Form: Exegetical Essay
Written: Summer 2013


“Wild Nights—Wild Nights! / Were I with thee / Wild Nights should be Our luxury!”

Emily Dickinson, “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!”[1]

“Is he still coming around like an injured bird needing a nest,
A place to rest his head in a song you’ll regret?
Still you take him / Lord knows I don’t want to compete
But I still sleep in the very sheets he’s been in”

Damien Jurado, “Sheets”[2]

“Sex Sells,” the old media mantra, comes to mind when reading Ezekiel 23, the story of Oho’lah and Ohol’ibah, the sister harlots who are married to God. The text relays a disturbingly graphic depiction of women who turn from God to do lewd acts with the men of Assyria and Babylonia. This story, a metaphor for the turmoil-to-come for the split kingdoms of Israel and Judah, is meant to relay a truth to God’s people that they are not hearing: things are bad now, but it is only going to get worse. While this text is alarming to us in the 21st century, this paper hopes to show how Ezekiel 23 may have been more shocking to its readers 2,500 years ago. Through its focus on sister bonds, threats to the patriarchy, and contrasting images of dryness and fullness, Ezekiel 23 employs its own version of “Sex Sells” by shocking its audience into hearing God’s word.

Who Are These Harlots? – Ezekiel 23:1-4

In the women’s first introductions, no names are given. The narrator, presumably Ezekiel relaying God’s message, refers to these women first as the “daughters of one mother,” sisters.[3] He continues on to reveal their actions. At first, the sisters have agency: they are the nameless subjects to the negative verb phrase “played the harlot.”[4] This phrase brings the reader back to Genesis 38, when this zanah zanah was first mentioned. Judah accuses Tamar, his daughter-in-law, of having “played the harlot” zanah zanah at the entrance to Enaim.[5] Will this story of the sister harlots bear the same outcome; will the women be called “more righteous” than their accuser?[6]

An answer, it seems, comes soon after. The agency bestowed upon the women in the first part of verse 3 is negated in the second half with a passive construction: “there [in Egypt] their breasts were pressed and their virgin bosoms handled” (emphasis mine). Even if these women “let” their breasts be touched (which is implied through their subsequent judgment), the narrator still places them as the object of someone else’s action. For the first three verses of Ezekiel 23, these women are nothing more than nameless sinners and the sinned-upon.

Though already promiscuous from youth, however, the narrator declares that the women “became [God’s],” and they bore children.[7] In the entirety of this story, this verse is the only one that implies goodness in these women: their fruitfulness. But even then, the narrator mentions first the women’s youthful indulgences before mentioning their union with God. Thus in the narrative of the harlot sisters, there is no word of “innocence lost,” for the women were never innocent. In verse 4, finally the narrator gives names to the women and reveals this story as a metaphor —Oho’lah, the older sister, represents Samaria, the capital of Israel, which was taken into captivity first by the Assyrians. Ohol’ibah, the younger sister, represents Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, which was taken into captivity second by the Babylonians.

Sister Bonds and Threats to the Patriarchy

            Something essential to this story is the relationship between Oho’lah and Ohol’ibah: they’re sisters.[8] In the Bible, relationships between women are critical to the stability of the patriarchy. When women are bound together, they have power; they are a threat to the patriarchy. When the sisters are torn apart in competition or jealousy, their power is divided; they are no threat to the men around them.[9] Considering the union between these women alongside other sister bonds in the Bible can shed light on why Ezekiel would use this metaphor and give more insight to its “shock value.”

The Bible tells of these two kinds of sister relationships, those in competition and those in union. The first, sisters in competition, is revealed in Rachel and Leah’s sisterhood.[10] The women’s father, Laban, puts the two in conflict against one another when he sends Leah in to sleep with Jacob, though her sister was wedded to him. The conflict persists when Leah is blessed with several children, while Rachel remains barren. Neither woman is a threat to her father or husband, because they remain divided. They play the roles given to them, though they are often marked with unfulfillment and envy. On the other hand, Lot’s daughters represent sisters in union.[11] The two women bind together in order to trick their father into drunkenness, so they could sleep with him and carry on their family line. This story shows how women, who apart are not given much agency, when united are able to accomplish much, usually to the demise of the men around them.

