Shame and Restoration in Ezekiel


EZEKIEL, Margaret Odell, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary CD-ROM, 2005, Smyths & Helwys Pub

Restoring the Shamed: Towars a Theology of Shame, Robin Stockitt, © 2012, Cascade Books

The construction of shame in the Hebrew Bible : the prophetic contribution, Johanna Stiebert (Journal of the Study of the Old Testament, Supplemental Series 346, © 2002, Sheffield Acadmenia Press)

The Description of the Restoration of Israel in Ezekiel, Tova Ganzel, Vetus Testamentum 60 (2010) 197-211

Creation and Fall, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, London: SCM, 1964

Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, New York: Macmillan, 1955.

Church Dogmatics, III/4, IV/2, Karl Barth, Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1970  (III/4:672, 674, IV/2:385f


Psychological notes

While “Shame” is a human emotion, it is a combination of self-affected and socially realized awareness.  That is it is “especially social” in that “people feel ashamed because they assume that someone (self and/or other) is judging some activity or characteristic of theirs in a negative way” (Stiebert, 2002:5)


“In shame…physical signs seem typically to include lowering the gaze, covering the face, and sometimes blushing and staying quiet. The subjective experience of being ashamed includes feeling exposed, heavy, or small, and dwelling on the flaw that one is ashamed of.  The organizing action tendency describes the whole sequence from situation to primary actions, perceptions and reactions.  With shame, a person wishes to be judged positively in a given situation but instead is judged negatively (by self or other) for some action or characteristic, especially something that signals a deep-seated flaw.  The person reacts by trying to hide or escape, or alternatively, trying to blame others for the event.  Emotion refers to all three of these facets (physical signs, subjective experience, and action tendencies.)” (Stiebert, 2002:5 citing Tangney and Fischer, 1995:7)

Theological Notes

The foundation of Shame: Creation

Shame is related to the “comfort” of being “whole” with another.  In Gen 2, the original couple are “naked” and not ashamed in the presence of God and each other.  After the “fall” they hide and are “ashamed” of their “nakedness” before God.  God must ask them, against his own creative indication of their inherent “honor before him,” “who told you that you were naked?” Of all the details recorded about the first “walks” in the Garden, the human level of comfort is recorded in relation to “shame,” i.e., “not ashamed,” “ashamed.”  As a fundamental accounting of their relationship to God, their condition vis a vis God and each other within the context of “judgement” is revealed.  They are “honored” with the divine image, but become “ashamed” of their existence, experienced as disobedience.  The Hebrew work for Shame (bosh) occurs in the OT 128 times.  The question needing to be asked as to the transition from “unashamed” to “shame” is critical.  What caused it?  What event, action, way of thinking, way of seeing, way of knowing, insight, understanding, etc, went through a change profoundly affecting the couples view of each other and their relationship to God?  Was it their “questioning” the command of God (“thou shalt not….”)?  Was it the accepting of another’s voice as an “interpretive grid” for the Word of God (“did God really say...”)?  Was it the actual act of eating of the forbidden tree (now knowing Good and Evil)?  Was it the effect of the “fruit” (the knowledge of good and evil) upon them?  That is, once they had eaten of the tree, their “eyes were opened” and they in fact took upon themselves the ability to make judgements about what they now could determine (rather than be told) was in fact Good or not.  How is it that nakedness can be both an “honored” state of being, and a “shameful” state of being “at the same time?”

Stockitt addresses the experience of “aloneness” now felt in life after the “shame of knowing” arrives.  The couple will each undergo a separate set of challenges in life, labor in the fields and labor in childbirth.  “There is no longer a harmony between them and creation….What began for them as the delight of open communion with the creator now manifests itself as terrified concealment.”

Stockitt cites Bonhoeffer and a way forward from shame, “The dialectic of concealment and exposure is only a sign of shame.  Shame can be overcome only when the original unity is restored, . . . shame is overcome only in the enduring of an act of final shaming, namely the becoming manifest of knowledge before God.”


