When Idolatry Becomes Infidelity

I’ve been making my way through Ezekiel lately. For a lot of people, I imagine this book might be unbearable. Ezekiel’s visions are on the bizarre-er side and God’s primary charge against Israel isn’t injustice and murder, it’s idolatry.

In our hierarchy of sins, I don’t think idolatry ranks very high. It’s definitely not worthy of grave punishment. It seems a little selfish of God to take it so seriously, doesn’t it? It seems a little too human. A little too egotistical. It’s hard not to think this way but, in the context of Ezekiel, idolatry is so much less trivial. It’s betrayal.

Betrayal. Does that word sound old fashioned? Elizabeth Wurtzel says in Prozac Nation that we live in a world where there are simply no obligations left. We live in a world where meaning and implication have been detached from everything. Intellectually maybe this is true. We’ll say that people have a right to love whom they will love. That they have a right to leave. But when someone you deeply love, whom you have invested so much of your time and care into, who made a commitment to you, abandons you…then you will feel it in your bones that they are committing a sin against you.

What if this feeling, this flaw that evolution hasn’t managed to eliminate yet, what if it’s true? That’s what God suggests in Ezekiel. That not returning love for love, after making a commitment to another, is a devastating sin. Betrayal is as serious as murder.

The most powerful statement of this is in Ezekiel 16. Bogus, a college professor of mine, made a lasting impression on Nichelle and I when he read this chapter aloud to our class. In it, God gives an analogy of his relationship with Israel. He describes her as an abandoned, penniless child whom he saw and took compassion on. As she grew up, he fell in love with her. With abandon, he married her and took her into his home. He shared with her all of his glory and perfected her beauty with his love. He lavished her with all of the gifts of his affection.

In response to his love, caring and kindness, she sold herself to any man who would take her. All of the gifts he gave her, she gave away to them as bribes to bed her. The children that she bore him, she murdered as sacrifices to impassive gods. In brutal, painful detail, God describes each of these betrayals. Bogus kept interrupting his reading to say, “I wish that you all could experience this in Hebrew. The language is so much more graphic, so much more emotional. You can feel how greatly she is wounding him.”

God’s response to her infidelity and infanticide is not the response of a man angered that his “property” is out of control, it is that of a wronged lover. If he loved her less, her crimes would be less severe. If their story was played out in a film most of us would take his side when he finally says, “I’m not going to let you keep paying off you lovers with the gifts I’ve given you! If you don’t want me, leave me! But I get the house and kids. You can keep what you came with: nothing.” I think we’d internally applaud. It’s what she deserves, we’d think.

But God’s supposed to be better than this! He’s supposed to be better than us! He’s supposed to be better than justice? He’s supposed to enable abuse and irresponsibility and disloyalty? He’s supposed to condone betrayal? Would that kind of God be worthy of worship?

A meme that I’ve seen a lot lately says, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” I think it’s understood that we shouldn’t think we deserve less than loyalty, appreciation, respect and reciprocity. Should God not desire the same?

How I understand the Bible is that it is our guiding narrative. It’s not a rule book, it’s not a manual, but it is the story that helps us to understand who we are, the world we live in and the God who is, who desires us. Made in his image, what we learn of him teaches us about ourselves. What he teaches us of love, mercy, compassion and justice should guide our own definitions.

What we learn of love in Ezekiel is that it is the most basic and binding obligation. Though love is patient and long suffering, the bond we create between each other through caring, kindness and commitment is real. Even when feelings wan, it remains. The sense of wrong we feel when we are betrayed, when our love is unfaithful, points towards an essential truth.

What is frightening about the fierceness of God’s love, of his jealousy,* is not that it is perverse or abusive, but that it challenges our petty views of love. It challenges the idea that there are no real obligations left, that feeling is all the justification we need to break our commitments. It frightens us because we know the fickleness of our hearts. His hatred of idolatry is something we shouldn’t so easily write off. Because it isn’t about ego, it’s about love.

Endnote:

*Jealousy is not a comfortable word for most of us because we associate it with paranoid, controlling, abusive spouses/partners. There is a more positive definition that better reflections the nature of God’s jealousy. This kind of jealousy means “vigilance in maintaining or guarding something” (taken from Dictionary.com). He desires to guard what he holds dear, his relationship with his people.

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