The story of Oho’lah and Ohol’ibah, two sisters united, would be shocking to its hearers in the 4th century B.C.E. in its suggestion of disruption. “The bond between the sisters enables them to act independently and to assert their agency apart from the patriarchs,” says Amy Kalmanofsky in her essay, “The Dangerous Sisters of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.” She continues to say that “together [the harlots] embody the ultimate patriarchal nightmare—they become adulterous wives and murderous mothers. And they dare to commit their crimes within God’s patriarchal house.” In this story, the women do the most actions, not the men. In this story, the women are not victims of sexual crimes, but invite the promiscuity of men and are even aroused in a pornographic way.[12] If a prophet were to shake his hearers out of complacency, why not do it in such a way that threatens their comfortable, seemingly unshakable way of being? Notice that Ezekiel doesn’t use a metaphor of murderous men or greedy kings—these images would be far too familiar to the now disbanded Israelites. No, the prophet needed to use something more subversive and more unpredictable, and therefore all the more shocking, to warn the exiles of what was to come.

The Older Sister – Ezekiel 23:5-10

            Continuing in Ezekiel 23, in verse 5, the older sister, Oho’lah, is introduced. Again, she is given the action zanah zanah, but this time it’s not back in her youth in Egypt, but while she belonged to God. Oho’lah’s lovers were the “choicest” of the Assyrians, Israel’s captors. She “doted” (or lusted, agab) on only the “warriors clothed in purple,” a color denoting royalty, as well as “governors and commanders, all of them desirable young men, horsemen riding on horses.”[13] Though her actions were promiscuous, the narrator makes a point of mentioning how Oho’lah did not betray God with just anyone; she chose the best-of-the-best. This was considered a continuation of her previous sins: “She did not give up her harlotry which she had practiced since her days in Egypt.”[14] The narrator reminds the reader, again, that in Egypt “men . . . handled her virgin bosom” and additionally “poured out their lust upon her.”[15]

Next, the narrator reveals the consequences for Oho’lah’s actions: “Therefore I delivered her into the hands of her lovers, into the hands of the Assyrians, whom she doted.”[16] God gives Oho’lah to those whom she loved (not God, the Assyrians). This is an important statement in contrast to Oholi’bah’s actions a few verses later. In the hands of her lovers, the men “uncovered [Oho’lah’s] nakedness,” killed her children, then killed her.[17] The narrator adds that Oho’lah “became a byword among women” after her death.[18]

The Younger Sister – Ezekiel 23:11-21

Note how Oho’lah’s actions were rebellious, but they were not inconceivable; her actions were no different than those described in similar metaphors. For example, in the earlier prophetic book of Hosea, Israel is described as a harlot who turned away from her husband (God). Like with Oho’lah, God accuses and punishes his sinful wife. However, Ohol’ibah’s actions were equal to Oho’lah’s at first, then they got worse. Ohol’ibah saw what her sister did, yet did not take heed. She chose to go above and beyond her sister’s sins. The narrator writes in verse 11, “Her sister Ohol’ibah saw [what happened to her sister], yet she was more corrupt than she in her doting [agab] and in her harlotry, which was worse than that of her sister.” Ohol’ibah lusted after agab the same choicest Assyrians as her sister, “governors and commanders, warriors clothed in full armor, horsemen riding on horses, all of them desirable young men.”[19] God named them equal in their sins in verses 13, only to add in verse 14, “But she carried her harlotry further.”

