A Fearful Symmetry: Why We Love That Which Kills Us

A Fearful Symmetry: Why We Love That Which Kills Us February 8, 2023

Reading time: 15-20 minutes

Ezekiel 16 and 23 offer a terrifying account of what seems to be an inescapable dynamic of the human condition. This dynamic, which one theologian has called the law of “Fearful Symmetry,” is pervasive throughout time and culture. It is not relegated to a biblical past, but plays out repeatedly in human history. No individual has every fully avoided it. No culture has yet to escape its effects. Many have succumbed to it, their lives ending in ruin. These are not hyperbolic words. We all know someone, ourselves or others, who have fallen prey to Fearful Symmetry. Most, if not all, of our stories, be they told on screen or in written word, assume the truth of this dynamic. The artistic variation on the theme may change, but the theme itself is ever present.

What is the law of Fearful Symmetry? It is the disordered love of that which ultimately becomes the agent of our own destruction. It is embracing the thing that we believe will save us, only to find out, often too late, that that which we embraced with great hope and immense passion was always intending to destroy us. It is loving that which kills us. It is our human nature to do so; unless, of course, there is some real means of escape.

Fearful Symmetry in Ezekiel

In Ezekiel 16, God recounts His divine care for Israel (and Judah). Ezekiel, God’s prophetic mouthpiece, is called to “make known” to Jerusalem, a metonym for the nation of Israel, her “abominations.” (Eek 16:1). God had found Israel abandoned, like a hopeless and helpless orphan (16:5), and it was God, Yahweh, who rescued the neglected child and treated her as a princess (vv. 6-14). However, Israel became enamored with the gifts that were given to her, and forgot all about the gift-Giver. She begins to see the gifts of “splendor” and “beauty,” not as derivative from some other source greater than herself, but as inherent in her own being. In forgetting the source of her glory, she begins to offer her beauty to foreigners who worship other gods (vv. 15ff), becoming like a prostitute to the nations. However, Israel is worse than the normal prostitute, for her sins are not made out of necessity, but out of sheer lust:

30 “How feverish is your heart,” declares the Lord God, “while you do all these things, the action of a [a]bold prostitute! 31 When you built your shrine at the beginning of every street and made your high place in every public square, in spurning a prostitute’s fee, you were not like a prostitute.32 You adulteress wife, who takes strangers instead of her husband!33 Men give gifts to all prostitutes, but you give your gifts to all your lovers and lavish favors on them so that they will come to you from every direction for your obscene practices. 34 So it is the opposite for you from those women in your obscene practices, in that you are not approached for prostitution, and in the fact that you pay a prostitute’s fee, and no fee is paid to you; so you are the opposite.”

vv. 30-34

The pattern here is clear. First there is a forgetting of Israel’s provider, God. Then there is pride in one’s own self, a self that one believes one has constructed alone, without any divine aide. But then there is an offering or giving up of one’s self to something other than God, a foreign entity that is not the source of the original beauty and glory of the person. For even if we believe to have constructed our own identity, we have yet a deeper desire for someone or some thing to acknowledge that identity.

Finally, as Raymond Ortlund highlights, this handing over of one’s self is particularly abominable given the context:

Here is prostitution with a difference–a whore who refuses payment (verse 31). Verse 32 briefly interrupts the development of the paragraph’s primary thrust while the prophetic voice pauses in sorrow to lament how things stand, flavoring the accusations with shock and grief. The woman reducing herself to this low level is in fact married and provided for. Israel’s national disgrace is entirely unnecessary. She commits adultery not because Yahweh has failed her but for the thrill of it. She sins for the sake of sinning….A common whore at least has the incentive of monetary gain for submitting herself to degradation. But here is a harlot who seeks no advantage for herself. Compelled by appetite alone, she has no motivation but sheer desire.

Raymond Ortlund, God’s Unfaithful Wife, 113 [emphasis mine]

One could easily understand the actions of a woman (or a man, the metaphor treats Israel as a woman, but it could equally apply to men as well) who prostitutes herself out of need, perhaps the need to feed a starving child. We might think of Fantine in Hugo’s les Miserables, as a perfect example of such compelled harlotry. Such prostitution may be wrong in the objective sense, but nevertheless justified given a desperate set of conditions which make for a morally complex dilemma.

But, in Ezekiel’s context, the woman, Israel, is not desperate. There is no great moral dilemma resulting from something like harsh economic conditions that pressures her. Israel is taken care of, she is prosperous. Yet she rejects her benefactor and embraces her desire for another. Of course, even such an unjustified redirection of love may still work out, in theory, for God’s beloved. However, it is the nature of the new object of Israel’s desire that is the problem.

