Rescued Child Turned Murderous Harlot (Ezekiel 16) September 9-10
Ezekiel 16 shows God as a devoted, loving, generous, ideal husband married to an adulterous wife, reminiscent of other passages such as Jeremiah 3 and Hosea 1-3. Here the wife is Jerusalem, representative of the Jewish nation, the remnant of Israel. At Mount Sinai, God was married to the entire nation of Israel. The city of Jerusalem was then no part of this union. Later, however, the city was incorporated into the nation and its divine covenant relationship as the capital of all 12 tribes and center of true worship. Later still, the kingdom of Israel split into north and south—Israel in the north (symbolized in this chapter by its capital Samaria) and Judah in the south (symbolized by its capital Jerusalem). God eventually put away the apostate northern kingdom of Israel—sending its people into captivity. This left Judah as the remnant of Israel still in covenant with God. Yet Judah now stood even guiltier than the northern kingdom.
God tells Ezekiel to "make Jerusalem see her abominable conduct" (verse 2, NIV) and later in the chapter warns of coming invasion. This is perhaps an indication that Ezekiel's message reached the citizens of Jerusalem before its destruction. The prophet could have sent them a letter, as Jeremiah, who was in Jerusalem at the time, sent a letter to the captives in Babylon (see Jeremiah 29). Yet, as with other prophecies in this section, it also seems likely that the message of Ezekiel 16 was intended for Judah and Israel in the end time—to reach them through Ezekiel's book being part of Scripture and through God's true servants in the last days announcing the warnings contained within it.
In verse 3, God's message to Jerusalem begins, "Your birth and your nativity are from the land of Canaan; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite." Jerusalem was originally a city of Canaan, populated during the Israelite conquest of the land by one of the Canaanite tribes, the Jebusites (Joshua 15:8, 63). The Amorites and Hittites were two leading Canaanite tribes (see Genesis 10:15-16; Deuteronomy 7:1). Their names were sometimes used generically of all Canaanites (see Genesis 15:16; Amos 2:10; Joshua 1:4). However, we should note that "the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites" were specifically grouped together as inhabiting the mountain region (Numbers 13:29), where Jerusalem was built.
Yet we should also consider Jerusalem as representative of the nation of Israel—of which, as mentioned, Judah was now the remnant. The mention of heritage then becomes a snub and rebuke. While the nation's forebears—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—sojourned in the same highlands of Canaan, they were not physically of Canaanite descent. Neither did they adopt Canaan's spiritual traditions. But their descendants, who later settled in Canaan, did. The Israelites thus became cultural descendants of the Canaanites. Jerusalem, corrupted with paganism and all manner of immorality, effectively reverted to its Canaanite parentage.
God recounts the life of Israel and Israelite Jerusalem as a tragic allegory. Three stages of life are presented: 1) a foundering, helpless, outcast baby who is rescued (verses 1-7); 2) the grown maiden who is betrothed and married to the one who saved her (verses 8-14); and 3) the wife who has turned into a harlot and baby murderer (verses 15-34).
She starts as a totally neglected newborn infant, deprived of all the care needed for survival. This baby was not "rubbed with salt" (verse 4), an ancient custom done to harden and strengthen an infant's body. The Soncino Commentary explains: "As soon as the navel is cut, the midwife rubs the child all over with salt, water and oil, and tightly swathes it in clothes for seven days; at the end of that time she removes the dirty clothes, washes the child and anoints it, and then wraps it up again for seven days—and so on till the 40th day" (note on verse 4).
This vulnerable child is abandoned in the open field and despised. This was the condition of Israel as the people grew into a nation in Egypt—despised slaves (see Exodus 1). The Pharaoh had commanded the death of all boy babies, which eventually would have led to the extinction of the nation. God rescued them as they were "struggling." The Revised English Bible has "kicking helplessly," and the Jewish Tanakh translates this as "wallowing." The Israelites were doomed to die in their own blood, but God provided them a savior in Moses, who led them out of Egypt. However, the imagery in Ezekiel 16 could also apply to the early years of the city of Jerusalem: "She was a foundering city, uncared for by...Israel in the conquest of the land, for the Hebrews failed to conquer the city of Jebus (Josh 15:63). In fact, they allowed this city to lie as an unwanted child throughout the period of the Judges (vv. 4-5). It was a widespread custom in the ancient Near East to eliminate unwanted children (esp[ecially] girls) by exposing them" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on Ezekiel 16:4-5).
