Ezekiel 16 part one

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Ezekiel 16 is known for being the most sexually explicit chapter in the Bible. Some scholars even consider it pornographic. The prophet casts the city of Jerusalem as a whore when articulating why God has condemned it and marked it for destruction. This episode explores the portrayal of spiritual apostasy as wanton whoredom in all its ugliness— and God’s amazing ability to forgive in spite of it. This will be a two part discussion.


So Ezekiel 16 is a long chapter. It's the longest (I think) in the whole book: 63 verses. As our custom is, we're not going to go verse by verse through the whole thing, but we will go verse by verse through a good bit of it because every verse just seems to have something in it. We'll try to group things here and there as we can, but just to give you a flavor for how scholars look at this, I want to open with a quotation from Dan Block's commentary. He writes this:
. . . The chapter is held together by its unique vocabulary and style.(That’s a nice academic way of putting it, Dan.] Distinctive forms of expression include shocking imagery . . .
This impression is further reinforced by the root znh, “to commit harlotry, to practice illicit sex,” . . . The verb and other derivatives occur twenty-one times in this description of Jerusalem’s unrestrained nymphomaniacal adventures with her lovers. . . .
. . . Given the covenantal basis for the marriage metaphor, one might have expected the verb nāʾap, “to commit adultery,” to be used to describe Israel’s infidelity to Yahweh. The present preference for zānâ may be attributed to several factors: (1) the use of the participle zônâto describe a professional whore suggests that habitual, iterative activity is implied in the verb zānâ; (2) the motive of personal gain (cf. 16:33–34) places the offense in the realm of prostitution, rather than adultery; (3) the involvement of multiple partners (cf. 16:17, 25–29) is more appropriate to zānâ; (4) in contrast to nāʾap [ the typical adultery verb], which refers to illicit sex by both genders, the verb zānâis used exclusively of females. Since Israel assumes the female role in the relationship with Yahweh, it is appropriate that the verb used in the metaphor should be strictly associated with female activity. Consequently, although the root nāʾap is more fitting to describe Israel’s covenantal infidelity, znhoffers a more forceful rhetorical tool. The innocent young woman, graciously elevated to the status of queen, has become a whore. . .
. . . the semi-pornographic style is a deliberate rhetorical device designed to produce a strong emotional response. For the translator whose aim is equivalent impact, the line between appropriate shock and offensive lack of taste is extremely fine."
So I think that does a nice job of capturing in academese what in the world we're jumping into here. I should say this is not an episode for the kids, so you might want to usher them out of the room or do whatever you think is appropriate, because there's a lot of stuff in here you probably won't want them hearing.
Let's jump into the passage. Ezekiel 16 begins this way:
Ezekiel 16:1–2 ESV
Again the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations,
Those are the first two verses. "Abominations" should be a familiar term to our listeners because it's the same word that you would get in Leviticus for things that are abominable. Things that just are so offensive that God cannot tolerate those offenses. And in many cases (if you remember back in the Leviticus series), it had to do with sexual transgression or some sort of idolatry or apostasy—something grotesque. And so that's what we have here:
2 “Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations…”
And boy—is he ever going to make them known! God is, of course, going to give him the verbage here. In verse 3, we continue:
Ezekiel 16:3 ESV
and say, Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite.
We’ll stop there. That might sound a little odd. What's going on here is God is basically having Ezekiel tell them, or remind them, or disabuse them of a certain notion about their origins. We tend to think (and many Israelites apparently thought) that their origins began with Abraham. So, they viewed themselves as this sort of pristine people—detached from the world, detached from the horrible Canaanites. Well, God had to call Abraham out of somewhere! So Ezekiel is saying, "Your origins really aren't pristine. Your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite." What does that mean? Well, it counters the assumption of this sort of mythical purity—these pure beginnings that Israelites had for themselves. For instance, in Deuteronomy 26:5, which reads:
Deuteronomy 26:5 ESV
“And you shall make response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous.
