Pornographic Translation and 'Reading Against' Ezekiel

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I am finishing up an essay for Review and Expositor on Ezekiel 16 and 23 that is drawn to some degree from my SECSOR presentation last year on the subject.

I have also been reading Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals: Strategies for Getting Published, by Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler, which has an excellent unit on writing good abstracts as a way to organize your thinking. I'm sort of excited about abstracts now. :-) They have 4-prong and 5-prong versions that work well for social scientific papers and anything else framed around the presentation of data. I used the 3-prong version that is well-suited for theoretical work: "Locate," "Problematize" and "Argue" (which includes the "So What" and the "Now What").

Here's the abstract that I wrote for this paper, which helped tremendously in framing the essay.

Ezekiel 16 and 23: Sex and Violence in Translation

Ezekiel 16 and 23 are two of the most striking passages in the prophetic corpus, though their shocking nature creates difficulties for religious readers of the Bible who ascribe a high degree of authority and perfection to the biblical text. Christian readers tend to interpret the story of these sinful women as a metaphor for God’s unilateral election of Israel and for God’s punishment and redemption of the wayward people. This is certainly a plausible reading of these prophecies, and the metaphor of God as a wronged husband/father is at least as old as the 8th Century BCE prophecy of Hosea about his “harlot” wife, Gomer. As scholars such as Renita Weems have shown, however, we need to ask not only what this text meant but also how it worked within the rhetorical moment of Israel’s exile. When these shocking texts become vessels for a normative theology of God’s grace and redemption, they turn into a sort of Trojan Horse. They appear to proclaim the gospel but carry within them a painful history of patriarchy, sexual abuse, and domestic violence.

If we consider Ezekiel 16 and 23 to be pornographic and violent—and unacceptable as an image of God’s dealings with humanity—we must interpret these oracles carefully, perhaps reading against the text in order to resist this damaging subtext and to protect our own children and women from abusive language and culture. The problem is that English translations of Ezekiel have made our critical reading of the text more difficult by softening the offensive tone of the prophet’s language as well as the rhetorical effect of the oracles, which were meant to be titillating and scandalous. By transforming these oracles into Scripture, suitable for Christian devotional reading and liturgical use, English translations of Ezekiel 16 and 23 are very different in subtext and rhetorical effect from their source texts. This softening and reframing of the biblical text makes our theological/metaphorical reading more natural, and our critical resistance to the text more difficult.

In this paper I will argue that academic and Christian readers of Ezekiel would be better served by translations that are faithful to the intertextual, literary, and rhetorical dimensions of the source text. We will examine several key verses for their diction, tone, register, and rhetorical impact, and show how English translations do not render these passages “faithfully.” Second, we will see that “polite” language found in the English Bible communicates a gendered subtext that is more damaging because of its subtlety. If translations were more faithful to the effect of the source text, our English versions of Ezekiel would be more “offensive” but also better suited for the kind of clear-eyed and critical discussion that is necessary in today’s church. In the absence of such an English Bible, Christian interpretation of these texts must be extremely attentive to the subtle effects of language and metaphor on our theology and on our life together.