Oholah and Oholibah in the Book of Ezekiel

The dawah team frequently focus their attacks on Old Testament passages, always taking them out of context, to attack the divine inspiration of the Bible. One such passage is in Ezekiel 23, which speaks of two sisters, Oholah and Oholibah, in particular these verses, in relation to the latter sister:

19 Yet she increased her whoring, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt20 and lusted after her lovers there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue was like that of horses.21 Thus you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when the Egyptians handled your bosom and pressed your young breasts.”

This has been attacked by the dawah team as pornographic, and comments have been made that God would not let young women be treated in this way, or even speak like this. As always, the dawah team ignores both the historical context of the passage and its genre.

  1. Israel as the metaphorical ‘Bride’ of YHWH

One of the metaphors of Biblical Israel as the People of YHWH in the Old Testament is that She was the ‘Bride of YHWH’, by virtue of the Covenant (in Biblical terms, an oath-bound promise with obligations enjoined on the recipient) imposed on the progeny of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This concept is also found in the New Testament, where the Church, as the New Covenant People of God, is the Bride of Christ, Ephesians 5: “31“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Also, in 2 Corinthians 11:2: “For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.” Marriage is presented as a covenant in Malachi 2:14: “But you say, “Why does he not?” Because YHWH was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.” Unfortunately, Israel was not a faithful Bride, as Hosea 2 demonstrates:

“Plead with your mother, plead—
for she is not my wife,
and I am not her husband
that she put away her whoring from her face,
and her adultery from between her breasts;
lest I strip her naked
and make her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,

and make her like a parched land,
and kill her with thirst.
Upon her children also I will have no mercy,
because they are children of whoredom.
For their mother has played the whore;
she who conceived them has acted shamefully…

Likewise, Jeremiah 3, in language and content that resembles Ezekiel 23,presents the same story about Israel and Judah, referring to the Northern and Southern Kingdoms after the secession under Jeroboam, son of Nebat who led the northern rebellion:

YHWH said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. 10 Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares YHWH.”

By “adultery” and “prostitution”, YHWH is referring to Israel’s apostasy, by mixing the pure worship of YHWH and His revelation in the Torah with the polytheistic religion of the Canaanites and surrounding peoples and their ethical codes which were actually devoid of moral content, involving as they did homosexuality, incest, bestiality and child sacrifice. 

  • Israel as the metaphorical ‘Virgin Daughter’ 

Another metaphor used of Biblical Israel is that of ‘Virgin Daughter’:

Isaiah 37:22; “virgindaughter of Zion”

Jeremiah 14:17: “…the virgindaughter of my people is shattered with a great wound, with a very grievous blow.”

Lamentations 1:15: “…the virgindaughter of Judah.”

Lamentations 2:13: “What can I say for you, to what compare you, O daughter of Jerusalem? What can I liken to you, that I may comfort you, O virgindaughter of Zion?”

Similarly, we several times encounter the phrase ‘the virgin Israel’:

Jeremiah 18:13: “Therefore thus says YHWH: Ask among the nations, Who has heard the like of this? The virginIsraelhas done a very horrible thing.

Jeremiah 31:4: Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virginIsrael! Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.

Jeremiah 31:21: “Set up road markers for yourself; make yourself guideposts; consider well the highway, the road by which you went. Return, O virginIsrael, return to these your cities.

Amos 5:2: “Fallen, no more to rise, is the virginIsrael; forsaken on her land, with none to raise her up.”

This metaphor influences the content of Ezekiel 23, where Oholah and Oholibah are guilty of prostitution, rather than being virgins. 

  • The historical context of Ezekiel 23

After the secession of the northern tribes, Jeroboam altered the nature of the religion in his kingdom, 1 Kings 12:

25 Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there. And he went out from there and built Penuel.26 And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David.27 If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of YHWH at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.”28 So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”29 And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.30 Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one31 He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites.32 And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. So he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made.33 He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he had devised from his own heart. And he instituted a feast for the people of Israel and went up to the altar to make offerings.

These actions violated the Second Commandment, which forbade representations of YHWH; it violated the divine commandment that sacrifice can only be offered at the place YHWH would choose, which ultimately (in the Old Testament) was Jerusalem,Deuteronomy 12:2-27; and only Levitical priests could serve in the Temple. Matters deteriorated under later kings, such as Ahab (1 Kings 16):

29 In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab the son of Omri began to reign over Israel, and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years. 30 And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of YHWH, more than all who were before him. 31 And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. 32 He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33 And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke YHWH, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. 34 In his days Hiel of Bethel built Jericho. He laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of YHWH, which he spoke by Joshua the son of Nun.

