The Scandalous Sisters

Posted: September 8, 2016 in Ezekiel, Uncategorized

Ezekiel 23, “The Scandalous Sisters”

Never say never.  There are never allegories found in Scripture…until there are. 🙂  Generally speaking, allegories are far fewer in the Bible than what many people commonly believe.  For some ancient theologians, virtually everything in the Bible was an allegory or literary “type” of some sort, and thus nothing that was written meant what was actually written.  There was a constant search for a deeper, more spiritual meaning, and thus no one (except the truly spiritual class of clergy) could interpret the Bible for themselves.

Thankfully, we have a word to describe that today: bunk. 🙂  The vast majority of the written word of God means exactly what it seems to say on the page, and although there are indeed types and other symbols within the text, it is clear as to what those symbols point.

Actually, that is still somewhat the case here.  Ezekiel 23 is comprised of a long allegory, but it is plain that it is an allegory.  God goes so far as to even give the interpretive keys along the way, showing that He wants the reader to know and interpret this as an allegorical tale of the sins of Samaria & Jerusalem (the capital cities of the northern & southern kingdoms).  What we read is outrageous – even scandalous – and that’s the point.  The sin that Samaria and Jerusalem had committed against God was so bad that the truth was almost stranger than fiction.  By re-telling their rebellion against Him as sexual perversion, it paints a picture that is so bad & awful that the truth of it starts to sink in.  The allegory puts idolatrous sin in terms that humans understand.  If a picture is worth 1000 words, God has given us a dictionary’s worth of words in Ezekiel 23!

The best way to handle it is just to jump in…

Ezekiel 23

  • Introduction to the allegory (1-4)

1 The word of the LORD came again to me, saying: 2 “Son of man, there were two women, The daughters of one mother. 3 They committed harlotry in Egypt, They committed harlotry in their youth; Their breasts were there embraced, Their virgin bosom was there pressed.

  • If the theme sounds familiar, it’s because Ezekiel wrote along much the same lines in Ch. 16.  There, the focus was specifically upon one woman who had been raised by God to be a pure bride, yet this woman became a harlot through her idolatry.  God comes back to this picture again with Ezekiel, this time with two women, though related as sisters.  Their background was anything but pure, as they had always engaged in harlotry & fornication, specifically mentioning Egypt as their starting point.
  • Historically speaking, Egypt is where Israel truly became a nation.  God had called Abraham to Himself over 400 years prior to the Exodus, but though Abraham became rich, his children & grandchildren became little more than a single tribe of people while in the land of Canaan.  It was when God sovereignly took Israel to Egypt in order to save their lives that the people grew into a large nation of Hebrews.  Because of who they were, the Egyptians kept them separated from their own nation, ultimately keeping the Hebrews as slaves.  The Hebrews survived with their own distinct nationality, but they unfortunately picked up some of the idolatry of Egypt along the way.  Even after God fully revealed Himself to them through the plagues, the Passover, the Red Sea, and at Mt. Sinai, the Hebrews still showed themselves to be fully indoctrinated in Egyptian idolatry.  How so?  When they made their golden idol, what did they make?  A calf – one of the images they learned from the Egyptian false gods (perhaps Hathor? Apis?). 
  • In any case, these sisters shared the same background & the same proclivity to sin.  Who were they?  If their Egyptian harlotry did not give it away, God gives Ezekiel the specific interpretive key in vs. 4…

4 Their names: Oholah the elder and Oholibah her sister; They were Mine, And they bore sons and daughters. As for their names, Samaria is Oholah, and Jerusalem is Oholibah.