Under God's direction this child "grew, matured and became very beautiful" but was "naked and bare" (verse 7). Israel was physically developed in numbers while in Egypt, but was lacking in true religion and morality. When the end of the period prophesied to Abraham about his descendants becoming slaves and then being delivered (Genesis 15:13-16) came to an end, God says that Israel was "old enough for love" (verse 8, NIV) or ready to enter into a relationship with Him. He says that he then spread his "wing" (NKJV) or the corner of his garment (NIV) over her. To spread a garment over a woman was an idiom for betrothal (Ruth 3:9). As noted earlier, Israel was married to God at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-20).
God then recalls that he clothed and decorated her like royalty. Most of the symbols mentioned—embroidered cloth, leather sandals, silk and costly garments—were also used in the tabernacle. The fine linen referred to the righteousness symbolized by the law God gave to Israel, which He had not given to any other nation. This was the same material used to clothe the priests (Exodus 39:1-2). God spared nothing in making His bride the showcase of nations. She is described as being decorated with costly jewels, gold and silver. These items are also used later in the Bible to describe the character of true followers of God (Malachi 3:17; 1 Corinthians 3:12; Revelation 3:18). God says that she rose to be a queen among the nations.
Again, the imagery can also apply to the city of Jerusalem itself: "The Lord visited Jerusalem and claimed her in marriage by spreading his garment over her (v. 8; cf. Ruth 3:9). He entered into a marriage covenant with Jerusalem [by incorporating it into His relationship with His people] (cf. Prov 2:17; Mal 2:14) as described in Psalm 132:13-17. She became the Lord's city where he dwelt when David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem and purchased the threshing floor of Arunah, the Jebusite (2 Sam 6; 24), in preparation for the temple's construction. As a groom to his bride, God lavished marriage gifts on Jerusalem (vv. 10-13; cf. Gen 24:53; Ps 45:13-15; Isa 61:10): ornaments, cleansing, anointing, costly garments, jewelry, a crown, and fine foods. She was made exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty under the reigns of David and Solomon. Her fame and beauty became renowned throughout the ancient Near East as the capital of the leading nation of that day (v. 14; 1 Kings 10; Lam 2:15)" (Expositor's, note on verses 8-14).
How could God be married to Israel on the one hand and to Jerusalem in another sense? The New Testament affords us a parallel. Spiritual Israel, the Church of God, is the New Covenant Bride of Christ (see Ephesians 5:22-32; Revelation 19:7-9). Yet in Revelation 21:2 and verses 9-10, it appears that the coming New Jerusalem is the Bride. This makes sense when we realize that the New Jerusalem will be the eternal home of the glorified Church and that, even now, it is the place where Christians' citizenship resides. For this reason, the Church is sometimes referred to as Jerusalem or Zion in prophecy.
Continuing in Ezekiel 16, how soon the Israelites forgot God! They became worshipers of idols. God says they played the harlot with all passers-by (verses 15, 25), entering into relationships with foreign nations and foreign gods. They built pagan shrines on every street, as Jeremiah also attested (Jeremiah 11:13). Translated literally, God says to the nation: "Thou...hast opened thy feet to every one that passed by, and multiplied thy whoredoms" (Ezekiel 16:25, KJV). God laments the fact the people took the gold, silver and jewelry He gave them and used it to make "male images" (verse 17). The Tanakh version has, "You took your beautiful things, made of the gold and silver that I had given you, and you made yourself phallic images and fornicated with them." This is rather graphic imagery, showing God's utter disgust with the nation. Representations of the male member were rather common in ancient Middle Eastern paganism, including not just explicit statuary but also large-scale symbolic representations such as upright stones, pillars, obelisks and slender temple towers.
It might be surprising to learn that, even today, the nations of Israel are still polluted with pagan shrines and even phallic imagery. The world religion known as Christianity is essentially a modern form of Baalism—with its churches topped with steeples, spires or bell towers. One source explains: "There is evidence that the spires of our churches owe their existence to the uprights or obelisks outside the temples of former ages... There are still in existence today remarkable specimens of original phallic symbols...steeples on our churches...and obelisks" (S. Brown, Sex Worship and Symbolism in Primitive Races, 1916). McClintock and Strong's Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature confirms that "even the spires of churches are symbols retained from the old phallic worship" (1895, "Phallus"). In his book Ancient Pagan and Modern Christian Symbolism, Thomas Inman writes that ancient fertility rites and phallic worship resulted in the setting up of various architectural structures such "as we now see towers or spires before our churches, and minarets before mosques" (1915, p. XXII).
