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4. The parable of the two sisters ch. 23
This chapter is the final climactic one in Ezekiel’s collection of messages that condemn Israel’s defective leadership (chs. 20-23).
Both chapters 16 and 23 personify Israel as a prostitute, but there are significant differences in these chapters. In chapter 16 Canaan is the mother of Israel who corrupted her daughter by teaching her spiritual adultery, namely, idolatry or trust in other gods. In chapter 23 Israel herself is responsible for pursuing mainly political adultery, trust in other nations, through alliances with foreign powers. In chapter 16 the beginnings of Israel’s unfaithful career receive most attention whereas in chapter 23 the whole of Israel’s unfaithful career is in view. Chapter 16 deals with Judah alone, but chapter 23 focuses on both Israel and Judah with emphasis on Judah. Many students of this chapter have noted its similarities to Jeremiah 3:6-11, and some consider it an exposition of that text.
"There the emphasis was on idolatries as breaking the marriage relation and the sacred covenant with God, here it is on the nation’s worldly spirit and worldly alliances for safety and national security." [Note: Feinberg, p. 131.]
"Despite the distasteful theme and the indelicate language, the reader of these verses must appreciate that this is the language of unspeakable disgust and must try to recognize Ezekiel’s passion for God’s honour and his fury at the adulterous conduct of His covenant people. The feeling of nausea which a chapter like this arouses must be blamed not on the writer of the chapter nor even on its contents, but on the conduct which had to be described in such revolting terms." [Note: Taylor, pp. 170-71.]
"This chapter contains the most graphic language in the Bible in reference to sexual imagery. For that reason it requires extreme care in teaching and preaching." [Note: Stuart, p. 220.]
The Lord gave Ezekiel a story about two sisters who had one mother (cf. Jeremiah 3:7). These young girls became prostitutes in Egypt and allowed men to fondle their breasts. That is, they allowed the Egyptians to become intimate with them even though they were to be faithful to the Lord alone (cf. Ezekiel 16:26; Ezekiel 20:7-8; Numbers 25:3-9; Joshua 24:14; 2 Kings 21:15; Hosea 1:2). One evidence of the idolatry that the Israelites had adopted from the Egyptians came to the surface in the Golden Calf incident in the wilderness (Exodus 32). Joshua later warned the Israelites about the dangers of idolatry, which had persisted since they had departed from Egypt (Joshua 24:14).
Israel and Judah became separate entities after the division of the kingdom following Solomon’s reign, though relations between the northern and southern tribes had become increasingly unfriendly long before that (cf. Judges 8:1; Judges 12:1; 2 Samuel 19:43). However, God projected their identities back to the time when they were still within their mother, ancient Israel, in Egypt. The common origin of these sisters accounts in part for their similar behavior. Their father, unstated, was Yahweh.
Israel’s lustful youth 23:1-4
Oholah was the name of the older sister (lit. "her tent," probably a reference to her pagan tent shrines), and she represents Samaria, the capital of the kingdom of Israel. Oholibah was the younger sister (lit. "my tent is in her," probably a reference to the temple), and she represents Jerusalem, the capital of the kingdom of Judah. One of Esau’s wives was Oholibamah, meaning "tent of the high place" (Genesis 36:2). Oholah and Oholibah became the wife of the Lord and bore Him sons and daughters (i.e., inhabitants and surrounding villages). Evidently the Lord regarded Samaria as the older sister because the Northern Kingdom was the first to apostatize and to establish political alliances with foreign nations, particularly the Assyrians (Hosea 8:9).
While this allegory suggests that Yahweh committed bigamy and incest, He obviously did nothing in relation to Israel that was in any way improper. This is an excellent example of why we should not apply what the parable excludes; there is no reference to the sisters’ father in the parable. The story makes certain comparisons, but if we try to apply all the implications of the story we end up with some incongruities.
"Though the law prohibited a man from marrying sisters (Leviticus 18:18), such marriages are not unknown in the Bible (cf. Jacob). The Lord here uses a contextually conditioned metaphor for illustrative purposes. The use of such an illustration does not mean that the Lord condoned bigamy." [Note: Chisholm, Handbook on . . ., p. 263. See also Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, p. 48.]
Oholah proved unfaithful to the Lord by lusting after her attractive neighbors, the Assyrians.
"The appeal, then as now, was to youth, strength, position, wealth and self-gratification; that is, the world in all its dazzle and attractiveness." [Note: Feinberg, p. 132.]
Oholah committed political adultery by making alliances with the Assyrians, which involved worshipping their idols (cf. 2 Kings 15:19-20; 2 Kings 17:3-4; Hosea 5:13; Hosea 7:11; Hosea 8:9; Hosea 12:1-2; Amos 5:26). The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser, an important archaeological find dating to about 840 B.C., shows King Jehu of Israel bowing in submission before King Shalmaneser III of Assyria and giving him tribute money. [Note: See D. W. Thomas, ed., Documents from Old Testament Times, pp. 48-49, plate 3, and pp. 50-52.] This was a continuation of Oholah’s behavior from her youth in Egypt where she had done the same things.