The Symmetry of Desire and Downfall

In Ezekiel 23, another metaphor appears. Two sisters, Oholah and Oholibah, represent Samaria and Jerusalem alike, the Northern and the Southern kingdoms. These two were Yahweh’s daughters, but they whored themselves out to foreign nations. Oholibah especially, becomes even more enamored with the foreigner lover, embodied in the powerful nations of Assyria and Babylon:

11 “Now her sister Oholibah saw this, yet she was more corrupt in her lust than she, and her obscene practices were more than the prostitution of her sister. 12 She lusted after the Assyrians, governors and officials, the ones near, opulently dressed, horsemen riding on horses, all of them handsome young men. 13 And I saw that she had defiled herself; they both took the same way. 14 So she increased her obscene practices. And she saw men carved on the wall, images of the Chaldeans drawn in bright red,15 wearing belts around their waists, with flowing turbans on their heads, all of them looking like officers, like the Babylonians in Chaldea, the land of their birth. 16 And when she saw them she lusted after them and sent messengers to them in Chaldea. 17

In the concrete world of the Old Testament, the prostitution of Israel is not merely a spiritual one, it is political as well. The destructive force into whose hands the Israelites give themselves over is not just a spiritual principality (although, as we will see, it is also that). Israel’s lovers are nations, replete with their own culture, their own form of governance, their own economy, their own religious system and, of course, their own military. By the time we get to the text of Ezekiel, we know, as does Ezekiel, what has happened to Israel at the hands of her Assyrian and Babylonian “lovers.” The problem for Israel is that her “lovers” do not have the same affection for her as she for them:

Like a teenage girl fantasizing in rapturous love with a movie star projected on the screen who neither knows her [Israel] nor would care if he did, Oholibah’s affections were kindled by something not only inferior to the glory of Yahweh but even one step removed from literal human reality.

Ortlund, 124

As such, Israel longs not for an Assyrian or Babylonian she has actually met in person. She longs for an “image” of Assyria and Babylon in the same way a teenager longs for an actor who play a character on a screen. The real person being worlds apart from the false character portrayed in the film, or the bas-relief (Ortlund, 124). Many ex-wives of famous actors perhaps know this reality all too well, and perhaps ex-husbands of famous actresses too, (for some reason, Johnny Depp comes to mind right away). But, to be fair, this applies to all of us in some way or to some degree.

Now, however, the final act of this tragedy is to occur. Israel is going to encounter, face-to-face, the object of her unnatural affections. Her ingratitude toward her only true lover, God, is going to result in her debasement at the hands of the false beloved. The fearful symmetry culminates:

22 “Therefore, Oholibah, this is what the Lord God says: ‘Behold I am going to incite your lovers against you, from whom you turned away in disgust, and I will bring them against you from every side: 23 the Babylonians and all the Chaldeans, Pekod and Shoa and Koa, and all the Assyrians with them; handsome young men, governors and officials all of them, officers and men of renown, all of them riding on horses.24 And they will come against you with weapons, chariots, and wagons, and with a contingent of peoples. They will attack you on every side with shield, buckler, and helmet; and I will commit the judgment to them, and they will judge you according to their customs. 25 I will set My jealousy against you, so that they may deal with you in wrath. They will remove your nose and your ears; and your survivors will fall by the sword. They will take your sons and your daughters; and your survivors will be consumed by the fire. 26 They will also strip you of your clothes and take away your beautiful jewelry. 27

Ortlund’s exegesis is noteworthy:

Oholibah will look again upon her darling cavaliers, but this time in dread. They will march against her with all their impressive power in full display, and Yahweh will stand aside to let them have their way. Indeed, rather than punish her by the humane standards of his own covenant household, he will give her up to the barbaric savagery of her lovers’ foreign customs. Having sinned as a pagan, she will suffer as one. And while she is being mutilated, stripped, plundered, and her children murdered by the gleeful victors, verse 25a prepares her to feel the very jealousy of Yahweh himself in every lash of the whip and every slice of the knife. Her agonies will not be meaningless or accidental but unambiguous acts of God effected through human agency.