This whole notion that the descendants of Israel were somehow detached, they were from an innocent place, they originated outside of Canaan where those awful
Canaanites and their horrible practices were so prevalent, and then they had to go into the land... these kinds of behaviors, this kind of apostasy, this kind of whoredom (both literally and spiritually)… "We don't have that background." And Ezekiel is saying, "Well, you actually do because your ancestors came from somewhere. The Israelites (the descendants of Abraham) aren't any holier than anybody else."
What about Abraham? He wasn't a Canaanite proper, but the reference to Amorites and Hittites does make good sense in light of Abraham's Ur. Now, a lot of you are thinking, "Well, isn't Abraham's Ur—Ur of the Chaldeans—isn't that like southern Mesopotamia near Babylon?" The answer is no, it's not, even though that's probably what you've heard. If you want a couple of good articles on this by Cyrus Gordon (a very famous scholar who is no longer living), I blogged this. You can just go up to drmsh.com and put in Abraham and then "Ur" and you're going to get the blog entries and the articles that go with them. Abraham's Ur is actually northwest Mesopotamia. It's actually near Haran. Remember with Isaac and Rebekah, Abraham has his servant go find a wife for Isaac? This is where he goes—to this region in northwest Mesopotamia— Haran. There's actually another Ur there. Ura in the language of the day. There are references to this place in other Ancient Near Eastern texts. This makes much more sense out of the biblical storyline, especially where Abraham views his descendants as living than the traditional near-Babylon location for Ur. Let me just read you a few things from the Anchor Bible Dictionary in regard to this whole Amorite and Hittite thing. It will make sense as you get some of the context in your head.
The term amurru [ which is what gets translated “Amorite”] first occurs in Old Akkadian sources as the general designation of “the West,” referring to the W wind, and to the geographical area lying to the (N) W of Mesopotamia. The most frequent usage of the term refers to the population of that W region as an ethnic designation. Its semantic equivalent, Sumerian MAR.TU was used already in the mid-3d millennium B.C. even at Ebla in an ethnic or cultural sense, designating the
population of the “West” that was recognized to be foreign to the population of Mesopotamia proper by culture as well as by language.
Cyrus Gordon says this:
... the Biblical evidence is by itself conclusive in placing Ur of the Chaldees in the Urfa-Haran region of south central Turkey (NW Mesopotamia). . . Genesis 11:31 relates that “Terah took Abram … and they went out … from Ur of the Chaldees to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and dwelt there.” Then Terah died (Genesis 11:32) and Abram went on to Canaan (Genesis 12:15). This means that Haran was en route from Ur of the Chaldees to Canaan. By no stretch of the imagination would anyone go from Sumerian Ur (in southern Mesopotamia) to Canaan via Haran. . . . Sumerian Ur is never called “Ur of the Chaldees” in any of the numerous references to Ur in the cuneiform tablets. . . .
An Akkadian cuneiform tablet from Ugarit which is of special interest to this discussion mentions a city spelled Ura in Akkadian, but which would come into Hebrew as Ur without the final vowel. This tablet, published by Professor Jean Nougayrol in his important collection of Akkadian tablets from the south palace of Ugarit, is a letter from a Hittite king (Hattusili III, c. 1282–1250 B.C.) to his Ugaritic counterpart. The tablet mentions merchants of the Hittite king who have come from the city of Ura. The Hittite kingdom was of course centered in Anatolia. We learn that Ura was a city that specialized in foreign trade.
So the point is that if you locate Abraham's point of origin in northwest Mesopotamia where the Amorites are (which also happens to overlap with southcentral Turkey, which in antiquity was the territory of the Hittites), then this verse (Ezekiel 16:3) makes complete sense. “Your origin and birth are of the land of the Canaanites. Your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite.” Again, those places are right on the border of Canaan. They're literally right next door. And so you have the right context for this now. As far as the reference to Canaanites in the verse, in Hebrew (if you know a little bit of Hebrew this will make sense to you) the term used here for Canaanite has what's called a “gentilic ending.” In other words, it refers to the people groups. So Ezekiel 16:3 isn't really focusing on the geography of Canaan so much as it is focused on the people of Canaan, the culture of Canaan. What God through Ezekiel is pointing out to them is, "Look, you are no more holy than anybody else here. You're of the stock of the Canaanites, essentially. Your mother was a Hittite, your father is an Amorite. This is where you come from. You come from the place, the region, that is no holier than any other place. In fact, I brought your ancestor into this land. Back in those days it wasn't anything special. I chose this land to give to your people to your heritage, your inheritance, your descendants, and your job was supposed to be to drive out and expel the native populations so that we could make this plot of earth my kingdom—Yahweh's kingdom.” So this comment in Ezekiel 16:3 makes complete sense in context. It just doesn't read well to us because we're thinking of the Sumerian Ur in southern Mesopotamia—which, again, just doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But that's what the tradition has been. Let's continue on in verse 4:
Ezekiel 16:4–5 ESV
And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born.