Ahab and Jezebel promoted a syncretistic religion whereby both YHWH and the Canaanite gods were worshipped, in defiance of the First Commandment demanding the exclusive worship of YHWH. The same features were found in some Kings of Judah, e.g. Manasseh, 2 Kings 21:

Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Hephzibah.And he did what was evil in the sight of YHWH, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom YHWH drove out before the people of Israel.For he rebuilt the high places that Hezekiah his father had destroyed, and he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them.And he built altars in the house of YHWH, of which YHWH had said, “In Jerusalem will I put my name.”And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of YHWH.And he burned his son as an offeringand used fortune-telling and omens and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of YHWH, provoking him to anger.And the carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house of which YHWH said to David and to Solomon his son, “In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever.And I will not cause the feet of Israel to wander anymore out of the land that I gave to their fathers, if only they will be careful to do according to all that I have commanded them, and according to all the Law that my servant Moses commanded them.”But they did not listen, and Manasseh led them astray to do more evil than the nations had done whom YHWH destroyed before the people of Israel.

It was not limited to idolatry. The People of YHWH were supposed to depend on YHWH alone for security, since dependent alliances with other powers implied that YHWH was either unable or unwilling to defend His People, a falsehood which YHWH, through Isaiah 31, denounced:

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult YHWH!

And yet he is wise and brings disaster; he does not call back his words, but will arise against the house of the evildoers and against the helpers of those who work iniquity. 

The Egyptians are man, and not God, and their horses are flesh, and not spirit.
When YHWH stretches out his hand, the helper will stumble, and he who is helped will fall, and they will all perish together.

At different times, the northern and southern kingdoms came under dependent alliances – vassalage – with Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia. This was not supposed to happen, since the People of YHWH were supposed to serve YHWH alone, and trust only in Hisprotection. Therefore, when Israel and Judah submitted to such unequal relationships, YHWH was angered by their unfaithfulness to His covenant – to their spiritual prostitution. Walther Eichrodt (Ezekiel: A Commentary, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970, p. 3) refers to the historical situation:

The prophet’s struggle against the oppressor was soon justified by events. When Jehoiakim repudiated his position as a vassal of Babylon in 602 (II Kings 24.1), he returned once more to the old political manoeuvre practised by the Syrian states, according to which they seized the first opportunity to throw off such a galling yoke, and tried to have-their own way by playing off the rival powers of the Euphrates and the Nile against each other.

The Babylonian king Nebucharezzar reacted by, eventually, besieging Jerusalem (Ibid.):

A Babylonian army appeared before Jerusalem and began to besiege it… The palace and temple were indeed plundered, and the king and royal family led off into captivity in Babylon, and along with them large numbers of the upper and artisan classes of the country. At that time, young Ezekiel was one of those who underwent the bitter fate of deportation, which prevented him from taking up his priestly office, and annihilated all natural hopes.

We can see the fruit of departing from YHWH.

  • The genre of Ezekiel 23

Perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of the dawahteam’s polemic on this passage is to take the language literally. It is, quite obviously and self-evidently, an allegorical or rhetorical parable, as suggested by Walter Bruggemann and Tod Linafelt(An introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian imagination, Louisville; Westminster John Knox Press, 2003, 2012 second edition, p. 227 [bold type ours]):

In three extensive and remarkable chapters, Ezekiel traces the history of Israel with YHWH as a history of failure and obscene violation of trust (16; 20; 23). These are remarkable rereadings of that long history, not only because it is a history of failure (a theme differently articulated in Ps 106), but because the relationship of YHWH and Israel is imagined as an intimate relationship that became erotic, and that in turn became obscene in ways that display all of the distortions and betrayals of which an erotic relationship is capable.The impression given us of this rhetoricis that the prophet must find the most extreme and offensive imagery in order to voice what he knows to be the most extreme and offensive distortion of a relationship that began in generosity and compassion. The negation of the relationship is unspeakable in its abhorrence, and so Ezekiel finds a way to speak the unspeakable:

You played the whore with the Egyptians, your lustful neighbors, multiplying your whoring, to provoke me to anger. Therefore I stretched out my hand against you, reduced your rations, and gave you up to the will of your enemies, the daughters of the Philistines, who were ashamed of your lewd behavior. You played the whore with the Assyrians, because you were insatiable; you played the whore with them, and still you were not satisfied. You multiplied your whoring with Chaldea, the land of merchants; and even with this you were not satisfied. (16:26–29)

And the Babylonians came to her into the bed of love, and they defiled her with their lust; and after she defiled herself with them, she turned from them in disgust. When she carried on her whorings so openly and flaunted her nakedness, I turned in disgust from her, as I had turned from her sister. Yet she increased her whorings, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt and lusted after her paramours there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose emission was like that of stallions. Thus you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when the Egyptians fondled your bosom and caressed your young breasts. (23:17–21)

Eichrodt likewise presents this as a parable and allegory (pp. 320-321): 

One can see from the very beginning that the narrative in which this is clothed has no importance whatsoever; this is no parablestory full of charm and poetic beauty, like ch. 16, 17 and 19. It is an allegory, which gives no more than the bare essentials, and applies only a few stereotyped pictorial imagesto bring out the point as clearly and unmistakably as possible. The images which it employs have no life of their own; their only purpose is to reproduce in quite coarse terms the unspeakable event they convey. This renunciation of all attempts to impart any artistic adornment to the parable can, of course, only result in a completely matter-of-fact and soberly plain and realistic narrative. To criticize it for its flatness, colourlessness, prosaic frigidity, or unpoetic repetitiveness shows a complete failure to understand its nature.

