God Brings Them to Repentance

The discussion on Ezekiel and TULIP at John Hobbins’ website has transported me back in time.

When I was at Harvard, I was taking an Intro to Hebrew Scriptures class. We had an assignment: to contrast certain passages from Deuteronomy, Second Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The passages related to Israel’s restoration from exile, and we were to highlight the different perspectives of the biblical authors.

I was more of a right-winger then than I am now (if you can believe that), and so I resisted the assignment. “These liberals are always looking for discrepancies in the Bible,” I thought. “The passages all say the same thing! God will restore Israel to her land, and Israel will be righteous.”

To be honest, I’ve not totally changed. There are still times when liberals see discrepancies where I see harmony. I also think that some biblical scholars try to pigeon-hole parts of the Bible, when the parts do not always correspond to their representations. How often have we heard “J teaches this” (back when most scholars believed in J), “this is P’s theology,” “the Deuteronomist believes this, unlike that other author,” or “these are John’s themes”? The problem is that the generalizations do not always work. There can be exceptions to the pigeon hole. Of course, I guess the logical course then is to posit that an editor added his own two cents to the text.

Despite my latent conservatism, I acknowledge now that Deuteronomy, Second Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel have their own emphases. Deuteronomy stresses that Israel’s repentance will return her to the Promised Land; there, Israel seems to make the first move. In Second Isaiah, God makes the first move, as the author of Isaiah 40-55 focuses on God’s love for Israel and invites her to respond to God’s saving act. I’m not sure how to characterize Jeremiah: maybe “Your seventy years are up! Get moving! And God will write his laws on your hearts so you don’t lose the Promised Land again.” And Ezekiel has God restoring Judah for the sake of his name, not for her sake. Through her exile and restoration, God makes Israel ashamed of her sins.

Some time in the future, I may discuss how people of faith should approach biblical diversity. Right now, I want to address a point that John Hobbins made in his discussion on Ezekiel and TULIP. He says, “I don’t think Ezekiel construes God’s actions there either as a response to repentance from Israel’s side. The self-loathing and repentance Israel is to engage in, the very fact that they will pass under the shepherd’s staff and be brought into the bond of the covenant, is presented as something God brings about obtorto collo (that’s colorful Latin phrase which means ‘against [their] will’).”

One some level, I agree. Unlike Deuteronomy, Ezekiel does not really present a scenario in which Israel repents and God responds. But I also do not think that Ezekiel has God forcing the Israelites to repent, for he presents Israelites who will rebel even after the exile (Ezekiel 20:33-38). God obviously did not make them repent against their will, in the sense of changing their attitudes by fiat.

But, overall, God did place the Israelites in a situation that was conducive to shame and repentance, in the same way that God may give us an environment (often hostile) that can help us build character and make us receptive to certain virtues. God is the one who creates such a situation, but we have a choice about whether or not to cooperate with him. Some may respond to trials by becoming more faithful and patient. Others may choose bitterness and hatred.

Similarly, in Ezekiel, God places the Israelites in exile and restores them when they do not deserve it. The natural reaction should be shame and gratitude. But not all Israelites react that way. Rebels will often pursue a path that makes no sense. That is their stubbornness at work. And the only thing that God can do then is judge them.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to God Brings Them to Repentance

  1. John says:

    James, you are thoughtful and wise beyond your years.

    I probably don’t understand any better than you how sola gratia and human response or lack of it fit together, either on a per item basis or in general.

    But I think it’s right, if we are going to try to understand Ezekiel, to realize that he sees God’s initiative everywhere as providing a context for human response, positive or negative, and even then, the God of Ezekiel does not take no for an answer quietly.

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  2. James Pate says:

    Thanks for your response, John. 🙂

    Yes, Ezekiel does seem to believe that God makes the first move. So does Second Isaiah, for that matter, only Second Isaiah focuses on God’s love for Israel. My TA in the class I took said that God in Ezekiel is “punitive.” I’m not sure if I’d go that far, but there is more emphasis on God doing things for his glory alone. Maybe all of these diverse perspectives are somehow necessary. We should realize God loves us, yet we should know that we don’t deserve that love, and that God is more important than we are (incidentally, I will have a few posts on this very topic–God’s glory).

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  3. Stephen (aka Q) says:

    Brueggemann says that Ezekiel is a “holiness/purity” guy (whereas Isaiah is a “social justice/equity” guy). That might account for the impression that Ezekiel’s God is punitive.

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