This next section sets Ohol’ibah from her sister Oho’lah. After defiling herself with the Assyrians, Ohol’ibah saw the images of Babylonian men painted on a wall, and that caused her to send messengers to bring the men to her. In verse 17 the narrator writes, “And the Babylonians came to her into the bed of love, and they defiled her with their lust; and after she was polluted by them, she turned from them in disgust.” Ohol’ibah had agency; after being aroused by images on a wall, she called men to her. She had sex with them. Then she immediately turned away from disgust. This is a similar structure to that of Amnon’s rape of Tamar in II Samuel 13. Phyllis Trible writes in her exegesis of the passage that Amnon’s love for Tamar was actually lust, so after “having gratified itself, [his] lust deepen[ed] into hatred. Lust fulfilled escalates its attack on the victim. The crime is despicable; the aftermath, ominous.”[20] Something similar is happening here with Ohol’ibah: after her lust was gratified, she became disgusted yaqa with the men she had sex with and turned away from them. God’s response then echoes Ohol’ibah’s. God says in verse 18, “I turned in disgust from her, as I had turned from her sister.”

Instead of stopping in her disgust, Oholi’bah “increased in her harlotry” as she remembered the days before she was bound to God, when she was a harlot in Egypt.[21] In one of the more illicit texts in all of Scripture, the narrator states that Ohol’ibah lusted afterher lovers in Egypt, “whose members were like those of asses, and whose issue was like that of horses.”[22] Her desire for these men was not for their riches, strength, or power, but for their physical bodies; hungry for sex, Ohol’ibah desired to use these men.

God’s Reaction – Ezekiel 23:22-35

How does God respond to Ohol’ibah? God “rouses against” her those whom she had despised—not just the Babylonians whose images she lusted after, but also the Assyrians and the people groups of Pekod, Sho’a, and Ko’a.[23] The narrator points out that again it’s the “desirable young men,” the “choicest” as named before, who are rousing against her, and they will come with “chariots and wagons and a host of peoples,” suggesting power, the same power that Oho’lah was attracted to and Ohol’ibah was attracted to at first, before being dissatisfied in verse 14.

God declares, in brief chiasmus: “I will commit the judgment to them, and they shall judge you according to their judgments,” mishpat shaphat mishpat.[24] The text draws attention to itself in this way. One thing it reveals is that God is not the one who is doing the punishing, but God allows it to happen. God instigates it, but God does not draw the sword. This interplay of two different actors, God and the men, continues in verse 25, “And I will direct my indignation against you, that they may deal with you in fury” (emphasis mine). Everything of Ohol’ibah’s is stripped, as if to match her nakedness: her nose and ears are cut off, her clothes and fine jewels taken away. God says this is how God will end her promiscuity, which she had carried on from her time in Egypt, “so that you shall not lift up your eyes to the Egyptians or remember them any more.”[25] God demands Ohol’ibah break ties with her Egyptian lovers.

It’s curious what the text does with Egypt. Clearly referring to Israel’s pre-law, pre-exilic days slaving in Egypt, the text contrasts images of the empty desert with fullness. God says to Oholibah,

Behold, I will deliver you into the hands of those whom you hate . . . and they shall deal with you in hatred, and take away all the fruit of your labor, and leave you naked and bare, and the nakedness of your harlotry shall be uncovered.

These bring to mind images of the desert, which is often described as vast, dry, exposed, deadly. One definition of the Hebrew word jeshimon refers best to the desert of the Arabian Peninsula, “the most terrible of all the deserts with which the Israelites were acquainted.”[26] But most importantly, the desert“is the symbol of the Jewish church when they had forsaken God. . . . It is a symbol of temptation, solitude, and persecution.”[27] The narrator of Ezekiel 23 relates the two harlots with the Egyptian desert. While Oho’lah defiles herself with men as she did in Egypt, Ohol’ibah actually misses her “paramours” in Egypt.[28] This is why God desires to “put an end” to the younger sister’s harlotries in Egypt.[29]

These images of the dry, exposed desert of Egypt are contrasted with fullness in the following verses. God says to Ohol’ibah, “You have gone the way of your sister; therefore I will give her cup into your hand.”[30] This introduces what seems to be a curse from God, written in poetic form, a passage which contrasts the prior images of the desert. God says to Ohol’ibah:

You shall drink your sister’s cup
which is deep and large;
you shall be laughed at and held in derision,
for it contains much;
you will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow.

