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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Ezekiel 23

Verses 1-49

Story of Two Sisters (23:1-49)

There can be little doubt that this remarkable and somewhat shocking chapter is a piece with chapter 16, which presented in a vivid allegory the history of an unfaithful land. The symbol of marriage as descriptive of God’s relationship to his people was not new, but was used sparingly in Israel because of its similarity to a Baal fertility concept. From the era of Hosea onward, however, the ideas of God as father and as husband were variously used by the leaders of Hebrew thought. In this chapter he is husband; the paramours of Judah are her foreign alliances which had spiritual as well as political implications. Details of the punishment to be inflicted upon these wayward women is the theme of the latter part of the chapter. Even modem readers are generally shocked by the unabashed erotic descriptions which are used in the chapter and the cruel, unrelenting punishment of women caught in the circumstance of infidelity. It should be remembered that Ezekiel is using the normal thought forms and habit patterns of his day to carry weighty teachings about God’s ways with men. Two women, daughters of one mother, have "played the harlot" from their youth, a reference to infidelity during Egyptian enslavement. No doubt is left as to the meaning of Ezekiel’s words after the details of intimacy are spelled out in verse 3. Oholah, the older sister, is identified with Samaria. The name means "she who has a tent." Oholibah, the younger sister, is identified with Jerusalem and her name means "tent in her." The symbolic names are almost surely designed to call attention to the tents set up for sacred prostitution at Baal shrines, and as such refer again to the basic infidelity of Judah’s life (vss. 1-4).

The record of the older sister is first reviewed in some detail. While Oholah was wife to the Lord she played the harlot with the Assyrians, being enamored with that nation’s purple-clad troops, its leaders, and its desirable young men. Assyrians struck terror in Jewish hearts but at the same time were secretly admired. This kind of infidelity was not new with the people, for such had been the pattern since their national youth in Egypt (vss. 5-10).

The older sister is brought into the account for comparative purposes. Samaria had been in ruins since 721 B.C., when Sargon had done his work well. Already her people were an ethnic mixture who were held in contempt by the Jews. Her record of infidelity was thought to be the worst possible. Yet Ezekiel says that Oholibah (Jerusalem) is far more degraded than Oholah (Samaria) ever was. After doting on Assyria—being enamored of the Assyrian way of life and worship — Judah turned her devotion and affection to the Chaldeans without any compunction. She openly flaunted "her nakedness" and "harlotry," which caused God finally to cast her off (vss. 11-18). The underlying historical situation or situations to which the prophet has reference cannot be finally or accurately identified, but it is certain that the object of derision is Judah’s willingness to bend to the strongest wind of political power, which at the moment was Chaldea.

Ezekiel strikes the note of doom when he repeats his earlier allegation that the pattern of Judah’s life had not really changed since she was in Egypt. Uncontrollable desire had always marked her life since her youth among the Egyptians. The love of Oholibah was not for her husband, but for a multiplicity of paramours, whom she received without discretion or shame. Thus syncretism in politics led to the tragedy of moral deterioration and spiritual decay.

Oholibah, who has been loved by many, now has all her lovers turn on her in disgust, seeking vengeance on her who had given herself to every passer-by. Babylonians and Assyrians join in meting out the punishment prescribed in Israel for the infidelity of a wife. She is stripped naked (vs. 26) and is mutilated before witnesses (vs. 25) , having her nose and ears cut off. All her jewels and possessions are taken and she is left attractive to nobody, naked and bare, without help or friendship. The nature of Judah’s sin is revealed in verse 30 where she is said to have "polluted" herself "with their idols." The prophet does not present either a logical or a chronological sequence for the punishment of this woman. After he has described her humiliation he speaks of the cup of God’s wrath which is given to her to drink. The cup is identical with the cup from which Oholah has already drunk. The final result of it is madness (vss. 33b-34). This is the consequence of Judah’s playing a double role on the stage of history — pretending to be God’s peculiar people while lusting after and imitating the ways of pagan neighbors, depending upon their power, not God’s, for support.

The oracle in verses 37-49 must be understood as a different piece from the Oholah-Oholibah story. It deals concurrently with both sisters as if punishment were impending for both. They are considered together, probably as a result of Ezekiel’s unwillingness to accept the division between Israel and Judah as either valid or final. Both are accused of identical crimes : defiling God’s sanctuary, breaking the Sabbath, and sacrificing children to foreign gods. While they were actually involved in false religion, Samaria and Jerusalem had maintained the appearance of fidelity to God (vss. 37-38). Returning to the figure of harlotry the prophet depicts in most lurid terms the ends to which lust has dragged a people. Indictment is followed immediately by execution. Any man having relations with either sister is guilty of adultery. So righteous men shall judge both for their crimes. Stoning and disfiguring, or even dismemberment, are prescribed in order that "sinful idolatry" may be at an end. Ezekiel understands that once individual man or society turns from God’s love, the result is destruction.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Ezekiel 23". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/ezekiel-23.html.