QUESTION: In Ezekiel 20:25 God said to the Israelites, “I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live” (KJV). Could you identify those statues and laws?
This may be one of the most difficult passages in the book of Ezekiel, if not the Old Testament. Bible commentaries contain different attempts to explain it, but unfortunately none of those interpretations has been widely accepted. That diversity of views indicates the complexity of the passage. In interpreting a biblical text, it is good to be aware of the problems faced as we try to provide a biblically based understanding of it.
1. The Problem of the Text: If Ezekiel is saying God gave the Israelites statutes that “were not good and laws they could not live by,” He would be contradicting Himself. That is the basic problem we face. Nowhere else in the Old Testament is any divine statute or law described as “not good.” Elsewhere the Lord said to the Israelites: “Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them” (Lev. 18:5); “Follow them so that you may live” (Deut. 4:1). It is even more surprising to find the same ideas expressed in Ezekiel 20 itself: “I gave them my decrees and made known to them my laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them” (verse 11). The same idea is found in verses 13 and 21: “The man who obeys them will live by them.” Can such contradictory statements be harmonized?
2. Contextual Considerations: Ezekiel 20:25 belongs to a passage in which the Lord recounts His mighty acts of redemption on behalf of Israel during their departure from Egypt and their sojourns in the wilderness. But the main interest of the text is to reveal the constant spirit of rebellion manifested by God’s people in acts of idolatry. Only because of His love and His concern for His honor did He not destroy them. Within that review of what He did for Israel the Lord says, “I gave to them statutes that were not good and laws they could not live by.” Therefore, He is referring to something He Himself did at a particular moment. However, the context also indicates that the laws God gave to His people were good and they were expected to live by them. Whatever Ezekiel 20:25 may mean, it is clear that Ezekiel himself, as well as the rest of the Old Testament, considered God’s laws to be good.
3. Toward a Solution: Perhaps a solution is found in the next verse (Eze. 20:26), where a specific law is mentioned. The passage refers to the law of the firstborn. Every firstborn child belonged to the Lord, but since the Lord rejected child sacrifice, the Israelites were to redeem their children. Unfortunately, they sometimes chose to sacrifice their children to the pagan deity, Moloch, a practice explicitly mentioned in verse 31. This was certainly a bad law, not from the Lord. So the context informs us what was meant by a law that was “not good.” If that is the case, we have to ask why the Lord would say He gave them statutes that were not good. We should look at the text a little closer.
Most Bible versions render the first verb in Ezekiel 20:25, “I gave them…” That is a good translation, but there are other possibilities. For instance, we also find, “I even imposed on them …” (NEB), and “I also gave them over to statutes …” (NIV). Those translations are based on the fact that when the Hebrew verb nathan (“to give”) is followed by the preposition le (“to”) it could mean “to deliver someone to.” In that case the text would be saying that since the Israelites determined to follow bad laws from their neighbors, the Lord confirmed their willing rebellion against Him by handing them over to obey laws that were not good.
The idea that God confirms disobedience by handing people over to it is attested in other places in the Bible (e.g., Isa. 6:9, 10; 63:17; 2 Thess. 2:11, 12). According to Ezekiel 20:26, even then the Lord seeks to impress us with the magnitude of our sin, hoping to lead us to repentance.
Angel Manuel Rodríguez is director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference.