Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, June 23rd, 2024
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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Bible Commentaries
Ezekiel 23

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-49


Ezekiel 23:1-49

THE allegory of chapter 23 adds hardly any new thought to those which have already, been expounded in connection with chapter 16 and chapter 20. The ideas which enter into it are all such as we are now familiar with. They are: the idolatry of Israel, learned in Egypt and persisted in to the end of her history; her fondness for alliances with the great Oriental empires, which was the occasion of new developments of idolatry; the corruption of religion by the introduction of human sacrifice into the service of Jehovah; and, finally, the destruction of Israel by the hands of the nations whose friendship she had so eagerly courted. The figure under which these facts are presented is the same as in chapter 16, and many of the details of the earlier prophecy are reproduced here with little variation. But along with these resemblances we find certain characteristic features in this chapter which require attention, and perhaps some explanation.

In its treatment of the history this passage is distinguished from the other two by the recognition of the separate existence of the northern and southern kingdoms. In the previous retrospects Israel has either been treated as a unit (as in chapter 20), or attention has been wholly concentrated on the fortunes of Judah, Samaria being regarded as on a level with a purely heathen city like Sodom (chapter 16). Ezekiel may have felt that he has not yet done justice to the truth that the history of Israel ran in two parallel lines, and that the full significance of God’s dealings with the nation can only be understood when the fate of Samaria is placed alongside of that of Jerusalem. He did not forget that he was sent as a prophet to the "whole house of Israel," and indeed all the great pre-exilic prophets realised that their message concerned "the whole family which Jehovah had brought up out of Egypt". {Amos 3:1} Besides this the chapter affords in many ways an interesting illustration of the workings of the prophet’s mind in the effort to realise vividly the nature of his people’s sin and the meaning of its fate. In this respect it is perhaps the most finished and comprehensive product of his imagination, although it may not reveal the depth of religious insight exhibited in the sixteenth chapter.

The main idea of the allegory is no doubt borrowed from a prophecy of Jeremiah belonging to the earlier part of his ministry. {Jeremiah 3:6-13}

The fall of Samaria was even then a somewhat distant memory, but the use which Jeremiah makes of it seems to show that the lesson of it had not altogether ceased to impress the mind of the southern kingdom. In the third chapter he reproaches Judah the "treacherous" for not having taken warning from the fate of her sister the "apostate" Israel, who has long since received the reward of her infidelities. The same lesson is implied in the representation of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 23:2); but, as is usual with our prophet, the simple image suggested by Jeremiah is drawn out in an elaborate allegory, into which as many details are crowded as it will bear. In place of the epithets by which Jeremiah characterises the moral condition of Israel and Judah, Ezekiel coins two new and somewhat obscure names - Ohola for Samaria, and Oholibah for Jerusalem.

These women are children of one mother, and afterwards become wives of one husband-Jehovah. This need occasion no surprise in an allegorical representation, although it is contrary to a law which Ezekiel doubtless knew. {Leviticus 18:18} Nor is it strange, considering the freedom with which he handles the facts of history, that the division between Israel and Judah is carried back to the time of the oppression in Egypt. We have indeed no certainty that this view is not historical. The cleavage between the north and the south did not originate with the revolt of Jeroboam. That great schism only brought out elements of antagonism which were latent in the relations of the tribe of Judah to the northern tribes. Of this there are many indications in the earlier history, and for what we know the separation might have existed among the Hebrews in Goshen. Still, it is not probable that Ezekiel was thinking of any such thing. He is bound by the limits of his allegory; and there was no other way by which he could combine the presentation of the two essential elements of his conception-that Samaria and Jerusalem were branches of the one people of Jehovah, and that the idolatry which marked their history had been learned in the youth of the nation in the land of Egypt.

That neither Israel nor Judah ever, shook off the spell of their adulterous connection with Egypt, but returned to it again and again down to the close of their history, is certainly one point which the prophet means to impress on the minds of his readers (Ezekiel 23:8, Ezekiel 23:19, Ezekiel 23:27). With this exception the earlier part of the chapter (to Ezekiel 23:35) deals exclusively with the later developments of idolatry from the eighth century and onwards. And one of the most remarkable things in it is the description of the manner in which first Israel and then Judah was entangled in political relations with the Oriental empires. There seems to be a vein of sarcasm in the sketch of the gallant Assyrian officers who turned the heads of the giddy and frivolous sisters and seduced them from their allegiance to Jehovah: "Ohola doted on her lovers, on the Assyrian warriors clad in purple, governors and satraps, charming youths all of them, horsemen riding on horses; and she lavished on them her fornications, the elite of the sons of Asshur all of them, and with all the idols of all on whom she doted she defiled herself" (Ezekiel 23:6-7). The first intimate contact of North Israel with Assyria was in the reign of Menahem, {2 Kings 15:19} and the explanation of it given in these words of Ezekiel must be historically true. It was the magnificent equipment of the Assyrian armies, the imposing display of military power which their appearance suggested, that impressed the politicians of Samaria with a sense of the value of their alliance. The passage therefore throws light on what Ezekiel and the prophets generally mean by the figure of "whoredom." What he chiefly deplores is the introduction of Assyrian idolatry, which was the inevitable sequel to a political union. But that was a secondary consideration in the intention of those who were responsible for the alliance. The real motive of their policy was undoubtedly the desire of one party in the state to secure the powerful aid of the king of Assyria against the rival party. None the less it was an act of infidelity and rebellion against Jehovah.

