Thursday, December 04, 2014

The “Dirty Bride” of God in Ezekiel 16

Among the excellent talks I heard in San Diego was Daniel Bodi’s discussion of the Ištar “carnival” festival on the prophet Ezekiel and on his outlandish depiction of Jerusalem as God’s wife in Ezek 16. Bodi noted how Hibbert has pointed out that the Ištar festival was celebrated as late as the Hellenistic times. One text (BRM I, 99:37-39) mentions several members of Ištar's cultic personnel, such as the kurgarrû, the assinnu, and the singers who are paid six šeqels of silver for the first day of the procession. This text is important for Ezekiel studies as it confirms the presence of the Ištar “carnival” festival at the time of the Judean golâ in Babylon. In this brief blog-post I want to explore something that goes well beyond Bodi’s talk, namely a startling synchronicity between Ezek 16 and a key image in the much, much later art of Peter Bruegel (click the image below to enlarge).


In Vienna this summer, I enjoyed seeing up close works of the 16th century Netherlands artist Peter Bruegel the elder. The artist's famous painting of the battle of Carnival and Lent (above) contains a scene better displayed in his woodcut "The Dirty Bride" or the "Marriage of Mopsus and Nisa." In the engraving, the coarse, bedraggled bride being led from a shabby nuptial tent is Nisa, while the prancing groom who leads her out is Mopsus.

Amazing: Ezekiel’s depiction of God’s “Dirty Bride” at the start of Ezekiel 16 is immediately in the spirit of Carnival, at least as it came to expression much later in the 16th century CE. 3 Thus says the Lord GOD to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite. 4 As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in cloths. 5 No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you out of compassion for you; but you were thrown out in the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born.


The problematic content of Ezekiel 16 appears in a totally different light when one reads the text as an experience of “Carnival.” At Carnival, for a moment, people felt a world turned upside down. In the print of the Dirty Bride immediately above (engraved by Pieter van der Heyden and published by Hieronymus Cock in 1570) a Latin inscription was added below the image that translates "Mopsus marries Nisa, what may not we lovers hope for"—i.e., anything can happen. Is this not one key message of Ezek 16: The past is horrific but the future can see a new creation. What may not God’s people, God’s lovers, hope for? Much more scholarly work is needed focused on reading texts such as Ezek 16 and Ezek 23 as “Carnival.” For some initial notes and brainstorming, click here.


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