Now these things... You can read books like de Vaux's Social Institutions or some other book on Israelite culture or Ancient Near Eastern culture, for that matter. These are things that you would normally do for a newborn baby. You'd rub them with salt. You'd obviously cut the cord. You'd wrap them up tight. Typically, they would wrap infants tight for weeks or even a couple months to make sure that their limbs would turn our straight, that sort of thing. We think these practices are kind of strange, but we don't have modern medicine, we don't have some of the practices going on that we know today that we would think, "that makes much more sense, it's so much better." Well, this is a different culture and different time. The point of the passage here is that instead of doing what's normal for a newborn, Jerusalem's "parents"—the Amorites and Hittites— just threw her out in the field to die. The Amorites didn't want these people. The Hittites didn't want these people. They don't want anything to do with them. They were alone. So the point is, nobody wanted Abraham's descendants, especially after this crazy guy started talking about Yahweh of Israel and abandoning the gods of his fathers. Nobody wanted them. God is using this as an analogy for the fact that this person who the Lord chose to be the point of origin genealogically for his people... they were not wanted in their own context. In verse 6, God is again talking about the history of his bride, essentially, says this. We'll read an extended section here:
Ezekiel 16:6–14 ESV
“And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare. “When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk. And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck. And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord God.
This is a metaphor for the various stages of God's relationship to Israel. He's the one who has compassion on her. The people around her don't want her. So he takes her to himself, does all these wonderful things for her, and eventually she becomes his queen, his bride. We're familiar with this metaphor applied to Israel elsewhere in other passages, so this isn't surprising language here to read it in Ezekiel 16. Again, God has done everything for this woman, who is personified or analogized through the metaphor and is really speaking of the nation of Israel. We get this. It's sort of familiar. So God is using Ezekiel to remind them that this was their past. But when you hit verse 15, you get a transition to what the situation became and really what it is at this point in their history.
Ezekiel 16:15 ESV
“But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore because of your renown and lavished your whorings on any passerby; your beauty became his.
So here in verse 15 and all the way through at least the next 20 or 30 verses or so, we really have a description of the whoredom of the bride. And it begins this way: "You played the whore because of your renown and lavished your whorings on any passerby." In other words, there's no commitment to the husband—to Yahweh—who had rescued her when no one wanted her. She's completely self-absorbed. She could have the life she wanted, she'd get what she wanted through her own beauty. She would prostitute herself. It's kind of interesting that the same wording ("trusting in your beauty" and this whole sense of arrogance and pride) is actually used in Ezekiel 28 (right around verse 17) of the Prince of Tyre. Of course, this is drawing on the myth of divine rebellion back in the Garden of Eden. The verse says, "Your heart was proud because of your beauty. You corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor... I cast you to the ground, I exposed you before kings to feast their eyes on you.". It's really interesting that you get the same kind of language in another place in Ezekiel (chapter 28) used of the Prince of Tyre for divine rebellion. Here we get a human rebellion. So one is as bad as the other. The rebellion of this divine being, this Satan figure that eventually comes down to us both in Scripture and in the way we talk about this as the Satan figure of Eden… This divine rebel is described the same way as God's own people in rebellion! One is no worse or no better than the other. God views them the same way. Rebellion is rebellion. It doesn't matter what the point of origin is or what the context is—divine or human—it is what it is. Verse 16:
Ezekiel 16:16 ESV
You took some of your garments and made for yourself colorful shrines, and on them played the whore. The like has never been, nor ever shall be.