Still more striking is the account of the first approaches of the southern kingdom to Babylon. After Samaria had been destroyed by the lovers whom she had gathered to her side, Jerusalem still kept up the illicit connection with the Assyrian empire. After Assyria had vanished from the stage of history, she eagerly sought an opportunity to enter into friendly relations with the new Babylonian empire. She did not even wait till she had made their acquaintance, but "when she saw men portrayed on the wall, pictures of Chaldaeans portrayed in vermilion, girt with waist-cloths on their loins, with flowing turbans on their heads, all of them champions to look upon, the likeness of the sons of Babel whose native land is Chaldaea-then she doted upon them when she saw them with her eyes, and sent messengers to them to Chaldaea" (Ezekiel 23:14-16). The brilliant pictures referred to are those with which Ezekiel must have been familiar on the walls of the temples and palaces of Babylon. The representation, however, cannot be understood literally, since the Jews could have had no opportunity of even seeing the Babylonian pictures "on the wall" until they had sent ambassadors there.

The meaning of the prophet is clear. The mere report of the greatness of Babylon was sufficient to excite the passions of Oholibah, and she began with blind infatuation to court the advances of the distant strangers who were to be her ruin. The exact historic reference, however, is uncertain. It cannot be to the compact between Merodach-baladan and Hezekiah, since at that time the initiative seems to have been taken by the rebel prince, whose sovereignty over Babylon proved to be of short duration. It may rather be some transaction about the time of the battle of Carchemish (604) that Ezekiel is thinking of; but we have not as yet sufficient knowledge of the circumstances to clear up the allusion.

Before the end came the soul of Jerusalem was alienated from her latest lovers-another touch of fidelity to the historical situation. But it was now too late. The soul of Jehovah is alienated from Oholibah (Ezekiel 23:17-18), and she is already handed over to the fate which had overtaken her less guilty sister Ohola. The principal agents of her punishment are the Babylonians and all the Chaldaeans; but under their banner marches a host of other nations-Pekod and Shoa and Koa, and, somewhat strangely, the sons of Asshur. In the pomp and circumstance of war which had formerly fascinated her imagination, they shall come against her, and after their cruel manner execute upon her the judgment meted out to adulterous women: "Thou hast walked in the way of thy sister, and I will put her cup into thy hand. Thus saith the Lord Jehovah, The cup of thy sister shalt thou drink, -deep and wide, and of large content, -filled with drunkenness and anguish-the cup of horror and desolation, the cup of thy sister Samaria. And thou shalt drink it and drain it out, for I have spoken it, saith the Lord Jehovah" (Ezekiel 23:31-34).

Up to this point the allegory has closely followed the actual history of the two kingdoms. The remainder of the chapter (Ezekiel 23:36-49) forms a pendant to the principal picture, and works out the central theme from a different point of view. Here Samaria and Jerusalem are regarded as still existent, and judgment is pronounced on both as if it were still future. This is thoroughly in keeping with Ezekiel’s ideal delineations. The limitations of space and time are alike transcended. The image, once clearly conceived, fixes itself in the writer’s mind, and must be allowed to exhaust its meaning before it is finally dismissed. The distinctions of far and near, of past and present and future, are apt to disappear in the intensity of his reverie. It is so here. The figures of Ohola and Oholibah are so real to the prophet that they are summoned once more to the tribunal to hear the recital of their "abominations" and receive the sentence which has in fact been already partly executed. Whether he is thinking at all of the ten tribes then in exile and awaiting further punishment it would be difficult to say. We see, however, that the picture is enriched with many features for which there was no room in the more historic form of the allegory, and perhaps the desire for completeness was the chief motive for thus amplifying the figure. The description of the conduct of the two harlots (Ezekiel 23:40-44) is exceedingly graphic, and is no doubt a piece of realism drawn from life. Otherwise the section contains nothing that calls for elucidation. The ideas are those which we have already met with in other connections, and even the setting in which they are placed presents no element of novelty.

Thus with words of judgment, and without a ray of hope to lighten the darkness of the picture, the prophet closes this last survey of his people’s history.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezekiel 23". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/ezekiel-23.html.
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