A cup of horror and desolation,
is the cup of your sister Samar′ia;[31]

These words suggest not emptiness or exposure, but fullness. Ohol’ibah’s curse is directly related to her promiscuity in Egypt and now in the desert of exile. These images would have been meaningful, and even shocking, to the Israelites at the time: instead of fullness being their comfort and relief from desert life, the fullness is a curse.

Continuing on, the final verse of God’s curse on Ohol’ibah may be the most troubling. God says,

you shall drink [the cup] and drain it out,
and pluck out your hair,
and tear your breasts;[32]

The source of her promiscuity, her breasts which were “pressed” and “handled” in Egypt, receive the punishment. This again points back to the fear of sister bonds and threats to the patriarchy. If these women somehow gained their power and their agency from letting their breasts be handled, then to take their breasts away would be a way to disempower them. Kalmanofsky writes that through this “self-mutilation” on behalf of Oholi’bah—this tearing at her breasts in verse 34—”Ezekiel removes the threat of sororal desire. The sisters’ double mastectomy removes the site of their lust. Effectively neutered, the sisters are no longer dangerous.”[33] Concluding this rhetorical section of the chapter, God states for the first time in this text that the women have forgotten their God and turned away from God—it’s no longer about whom the sisters turned to, but whom they turned from.

God Addresses Ezekiel – Ezekiel 23:36-49

 

The final section of this text addresses Ezekiel specifically. God asks if Ezekiel will be the one to judge the sisters and tell them their sins. Then God rehashes to Ezekiel the sins of the women, which are different and more extensive than their previously named sins. God says the women have “committed adultery,” committed adultery with idols, sacrificed their children, defiled God’s sanctuary, and “profaned” the Sabbaths.[34] In fact, they “slaughtered their children in sacrifice to their idols, on the same day they came into [God’s] sanctuary to profane it.”[35] God expresses frustration in a phrase used throughout much of Ezekiel, “This is what they did in my house” (emphasis mine).[36] This idea is carried through in the metaphor, when God says that “you [the women] sat upon a stately couch, with a table spread before it on which you had placed my incense and my oil.”[37] It’s as if the women invited her lovers to sleep in her and her husband’s marriage bed.

Contradictory information is introduced in verse 42. It’s not just the “choicest” men that the sister lusted after, but the “men of the common sort drunkards” who adorned the women with jewelry. These men came from the wilderness, again bringing to mind the Egyptian desert. While in prior verses the women were the only ones sinning, verses 43-44 introduce the idea that the men who have sex with them are sinning as well, “for they have gone in to her, as men go in to a harlot.” Those who don’t sleep with her, deemed “righteous men,” will be the ones to judge Oho’lah and Ohol’ibah for their sins.[38]

God gives a final command, seemingly addressed to Ezekiel: “Bring up a host against them, and make them an object of terror and spoil. And the host shall stone them and dispatch them with their swords; they shall slay their sons and their daughters, and burn up their houses.” Death is an appropriate (yet altogether shocking) punishment for adultery,[39] but Oho’lah’s and Ohol’ibah’s punishments are carried even further. Their children are put to death, their property burned. It’s obvious here that God is not referring to specifically the women, who are just metaphors, but to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. This is the punishment for all of the Israelites; this is how God will “put an end to the lewdness of the land.”[40] But again, it’s not that God is the one carrying out this action; it’s a host of men, namely the Assyrian and Babylonian captors.

