The Old Testament is filled with all sorts of evocative images and metaphors, but few are as gripping, comprehensive, telling, and as utterly inappropriate for a younger audience than the description of Jerusalem as woman in Ezekiel 16:1-63. The imagery, while appalling, is rather easily understood; some of the aspects to its meaning, however, pose some challenges. Nevertheless, rarely do we find a more emotional, bitter, and yet comprehensive description of what happened between God and His people in Judah.
Our text begins with the word of YHWH coming to Ezekiel– he is to make known to Jerusalem her abominations (Ezekiel 16:1-2). Even though it is most likely that the inhabitants of Jerusalem are also under discussion, in order to maintain the consistency of the metaphorical image, we will first describe the text just as Ezekiel does– in terms of Jerusalem the city herself.
The description of Jerusalem is not like we have ever seen before. Jerusalem is described as being a girl who was born in Canaan to an Amorite father and Hittite mother who apparently abandoned her at birth– she is kicking in her blood, with umbilical cord uncut, blood and other secretions unwashed, naked and exposed (Ezekiel 16:3-4). There was none to have compassion on Jerusalem; she was abhorred (Ezekiel 16:5). God is then described as passing by, seeing Jerusalem in her blood, commanding her to live, and on account of God’s care, Jerusalem was able to grow into (sexual) maturity, although she remained naked and unadorned (Ezekiel 16:5-7).
God then passes by her later when she had matured to the age of love, and He then covers her with His garment, making a covenant with her, and she became His (Ezekiel 16:8). He then cleans her up, adorns her with clothing and jewelry, and provides her with sustenance (Ezekiel 16:9-13). Her great beauty was made known to all the nations, and the Source of her beauty was God (Ezekiel 16:14).
Sadly, the woman Jerusalem begins to trust in her beauty, and she begins to play the whore (Ezekiel 16:15). She took the things YHWH gave her– the garments, the ornaments, the food– and made shrines and idols and offerings to those idols from them (Ezekiel 16:16-19). The children born to woman Jerusalem she burned in the fire, and in all of these things she did not remember when she was born, wallowing in her blood (Ezekiel 16:20-22).
She persists in her whoredom, making chambers and high places everywhere, offering herself to the Egyptians, for which she was punished at the hands of the Philistines, embarrassed at her behavior (Ezekiel 16:23-27). She increased her whoredom by going after Assyria and Babylonia in turn (Ezekiel 16:28-29).
God declares how lustful her heart is, seeing that she persistently acts like a brazen whore (Ezekiel 16:30). Yet she is not your average whore, because whores at least get paid for their services– woman Jerusalem commits whoredom and pays for the “privilege” of committing adultery, not receiving payment (Ezekiel 16:31-34)!
God has had enough of this whoredom and infidelity. He is going to gather all Jerusalem’s lovers to suffer the same fate as Jerusalem at the hand of their enemies (Ezekiel 16:35-37). He will pronounce upon Jerusalem the sentence of an adulteress and a murderess: she will be publicly exposed and humiliated; everything God had given her will be taken away and will belong to another, and just as at the beginning, Jerusalem will again be naked and exposed (Ezekiel 16:38-43).
God now turns to how Jerusalem has acted like her mother and sisters– her mother and sisters loathed their husbands (Ezekiel 16:44-45). Her mother is the Hittite, her elder sister is Samaria, and her younger sister is Sodom (Ezekiel 16:46). Jerusalem walked in the way of her sisters but became even more corrupt than they, so corrupt that Samaria and Sodom seem righteous in comparison (Ezekiel 16:47-52). God intends to restore the fortunes of all three, but just as Sodom was a byword and a reproach, so Jerusalem will be to those around her who despise her (Ezekiel 16:53-58).
Therefore God will deal with Jerusalem just as He dealt with previous covenant breakers Samaria and Sodom, but He will remember His covenant with them afterward (Ezekiel 16:59-60). Jerusalem will receive her sisters as daughters, but not because of the covenant God is making with her (Ezekiel 16:61). This covenant will only take place after Jerusalem comes to understand how shameful her conduct was, and then God will forgive her, and she will know that He is YHWH (Ezekiel 16:62-63).
