1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, there were two women, the daughters of one mother. 3 They played the whore in Egypt; they played the whore in their youth; there their breasts were pressed and their virgin bosoms handled. 4 Oholah was the name of the elder and Oholibah the name of her sister. They became mine, and they bore sons and daughters. As for their names, Oholah is Samaria, and Oholibah is Jerusalem.
5 “Oholah played the whore while she was mine, and she lusted after her lovers the Assyrians, warriors 6 clothed in purple, governors and commanders, all of them desirable young men, horsemen riding on horses. 7 She bestowed her whoring upon them, the choicest men of Assyria all of them, and she defiled herself with all the idols of everyone after whom she lusted. 8 She did not give up her whoring that she had begun in Egypt; for in her youth men had lain with her and handled her virgin bosom and poured out their whoring lust upon her. 9 Therefore I delivered her into the hands of her lovers, into the hands of the Assyrians, after whom she lusted. 10 These uncovered her nakedness; they seized her sons and her daughters; and as for her, they killed her with the sword; and she became a byword among women, when judgment had been executed on her.
11 “Her sister Oholibah saw this, and she became more corrupt than her sister in her lust and in her whoring, which was worse than that of her sister. 12 She lusted after the Assyrians, governors and commanders, warriors clothed in full armor, horsemen riding on horses, all of them desirable young men. 13 And I saw that she was defiled; they both took the same way. 14 But she carried her whoring further. She saw men portrayed on the wall, the images of the Chaldeans portrayed in vermilion, 15 wearing belts on their waists, with flowing turbans on their heads, all of them having the appearance of officers, a likeness of Babylonians whose native land was Chaldea. 16 When she saw them, she lusted after them and sent messengers to them in Chaldea. 17 And the Babylonians came to her into the bed of love, and they defiled her with their whoring lust. And after she was defiled by them, she turned from them in disgust. 18 When she carried on her whoring so openly and flaunted her nakedness, I turned in disgust from her, as I had turned in disgust from her sister. 19 Yet she increased her whoring, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt 20 and lusted after her lovers there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue was like that of horses. 21 Thus you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when the Egyptians handled your bosom and pressed your young breasts.” – Ezekiel 23:1-21 ESV
This chapter needs a graphic-warning label. It is full of sexual imagery and illicit language that makes it difficult to read and even harder to reconcile as content befitting God’s Word. But its message was meant to produce shock and disgust by comparing the behavior of God’s people with the grossest and most unacceptable sexual sins imaginable.
God begins this unflattering portrayal of His people by alluding to them by different names. The northern kingdom of Israel becomes Oholah and the southern kingdom of Judah becomes Oholibah. These pseudonyms were meant to depict each kingdom in a negative light, portraying them as two sisters who each display a penchant for sexual promiscuity and immorality. Oholah means “her tent,” and is meant to represent Samaria, the capital city of the northern kingdom. This designation most likely refers to King Jeroboam’s determination to set up his own houses of worship in Israel to prevent the people from returning to Jerusalem to worship at the temple. His actions are recorded in 1 Kings.
…on the advice of his counselors, the king made two gold calves. He said to the people, “It is too much trouble for you to worship in Jerusalem. Look, Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt!”
He placed these calf idols in Bethel and in Dan—at either end of his kingdom. But this became a great sin, for the people worshiped the idols, traveling as far north as Dan to worship the one there.
Jeroboam also erected buildings at the pagan shrines and ordained priests from the common people—those who were not from the priestly tribe of Levi. And Jeroboam instituted a religious festival in Bethel, held on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, in imitation of the annual Festival of Shelters in Judah. There at Bethel he himself offered sacrifices to the calves he had made, and he appointed priests for the pagan shrines he had made. So on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, a day that he himself had designated, Jeroboam offered sacrifices on the altar at Bethel. He instituted a religious festival for Israel, and he went up to the altar to burn incense. – 1 Kings 12:18-31 NLT
In a sense, Jeroboam, the first king to rule over the northern kingdom, made the grave error of erecting an alternative house of worship, tempting the people to reject Yahweh as their god.
By contrast, the name Oholibah means “my tent is in her,” and stands for Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah where God’s temple was located. It was at this one “tent” that the people of Judah were to worship the one true God: Yahweh. But like their northern neighbors, the Judahites had proven themselves to be unfaithful.
This entire chapter acts as a metaphorical version of Jeremiah 3:6-11, where God outlines the sins of Israel and Judah.
During the reign of King Josiah, the Lord said to me, “Have you seen what fickle Israel has done? Like a wife who commits adultery, Israel has worshiped other gods on every hill and under every green tree. I thought, ‘After she has done all this, she will return to me.’ But she did not return, and her faithless sister Judah saw this. She saw that I divorced faithless Israel because of her adultery. But that treacherous sister Judah had no fear, and now she, too, has left me and given herself to prostitution. Israel treated it all so lightly—she thought nothing of committing adultery by worshiping idols made of wood and stone. So now the land has been polluted. But despite all this, her faithless sister Judah has never sincerely returned to me. She has only pretended to be sorry. I, the Lord, have spoken!”