Conclusion

One of the most shocking aspects of Ezekiel 23 is not its images of sexual lewdness, but that God approves of the women’s punishment. In the final verse of the chapter, God states that through all this punishment, “you shall know that I am the Lord God.”[41] Is this the best way to know God? For present-day readers, this story may seem like an excuse to reject God, not to know God. But Ezekiel was constructed the way it was for a reason, and it has more to do with its original audience, not us.

Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, in her essay, “Ezekiel’s Justification of God: Teaching Troubling Texts,” suggests four reasons why stories such as Oho’lah’s and Ohol’ibah’s exist in Ezekiel. First, she says, Ezekiel used texts such as these to warn the Israelites (specifically the newly-exiled Judah) that their captivity would not end as soon as other prophets had promised. “Ezekiel believed that further devastation lay ahead for Judah and its inhabitants,” she writes.[42] Second, the texts were meant to tell the Israelites that God had not abandoned them in their exile. Third, these texts were to show how the destruction to come was because of Israel’s sins, not because of God. And finally, “Ezekiel created these troubling texts because he believed that Yahweh was just—that the punishment was proportionate to the crime,” says Darr.[43] The sins of Israel were immense; therefore the penalty would be just as so.

One way for Ezekiel to get this message across would be through shocking images, ones threatening to his hearers. Women of agency were certainly a threat to the male Israelites. The Israelites had seen death; they were already taken from their homes. What could be worse than betrayal from the inside? If they couldn’t trust their own families, who could they trust? Similarly, images of the desert would be familiar to the Israelites, especially while in exile. But it would have been shocking for them to consider how even the fullness, contrasted against the desert emptiness, was no comfort but brought more suffering (verses 32-34).

Ezekiel 23 in the Classroom

 As a college professor, I hope to teach contemporary literature alongside theology and Biblical texts.It did not take me long into the exegetical process before I knew what novel to pair with Ezekiel 23, John Updike’s Roger’s Version, the story of a lapsed minister who plays the devil’s advocate to an eager young Christian. What draws me to Updike’s novels, and specifically Roger’s Version, is his use of “shock and awe” when writing about theology. In fact, some of his most obscene passages are figured next to profoundly theological statements. In a single breath, Updike proclaims both the profane and the holy. But like Ezekiel, Updike does this for a reason; he’s trying to get his audience to reconsider what they think they know about God.

For example, about halfway through Roger’s Version, Roger, the narrator, sits in his office going over the works of Tertullian in Latin. He considers the old theologian’s views of Christ’s humanity and the resurrection of the flesh. Immediately following this comes an obscene description of Roger’s wife’s affair with the young Christian, Dale. Theology is woven into the description; Updike uses Latin phrases and Tertullian’s words to make the affair more than just a carnal act, but a spiritual one. For example, in the final paragraphs of this scene, Updike writes,

[Roger’s wife] tucks in a sliver of tit pinched below by the elastic and straightens up, looking about her as if for a fight. [Dale] asks, “Why?”

[She] mock-pouts. “Because you haven’t told me I’m a great lay.”

Rursus, Tertullian goes heartbreakingly on, ulcera et vulnera et febris et podagra et mors reoptanda? In our bodily afterlife, are we to know again ulcers and wounds and fever and gout and the wish for death—the renewed wish for death, to give the re- it’s curious, heartbreaking force. And yet, my goodness, pile on the cavils as you will, old hypothetical heretic or pagan, we do want to live forever, much as we are, perhaps with some of the plumbing removed, but not even that would be strictly necessary, if the alternative is being nothing, being nonexistent specks of yearning in the bottomless belly of nihil.

 “Oh, but you are, you are a great lay, my God,” Dale says, led into blasphemy.[44]

Many readers of the Protestant Updike wonder why he writes in this way. Christians are uncomfortable with Updike’s choice of words, his lewd descriptions, his seemingly blasphemous positioning of texts—perhaps in the same way we are uncomfortable with Biblical texts like Ezekiel 23, for its lusty metaphors, its placement in the Bible.

