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Ezekiel 20:25-26 and the Condescending God

Ezekiel 20:25-26 is a rather puzzling verse. Because Israel would not obey the Lord, he says….

I gave them other statutes that were not good and laws through which they could not live; I defiled them through their gifts—the sacrifice of every firstborn—that I might fill them with horror so they would know that I am the LORD.

Did the Lord really give the Israelites statutes that were not good and laws that were impossible to live? And how did the Lord defile Israel by their sinful practice of offering up the “gifts” of their firstborn children?

It’s not perfectly clear what statutes the Lord is referring to verse 25, but it doesn’t seem he’s referring to the positive statutes spoken of earlier in this chapter (vss. 11 and 13). These statutes are depicted as life-giving and the Lord refers to them as “my statutes” while the first person possessive is missing in vs. 25. Also, in verse 25 Yahweh refers to “other statutes,” and while the word “statutes” is normally feminine, which is how we find it in verses 11 and 13, an unusual masculine form of the world is used in vs. 25. Many scholars thus conclude that the statutes of verse 25 probably refer not to Yahweh’s statutes given through Moses but to Canaanite laws that in some areas remained in place after the conquest and that continually tested the Israelites faithfulness (see Judges. 2: 20-23).

The passage thus seems to be suggesting that, as an act of judgment in response to the Israelite’s faithlessness, Yahweh turned them over to follow the sinful inclines of their heart, succumbing to Canaanite laws and even offering up the “gifts” of their first-born children to demonic gods. It’s worth noting that the word “gave” can (according to the NET Bible) be translated “permit.” It thus seems that Yahweh’s purpose in surrendering the Israelites over to their sinful inclinations was to eventually bring them to a full revelation of who he truly is and to realize how demonic child sacrifice is. God let them go so they’d eventually be horrified at their own sinfulness.

Curiously, however, the Lord speaks throughout this passage as though he was the one causing them to obey deceptive statutes and sacrifice children.

Of course, Calvinists interpret this to mean that God actually brought about Israel’s rebellious adherence to Canaanite laws and the practice of sacrificing children — “in such a way,” of course, that God is not morally responsible for doing so. It’s hard to see how Yahweh could have intentionally brought about the Israelite’s practice of child sacrifice when he elsewhere declares that the thought of his people engaging in such demonic practices never entered his mind (Jer 7:31; 19:5)). Moreover, this interpretation unwittingly transforms God into a moral monster and fails to explain why Yahweh would be furious with the Israelites (why would Yahweh be angry over people doing what he himself caused them to do?). Most importantly, this interpretation flatly contradicts the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.Can you imagine Jesus in any sense bringing about the practice of children sacrifice? He reserved his harshest warnings for anyone who would harm little children (Mt. 18:6, 10)!

In the book I’m now working on (Jesus Versus Jehovah?) I’m offering an alternative interpretation. Over and against their polytheistic ancient Near Eastern neighbors, ancient Jews emphasized that there is one sovereign Lord over all creation who rules all of history. They thus tended to view God as a supreme ancient Near Eastern monarch king who had ultimate authority over all subordinate angelic and earthly rulers. As a good monarch king, Yahweh takes responsibility (though not moral culpability) for all that transpires within his “court” (the world), including events he himself abhors. Because of this, I argue, biblical authors often depict Yahweh as actively doing what he merely allows. I’ve been impressed with the remarkable number of texts that make this point more or less explicit. Exodus 12 is perhaps the best paradigmatic illustration of this point, for in verse 12 Yahweh says he will slay the firstborn of every household that doesn’t have blood over the door post while in verse 23 he says he will not prevent “the destroyer” from slaying the firstborn of these households.

On Calvary, I argue, the Lord shows us what “taking responsibility” for the sin of the world looks like. God enters into our sinful state, takes on the semblance of our sin and guilt, bears our just punishment at the hands of evil powers and evil humans, and thereby redeems us from our sin. In Jesus Verses Jehovah? I’m trying to demonstrate that God has, in fact, been doing something like this from the start — a point that should not surprise us if we believe Jesus is the definitive revelation of what God has always been like. While God only actually became incarnate once, his doing so reveals that he’s always been an incarnational God who is willing to enter into, and take on the semblance of, our fallen, deceived, sinful condition. Viewed through the lens of Christ, we can see that all the horrendous depictions of Yahweh as a ferocious warrior deity in the Old Testament are anticipations of the horror of Calvary, where Yahweh appears as a guilty, God-forsaken criminal, and thereby reveals his innermost heart.

In short, Jesus culminates the revelation of God throughout the Bible, for he reveals God to be a God of outrageous love who condescends to where we’re at and is thus willing to look as ugly as we need him to be in order to redeem us.

Think about it.




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