’t have the energy for outrage any more. If the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School didn’t shake us up into doing something different, nothing will. But then we turn around and say the most hateful things to each other online, insulting each other for political views, insisting on all-or-nothing solutions, leaking personal images, even threatening each other with death. We don’t see our own violence. We don’t see how our normal, selfish actions, online or not, feed the violence of the world. To paraphrase the cartoon Pogo, we’ve seen the enemy, but we can’t see that he is us.
But that’s not new. Our great-great-grandparents in Jerusalem in 586 BCE were numb to it, too. And also selfish and rude. So all the prophets use extreme, insulting, offensive language to shock the people into feeling again. “Wake up to what you’re doing!” they say, while punching us in the collective gut. “Wake the F up!”
… They were supposed to care for orphans and widows. They were supposed to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. But they didn’t. And we don’t. Therefore, every bad thing that could possibly happen to them as a nation and as individuals was because God was angry and heartbroken. When they (and we) choose not-God, they (and we) leave ourselves open to retribution.
I am still pissed off that these stories exist at all, whether in scripture or in our lives. But I also understand them, even if it makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable to say so. If I’m honest, I want a God who gets angry—not irrationally angry, not abusive or vengeful, but still angry at suffering and injustice. I don’t want a soft, fluffy God seeing the pain here and feeling nothing. I want widows and orphans and people being abused to be seen and heard and to find new life. I want a God who is angry at spiritual rhetoric that paints women as sluts and less than men. I want a God who is angry at the denial of the black experience of violence and who is angry at the deaths of police officers. I think that’s exactly what we have. God is angry and Ezekiel wants us to be as well.
And God is heartbroken. The thing is, God gave us free will. God wants to be chosen, not followed by automatons because we can’t do anything else, so in the garden called Eden, God gave us a choice. And because we can and do choose not-God, God is heartbroken. That I can believe – God watching us and thinking, “I love you, I made you. Why do you keep choosing someone else?” This is at the core of our human story: separation from God. We think God can’t possibly love us, can’t possibly exist even, so we’ll have to make love and connection and real justice happen ourselves. We see what the prophets saw: that there is no one to stand in the breach between love and nothingness, that bad things happen to good people and to bad people and to all of us who are both. We feel separate from the experience of God, so we try to recreate it by ourselves. Separation from God can become functional atheism, which seems to me like a natural response to the world. Within the church, we’ve chosen to name our response to feeling separate “sin.”
I chose to write about Jerusalem because it is so painful. God’s heart is broken by our actions, and our hearts are broken by how Ezekiel talks about it. It’s not simplistic; it’s a reminder that there’s no easy answer to our questions. These chapters look like the opposite of how we understand God. They’re also exactly what a lot of the world thinks our God is like, because we are like that. We shame women for their sexual desire; we abandon each other in time of need; we choose a presidential candidate or job security over God; we attack and destroy. Our history as Christians and Jews is not all good. We are kind of a mess, and the stories we tell reflect that. They’re hurtful and confounding, and we need them so we can be honest about who we are. Sometimes we are angry for justice, and sometimes we are angry for violent, bloody vengeance. It’s not pretty, but it’s true.
Disturbing passages of scripture aren’t less disturbing if we ignore them. The evil of this world isn’t wiped out by good; it lives alongside it. Death isn’t destroyed by life; they walk hand in hand. But the experience of good, love, light, and life can transform evil, hate, darkness, and life. Let us choose the complex, the beautiful, the kind, the transformative, and as Ezekiel also says, “turn, then, and live.”
Excerpt from Fierce by Alice Conner copyright (c) 2017 Fortress Press. Reproduced by permission.
The Rev. Alice Conner serves as a campus minister at the Edge House, a campus ministry gathering place on the edge of the University of Cincinnati. Her book Fierce: Women of the Bible and their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex, and Salvation was released in February. Fierce is available at your local bookstore and at Amazon.com. www.fierceasswomen.com