Then the Lord said to me, “Even faithless Israel is less guilty than treacherous Judah!” – Jeremiah 3:6-11 NLT
In the Ezekiel passage, God describes Ohalah and Oholibah as His “wives.” This is not intended to be a divine endorsement of polygamy but is simply meant to be a picture of the intimate relationship between God and His chosen people. The two kingdoms comprised the 12 tribes of Israel and they had been set apart as His own. But God accuses them of having committed adultery. The northern kingdom, allured by the power and prestige of the Assyrian Empire, made unsanctioned alliances with this up-and-coming global power. God deems these dalliances as nothing short of adulterous.
“Oholah lusted after other lovers instead of me, and she gave her love to the Assyrian officers.” – Ezekiel 23:5 NLT
The kings of Judah literally prostrated themselves as the feet of the Assyrian kings, hoping to evade defeat at their hands. This scene is depicted in The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser, which shows King Jehu of Israel bowing in submission before King Shalmaneser III of Assyria and giving him tribute money.
The primary problem with these alliances was that they encouraged the people to place their hopes in someone other than God. Secondarily, they led to idolatry. Each time Israel made a treaty with a foreign power, they ended up embracing the false gods of their newfound “lovers.”
“…she prostituted herself with the most desirable men of Assyria, worshiping their idols and defiling herself.” – Ezekiel 23:7 NLT
And God reveals that this tendency to spiritual adultery had begun all the way back in Egypt. At one time, Israel and Judah had been one nation, formed by God in the crucible of captivity in Egypt. There, for 400 years, the descendants of Abraham had suffered under the oppressive hand of their Egyptian overlords, but they had also grown into a mighty nation. And during their four-century-long stay in the land of the Pharaohs, they had turned their backs on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, embracing instead the gods of the Egyptians. So, idolatry was nothing new for them. It had been a problem from the very beginning.
“…when she left Egypt, she did not leave her spirit of prostitution behind. She was still as lewd as in her youth, when the Egyptians slept with her, fondled her breasts, and used her as a prostitute.” – Ezekiel 23:8 NLT
They brought their adulterous tendencies with them to the land of promise, continuing to give their affections to other gods. Even when Solomon, the son of King David, ascended to the throne of Israel, he promoted idolatry. Having disobeyed God by marrying many foreign wives, he soon found himself embracing their false gods and erecting shrines and worship centers all over the kingdom. It was for this reason that God split Solomon’s kingdom in half, creating Judah and Israel.
And after the division of the kingdom, the adultery continued virtually unabated. Eventually, God punished the northern kingdom, using the Assyrians to destroy the capital city of Samaria and subjugate the disobedient citizens of Israel.
“I handed her over to her Assyrian lovers, whom she desired so much. They stripped her, took away her children as their slaves, and then killed her. After she received her punishment, her reputation was known to every woman in the land.” – Ezekiel 23:9-10 NLT
Yet, the fall of Judah did nothing to change the behavior of the southern kingdom of Israel. Having watched their northern “sister” suffer humiliation and annihilation at the hands of their enemies, they stubbornly continued to pursue the same adulterous path.
“Yet even though Oholibah saw what had happened to Oholah, her sister, she followed right in her footsteps. And she was even more depraved, abandoning herself to her lust and prostitution.” – Ezekiel 23:11 NLT
Rather than learn a valuable lesson from the fall of Judah, the southern kingdom upped the ante and escalated their idolatrous ways. And God uses extremely graphic language to describe just how wicked Judah became.
“…she turned to even greater prostitution, remembering her youth when she was a prostitute in Egypt. She lusted after lovers with genitals as large as a donkey’s and emissions like those of a horse.” – Ezekiel 23:19-20 NLT
To understand just how disturbing this message must have been for Ezekiel to deliver and for his audience to receive, imagine going to church one Sunday morning and hearing your pastor present a message that contained some of the same imagery and language that Ezekiel used. Just think how you would feel if he accused you of spiritual prostitution and used the same graphic details to describe your spiritual indiscretions. You would be shocked, appalled, and probably offended. So were the people of Judah. And that is exactly what God intended. He wanted to shock them. He wanted to offend them. And He wanted them to be appalled at the gravity of their guilt. So He used extremely graphic language to describe just how serious their sin was.
Sometimes we can become overly comfortable with our sin that we view it with a kind of casualness. We get so used to it that we forget just how detestable it is to God. That was Judah’s problem. They had sinned for so long that it no longer bothered them. They had learned to live with it and excuse it. They become accustomed to justifying their behavior. But God made it graphicly clear that this was anything but normal. Like two sisters who blatantly prostituted themselves with other men, Israel and Judah pursued relationships with other nations and other gods. They turned their backs on God and sought satisfaction elsewhere. They looked to other nations for their security. They turned to other gods for hope and healing. And while we might consider those actions less-than-shocking, God makes it clear that He viewed their actions as nothing short of immoral and unthinkable. Like a woman who walks out on her loving husband and gives herself physically to every man she meets, Israel and Judah had prostituted themselves time and time again – right in front of the very God who had chosen them, rescued them, and blessed them with His Law, His Temple, and His presence.
This chapter should disturb us and wake us up to the reality of the seriousness of sin. It should shock us and make us understand just how serious spiritual adultery is to God. He doesn’t take it lightly. He won’t tolerate it among His people. He would not and could not turn a blind eye to the actions of Judah or Israel. Spiritual unfaithfulness was and still is an offense to a holy God. If it bothered Him this much, back in the day of Ezekiel, it must still bother Him today. He is warning us to consider the seriousness of unfaithfulness and spiritual infidelity in the life of the child of God.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.