Shame results in hiddenness from God and God’s exiling those shamed into the wilderness (cast out of the Garden).  “The exile of Adam and Eve foreshadowed the sense of exile experienced by the Jews in Egypt before their deliverance.  Responding to the catastrophe of shameful exile in Babylon becomes a challenge of acute proportions for the later generation of prophets and theologians.  Jesus himself repeatedly sought out individuals in his ministry…who suffered the ignominy of personal exile and exclusion from their own towns and cities.” (Stockitt)


The restoration which shame needs, to be eliminated and the effects it has on human relatedness, surface in the NT.  The cross of Christ is depicted as that which cancels shame by offering humanity ultimately powerless, from God’s side, and to hold humanity separate from God’s love.  The writer of Hebrews points in this direction by saying that “Christ despised the shame of the cross” and turns it into healing and gathering.  Out of that reality St Paul can point to the cross and proclaim there is no shame in the Gospel, the good news of God’s incarnation. Jesus redeems the shame of the world by sacrificing himself and allowing us to be embraced (abide) by him as he is victorious over that which is feared to keep us separated eternally from our Creator, death.  That power of separation has been removed and the distance between humanity and God has been eliminated.

The contrast, biblically, to shame is honor.  It is the honor of humanity, restored in Jesus that strips the shame from our fiber and replaces it with a Spirit of Joy and Peace allowing us to fully experience the honor we have as children of God.  This honor cannot be self-designated.  That is what leads to shame.  It is the artificial act of self-determination and self-honoring which strikes against the ontology of human dependence on the Word of God for life, liberty and the pursuit of giving glory to God. 


Israel:Shame and the role of the Prophet:

For Israel, the fall of Jerusalem, more than that, the utter desolation of all that God had promised was experienced as the great shame.  To have ones King “bound” and lead out of the city was the greatest of shames.  When the Kings of Judah are thus treated the people are hopelessly lost in shame.  The honor of being the “people of God” is lost and the core of God’s witness is shrouded in shame and loss.

Nearly all the occurrences of loathing or shame in Ezekiel appear alongside covenantal language (16:59-62; 20:33-44; 36:22-32). The exceptions— responses to military failure (32:24, 25, 30) or the shame of exile (34:29; 36:6)—may also be associated with the covenantal relationship. Ezekiel’s claim is that Yahweh remains faithful to the covenant even when Israel has violated it time and again. Yahweh’s command that Israel (or Jerusalem) be ashamed must be understood within the context of this covenantal dynamic. Saul Olyan drew attention to the experience of honor and shame in the context of the covenant, and T. R. Hobbs further refined Olyan’s observations by noting that what undergirds covenantal relationships is a pattern found in nearly all patron-client relationships. In such relationships, both partners owe loyalty to one another, though the manner in which they display their allegiance and their expected benefits depends on their respective positions. Honor accrues to each partner to the extent to which they fulfill their obligations to one another. The patron acquires honor through his ability to provide for his clients, while the client gains honor and prestige by association with such a generous and powerful patron. Shame is experienced when one or the other partner fails to fulfill the expectations of the relationship. But shame differs from guilt, in that it is not the disloyal partner who experiences the shame, but the partner who is betrayed. Expulsion from the land was a shameful experience for the exiles (cf. 36:20), especially since it exposed them to the insult and reproach of the nations (36:7, 15). In the system of relationships defined above, the house of Israel would believe that their shame arose from Yahweh’s failure to protect them from attack. As Hobbs notes, “The ‘shame’ of Israel/Judah in exile, which is also widely acknowledged by the nations who mock the exiles . . . is a result of their Patron par excellence,Yahweh, not being able to sustain his clients” (503). In each case where shame language is used, Ezekiel reverses the implied charge that Israel experiences this reproach because their patron deity has failed them. In each instance where Israel is commanded to feel shame, Yahweh asserts that he has indeed been loyal to the bonds of the covenant. The shame of the military defeat and exile is entirely due to Israel or Jerusalem’s violation of the covenant. Saul M. Olyan, “Honor,Shame, and Covenant Relations in Ancient Israel,” JBL 115 (1996): 201-18; T.R.Hobbs, “Reflections on Honor,Shame, and Covenantal Relations,” JBL 116 (1997): 501–503; Margaret S.Odell, “An Exploratory Study of Shame and Dependence in the Bible and Selected Near Eastern Parallels,” in The Biblical Canon in Comparative Perspective, Scripture in Context 4 (Ancient Near Eastern Texts and Studies 11; Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1989), 217-33; idem, “The Inversion of Shame and Forgiveness in Ezekiel 16.59-63,” JSOT56 (1992): 101–12.” (Odell, 2005)

Shame is also related to what one knows is expected of them.  Ezekiel uses the phrase; “They will know that I am the LORD” 55 times in his book.  As in the Genesis narrative, it is the lack of acceptance of what is known that causes the original couple to be ashamed within the context of “other” information.  God’s goal is that his people know Him within the context of His revelation, not in traditional or adopted forms of behavior, even religious, assumed from outside the Word of God.

