Why Women and Young Men Weren’t Allowed to Read Ezekiel

Ezekiel, and Why Women and Young Men Were Traditionally Not Allowed to Read It The Garrett Ashley Mullet Show

Before we delve into the Old Testament book of Ezekiel in this episode, be warned that we will be talking here about subjects which some parents might not want their children hearing about just yet, so I tell you up-front lest I offend anyone’s sensibilities by surprise.

That said, I just this week learned about an old Jewish rabbinical tradition that men under 30 years old were told not to read Ezekiel. And, as would surely shock the sensibilities of feminists in our day, women were not permitted to read it at all.

Trying to search out why this was so, after a passing reference to it in N.T. Wright’s biography of the Apostle Paul, I did a bit of digging. And now I know better what the reasons were why anyone would come up with such a rule, particularly after reading Ezekiel 16 in the Complete Jewish Bible translation.

But what are we to make of this, and why was it so? And is it ever proper to censor the Lord after a fashion? Or is that how we should think of it?

Age-Restricted Biblical Content

To the end of understanding better, I will point out that a similar tradition has been said to have held in some quarters regarding Song of Solomon, or “the Song of Songs,” and for similar reasons.

This one was known to me, particularly in the wake of Mark Driscoll’s infamous sermon series ‘The Peasant Princess’ several years ago, and the stir created when Driscoll insisted that love poetry is not just allegory about God and Israel, or about Christ and the Church, but is a rather candid description of romantic and sexual intercourse between a man and his bride.

And I would say that it was not for no reason Puritan commentator Matthew Henry did indeed write concerning Song of Songs, “…the Jewish doctors advised their young people not to read it till they were thirty years old.” 

Moreover, one of the most prominent of the early church fathers, Origen, wrote in his commentary on Song of Songs,

“For this reason, therefore, I advise and counsel everyone who is not yet rid of the vexations of flesh and blood and has not ceased to feel the passion of his bodily nature, to refrain completely from reading this little book and the things that will be said about it.”

If I may translate, the tradition held that the young and horny should not partake, lest they get the wrong idea.

Nevertheless, for those less familiar, Arend Remmers writing at BibleCentre.org offers the following explanation: 

“With orthodox Jews we find the old tradition that men under the age of 30 years ought not to read the Song of Songs. At the same time the Jews have counted the book among the most holy ones and have accordingly estimated it very highly. This attitude becomes for us also. The Song of Songs is a book of oriental poetry that is marked by special pictorial language. Here it is the pictorial language of love, full of flowery, sentimental, and sometimes very vivid expressions. But neither an Oriental nor a Hebrew would consider this book as a description of voluptuous passion!”

For both Ezekiel and Song of Songs alike, then, the concern was, at least partly that the rather evocative sex talk in these Old Testament books was considered a bit too racy for those who were young. They would be less likely to embrace a purely allegorical and symbolic interpretation which was favored for more or less obvious reasons by their elders.

The Trouble with Ezekiel

To quote Jerome’s ‘Commentary on Ezekiel’ (314 AD):

“For unless someone among them has fulfilled the age of priestly ministry, i.e. thirty years old, he is permitted to read neither the first parts of Genesis nor the Song of Songs nor the opening or closing of this book, so that a time of maturity [lit: a time full of human nature] is added to perfect knowledge and mystical understanding. “

And we see in Jerome’s explanation that it was not just the sexual content, but also the interpretive difficulties of the Creation account in Genesis, as well as in the early chapters of Ezekiel concerning the undeniably strange vision of wheels within wheels. Therefore, the concern was not just with sex, per se, but with the complicated and confusing business of how best to interpret these things, and whether young people were mature enough generally to understand the nuances in a respectful way, or in a way that was deemed suitably reverential.

Again, though, the idea that Ezekiel would not be on the approved reading list for men under 30 for any reason at all was news to me this past week. So while I was fact-checking N.T. Wright on his claim, I came across an article at Sojo.net by Jana Riess titled ‘Don’t Read This Part of the Bible If You’re Under 30 (Or A Woman).’

In the interest of full disclosure, Ms. Riess describes herself as a feminist, and even the tagline for Sojourners where her article can be found reads as follows: “faith in action for social justice.” I take what she says with a grain of salt accordingly.

Nevertheless, Riess echoes Arend Remmers concerning Song of Songs when she focuses on her experience reading Ezekiel.

“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.”

But just in case it has not become sufficiently clear yet, the trouble with Ezekiel specifically, and the 16th chapter of it in particular, is that there is a lot of surprisingly detailed talk about Israel playing the whore relative God. And, as it turns out when you do read Ezekiel 16 in particular, the gracious and faithful husband has entirely run out of patience with the strange birds of foreign nations being invited by his unfaithful wife to lay eggs in her nest.

Historical Usage of the Word ‘Whore’

Is it ever good or wise to censor the Lord after a fashion? And if He says ‘whore,’ does that offend our delicate sensibilities?

We should take care. A curious kind of hubris may be lurking in disguise, where an undue concern for propriety on our part gives way to us trying to be more proper than God.

On a related note, the Google Books Ngram Viewer for the history of that word’s usage since 1500 sure is interesting.

Note that the 1530’s saw the greatest rise, and also that the beginning of that decade was when Charles V was presented with the Augsburg Confession. Or, to put it another way, that is the year when the newly crowned Holy Roman Emperor first read and reacted to what the Lutherans were saying they believed as distinct from the official teaching and practice of the Roman Catholic Church.

Then again, in the 1590’s we see another spike in use of the word ‘whore’ in English as the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604), brought on by conflict between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, brings Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth I of England into cross-purposes both religiously and politically.

After these, the next spike is in 1619 – a year many historical revisionists today have made into a project to change the founding of the United States of America to from 1776, on account of the arrival of the first imported slaves from Africa to the English colony in Virginia.

All of this is not to say that increased usage of the word ‘whore’ drives major social, political, and ecclesiological upsets. Yet I would speculate the reverse, that these upheavals seem in the English language at least to correspond to certain language being employed more often, and being more familiar to authors and readers alike.

And what I really am trying to get at is that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable… that the man of God might be complete, equipped for every good work,” or that you should “study to show yourself an approved workman who need not be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth,” or that you should want to discern through testing what the will of God is really does require we delve into these passages to understand the times we live in.

As Google Books Ngram Viewer shows, we are seeing another uptake in the past ten years. Perhaps if we are to know what to make of that, or what to do about it as Christians, we do indeed need to be studying Ezekiel without the blinders on.

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