Samaria’s prostitution 23:5-10
The Lord had turned her over to the Assyrians whom she had proved unfaithful with in 722 B.C. They abused her and even murdered her so that she had become infamous for her sins (cf. Proverbs 1:31; Romans 1:24-32). The name "Jezebel" evokes similar disgust even today.
"Infidelity in marriage was taken very seriously in ancient Israel. Adultery and prostitution were both odious to God and punishable by death, as several passages in Leviticus (Leviticus 19:29; Leviticus 20:10; Leviticus 21:9) and Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 22:21-22; Deuteronomy 23:17) indicate." [Note: Stuart, p. 222.]
Oholibah observed her sister’s behavior and fate, but she did not learn from them. As many historians have observed, the one thing we learn from history is that most people do not learn from history. Oholibah became even more unfaithful than her sister. She too lusted after the Assyrians whom she viewed as attractive political allies (2 Kings 16:8; cf. Isaiah 7:7-9), and she added the Babylonians to her list of lovers. Both sisters followed the same pattern of behavior.
Jerusalem’s prostitution 23:11-21
Oholibah saw pictures of the Babylonians that aroused her desire for alliance, and she lusted after them and wrote to them (2 Kings 23:32; 2 Kings 23:37; cf. Jeremiah 22:21). Much visual art in biblical times was painted and or carved on walls. The splendor that was Babylon deeply impressed the Israelites.
The Babylonians responded to her invitations and came to Judea where they polluted her by entering into treaties with her. After she became a vassal of Babylon, she became disgusted with the Babylonians and turned away to seek help from Egypt (cf. Jeremiah 2:18; Jeremiah 6:8; Jeremiah 37:5-7; Lamentations 4:17). The Lord also became disgusted with her, as He had with her sister. Nevertheless she persisted in her immoral conduct that she had learned in Egypt. She lusted after the Egyptians that pursued her like donkeys and horses in heat (cf. Jeremiah 2:24; Jeremiah 5:8; Jeremiah 13:27). Donkeys and horses were proverbial for their strong sexual drive (cf. Jeremiah 2:24; Jeremiah 5:8; Jeremiah 13:27), and the Lord used these animals as a figure for the Egyptians’ potency that attracted the Israelites. [Note: Keil, 1:327-28.] Jerusalem returned to her old lover, namely, Egypt.
Because of her behavior the Lord promised to turn Oholibah’s soldier-lovers against her, even the Babylonians, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and the tribal groups of the empire. The Chaldeans were the original residents of southern Babylonia who became a ruling class within Babylonia. The Assyrians had suffered defeat by the Babylonians and now lived within Babylonia, mainly in the north. Pekod, Shoa, and Koa were tribes that lived in eastern Babylonia and were part of the empire (cf. Isaiah 22:5; Jeremiah 50:21). They would all come against Oholibah from every direction, attack her from all sides, and try to destroy her using their own customary methods. Ezekiel painted a picture of the whole world coming against Israel. The Lord would allow this to happen to her.
Jerusalem’s judgment for prostitution 23:22-35
Four messages announce God’s judgment on Jerusalem for her unfaithfulness (Ezekiel 23:22-35).
The Lord would express His jealousy over Jerusalem and deal with her in His wrath. Her enemies would cut off her nose and her ears. This was an ancient Near Eastern punishment for adulteresses, which was understandable since these women typically adorned themselves with nose-rings and earrings. [Note: See Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near . . ., p. 181.] This appears to have been a method of mutilating enemies and prisoners of war as well. [Note: See Cooper, p. 231.] This punishment would make Jerusalem grotesque, unappealing, and repulsive to other nations.
These enemies would also kill many Israelites, deport others (2 Kings 24:10-16; 2 Kings 25:11; Daniel 1:1), and burn still others (2 Kings 25:18-21). They would strip the nation of her clothes and jewelry, perhaps a reference to her wealth, possessions, and temple treasures (cf. 2 Kings 25:13-17; 2 Chronicles 36:18). The Lord would allow this to teach Oholibah to abhor the Egyptians as political partners.
The Lord also announced that He would turn Jerusalem over to those whom she had come to hate, namely, the Babylonians. They would hate her, rob her of her property, and leave her naked and ashamed (in 586 B.C.).