Another nature of shame is the realization that one’s fundamental view of self (even a collective self, ie., Israel and perhaps the Church) is contrary to what you “should” trust as being true.  For Israel to “trust in gold and silver” and to construct idols for itself is a major step towards shame. See Ezekiel 7:1-21. “Gold and silver has quite literally become a stumbling block because Israel has used it to make idols—or as Ezekiel puts it, images or representations of its abominations and worthless things (7:20). A nearly identical accusation appears in Ezekiel 16:17, where Jerusalem uses ornaments made from Yahweh’s gold and silver to fashion male images with which she commits adultery. In 7:18-20, it is not clear whether the silver and gold comes from Yahweh; but without a doubt, it has been misused to fashion worthless representations of nonexistent gods.” (Odell, 2005:94)

Another motif found in Ezekiel, striking at the very heart of the moral dimension of honor and shame, is found in the language of marriage.  Yahweh takes to wife Israel, loving her and protecting her.  She is honored as the “beloved” and this theme finds its culmination in the Church as the bride of Christ.  But for Israel (and perhaps the Church) its “foreign interests” threaten the very sanctity of this relationship.  She has brought shame upon her Beloved as well as herself by straying after other lovers.  Both chapters 16 and 23 force us to read the intimate details of this betrayal and the compounded impact of unfaithfulness.  As the wife of Yahweh, “She questions Yahweh’s fidelity, expresses her shame at having been so humiliatingly abandoned to her enemies, and wonders whether he has forsaken her forever.” (Odell:2005/180)

The repeated theme of Israel’s disobedience is set against the strong theme of God’s ultimate faithfulness to her.  “Ezekiel 16:59-63 brings together the themes of covenant (16:1-43) and shame (16:44-58). Verse 59 is retrospective: Because Jerusalem has scorned the oath and overturned the covenant, Yahweh is no longer under any obligation to protect her. He will therefore do to Jerusalem as she has done. But that turns out not to be the end of the story: even though Jerusalem has broken the old covenant, Yahweh remains faithful to it and establishes a new one. This time, he declares, the covenant will be an everlasting one. Yahweh’s decision to restore Jerusalem to a position of prominence among her sisters reflects this new covenant (16:61-62). Jerusalem must recognize that her newly acquired status is Yahweh’s doing. The text pointedly says this is done not on account of Jerusalem’s covenant (NRSV “your covenant”), but because of Yahweh’s covenant. The reference to Jerusalem’s covenant may allude to those she initiated during her indefatigable but fruitless forging of political alliances (16:23-34). Yahweh thus reverses the effects of her harlotrous initiatives by reasserting the primacy of his covenant.” (Odell:2005/195)

Jesus: Shame and the Role of Messiah

The themes of honor and shame are continued in the New Testament.  For many Christians our focus is on “sin” and “guilt” for which Jesus “dies” and somehow in his act of atonement and resurrection, we are forgiven and empowered to a new life.  Tracing the OT theme of shame and honor, we might read much of the NT, especially the Gospels, from a new perspective. 

The parable of the Prodigal Son is a major story of shame and how it is dealt with.  The son shames his family and himself in requesting the unthinkable in that culture.  The son treats his father as though his father had already died in order to receive what is only received as an inheritance.  His father, accepts the sons request, shaming himself to do so in this “honors” community.  The Son squanders his inheritance and ends up in shame with the pigs, who to the Jews were so very unclean.  In a moment of insight, the Son comes to himself and plans his journey home.  His father sees him from afar and shames himself again by making a spectacle of accepting that which was lost.  The older son shames the father in not accepting the fathers request to welcome the wayward Son.  This entire Parable is about the shame that is accepted in the name of love and honor to those who have none.  Jesus’ ministry is all about associating with those shamed by others, and embracing them accepting their shame as his own.