This passage and Ortlund’s commentary are jagged pills, to say the least. The intent of Israel’s lovers is her destruction. They care nothing for her, except to see her suffer. Their goal is exploitation, nothing else. She has become an object for their vile pleasures–rapes of every variety and kind: physical, economic, cultural. However, true to the text, Ortlund pulls no punches in the commentary. Israel will know that God Himself has orchestrated this punishment, even if carried out “through human agency.” Many will question if this makes Yahweh a “moral monster.”  After all, if He truly loved Israel, why allow her to go through such a merciless trial of fire?

Verse 27 begins to answer that problem of evil:

27 So I will remove from you your outrageous sin and your prostitution that you brought from the land of Egypt, so that you will not raise your eyes to them or remember Egypt anymore.’

Ortlund clarifies why God would allow such a thing:

Only this extremity of misery will suffice to cure her [Israel] of her craving for the harlotries of Egypt, where it all began, as verse 27 declares.

Ortlund, 127

“Egypt,” by this time in prophetic history, acts as a metaphor for “sin” or “the world,” just as by the time John writes the book of Revelation, “Babylon” has replaced Egypt as the metonym for iniquity, evil and all things cruel, unholy and, ultimately, inhumane. The penchant for self-destruction that, for Israel, began in Egypt will be removed from God’s people so that they never again will pursue their own death.

Fearful Symmetry: Abuse or Self-Annihilation?

And so the dynamic of fearful symmetry has come full circle: rejecting the One who loves her genuinely, Israel first takes pride in her beauty and prosperity as if it were her own and not given to her by her True Lover. Then, she displays herself to a foreign entity she finds exotic, strange, tempting, and who she thinks will love her commensurate to her own lusts. But, that entity hates Israel, and desires only to rape her glory for its own heathen purposes, making that which was objectively beautiful, literal trash.

In addition, God allows the foreign entity to do so and, in allowing it, reminds Israel there is only one who truly loves her. The tragedy, if one can call it that, being that this is the only way Israel will come to a genuine knowledge of the Truth. In coming to that knowledge, Israel’s sin will be once and for all removed. There is an end goal here that makes the horrific process something other than a tragic cycle.

Hence, this is not, as some feminist hermeneutics have suggested, the cycle of relational abuse. One can have compassion for the battered wife or girlfriend who might read these texts and see them that way. However, tragic experiences can often shade meaning in such a way that makes interpretation more eisegetical than exegetical. We must see who God is in the story, not impose our conceptions upon the text. The text must shape and illuminate our experiences, not the other way round.

God is not the abusive boyfriend who tells Israel he loves her, then beats her, only then to relent and find a way to woo her back into his manipulative arms. No, rather Yahweh is the faithful husband who, realizing his wife no longer finds him interesting, allows her the freedom to choose another. Then, when the other lover ruins her, takes his wife back, no questions asked. The change comes in the wife’s own realization that to choose other than her husband it to choose death. But, there is more to the story than just this.

Satan’s Disguise, Our Deception

When Jesus speaks of Satan, there is only one attribute of the enemy’s nature He refers us to, his being a liar:

You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he tells a lie, he speaks from his own nature, because he is a liar and the father of lies.

John 8:44

Satan is the father of lies, and all who lie, especially in the name of God, are his children. Satan’s deception is our destruction. He is not so much the murderer of persons, but of Truth. Of course, in the slaying of Truth, people die, not just physically, but spiritually. Because of this power he possesses to deceive spiritually, Satan can even deceive us to the point where the work of God appears to us as if it is the work of Satan! The Pharisees are in this spiritual state, failing to not only not see Jesus as the Son of God, but as a servant of Satan (Jn 8:48; Matt 12:24, Mk 3:22, Lk 11:15).

Commenting on Genesis 19 and the sin of Sodom, Jaques Ellul points out to what degree Satan can deceive the human heart. The angels of Yahweh who arrive to rescue Lot are perceived as evil by the Sodomites:

Just as Lot recognizes them unconsciously as angels, the Sodomites also recognize them unconsciously as bearers of judgements unfavorable to them. They cannot accept a strange power in their closed world. Their world has no place for God. They can only insult him, treat him contrary to nature [sodomize], blaspheme and break all the laws of ancient society when he [God] is present.

One could almost say that the Sodomites want to rape and murder the visitors because they are God’s messengers. The Sodomites are dragged into carnal sin by their spiritual sin.

Jaques Ellul, The Meaning of the City, 65

Even the miraculous, blinding light that should have made them rethink who these beings were, or who they represented, has the reverse effect on the Sodomites. Like the Pharisees, they are so corrupted they see the acts of God as those of Satan:

This miracle should have brought them to repentance. It is true, however, that in their condition God’s acts could easily have been understood as Satans.