  • The two sisters are the two capital cities of the two nations.  Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, and Jerusalem of the southern kingdom of Judah.  The names God gives them in this allegory are interesting, in that they are each founded in the root word for tent (‘ohel).  “Oholah” = “she has a tent”; “Oholibah” = “my tent is in her.”  Considering that the tabernacle was referred to as the tent of meeting, it’s possible that God referred to the presence of His temple.  Samaria had a tent/tabernacle where she was supposed to worship God (though she didn’t), and Jerusalem was the city in which the tent/tabernacle of God was actually located.
  • The whole point is that these sister cities had once belonged to God.  They were supposed to be for His purposes, and He had named them for His glory.  At least that was His intent.  What they did in their own free will & sin was something completely different.
    • This is what we’ll find to be one of the underlying lessons for us in the tales of Oholah & Oholibah.  God has His purposes for us – He has a plan to glorify Himself through us – but we so often choose to go our own way.  In our free will, we choose to follow our lusts rather than our love for God.  The result?  He’ll allow us to experience the full impact of our consequences, just like He did for Samaria and Jerusalem.
  • The tale of Samaria (5-10)

5 “Oholah played the harlot even though she was Mine; And she lusted for her lovers, the neighboring Assyrians, 6 Who were clothed in purple, Captains and rulers, All of them desirable young men, Horsemen riding on horses.

  • The phrase of God saying of Samaria, “she was Mine,” is interesting because literally it is, “she was under Me.”  She was under God’s authority, even under His care, yet she still longed and “lusted” for others.  She looked to the “Assyrians” and saw them as “desirable.”  Historically, Menahem was the first of the northern kingdom to give tribute to the Assyrians, and that was the beginning of the end (2 Kings 15:19-20).  As to the allegory, the Samaritans saw these Assyrians as handsome warriors, surely able to satisfy the desire of the wandering heart of the promiscuous woman.  They looked good, though they would eventually enslave her.  Originally, she had so much better in the Lord God, but she never looked to Him in worship.
  • What happens when we look away from God?  Our eyes eventually end up on other temptations. It seems that the very moment we get our eyes off Christ is when we get into trouble.  Perhaps that’s because so often the very reason we look away from Jesus is so that we can look upon other sin & temptation.  Be careful as to what you place in front of your eyes & heart – that may end up being your downfall.

7 Thus she committed her harlotry with them, All of them choice men of Assyria; And with all for whom she lusted, With all their idols, she defiled herself. 8 She has never given up her harlotry brought from Egypt, For in her youth they had lain with her, Pressed her virgin bosom, And poured out their immorality upon her.

  • Who defiled Oholah/Samaria?  Herself.  She was self-destructive.  She lusted after the Assyrians, but this couldn’t be blamed upon the Assyrians.  This is what she did to herself – just as all people do in their sins.  We want to blame others (our stress, our parents, our enemies, etc.), but ultimately our sin is our fault.  If we are ever to turn away from it, we must first take responsibility for it.
  • As for Samaria, when did this pattern of self-destruction begin?  Egypt.  Her heart never truly belonged to God – she was never surrendered to Him.  The very first king the northern kingdom ever had took the kingdom into idolatry, and it never recovered.  Why?  Because they never really worshipped God in the first place.

9 “Therefore I have delivered her Into the hand of her lovers, Into the hand of the Assyrians, For whom she lusted. 10 They uncovered her nakedness, Took away her sons and daughters, And slew her with the sword; She became a byword among women, For they had executed judgment on her.

  • The end result was that God gave Samaria over to her sin.  She wanted the Assyrians, so God gave her the Assyrians.  Yet the results were (predictably) awful.  Notice what happened with these choice horsemen & captains – the ones once described as “desirable young men.”  Now they were violent warriors against her.  She was humiliated, defiled, and slaughtered.
    • Sin always turns against us.  It looks good, but it will never be tame.  It will never be fully under our control.  We could not keep a pet rattlesnake & expect it to curl up in our arms – neither can we curl up next to sin and expect safety.  At some point, it will turn, and there will be consequences to face.
  • That was Samaria, but we might expect that sort of description of the northern kingdom.  After all, they had a long history of idolatry.  Surely the southern kingdom (the other sister) would be better.  Right?  Wrong.
  • The tale of Jerusalem (11-21)

11 “Now although her sister Oholibah saw this, she became more corrupt in her lust than she, and in her harlotry more corrupt than her sister’s harlotry.