As mentioned, ancient Israel and Judah gave the precious things of God to pagan idols. The most precious thing they offered was their children, whom God called His children: "And you took your sons and daughters whom you bore to me and sacrificed them as food to the idols. Was your prostitution not enough? You slaughtered my children and sacrificed them to the idols" (verses 20-21, NIV). Just as God condemned idolatry, He also condemned human sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21). Ahaz was probably the king who introduced child sacrifice in Judah with the offering of his own son (2 Kings 16:3). Manasseh also sacrificed one of his sons (2 Kings 21:6). The total number of children destroyed by this practice before Josiah put a stop to it (2 Kings 23:10) is unknown. In all this, the nation failed to remember that it and its capital began as an outcast, dying infant rescued by God (Ezekiel 16:22). The people expressed no heart of feeling about their own children—God's children.
Today millions of innocent babies are killed every year before they have a chance to live outside their mother's womb. In almost every case, the reason for this heinous practice is "convenience"—the children sacrificed to the false gods of sexual hedonism and selfishness. Of course, the majority of children are not so murdered. But most who live are "offered" over to this world's false religious system and perverted values, thereby setting them on a path leading ultimately to death.
When God punished Israel and Judah in relatively minor ways it apparently did little good. They had forgotten that their very existence was due to God's care for them. They refused to learn from the curse that came from their sin. Instead they sinned more—thinking the cure for the curse was to increase their distance from God by drawing closer to other nations. God viewed Israel's idolatry as encompassing more than just their adoption of other nations' religious practices. "By making alliances with foreign powers, they came also under the influence of their ideas and customs" (Soncino, note on verse 26). God's true followers must never "copy the behavior and customs of this world" (Romans 12:2, Living Bible). We are to come out and be separate (Revelation 18:4).
God continues to describe the nation as an adulterous wife who even bribed strangers to consort with her. He foretells the destruction of the nation in the sight of all the nations with whom she had played the harlot—at the hands of these same nations (Ezekiel 16:37, 39). Jerusalem will be judged as a woman who has broken wedlock or shed blood, the penalty for which was violent death (verse 38). Interestingly, the former allies mentioned included not just the Chaldeans (verse 29) but also the Assyrians (verse 28). The fact that all such former allies would come against the nation perhaps suggests an end-time parallel since the Assyrians, their empire gone when Ezekiel wrote, will rise to prominence again in the last days in conjunction with the Chaldeans.
Again, the root cause of all the calamities goes back to the nation's forgetfulness and ingratitude (verse 43). In Deuteronomy 8:10-11 God warned: "When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the LORD... Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments." Prosperity is often a greater temptation for evil than adversity is. In adverse times people often engage in soul-searching and turn to God. Prosperous times result in arrogance and self-reliance.
Worse Than Samaria and Sodom (Ezekiel 16)
In the next section of Ezekiel 16, verses 44-59, Jerusalem is declared to be worse than Samaria and even than Sodom—which are declared to be her "sisters." For some, this is strong evidence that "Jerusalem" in this chapter refers exclusively to the city of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah—not in any sense to the nation of Israel as a whole. For why would Jerusalem represent all Israel when it is said to be sister to Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel? But consider again that in Ezekiel's time Judah was the remnant of Israel (Israel being the name of the nation in covenant with God). The northern tribes, symbolized by Samaria, had once been part of that relationship but were no longer. Thus, when the chapter describes the allegorical history of Jerusalem, it is giving the history of the whole covenant nation (and the city's part in that history).
