Ezekiel 36: A new heart (part two)

This is week three of a series in Ezekiel 33-37, about God’s promised reboot of his people. If you’ve just joined, you can either go to the start of the series, or simply begin the new chapter with us starting from Monday’s post.

Yesterday, we saw God prepping the patient for the coming heart transplant: he was preparing the land for his people’s return from exile.

The patient doesn’t deserve a transplant

Not that they deserve it, of course. I mean, the next part of the chapter reminds them of this quite graphically:

Ezekiel 36:16-17 Again the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, when the people of Israel were living in their own land, they defiled it by their conduct and their actions. Their conduct was like a woman’s monthly uncleanness in my sight.”

Ritual uncleanness and idolatry

OK… so I could have just skipped over this bit and hoped you wouldn’t notice. Or given you a sanitised version like advertisers do, hiding it in a discreet box with pretty patterns on it, and pretending the liquid involved is coloured blue.

But this text is supposed to be offensive. Yet not offensive in quite the same way as we might take it today. So let’s deal with it for a moment, because in today’s culture, I think I have to. I want to be clear about this: this text is not misogynistic. It’s not demeaning of women.

How can I say that?

Well if we go back to the book of Leviticus and look at the purity regulations given to Israel, we see a whole bunch of stuff that makes someone “unclean” in the sight of God—stuff that’s perfectly normal for  both men and women. This includes the discharge of both semen and menstrual blood; it includes having sex; and it includes giving birth to children. Note that God created all these things, and said afterwards, “it is very good.”

What’s more, these things aren’t sinful. They simply made you “ritually unclean” to enter the temple—to enter the presence of God to worship him—and only for a limited period of time. Fair enough, I suppose. But why? Why would God consider a normal process he created as making a person unclean?

Here’s the important bit: the idolatrous nations around worshiped gods and goddesses of fertility, something Israel was regularly tempted by. And the worship of these fertility gods and goddesses often involved various immoral sexual practices—including ritual prostitution. So God drew a very clear line for Israel between sex and fertility on one side—and worship of the one true God on the other. He says: don’t bring anything to do with sex and reproduction into my temple. Don’t think I’m anything like those idols the nations worship.

So when God describes Israel’s conduct as “like a woman’s monthly uncleanness in my sight,” it’s because he’s referring to worship of fertility idols. Look at the very next verse:

Ezekiel 36:18 “So I poured out my wrath on them because they had shed blood in the land and because they had defiled it with their idols.”

Yes, referring to it as menstruation is supposed to be confronting. Let’s face it, however natural it is—just like semen and any other fluid normally kept inside the body—the blood is a bit icky. And also it ties in well with the allusion to shedding blood in the first part of the verse, which may just refer to murder and violence. But it could still be about idolatry, referring to the practice of child sacrifice, the main reason God had for destroying the Canaanites who had previously occupied the land.

And before we leave this side-track: when Jesus turns up, what does he do? He frequently meets people who are ritually unclean and unable to go into the temple. Yet Jesus—who’s basically a walking, talking temple; the place where God dwells among his people—Jesus touches them, and heals them. Including a woman whose constant period had made her unclean for 12 years (Luke 8:43-48).

So this is not an image grounded in misogyny. It’s a response to perverted idol worship of the fertility gods and goddesses of Canaan.

And what did God do to Israel because of their idolatry?

Ezekiel 36:19 “I dispersed them among the nations, and they were scattered through the countries; I judged them according to their conduct and their actions.”

God’s reputation is at stake

Fair enough for Israel. They’d brought it on themselves. But notice how it affects God’s reputation among the nations, too. It follows on with how the mountains got mocked earlier in the chapter:

Ezekiel 36:20 “And wherever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, ‘These are the Lord’s people, and yet they had to leave his land.’”

Their sin wasn’t just to their shame. God’s honour was at stake, too. His whole plan was to have a people who lived under his protection—who lived life the way he intended—so that the nations would see, and want that, too. They were supposed to be a walking advertisement for life under God, but they’d become a laughing stock instead. And so had God.

And that’s the reason God’s about to act:

Ezekiel 36:22-23 Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. 23 I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.’

Later on in the chapter, God says it again:

Ezekiel 36:32 I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, people of Israel!

They should be ashamed! They’ve spent their life feeding their faces with the trans fats of idolatry and smoking a pack of incense sticks a day. They don’t deserve their spot on the transplant list. But because of his honour—so that his plan to reconcile the world to himself through his people would not be jeopardised—God’s about to act. He’s set up the operating theatre ready to give them that new heart. Something they couldn’t do themselves. Something they didn’t deserve.

We don’t deserve it either

Now if you’ve been following this series all the way through, you’ll know this isn’t written directly to us, or about us. We need to wait for it all to go through the Jesus funnel (tomorrow) before we can see exactly how it relates to us. But here’s a spoiler: we don’t deserve God’s mercy either.

Our sin—our idolatry—made us unclean in the sight of God in exactly the same way. We’ve disgraced ourselves on the altars of sex and greed and pride and selfishness. No amount of justifying, blame-shifting, and psychologising can change the fact that our sin is bad. That it dishonours the God who made us in his image. And that there’s nothing we can do to change it.

Our only hope is to become part of this reboot God’s preparing to perform on his people, and to share in that new heart. We’ll see how the story unfolds tomorrow.

To think about

In what ways does God’s honour suffer today, in light of how we, his people, behave?

What can we do to avoid the temptation of thinking that we somehow deserved God’s mercy?

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