  • Jerusalem was a full witness to what happened to Samaria, but she didn’t learn the lesson.  She witnessed it, but didn’t see the problem.  In fact, she actually did worse.  She became more ruinous & spoiled than Samaria ever was.  It’s as if God is painting the sins of Jerusalem as the worst imaginable.
  • And it was!  After all, it’s one thing for Samaria to go after other gods – that’s what they had always done.  But Jerusalem was the place of God’s own temple!  Her idolatry was far worse to begin with – but for her to double down & become even more defiled?  That’s truly terrible.
    • Likewise, it’s one thing for the people of the world to engage in their lusts – why wouldn’t they?  If they don’t know Jesus as Lord, then they haven’t been given the Holy Spirit, and we ought to expect sinners to act like sinners.  What is truly awful is when saints act like sinners.  When those born of the Holy Spirit act like His presence is not in us, that is truly tragic.  In a sense, it makes us more corrupt than what we were apart from faith.  As the writer of Hebrews said (though in a different context), it is as if we trample the blood of Jesus underfoot (Heb 10:29).  Sin is bad for all, but it is most egregious for the Christian.

12 “She lusted for the neighboring Assyrians, Captains and rulers, Clothed most gorgeously, Horsemen riding on horses, All of them desirable young men. 13 Then I saw that she was defiled; Both took the same way.

  • Notice Jerusalem started off with the same sin as Samaria.  This was the same lusting after the same Assyrians.  Historically speaking, it was Ahaz of Judah who made an alliance with the Assyrians & even brought back its idolatrous worship practices to Jerusalem (2 Kings 16).  Truly Jerusalem did as Samaria did, and even worse.
  • God saw what Jerusalem was doing, knew that “she was defiled,” & He knew what the end result would be.  God had not ignored the situation (not one bit!).  He was fully involved, even if Jerusalem did not recognize Him at the time.
    • God is always sovereign, even at the times we ignore Him!

14 But she increased her harlotry; She looked at men portrayed on the wall, Images of Chaldeans portrayed in vermilion, 15 Girded with belts around their waists, Flowing turbans on their heads, All of them looking like captains, In the manner of the Babylonians of Chaldea, The land of their nativity. 16 As soon as her eyes saw them, She lusted for them And sent messengers to them in Chaldea.

  • Jerusalem didn’t stop with Assyrian lusts; she added the Chaldeans/Babylonians to it.  Like Assyria, they looked good, even though they would eventually mean her downfall.
    • That’s always the way sin starts.  It looks good – it looks pleasing & like it could be fun.  It sure seems like it will meet our need.  Be careful…looks can be deceiving!  If sin didn’t look good, no one would do it.  The key is to keep looking back to Christ.  When our eyes go to something questionable, go back to Jesus and do a comparison.  If it takes us to Him, or exalts Him, it’s good.  If it takes us away from Him, then we have our answer.
  • Question: did Jerusalem actually send for Babylon?  Yes.  This might be a reference to the event with King Hezekiah, after God graciously extended his life.  Faced with death, Hezekiah pleaded with the Lord, and God gave him 15 years.  What did he do with it?  In part, Hezekiah entertained emissaries from Babylon & proceeded to show them all of the treasures of the temple (2 Kings 20).  In just a few short generations, Babylon would be back…with a vengeance.

17 “Then the Babylonians came to her, into the bed of love, And they defiled her with their immorality; So she was defiled by them, and alienated herself from them. 18 She revealed her harlotry and uncovered her nakedness. Then I alienated Myself from her, As I had alienated Myself from her sister.

  • The Babylonians came & defiled her.  When the empire came in, they quickly came against Jerusalem & Jerusalem resisted, though to no avail.  She tried to “alienate herself from them,” but couldn’t do it.  Other translations refer to this as Jerusalem turning away in disgust (which is a good translation), and the general idea is that she tried, but it was too late.  She may have been disgusted with the Babylonians, but not disgusted enough with herself to turn back to God in repentance.
  • The response from God is rather ironic.  Jerusalem had been revealed in her sin, and God hid Himself from her.  Though she needed to be rescued, she did not appeal to God for rescue in true repentance, thus He disassociated Himself, just as He had done with Samaria.  He gave Jerusalem over to her sin.
  • One would think that once left to the consequences of sin, Jerusalem might come to her senses & repent.  Sadly, that wasn’t the case.  Instead, she thought back to the old days, lying to herself & believing they were far better than they really were.  Vs. 19…

19 “Yet she multiplied her harlotry In calling to remembrance the days of her youth, When she had played the harlot in the land of Egypt. 20 For she lusted for her paramours, Whose flesh is like the flesh of donkeys, And whose issue is like the issue of horses. 21 Thus you called to remembrance the lewdness of your youth, When the Egyptians pressed your bosom Because of your youthful breasts.