This punishment would come on her because she committed political adultery with the nations and had defiled herself with their idolatry (cf. Exodus 20:1-7; Deuteronomy 17:14-20). She had behaved as her older sister, so the Lord would give the cup of His wrath to her to drink (cf. Isaiah 51:17; Isaiah 51:22; Jeremiah 25:15-17; Jeremiah 25:28; Habakkuk 2:16; Zechariah 12:2; Matthew 20:22; Matthew 26:39; Revelation 14:10), the same cup Oholah had to drink.
"In using this imagery Ezekiel belongs to a long prophetic chain that was to culminate in Jesus, who absorbed in his own person the horror of God’s judgment, accepting it from his hand not without a shudder (Mark 14:36)." [Note: Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, p. 52.]
The Lord also promised that Oholibah would indeed drink from the large cup of God’s judgment from which Oholah had drunk. Some commentators referred to this pericope as the "cup song" (cf. the "sword song" in Ezekiel 21:8-17). Drinking this cup would make her an object of scorn as well as drunk and sad. The cup would contain punishment in the form of horror and desolation, just like Samaria had experienced. Oholibah would drain the cup; she would endure all the punishment God had for her. She would even madly gnaw the fragments of the earthenware cup or shatter it to pieces. The same Hebrew verb means "to gnaw" (NASB, NRSV) and "to break" (AV, NIV, NKJV). She would also tear at her breasts, probably in remorse over how she had used them to seduce her lovers. Another interpretation understands the cup as breaking and lacerating Oholibah’s breasts. In other words, she would despise herself for her former behavior.
Jerusalem would bear the Lord’s punishment for her lewd and immoral behavior because she had abandoned Him. This short message identifies the root problem in Israel’s apostasy: she had forsaken Yahweh.
"When a nation (or an individual) discards God, there is no other road to follow but that which leads to perversion and utter degradation." [Note: Alexander, "Ezekiel," p. 855.]
The Lord called Ezekiel to pass judgment on Oholah and Oholibah (cf. Ezekiel 20:4; Ezekiel 22:2). He should then announce their fate because they had committed adultery (cf. Exodus 22:20; Exodus 23:13; Deuteronomy 4:15-24; Deuteronomy 12:24-32) and had shed innocent blood in their unfaithfulness (cf. Exodus 20:13; Leviticus 18:21; Leviticus 20:1-5). Their spiritual adultery consisted of idolatry, and their bloodshed was the practice of child sacrifice in connection with idolatry. They had killed the Lord’s own children.
A summary judgment for Israel’s unfaithfulness 23:36-49
This final message brings Oholah and Oholibah back together and passes judgment on all Israel. It is a summary oracle for the section that indicts Israel’s leaders (chs. 20-23).
They also made the temple unclean (cf. Exodus 20:24-26) and treated the Sabbath as any other day of the week (cf. Exodus 20:8-11; Leviticus 19:3; Leviticus 19:30). On the same days that they practiced child sacrifice they entered the temple to worship Yahweh. This amounted to treating Molech and Yahweh as though they were equal.
These daughters had sent to other nations and invited ambassadors to come to them to make treaties (cf. Deuteronomy 17:14-20). They had made themselves as attractive as possible, like a prostitute does for her lover. They even used the things that they should have used only for the worship of Yahweh to entice desert lovers (e.g. the Arabians, Moabites, and Edomites). The whole atmosphere of the reception was like that of a drunken orgy. The same Hebrew word, saba’im, can mean "Sabeans" and "drunkards" (Ezekiel 23:42), and both meanings could have been intended (double entendre). These foreign lovers gave the Israelites the wages of a prostitute including bracelets and crowns.
The Lord marveled that the nations would find Samaria and Jerusalem attractive partners since they had proved to be such unsatisfying lovers for so long. Yet they did. There is hardly anyone more pathetic and disgusting than an old whore. However, righteous people would pass judgment on the sisters as adulteresses who had blood on their hands. The enemies of Israel were righteous in judging her, not that they were right with God spiritually. They may have even been more righteous in their conduct than the Israelites. [Note: Cooper, p. 233; and Fisch, p. 159.] Other interpreters believe that the righteous in view may be the spiritual leaders of the remnant of faithful believers in Israel (cf. Deuteronomy 22:13-21). [Note: Feinberg, p. 136; and Dyer, "Ezekiel," p. 1273.]
The Lord commanded a group of soldiers to attack these cities and to terrorize and plunder them. These invaders would stone the guilty (the punishment for adulterers and murderers in the Mosaic Law), slay them and their children with their swords, and burn their houses. Thus the Lord would cause such shameful unfaithfulness to cease from His land (cf. Ezekiel 22:15), and He would teach other nations not to do as these two "women" had done. Samaria and Jerusalem would bear their punishment for practicing idolatry, and they would learn that Yahweh is God.
"While most parables and messages concerning sin in the Old Testament seek to produce repentance, that is not so here. The message closed with a note of finality." [Note: Cooper, p. 233.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Ezekiel 23". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 22 / Ordinary 27