Biblical studies: May 2008 Archives

Consider the following passage:

He then said to me: "Son of man, go now to the house of Israel and speak my words to them. You are not being sent to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the house of Israel -- not to many peoples of obscure speech and difficult language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely if I had sent you to them, they would have listened to you. But the house of Israel is not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to me, for the whole house of Israel is hardened and obstinate. But I will make you as unyielding and hardened as they are. I will make your forehead like the hardest stone, harder than flint. Do not be afraid of them or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house." [Ezekiel 2:4-9, NIV]

When I read through the book of Ezekiel a little while back, several things struck me about this passage:

1. God seems to indicate that Ezekiel's message would have received a better response if he'd been preaching it to people who didn't even understand the words he was saying. That's a pretty serious hardening of the heart, if anyone who doesn't even understand the message being said will give a better response than Israel would.

2. It seems like an interesting example of God's knowledge of what people would do in some non-actual scenario. Jesus says something similar about how Sodom and Gomorrah would have responded had they seen the miracles Jesus performed. In both cases it's a strong statement against God's people's unwillingness to believe. In both cases, if it's meant literally (rather than sarcastic exaggeration), it's an example of God knowing how people would respond if things had been different, indeed of something pretty unexpected that God seems to be saying would have happened if things were otherwise.

3. There's such a clear statement of Israel's unwillingness to listen to God. It doesn't say afterward that they didn't believe. It doesn't say simultaneously that they aren't believing but might. It says before he's preached anything that they are not willing to listen. The kind of hardening that's true of them is not the sort where it's unclear what will result. God is telling Ezekiel now that they're not going to respond favorably and not to fear. This does seem to suggest a pretty strong view of God's understanding of how people will respond to something.

4. There's still an acknowledgment that some will listen. Earlier in 2:7, and later in 3:11, God tells Ezekiel that his task is the same whether they listen or not. It doesn't say that some will nonetheless listen, even if most don't. It doesn't say that there's a chance they might listen, and God doesn't know for sure. This would have been a perfect opportunity to say either. What is says is to preach the message regardless of their response. Their response is irrelevant to whether Ezekiel preaches. I have a feeling open theists would want to read this statement as leaving the wiggle room they need for there being no guarantee of God's prediction being true. But I don't see that. I see God saying that they won't believe and that Ezekiel should preach no matter how they respond, not saying that anyone might or will respond favorably.

I've heard it said that the Levitical requirement for priests to marry virgins is a sign of an assumption that virgins are more pure, which implies that sex is in itself impure. Here is the relevant passage:

And he shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute, these he shall not marry. But he shall take as his wife a virgin of his own people, that he may not profane his offspring among his people, for I am the Lord who sanctifies him." (Leviticus 21:13-15, ESV)

There are several things wrong with this argument. One is that the priest is supposed to be pure after marriage too, and if sex is impure then how is he going to remain pure if he has sex with his wife? Another is that there's a reason give, one that doesn't have to do with the purity of the bride but with the offspring. I suppose it's possible to take that as assuming the offspring will be polluted because the mother is polluted, but I don't think that's what's going on here. One of the priestly requirements during Ezekiel's vision of a renewed temple in the last chapters of his prophecy sheds some light on this issue:

They shall not marry a widow or a divorced woman, but only virgins of the offspring of the house of Israel, or a widow who is the widow of a priest. (Ezekiel 44:22, ESV)

If the issue were some animus against people who had had sex, then why would a widow of a priest be ok? Presumably if pollution from sex itself transferred pollution to any offspring, then wouldn't the widow of a priest be just as problematic as the widow of anyone else? This suggests some other reason why priests needed to marry virgins in Leviticus, a reason that must be consistent with marrying widows of priests in Ezekiel. It's unlikely that there's different reasoning involved in the two cases, even if you don't accept divine inspiration behind the two passages.

A much more likely explanation is that the issue with offspring is that virgins raise no problem for offspring having been fathered by someone else prior to the marriage. If a priest marries a virgin, any child she gives birth to will be of the priestly line. If he marries someone who is not a virgin, there is always the possibility that any offspring might have been fathered by someone who is not a priest. At least that's true if her previous sexual activity was with someone who was not a priest. If she was married to a priest, her offspring would still be assumed to be of priestly descent. So this interpretation makes sense of the second allowable condition in Ezekiel, in keeping with the spirit of the Leviticus passage.

Those who begin with the assumption that the Bible is anti-sex like to come up with these implausible claims, and someone who doesn't think carefully about the biblical passages in context can easily come away with the conclusion that these charges have some foundation. Biblical passages certainly do assume a sexual morality that differs from popular views today, but it doesn't follow that the assumptions behind that sexual ethic are anti-sex. Even ignoring the celebration of sex in the Song of Songs and Paul's insistence in I Corinthians 7 that sex should be a normal and regular part of marriage, you still can't easily get the conclusion that sex itself is impure unless you ignore much of the ancient context and often even the literary context of biblical statements.

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