In an extended parableA parable is a brief story with a setting, an action, and a result. A prominent aspect of Jesus' teaching was telling parables to illustrate something about the kingdom, or reign, of God. More, EzekielA prophet during the Babylonian exile who saw visions of God's throne-chariot, new life to dry bones, and a new Temple. More tells the story of two sisters who are harlots, representing Samaria and Jerusalem. Both seek to partner with other nations (“harlotry”) rather than accept the rule or “marriage” of the Lord.
It was common in the ancient world to speak of cities in personified, female terms, as if the city were a woman. Like chapter 16, in this extended allegory Ezekiel speaks of the people in terms of two sisters, Oholah (= Samaria) and Oholibah (= Jerusalem). God marries them both, and they bear him children. But all along they commit adultery and prostitution. These sexual acts stand for the people’s allegiance to foreign nations like Assyria and Babylon (23:5, 11, 15). In the end, God hands them over to their “lovers,” the foreign nations, who, in a graphic image of mob violence, strip them naked, plunder them, slaughter their children, and then murder them.
This vision of sexual violence and murder is shocking in its details; for modern readers it may seem to encourage misogyny. Its theological implications are almost as troubling. It is a graphic image of God’s wrath and the destruction of Samaria and Jerusalem.
This extended parable, read in context and as part of the whole Christian Bible, must be interpreted with caution. It does not and should not sanction physical abuse of women, but reflects the cultural context of the day, in which women were subservient to their husband/master. Marriage could be a loving union, filled with joy and blessings, but adultery was punishable by death. At the symbolic level alone this story can speak to us of the reality of God’s wrath and the terrible consequences of Israel’s idolatry and faithlessness–but its literal depiction of physical abuse of women and children must be rejected.