Friday of week 19 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Ezek 16:1-15, 60, 63 or 16:59-63

[As the first reading speaks in rather explicit language of childbirth, there is an alternative reading (see below) for those who might find it offensive or ‘indelicate’. The writers and readers of the Old Testament were more comfortable than we are with these everyday ‘facts of life’]

FIRST READING (Ezekiel 16:1-15,60,63)

We have today a rather striking allegorical history of Israel. In summary, Israel is seen as the faithless wife of Yahweh, a ‘whore’ of alien gods. This is a familiar image in prophetic literature from Hosea onwards. Ezekiel develops it in a long allegory (resumed in another form in ch. 23) surveying the whole history of Israel. As in Hosea, this allegory ends with a free pardon from the husband who establishes a new covenant, thus prefiguring the marriage of God with his people in messianic days, a theme which is taken up in the New Testament.

In a touching and progressing series of images the prophet describes how God chose his people, cared for them, showered them with all they needed and much more and how in the end they ungratefully abused all they had received. In spite of that he will not abandon them.

God describes himself as the spouse of Israel, who turns out to be an utterly faithless wife, prostituting herself (often literally) before false gods. The purpose of the allegory is for Ezekiel to confront Jerusalem with the terrible things she has been doing.

First, she is reminded of her pagan and idolatrous origins. “You belong to the land of Canaan. Your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite.” The “land of Canaan” was roughly equivalent to Lebanon and Israel today. The Amorites were pre-Israelite, Semitic inhabitants of Palestine and the Hittites were non-Semitic residents of Canaan who had flourished in Asia Minor before 1000 BC. In biblical tradition, Amorites and Hittities refer generally to the pre-Israelite population. They are seen as different from Israel, which traced its origins through Abraham to Nahor.

Jerusalem had, therefore, a centuries-old, pre-Israelite history and the city for a long time resisted conquest by the Israelites. It did not come fully under Israelite rule until David’s time. [Some matter for reflection here on the mutual rights of Israelis and Palestinians today.]

Israel is then described as an abandoned baby immediately after birth. The navel cord has not been cut nor has the infant been washed clean of blood. There is no one to rub the baby with salt (a custom still practiced by Palestinian Arabs into this century) or to wrap the little body in swaddling clothes (as Mary did with her Son).

In a word, there was no one to care for this child which lay, unloved and abandoned, “regarded as loathsome”, in an open field. Exposure of new-born babies was common in ancient societies but abhorred by Israel.

Then God came along, a prospective husband in search of a bride, and saw the helpless child still bathed in the polluting birth blood and growing like a wild plant until God gave his blessing of life and prosperity: “Live and grow like the grass of the fields.” This is God’s will for all his creatures.

The birth blood, a source of uncleanness, is seen as a symbol of the polluting and corrupting influences of paganism on Israel before its call in the covenant of Sinai. (Women who gave birth to a child were regarded as unclean for several weeks.)

From that moment Israel began to grow and mature as symbolised by the appearance of breasts and pubic hair. However, the girl was still naked.

So now God again passes by. “Your time had come,” he tells Israel. “the time for love”, that is, for marriage. God covers the girl’s nakedness with part of his own cloak, the sign of his intention to marry her. “I made you mine,” he says, like a groom speaking of his bride.

From now he pours out his attentions:

– his bride is bathed in cleansing water

– the polluting menstrual blood of idolatry is washed off

– there is an anointing with oil

– she is dressed in the very finest of clothes, clothes fit for a queen and sandals made from the same leather used to cover the tabernacle.

– she is adorned with jewellery: bracelets, necklace, nose-ring and ear-rings, and a beautiful wedding diadem.

– she is “loaded with gold and silver, dressed in fine linen and embroidered silks”, as was the Temple in Jerusalem.

– she was fed with only the finest of food, the kind used in offerings in the Temple.

In time she grew into a beautiful woman, a queen, the Lord’s bride.

She was looked up to and admired by peoples everywhere for she was bathed in the very glory of the Lord, her spouse. This was especially so in the days of David and Solomon, who was famous for his God-given wisdom, his wealth and the building of the Temple.

Unfortunately, all this went to her head. She forgot the origins of all her glory. She turned her beauty to prostitution in the two senses of being unfaithful to her Lord and of actual indulgence in the fertility rites of her pagan Canaanite neighbours. Like a whore she offered sexual favours to all comers.

But, however unfaithful Jerusalem may be, her spouse will remain true to the covenant they made and will make it last for ever. It is time now, reminds the Lord through his prophet, for Jerusalem to be covered with shame for what she has done. And when God forgives, she will be reduced to a shameful silence.

This allegory in many ways can be applied to our own Church and its evolution from Gentile and pagan beginnings in so many parts of the world. We too have been blessed with an extraordinary cornucopia of spiritual and cultural richness over the centuries. But we have also prostituted ourselves frequently, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally.

This allegory has much to say to us. Let us not just read it as a condemnation of pre-Christian Jerusalem but a salutary reminder for our own relationship with our loving God.

ALTERNATIVE FIRST READING (Ezekiel 16:59-63)

This reading is taken from the same passage as the one above but focuses on its conclusion. To understand its significance, then, it is helpful to have read the previous reading.

On the one hand, Jerusalem will be treated as she deserves for breaking her covenant with God. She will be destroyed and her people taken away into bitter exile in Babylon.

But God will not forget his people. He will remember the covenant he made when “she was a girl”, that is, in her younger days when the covenant was first made at Mount Sinai and he will now make a covenant that will last forever.

Jerusalem will then be reduced to a speechless silence of remorse for her faithlessness. Especially when Yahweh takes “those older and younger sisters” and gives them to her as “daughters”.  This refers to Samaria and Sodom which came under the rule of Jerusalem.

In spite of everything, Yahweh’s people will be pardoned and the covenant will be renewed. On her part, Jerusalem will remember with shame and repentance the terrible things she has done.

We, too, provided we have genuine repentance and long to be reconciled again with our Lord in love, can be sure that God’s love and compassion will be poured over us.

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