What does all of this mean? The metaphor of Jerusalem as woman is put rather crudely at times, with God presenting vulgarity quite intentionally to make His point. God is describing His experience as the “husband” of Jerusalem, and what Jerusalem as His “wife” has done against Him, and thus why He will be punishing her so severely. The metaphor of spiritual covenant as marriage is seen throughout the Prophets because it is so parallel– the only other covenant that involves a similar understanding of devotion and intimacy as God and Israel is between a man and his wife. The adultery and whoredom that takes place represents the idolatry and condemned practices surrounding that idolatry that the inhabitants of Jerusalem were doing during this period– that metaphor often breaks down throughout the narrative (e.g. Ezekiel 16:15-29), but the image makes sense– just as committing adultery or being a prostitute violates the marriage covenant, so serving other gods and lavishing offerings and service upon them violates Israel’s covenant with YHWH (cf. Exodus 20:3-6).
It makes sense to see the city Jerusalem as the woman throughout the metaphor. The woman lives for many years before YHWH takes her as His own (Ezekiel 16:1-8); Jerusalem only became an Israelite city with the Temple of YHWH in it in the tenth century BCE (cf. 2 Samuel 5:6-10, 1 Kings 5:1-9:9). YHWH visits the woman Jerusalem in-between her birth and “the time of love”; Melchizedek is priest of God Most High in Salem in Genesis 14:17-20, and perhaps that is what Ezekiel is referencing. Jerusalem is later compared with Samaria and Sodom, the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the infamous city of Genesis, respectively. Israel cannot be under discussion since the woman Jerusalem is seen as the elder sister of Sodom (Ezekiel 16:46), and Sodom was destroyed in the days of Abraham (Genesis 18-19). It is more challenging to see how Samaria is reckoned as the older sister, considering that the city proper is built in the days of Omri (1 Kings 16:24), long after Jerusalem and Sodom were established, unless Ezekiel is either aware of an older city on that site of which we are unaware, or he is speaking in terms of prominence or power. Those two cities and the sins that took place within them were well-known to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the prospect of making them seem righteous in comparison was no doubt intended to really hammer home to the inhabitants of Jerusalem just how sinful they had become!
The sins are committed by the inhabitants of Jerusalem; the infrastructure of a city cannot commit sin. Most of the description of whorings and adultery involve idolatry, as previously noted. YHWH’s Temple was in Jerusalem, and so He has a special attachment to that city and its inhabitants, and yet they have taken all the things that He has provided them and lavished them instead on serving other gods (cf. etiam Hosea 2:5-9). Yet that is not the only sin that the inhabitants of Jerusalem have committed– they have also put their trust in political confederacies with Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon in turn, perhaps also “borrowing” their gods and religious services, and God has also called all such things whoring (Ezekiel 16:26-29; cf. 2 Kings 16:5-9, Isaiah 30:1-5, 39:1-8). God takes special offense at the inhabitants of Jerusalem offering their sons and daughters in the fire to Molech (Ezekiel 16:20-21, 36; cf. Jeremiah 7:30-31).
The sins described and the condemnation decreed because of them are not somehow unique to Ezekiel 16; they represent the consistent message of all of the prophets of that time. It is the description of Jerusalem as the abandoned child, dependent on YHWH, yet ultimately being the whore who must be condemned that is quite evocative and powerful. It is hard to get past the vulgarity that so easily offends modern sensibilities; nevertheless, sometimes it is the vulgar that makes the point and communicates the message in ways which the sensible and rational cannot. The raw emotion displayed throughout the description of the metaphor is haunting. In Ezekiel 16 we come face to face with the very hurt yet ultimately forgiving Husband, along with the wife who owes everything to Him but is more interested in everyone else until it is too late.
Let us learn a lesson from the whore Jerusalem: let us not serve idols but serve the One True God who has provided us with every blessing!