If I were to teach Ezekiel 23 in a college setting, I would ask of it the questions I ask of Roger’s Version. What affect does this text have on you? Why is it so compelling? How does the “shock” of sex help you understand what the text is trying to say? It seems for Roger’s Version, Updike meant to show how the question of the resurrection of the flesh is one we ask every day, while engaging in fleshly activity: eating, having sex. How much do we want to take this with us into heaven? And, are these the kinds of things Jesus engaged in while “in the flesh”? Ezekiel 23 may be understood better when viewed as a story similar to Roger’s Version. It’s meant to shock, but at the same time to teach. Once the stun (and, admittedly, the titillation) of the story has passed, it begs us to ask of it, what is the author really trying to say?

 

[1] Emily Dickinson, “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” in The Oxford Book of American Poetry, ed. David Lehman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 165.

[2] Damien Jurado, “Sheets,Caught in the Trees, Secretly Canadian, MP3, 2008.

[3] Ezekiel 23:2 (Revised Standard Version).

[4] Ezekiel 23:3.

[5] Genesis 38:24.

[6] Genesis 38:26.

[7] Ezekiel 23:4.

[8] Rhetorically, the sisters are bound together as well: Oho’lah means “her own tent” and Ohol’ibah means “woman of the tent.” Blue Letter Bible, “Dictionary and Word Search for ’Oholah (Strong’s 170),” Blue Letter Bible, 2013. http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?
Strongs=H170&t=RSV. Blue Letter Bible, “Dictionary and Word Search for ’Oholiybah (Strong’s 172),” Blue Letter Bible. 2013, http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?
Strongs=H172&t=RSV.

[9] Amy Kalmanofsky, “The Dangerous Sisters of Jeremiah and Ezekiel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 2 (2011), URL: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001845437&site=ehost-live.

[10] See Genesis 29.

[11] See Genesis 19:30-38.

[12] It should be noted that though the women in this story do have agency, they do not have a voice. They’re not given a chance to defend their behavior.

[13] Ezekiel 23:5-6.

[14] Ezekiel 23:8.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ezekiel 23:9.

[17] Ezekiel 23:10.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ezekiel 23:12.

[20] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 47.

[21] Ezekiel 23:18.

[22] Ezekiel 23:20.

[23] Ezekiel 23:22-23.

[24] Ezekiel 23:24b.

[25] Ezekiel 23:26-27.

[26] M. G. Easton, “Desert,” Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Blue Letter Bible. 1996, http://www.blueletterbible.org/Search/Dictionary/viewTopic.cfm?
type=GetTopic&Topic=Desert&DictList=2#Easton’s.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ezekiel 23:8, 19.

[29] Ezekiel 23:27.

[30] Ezekiel 23:31.

[31] Ezekiel 23:32-33.

[32] Ezekiel 23: 34.

[33] Kalmanofsky, “The Dangerous Sisters,” 311-312.

[34] Ezekiel 23:37-38.

[35] Ezekiel 23:39.

[36] Ezekiel is riddled with similar phrases. God is appalled by all the evil behavior done in the sanctuary. In Ezekiel 8, for example, God tells Ezekiel to look at the temple and see all the idolatry going on in it. It seems significant to the text of Ezekiel that the sins committed by God’s people are not just done apart from God, but in the very place God dwells, the temple.

[37] Ezekiel 23:41.

[38] Ezekiel 23:45.

[39] See Deuteronomy 22:22 and Leviticus 20:10.

[40] Ezekiel 23:48.

[41] Ezekiel 23:49.

[42] Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, “Ezekiel’s Justifications of God: Teaching Troubling Texts,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 55 (1992), 111, URL: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000858025&site=ehost-live.

[43] Ibid.

[44] John Updike, Roger’s Version (New York: Ballantine Books, 1986), 162.

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