God again refers to Jerusalem as a Canaanite daughter (verse 45). The analogy of Samaria and Sodom being Jerusalem's "sisters" is fairly easy to follow when considering the cities themselves. Sodom was a Canaanite city (Genesis 10:19). And archaeology has revealed that Samaria was originally a Canaanite settlement. The Hebrew phrases translated "your elder sister" and "your younger sister" (Ezekiel 16:46) "mean literally 'your great sister' and 'your small sister,' respectively. Though these two constructions are idiomatic for 'older' (greater) and 'younger' (smaller), Ezekiel used the idioms properly within the figure, but with an emphasis on the literal meaning of the words. The play on the idioms stresses that Samaria was greater than Jerusalem and Sodom smaller than Jerusalem" (Expositor's, footnote on verse 46). The term "daughters" refers either to the other towns included in the territories of the major cities mentioned or simply the individual citizens.
But again, the cities are also representative of the national populations over which they ruled. Jerusalem was, again, symbolic of Israel—in Ezekiel's day of Israel's remnant, Judah. Samaria stood for the former northern kingdom, cut off from Judah and now gone. It is easy to see the peoples of the northern and southern kingdoms as "sisters," as they shared the same Israelite ethnic heritage. But Sodom did not share in that heritage. Some have suggested that the reference perhaps concerns the fact that the Ammonites and Moabites descended from Abraham's nephew Lot and his daughters, who dwelt in Sodom for some time. These people, however, had no physical kinship with the people of Sodom. But there was a cultural relationship, as Lot and his daughters were influenced by Sodom's ways. The Ammonites and Moabites later embraced Canaanite religion and had an influence on the people of Israel and Judah. In any case, there was certainly a spiritual kinship between the people of Sodom, Samaria and Jerusalem.
The wealth and prosperity of Sodom had plunged it into such spiritual laxity that the people fell headlong into an utter rejection of morality and restraint (verses 49-50). Crowds tried to gang-rape men visiting the town or young women who lived there (Genesis 19). Yet according to God's judgment, Sodom wasn't as evil as Judah. Judah had become so depraved that it allowed homosexual prostitution at the temple as a form of worship. Moreover, the real measuring stick here was accountability. As Jesus Christ stated, "For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required" (Luke 12:48). The people of Jerusalem and Judah—the center of true worship—because they should have known better, were much more accountable for their wicked conduct than the pagans of Sodom who were totally cut off from God. Likewise, the northern tribes were more accountable than Sodom, but not as accountable as the Jews, who had more access to God's truth.
Despite the terrible record of idolatry and evil, God—in His incredible mercy—promises a time of forgiveness and restoration in the future. Verses 53-55: "When I bring back their captives, the captives of Sodom and her daughters, and the captives of Samaria and her daughters, then I will also bring back the captives of your captivity among them, that you may bear your own shame and be disgraced by all that you did when you comforted them. When your sisters, Sodom and her daughters, return to their former state, and Samaria and her daughters return to their former state, then you and your daughters will return to your former state." This may refer in part to the return of Israel and Judah to the Holy Land at the time of Christ's return. However, Sodom was utterly destroyed and seemingly has no descendants to return—unless the Ammonites and Moabites are meant, as some have suggested. The prophecy seems to point mainly to the time when all those who died in ancient times are resurrected to life again 1,000 years after Christ returns (see Revelation 20:5). Paralleling the above verses in Ezekiel, Jesus told Jews of His day, "It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you" (Matthew 11:24).
Yet God would provide atonement upon repentance. He had decreed in His covenant with Israel that He would be faithful to all He had promised, which included restoration (Leviticus 26:40-45). In the relationship at the restoration of the future, all must become Jews spiritually (see Romans 2:28-29), and all peoples will come under the rule of Jerusalem—symbolically making them her daughters. This relationship was not promised in the covenant at Sinai (Ezekiel 16:61). But it will be part of the New Covenant (verse 62).
Ezekiel 16 contains some important lessons for all Christians. In the allegorical account of how God rescued the outcast child Israel from certain death, and made her His nation and His wife, there is a personal message for each one of us. God has by intention called the weak of the world (1 Corinthians 1:26) and every one of us was lost in our sins and on the path to eternal death (Romans 3:23, 6:23). We have all gone through the rescuing process just like ancient Israel. They were a nation in bondage, as we all are in bondage to Satan's society before God calls us (Galatians 4:3). They were given life when they were almost dead—the same process that Paul describes for all Christians in Ephesians 2:1. We now have a choice of whether to remain faithful to God or commit spiritual adultery with the world around us and its evil ways. Let us remain vigilant and stay the course. And on the occasions when we fail in this and sin, we should remember that God is always there to forgive if we will repent.