Ezekiel 20 – Non-Good Laws

OK, long reading today, so a long post. I have four things from ch. 20:

First, I haven’t mentioned this yet, but the JPS Tanakh translation in Ezekiel replaces the word “idol” with the word “fetish.” So in 20:8 we read, “They did not cast away the detestable things they were drawn to, nor did they give up the fetishes of Egypt,” and every other passage in this book where other translators have used the word idol. This wasn’t the case in Isaiah or Jeremiah. It gives a different view of the idea of a fetish, though: something in the created world to which people ascribe worship, even though that thing is neither holy nor divine and has no power to save.

I also read in this chapter that God’s mighty works and salvations have all been for Himself, not for His people. For example, in 20:7-9 He proclaims that in His rage He would have destroyed the nation of His chosen people, but “for the sake of My name, that it might not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they were.” In other places throughout the Bible God reminds the people that He did not choose them because they were special; on the contrary, they are special because He chose them. I don’t recall, though, other books in which God makes clear that He saves them only to preserve His image among non-Israelite human society, not because He loves them and wants them to thrive.

My third point somewhat follows on that. Throughout this book God repeatedly states, “Then you shall know that I am the Lord.” He does many great and terrible works with this thought in view. I wonder, though, did the people ever really get it? Did they ever really know that YHWH is Lord? Do they (we) know it today? Is God just saying that to make Ezekiel feel like a turning point is coming, or is He mistaken about how teachable the Israelites, even all of humanity, really are? Perhaps at the moment that the words were spoken, or when the events came to pass and the people recalled Ezekiel’s prophecies, at that moment the people suddenly believed God. But how long did that understanding persist? The lion is not lying down with the lamb today. We still struggle with knowing that God really is God, even though we can look back and see the events of history. I’m not sure how well that ongoing refrain of prophecy has really come true.

And finally, what of 20:25?

Moreover, I gave them laws that were not good and rules by which they could not live;

The JSB, HarCol, and ESV all have substantially the same translation. I see that I had even underlined that verse in the ESV the last time I had read through Ezekiel.

Famously, as the ESV/Reformation Study Bible is wont to do, we find no commentary on that verse at all. HarCol points out that Isaiah 63:17 has a similar sentiment, such that God hardening the hearts of His people is not unprecedented. JSB speculates that this verse hearkens back to the point when the spies from Moses’ camp returned from the promised land reporting that it was unconquerable, and so God made them to wander in the wilderness for the lifespan of that generation. JSB goes on to connect v. 25 with the following verse concerning the firstborn: They propose that early Israelites used God’s commands concerning the firstborn in Exodus 22:28 and 34:19-20 to justify child sacrifice. The passage in Ex. 22 has extensive study notes since it is unclear what exactly God meant by “give Me.” We see several places in the prophets describing Israelites offering their children in the fire, and God responding with “which I never commanded, which never came to mind.” See Jeremiah 7:31 for one example. Could it be, though, that this child sacrifice was one of the “not good” laws God had given to His people, a law “by which they could not live?”