  • Looking back upon Egypt, Jerusalem did not remember how the Hebrews were oppressed & suffering.  Instead, she once more engaged in lustful desire, obsessively longing for other gods & nations to deliver her from the Babylonians (shown by how Jerusalem turned to Egypt for help).
  • Is the language crass?  Undoubtedly.  But that’s what it looks like when someone is completely given over to sin.
  • This is our state apart from Christ!  Whether we realize it or not, apart from the love, grace, and power of Jesus & His redemption, we become base creatures roaming from lust to lust.  We seek our own self-gratification, whatever the cost – even looking back to former things as satisfying, even though they never truly satisfied us in the past. …  The only solution?  Humble reliant faith upon the Lord Jesus!
  • God’s judgment upon Jerusalem (22-35)

22 “Therefore, Oholibah, thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Behold, I will stir up your lovers against you, From whom you have alienated yourself, And I will bring them against you from every side: 23 The Babylonians, All the Chaldeans, Pekod, Shoa, Koa, All the Assyrians with them, All of them desirable young men, Governors and rulers, Captains and men of renown, All of them riding on horses. 24 And they shall come against you With chariots, wagons, and war-horses, With a horde of people. They shall array against you Buckler, shield, and helmet all around. ‘I will delegate judgment to them, And they shall judge you according to their judgments.

  • Just as God did with Samaria & the Assyrians, God promised to do with Jerusalem & the Babylonians.  If this is what she desired, then this is what she would receive…but it would be far different than what she imagined.  Instead of these various tribes and Gentiles satisfying her lusts, they would come in violence and bring destruction & judgment.
  • God actually delegates His judgment to them, allowing them free reign over His people, to do with them as they wished.  That’s not to say God gave up His sovereignty, but it does mean that whatever the Babylonians did to Jerusalem were actions that God allowed.  Eventually, Babylon would have to answer for their own crimes, but everything that they did to Jerusalem was allowed by God to be done when He delegated their judgment into the army of Babylon.
  • Why?  Because God was as a jealous husband.  Not evil-jealous, but jealous in a good way.  He was jealous for them, wanting them to experience the relationship with God that He had always desired for them.  When they turned away from God, His jealousy was set against them.  Vs. 25…

25 I will set My jealousy against you, And they shall deal furiously with you; They shall remove your nose and your ears, And your remnant shall fall by the sword; They shall take your sons and your daughters, And your remnant shall be devoured by fire. 26 They shall also strip you of your clothes And take away your beautiful jewelry. 27 ‘Thus I will make you cease your lewdness and your harlotry Brought from the land of Egypt, So that you will not lift your eyes to them, Nor remember Egypt anymore.’

  • How furious would the Babylonian onslaught be?  God promised true terrors of every sort.  Mutilation – death – enslavement – plunder, and more.  The wages of sin is death, and the people Jerusalem would feel the full force of it.  We talk about “shock and awe” with some of our military strategy – no doubt that is what the people of Jerusalem experienced when the onslaught of Babylon came.
  • Why would it be so bad?  Because this is what it took for them to stop sinning & stop looking to Egypt & other false gods.  The true God was willing to do whatever it took to bring His people back to Him.
    • God is still willing to do whatever it takes!  Be careful not to force Him to take extreme measures!

28 “For thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Surely I will deliver you into the hand of those you hate, into the hand of those from whom you alienated yourself. 29 They will deal hatefully with you, take away all you have worked for, and leave you naked and bare. The nakedness of your harlotry shall be uncovered, both your lewdness and your harlotry.

  • The promise of God’s deliverance of Jerusalem into the hands of the Babylonians.  Notice that although the Jews once lusted after the Chaldeans, now they hated them.  Jerusalem had turned away in disgust, but that didn’t matter.  The choice to have Babylon rule over them was no longer up to them.  Now Babylon would “deal hatefully” with them and humiliate them.
  • Why?  God tells them in vs. 30…

30 I will do these things to you because you have gone as a harlot after the Gentiles, because you have become defiled by their idols. 31 You have walked in the way of your sister; therefore I will put her cup in your hand.’

