Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ezekiel 16 as a test-case for open theism

i) There are roughly two streams of open theism. One stream argues for open theism on primarily philosophical grounds (e.g. William Hasker, Alan Rhoda, Dean Zimmerman, David Basinger) while the other stream argues for open theism on primarily hermeneutical/exegetical grounds (e.g. Gregory Boyd, John Sanders, Terence Fretheim, John Goldingay). I'm going to focus on the latter approach.

ii) Open theism suffers from a fundamental internal tension. A tension between its theology and its methodology. On the one hand, the theology of open theism is basically a variant of Arminianism and Anabaptism. It stresses God's universal love, including God's nonviolent love for his enemies. It stresses the Cross and the Sermon on the Mount as its interpretive prism.

On the other hand, its major prooftexts, in challenging classical theism, are taken from the OT. Narrative theology and prophetic literature. Yet the OT depiction of God's character often clashes with open theist sentiments. If anything, the OT depiction of God's character is frequently the polar opposite of universal love or nonviolent love for God's enemies. 

iii) Open theism typically rejects the appeal to anthropomorphic explanations in classical theism. Open theism champions a face-value hermeneutic. That's essential to the open theist program. 

iv) Perhaps I'm insufficiently well-read in current open theism literature, but to my knowledge, when open theists lay out their exegetical case for their position, there's a conspicuous omission of passages like Ezk 16. Yet that seems to be custom-made for open theism, in terms of how open theism typically interprets and infers God's nature (i.e. emotion, passibility, mutability) from the OT. It presents a limiting-case for open theist prooftexting. 

Let's quote some reflections on this passage from feminist hermeneutics:

One place the patriarchal portrayal of God is felt most keenly and distressingly is in the prophetic literature. This is especially true in passages where God is portrayed as a faithful husband while Israel is portrayed as a faithless wife. Renita Weems has commented on the problematic dimensions of this marriage metaphor in Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in her monograph: Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets. The portrait of God that emerges from these texts is not very attractive, to say the least. She writes: "God is described as an abusive husband who batters his wife, stripes her naked, and leaves her to be raped by her lovers, only to take her back in the end insistent that when all is said and done Israel the wife shill remain interminably the wife of an abusing husband. E. Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Fortress 2009), 45. 
When these judgment oracles are directed against the people of God, God is portrayed as an abusive husband who sexually degrades and humiliates his wife (Israel). This is "sexual violence," writes Cheryl Exum, "where God appears as the subject and the object of his abuse is personified Israel/Judah/Jerusalem." In a particularly graphic passage [Ezk 16:35-42] in Ezekiel, God has this to say about Jerusalem, "his" unfaithful spouse…Although this motif is sometimes referred to as the "marriage metaphor," that designation is unsuitable. What is portrayed here is not a healthy picture of marriage but a horrifying depiction of spousal abuse, violence, and sexual degradation. Susanne Scholz comes nearer the mark when she refers to this as "the prophetic rape metaphor."  
Depicting sinful cities as faithless women who "deserve" to be punished in sexually violent ways creates all sorts of problems for modern readers…As Katheryn Darr writes: "I become uneasy when Ezekiel employs female sexual imagery to depicted the ostensible wickedness of 6C Judeans…because imagery, especially biblical imagery, that details the degradation and public humiliation of women…can have serious repercussions.  
Numerous OT texts also lend themselves quite naturally to discussions about domestic violence. In her study of Ezekiel 16, Linda Day discusses the typical pattern of abuse that battered women experience (tension building, acute violence, and contrite behavior) and then demonstrates that this is precisely how God behaves toward Jerusalem in this chapter of Ezekiel.  Similar observations have also been made about the way God treats Gomer in the book of Hosea. E. Seibert, The Violence of Scripture (Fortress Press 2012), 137, 142.

v) My point is not that I agree with their interpretation. As I recently argued, I disagree with that approach:

More generally, the Bible contains some very positive feminine images, along with some very negative feminine images–as well as some very negative masculine images. So the Bible isn't sexist or one-sided.

However, the question at issue isn't how I interpret Ezk 16, but how we'd expect open theism to handle this passage, if its proponents were consistent. Given their hermeneutical presuppositions, it's hard to see how open theists can effectively resist the feministic interpretation. Ezk 23 presents the same dilemma. 

vi) Given open theist hermeneutics, the God who emerges from Ezk 16 is a terrifying God. And terrifying in a particular respect: he lacks emotional self-control. He loses his cool, lashing out in fury. A God with a short fuse.  

It's like a Mafia Don who adopts the daughter of his late brother. He raises her with great affection and kindness. But if his ward betrays his love, his love turns to hate. He  becomes vindictive. He's wonderful to you as long as you don't cross him. But if you get on his wrong side, if he feels betrayed, then you will find yourself on the receiving end of omnipotent revenge. 

It's like a throwback to Greek mythology. Think of the ingenious punishments which the Greek gods devise for those who fall out of favor. 

1 comment:

  1. Those are good points.
    While, on the first pass, the open theist approach is a very "literal" reading of the texts they choose, it isn't A) literary enough B) theologically in synch with the canon or the best of Christian philosophical reasoning.
    I say this as somebody who isn't a part of the debate in general. It seems that there is a way, without being unfaithful to the text of Scripture or to Christianity as a whole, to take those texts in light of God's love as well as in light of God's other attributes.
    It would seem that the main inference meant to be made from Ezekiel is for the hearers' approach to life, not their understanding of God's attributes. If you're a member of the covenant, you know the law, and thus should repent. You cannot blame another for your state, etc. It is a message as liberating as the open theists, like Greg Boyd, want it to be: because of God, you can change. It's just not particularly germane to our understanding of God's experience of time. Similarly, the other texts, if we take a revelation informed approach to classical theism, the texts can still be taken in light of God's love. We can ask, "Why would God work through history so starkly for people who do not care about the things of God or other mortals?" Well, the rest of Scripture tells us: the starkness cannot be purely literal because God is as God is revealed as unchanging and as he is depicted in Romans 5:1-10.

    Good post, thanks.