It's long been known that Ezekiel is -- well, let's be honest here -- one crazy-ass book of the Bible. Now that I'm tweeting about it every day and reading it cover to cover for the Twible project, I've come to understand one of the oldest traditions about it: it's not for everyone.
Some of the great rabbis taught that the book of Ezekiel, with its strange visions and explicit sexual language, should not be read by any Torah student under the age of 30. The symbolism of "30" was likely tied to Ezekiel's own reported age when he began receiving his prophetic visions; perhaps the rabbis felt that if Ezekiel was old enough to see these weird word-pictures, 30-something men were considered mature enough to read about them.
Not so for women. The traditional explanation for restricting Ezekiel to men was that women were too delicate to hear God using the F word (chapter 16, though you won't find it in English translations), and too fragile to hear about slut-girl Jerusalem bedding down with foreign males whose genitals were as enormous as donkeys' (ch 23). God is full of rage in this book, brandishing a sword so terrifying that the people wet themselves with fear and urine runs down their legs as they face their well-deserved deaths. Jacq Lapsley has this to say in the New Interpreter's Bible:
Ezekiel is one of the strangest books of the Bible. Bursting with bizarre symbolism and sexually explicit language, the book seethes with divine fury even while simultaneously offering some of the most powerful expressions within the OT of God's desire to restore humanity and creation to wholeness. (p. 456)
I am a feminist, and the Book of Ezekiel offends me. It depicts women as sexual victims on the one hand and sexual predators on the other, leading righteous men astray in the most graphic and damning way possible. Its extended allegory of Jerusalem the prostitute is, according to Lapsley, "highly sexualized, even pornographic." Its images of God hiring a hit man to punish the city sound like every john who beats his whores to bring them into line, even killing them to get the point across.
Ezekiel is a text of terror for women, that much is clear. But its raw rage can be unexpectedly . . . cathartic. I read with fascination this personal account of a Jewish feminist scholar who, after years of scholarship on Ezekiel, came to this startling conclusion:
As I dug deeper, I realized that Ezekiel did not just depict wife Jerusalem as being unfaithful. The abomination of wife Jerusalem is that she was attempting to pass for a male (i.e. aggressive, independent), that she was crossing gender boundaries and upsetting the world order. Her behaviors were less characteristic of an adulterous wife and more appropriate to a woman who was asserting her selfhood and independence–behavior associated with masculinity in Ezekiel’s world. In Ezekiel 16, the wife Jerusalem wears the dildo, wields the phallus. Her transgendering is the ultimate transgression.
In Ezekiel, the historical setting was the very beginning of the exile, when the most prominent members of Israel's elite were the first to be deported. This included women of status, who discovered that women in Babylon had more rights than they did: they could "own and freely dispose of their property, initiate divorce proceedings, and inherit a portion of their husband's estate." (IVP Women's Bible Commentary, 397) Women in Babylon were not the equal of men, but they were in many ways better off than women in Israel. And many men likely found that prospect frightening.
Women, here is what I have found: Reading Ezekiel by itself without a guide is a nightmare. Listen to the rabbis and don't do it. On the other hand, reading Ezekiel in the company of wise female biblical scholars is enlightening, and in the end even empowering.