  • God specifically sent this punishment because of their harlotry.  They could not ask “Why, God?” because they knew the answer.  This was their own fault and the result was that Jerusalem would have to drink of the same cup of suffering her sister did.  Vs. 32…

32 “Thus says the Lord GOD: ‘You shall drink of your sister’s cup, The deep and wide one; You shall be laughed to scorn And held in derision; It contains much. 33 You will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow, The cup of horror and desolation, The cup of your sister Samaria. 34 You shall drink and drain it, You shall break its shards, And tear at your own breasts; For I have spoken,’ Says the Lord GOD.

  • This was the cup of God’s wrath, and there was no escape from it.  Not only would they taste it, but they would drink it to the full.  They would drain it empty, to where even the goblet itself would be broken upon them.  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:31), and that is exactly where Jerusalem found herself.
  • Praise God that Jesus drank this cup on our behalf!  We don’t drink it, because Jesus did.  This is part of what we remember when we partake of communion.  This was part of Jesus’ prayer when in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He prayed the cup might pass from Him, because He knew what the cup of God’s wrath involved.  Yet Jesus did it anyway.  He gave Himself for us, and suffered the full cup of horror, drinking it down until it was completely dry.  How we praise God for our Jesus!

35 “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Because you have forgotten Me and cast Me behind your back, Therefore you shall bear the penalty Of your lewdness and your harlotry.’ ”

  • Notice the clear purpose statement here.  Their disregard for God was the specific reason for their suffering.  Thus they would bear upon themselves everything that came with their lewd idolatry.
  • There are terrible consequences for sin!  Again, it looks good, but it always consumes us in the end.  God would spare us from that!  Will we listen to His warnings?
  • God’s judgment upon both (36-49)

36 The LORD also said to me: “Son of man, will you judge Oholah and Oholibah? Then declare to them their abominations.

  • Both sisters had sinned, so both will be judged.  At this point, God seems to give a bit of review.  Chronologically speaking, Samaria had long ago been conquered by the Assyrians, and the Babylonian conquest was well underway.  Thus this wouldn’t seem to be new territory, but a review of what they had already done.
  • And just to underscore the point, God takes a brief break from the allegory & symbolism, and details the “abominations” of Samaria & Jerusalem outright.  Vs. 37…

37 For they have committed adultery, and blood is on their hands. They have committed adultery with their idols, and even sacrificed their sons whom they bore to Me, passing them through the fire, to devour them. 38 Moreover they have done this to Me: They have defiled My sanctuary on the same day and profaned My Sabbaths. 39 For after they had slain their children for their idols, on the same day they came into My sanctuary to profane it; and indeed thus they have done in the midst of My house.

  • Idolatry / adultery.  Although God has spoken of harlotry throughout the chapter, He specifically defines it as idolatry here.  The worship of false gods is spiritual prostitution.
  • Child sacrifice. Although it seems inconceivable, the people of God participated in vile child sacrifice, just as the pagans around them did.  They even did so on the same days they entered the sanctuary of God.  (Bible Knowledge Commentary) “The people were so hardened by sin that on the very day they sacrificed their children to their idols, they entered the temple with their children’s blood on their hands and the smoky smell of burning flesh embedded in their clothes. Their very presence profaned and desecrated the house of God!”
  • Temple defilement. Even beyond child sacrifice, there were other defilements of the temple as in the aforementioned case of Ahaz, who brought in a different altar, or when Manasseh set up a false image directly in the temple itself.
  • Profaned Sabbath.  This was a sin that extended beyond the monarchy & into the whole kingdom.  Instead of honoring God & resting in His provision on the 7th day, they cast aside the Sabbath demonstrating their trust in themselves.
  • Were there other sins?  Yes.  Much has already been detailed by God to the prophet Ezekiel throughout the rest of the book.  But this is what stood out as harlotry & symbolic sexual perversion.  They had taken the gift of worship and twisted it into something vile, vulgar, and violent.
    • The invitation to worship God is a gift!  We ought to honor Him with it!