Ellul, 65

And so we see, just as Eve and Adam were deceived by the Serpent, there is an error in judgement that accompanies all sinful actions. Because we are deceived, we misperceive what is good, thinking it to be evil. Thus, the first movement of the regeneration of the human heart, is the revelation of Truth to the mind. Just as Sodom sees the angels of God as agents of destruction, and as Israel sees Assyria as an agent of liberation, we too see that which is good as evil and that which is evil as good. In our current age, the deceitful agent of destruction we have chosen is not only not a new one, but it is one the Bible repeatedly tells us will always in end demise.

Choosing Our Destroyer: Sex and America’s Demise

In one of the funniest scenes in cinematic history, Dan Aykroyd, in the original Ghostbusters, is given the opportunity by the ancient goddess, Zuul, to choose the agent of humanity’s destruction. Aykroyd’s character, Ray, involuntarily imagines a most harmless image from his childhood: the image of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man (A fictional combination of the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Michelin Man of popular advertising). The hilarity revolves around the idea that something so innocent and good could wind up being a force of death and destruction. This theme has become incredibly popular in contemporary cinema, proliferated by an abundance of movies about killer dolls or homicidal clowns. As facetious as it may seem, however, this cultural manifestation touches on a deeper, spiritual reality. That which we naturally perceives as innocent, really can be the vehicle for our destruction.

When it comes to choosing our enemy, however, it need not be a political entity, like a foreign nation, or an economic system, like Communism. We can choose any aspect of God’s creation that, if elevated to the place of God, will do the work of killing us. It can be an activity, a substance or even an abstract idea. The most obvious one is substance. Addicts, for example, know the reality of this dynamic all too well–in the end, the heroine, the fentanyl or the Jack Daniels will get the best of you.

However, these substances are fairly easy to identify with their destructive power, even if they are hard to resist. What is not so easy is to understand, is how something created good, like sex, can be destructive. And so, Satan often, very often, works through human sexuality to deceive and destroy. More than anything in America today, this is the agent of destruction we have chosen. Freud himself, who many see as the father of modern sexuality, knew this all too well, understanding that it was the restraint of the Id (the libidinal drive) that enabled civilization to emerge. But, even Freud has become passé.

Many are the false “prophets” who have screamed from urban rooftops that sex will save us. Their names are legion: de Beauvoir, Foucault, Firestone, Marcuse, Reich, Kinsey, et al. And these prophets have their foot soldiers: Hefner, Flint, Madonna and Cardi. These are the real life “Zuuls” (or Baals) of our times, not so much forcing us sex upon us, as helping us use that which is good as the instrument of our destruction. They have intentionally sought to undermine the only context in which sex can benefit us, the context of holy, heterosexual matrimony. They have been agents of deceit, fooling the generations into thinking that choosing sex in all its forms is the road to liberation and authenticity.

God’s Everlasting Promise

Because we have listened to these false prophets, we have failed to hear the historic and inspired voice of the true prophet, of Ezekiel– the prophet of Yahweh. As such, we as a society, like Sodom in the 2nd-millennium BC, Israel in the 9th and 8th centuries BC, and Rome in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, have made a terrible error in judgment. In making that profound error, we are now reaping the consequences of thinking that sexual liberation will lead to spiritual freedom. It will not, and the aforementioned prophets of “liberation,” have always, and only, been harbingers of enslavement. Their ideology is a harsh master for those who embrace it.

However, Ezekiel tells in advance, even these modern mouthpieces of that ancient deceiver will not have the last word. For although God hands us over to the destructive agents of our choosing, He does not leave us to be with them. He always comes back to get us, as Ezekiel’s prophecy testifies to the advent of the Messiah:

59 For this is what the Lord God says: “I will also do with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath by breaking the covenant.

60 “Nevertheless, I will remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you. 61 Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you receive your sisters, both your older and your younger; and I will give them to you as daughters, but not because of your covenant. 62 So I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, 63 so that you may remember and be ashamed, and not open your mouth again because of your disgrace, when I have [a]forgiven you for all that you have done,” the Lord God declares.

For a culture that is locked into sexual sin, that has forgotten her first, and only, true love, and that is being tormented by the lover she has chosen, there is hope. There is hope because Jesus is coming, and, as one recent advertisement has put it: “He gets us.” When He does, only then is the law of Fearful Symmetry broken and our true liberation won (Gal 5:1)

About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.
"Tony,Thank you for the recommendation. I will have to check it out.Regards,Anthony"

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