Here we start to get into a bit of the coarse language. The garments that God had given her... Again, she's naked, she has nothing, she's all bloody—just cast out. God cleans her up and puts the best of clothes on her. And God says, "You took that stuff—some of your garments, the fine and luxurious clothing that Yahweh had given to you—and what did you do with it? Well, you decked out your bed to play the whore. You used it to decorate the shrines." Again, this is a reference to cultic apostasy.
So what we're going to see here is a mixture of sexual transgression language and really course sexual behavior and language blended with the language of apostate worship. And that's the point: Israel is guilty of spiritual whoredom, spiritual adultery. We're going to describe that through the literal, physical, sexual acts that a whore would do. So that's what's going to ensue in the rest of the chapter. This is a reference to the cultic shrines where the Israelites had been attracted to, where they'd commit their own spiritual adultery. Elsewhere (in Ezekiel and outside), these shrines are called "beds of love." Ezekiel 23:17:
Ezekiel 23:17 ESV
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.
So you get these references to these places with "bed" metaphor, sexual metaphor. Isaiah 57:7 is another one:
Isaiah 57:7 ESV
On a high and lofty mountain you have set your bed, and there you went up to offer sacrifice.
So there's a nice blending of the sexual notion (the bed) with sacrifice—again, blending the apostate religion with the sexual metaphor. Proverbs 7:16-17:
Proverbs 7:16–17 ESV
I have spread my couch with coverings, colored linens from Egyptian linen; I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon.
That passage refers to the idea of using tapestries and decorative things— certain kinds of cloth—to prepare (in this case with Proverbs) the general bed or the marital bed. This is how the place where you're going to have sex (the bed) is typically described. And so Ezekiel borrows this language to start to get into his subject matter. So now what he says is this. He keeps going:
Ezekiel 16:17 ESV
You also took your beautiful jewels of my gold and of my silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself images of men, and with them played the whore.
Now, remember all the stuff that God said he had given her (the necklaces, the bracelets, the jewelry) to make her beautiful. God says, "You took all that stuff and you made yourself images of men and with them played the whore."
Apparently, they had melted down the gold and silver and the jewelry that they
had received and, of course, made idols. Now, you have to wonder here how much of this is... He's going to use graphic language here to describe spiritual apostasy. He's describing how Israelites had basically made idols using gold and silver and jewelry and what-not. It hearkens back to what had happened at Mount Sinai with Aaron the priest in that story. You get a lot of the same flavor here. Here it specifically says that they had been recast into male images. Salme zachar is the Hebrew: images that are male, images of male-ness. The gender here is expected, since Jerusalem is the woman in the story. So the male counterpart for the idols is kind of expected because Israel is cast as a woman.
The question is, are these phallic symbols, phallic objects? (Phallic, of course, referring to the penis.) Scholars are divided on that question. This is me now (just my view here). Yes, scholars are divided on this, but in light of the phallic imagery that follows and the phrase in this verse when Ezekiel says (in the ESV), "with them you played the whore"… Literally it's "upon them you played the whore." I think in light of that phrase, the phallic idea is pretty likely. It could be either some idolatrous object in the shape of a penis, or male idols (an idol that's male in form) with an erection.
The latter might be preferable, given the next two verses, which talk about dressing them up. I'll read those two verses
Ezekiel 16:18–19 ESV
And you took your embroidered garments to cover them, and set my oil and my incense before them. Also my bread that I gave you—I fed you with fine flour and oil and honey—you set before them for a pleasing aroma; and so it was, declares the Lord God.
Basically, what you get in verses 17 and 18 is Jerusalem is cast as a whore pleasuring herself, squatting on these male phallic idols that had been made from things that Yahweh had given to her for her own beauty. Again, she's screwing herself with these idols. That's basically the point he's trying to convey here. Isaiah 57:8 is considered a parallel to this. It reads:
8 Behind the door and the doorpost you have set up your memorial; for, deserting me, you have uncovered your bed, [ There’s the bed imagery again] you have gone up to it, you have made it wide;
and you have made a covenant for yourself with them [ These other gods], you have loved their bed, you have looked on nakedness.
It's this idea of sexual activity being used as a metaphor for spiritual adultery.
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