40 “Furthermore you sent for men to come from afar, to whom a messenger was sent; and there they came. And you washed yourself for them, painted your eyes, and adorned yourself with ornaments. 41 You sat on a stately couch, with a table prepared before it, on which you had set My incense and My oil. 42 The sound of a carefree multitude was with her, and Sabeans were brought from the wilderness with men of the common sort, who put bracelets on their wrists and beautiful crowns on their heads. 43 Then I said concerning her who had grown old in adulteries, ‘Will they commit harlotry with her now, and she with them?’ 44 Yet they went in to her, as men go in to a woman who plays the harlot; thus they went in to Oholah and Oholibah, the lewd women.

  • The allegory begins again, with God once more showing the prostitution of the two sisters.  She had prepared herself to receive other lovers, and was willing to take anyone who came by.  Whether it was the Assyrians, the Babylonians, or the Sabeans (possibly just a description of the drunken multitude), anyone who offered a temptation to God’s cities was received.  No matter how decrepit and defiled Samaria & Jerusalem had become, they were always willing to entertain more…anyone & anything but the Lord their God.  Even God was amazed at how bad they had become.
  • This is why God had to do something, and He did.  Vs. 45…

45 But righteous men will judge them after the manner of adulteresses, and after the manner of women who shed blood, because they are adulteresses, and blood is on their hands. 46 “For thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Bring up an assembly against them, give them up to trouble and plunder. 47 The assembly shall stone them with stones and execute them with their swords; they shall slay their sons and their daughters, and burn their houses with fire.

  •  Both sisters were charged with the crime of adultery & prostitution, and God put them on trial knowing that they would be found guilty.  The “righteous men” of the prophets had declared their crimes, and the “assembly” of the Gentile nations would be who God used to bring terrible judgment upon them.
  • What would be the result?  Rest!  Vs. 48…

48 Thus I will cause lewdness to cease from the land, that all women may be taught not to practice your lewdness. 49 They shall repay you for your lewdness, and you shall pay for your idolatrous sins. Then you shall know that I am the Lord GOD.’ ”

  • The word used for “cause to…cease” is interesting in that it comes from the same word translated “Sabbath.”  The land set apart to God would finally be given its rest by God – rest away from lewdness & idolatrous sins.  The people would pay the price, but the land would rest, and other cities (women) would have an example of what NOT to do in regards to the Lord.  Jerusalem would serve as a terrible example to the rest of the world of what God thought of sin. 
  • Not only would the nations see, but so would Israel.  Finally, they would know Him as the Lord God.

It’s a terrible picture.  If it had been a movie, it would be a tragedy.  How can our hearts not be torn to see two wretched women willingly give their lives over to gross prostitution time and time again?  They had a Protector more than willing to be their God, but they were not willing to receive Him.  Thus they suffered…and it was awful.

Is there at all a thread of hope?  Yes!  Even as God proclaims His judgment upon Jerusalem by painting this picture of the city as the harlot Oholibah, they yet have the opportunity to repent.  The final desolation from Babylon had not yet come (though it was coming soon).  At any moment, Jerusalem could have surrendered herself to the Lord in repentance – the choice was fully up to her.

Sadly, she waited until it was too late – but we can choose differently!  Those who are given over in their sin can still drop to their needs in sobriety.  Those who have chosen to say “no” to God can still choose to say “yes.”  People can look away from the enticements of the world & instead look to the glorious Lord Jesus.

That’s not only true in regards to someone’s initial salvation, but also true for those who are already saved.  Just because we are born-again does not mean that we are free of temptation.  To the contrary!  We battle against various temptations every day, and indeed sometimes we give ourselves over to them.  God graciously gives us opportunities to repent (sometimes multiple ones!), but we’ve got to choose to take them.  He will not force anyone to fall to his/her knees in humility & faith; that is a choice we need to make.  Make it!  At the first twinge of your conscience, confess your sins to God, trusting the forgiveness of our Lord Jesus.  Sooner or later, we will be confronted with that sin…don’t wait for the consequences to be severe.


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