The kindest thing we can say about the dawahteam’s propaganda on this passage is that it is, in the words of Bruggemann, ‘a complete failure to understand its nature’. However, it is difficult to understand how anyone could possibly misunderstand the nature and genre of the passage. This is how the chapter begins:

The word of YHWH came to me:“Son of man, there were two women, the daughters of one mother.They played the whore in Egypt; they played the whore in their youth; there their breasts were pressed and their virgin bosomshandled.Oholah was the name of the elder and Oholibah the name of her sister. They became mine, and they bore sons and daughters. As for their names, Oholah is Samaria, and Oholibah is Jerusalem.

It is obvious from the start that this is the language of allegorical parable. Oholah is Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom, and Oholibah is Jerusalem, capital of Judah. So, clearly, we are not dealing with two literal women here, but rather with a metaphorical representation of the two Hebrew kingdoms – Israel and Judah. It follows, therefore, that the erotic language is likewise metaphorical. The ‘whoring’ of Oholah (Samaria) was with Assyria – its dependent alliances (and then treacherous breaches), and the whoredom of Oholibah (Jerusalem) was with Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt. Obviously, the contrast is between the ‘virgin Israel’ – where the People were faithful to YHWH and His Torah – with the ‘whoring’ of Samaria and Judah, in terms of their infidelity, their idolatry, vassalage to pagans, and general apostasy – ‘29 …Your lewdness and your whoring30 have brought this upon you, because you played the whore with the nations and defiled yourself with their idols.’ So, the opposite to the language of ‘virginity’ is that of ‘prostitution’ – whoring. 

It follows that to comprehend the sexual imagery of Ezekiel 23, we must understand the general teaching of the Old Testament about the Covenant, about the language of ‘virginity’ in relation to Biblical Israel as the metaphorical Bride of YHWH and of references to ‘the virgin daughter of YHWH’. Adultery is usually related to lust – a desire for someone’s body, and in the case of women, for the distinctive anatomy of the male, which explains the references in the following texts;

12 She lusted after the Assyrians, governors and commanders, warriors clothed in full armor, horsemen riding on horses, all of them desirable young men…14 But she carried her whoring further. She saw men portrayed on the wall, the images of the Chaldeans portrayed in vermilion,15 …all of them having the appearance of officers, a likeness of Babylonians whose native land was Chaldea…19 Yet she increased her whoring, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt20 and lusted after her lovers there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue was like that of horses.21 Thus you longed for the lewdness of your youth, when the Egyptians handled your bosom and pressedyour young breasts.

The imagery of a woman impressed by a handsome, well-built man in uniform, which causes her to be unfaithful to her husband. There is also the implication of her engaged in something just short of pornography, with her looking at pictures of men and lusting after them. A faithful wife would not be interested in the bodies of other men, whether their chests, their muscles or – most definitely – their private parts. The imagery is that of a totally sexually degenerate woman, in contrast to a pure virgin or faithful wife. YHWH responds with judgment – using the very ‘lovers’ after whom Samaria and Jerusalem ‘lusted’ – the Assyrians, Egyptians and Babylonians. The Assyrians destroyed Samaria in 722 B.C. and deported most of the population, the Babylonians did likewise to Jerusalem in 586. Before this, the Egyptians invaded and imposed a puppet ruler. The chapter ends on a note of judgment upon the adulterous whoring – idolatry – of His apostate people:

46 For thus says the Lord God: “Bring up a vast host against them, and make them an object of terror and a plunder. 47 And the host shall stone them and cut them down with their swords. They shall kill their sons and their daughters, and burn up their houses. 48 Thus will I put an end to lewdness in the land, that all women may take warning and not commit lewdness as you have done. 49 And they shall return your lewdness upon you, and you shall bear the penalty for your sinful idolatry, and you shall know that I am the Lord God.”

It follows that to present the metaphorical language of the text as literal is either to be guilty of ineptitude or wilful misrepresentation. As the quoted scholars have observed, it is obviously the language of an allegorical parable, reflecting the contrast between YHWH’s creation of the virgin Israel and her descent into spiritual lewdness.

1 thought on “Oholah and Oholibah in the Book of Ezekiel

  1. I think we can cut the Muslims a little slack for avoiding metaphorical or allegorical interpretations of the Bible. After all, they are under orders from Muhammed to avoid something like that with respect to the Qur’an according to Sahih Muslim 2665.

    ‘A’isha reported that Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) recited (these verses of the Qur’an):
    ” He it is Who revealed to thee (Muhammad) the Book (the Qur’an) wherein there are clear revelations-these are the substance of the Book and others are allegorical (verses). And as for those who have a yearning for error they go after the allegorical verses seeking (to cause) dissension, by seeking to explain them. And none knows their implications but Allah, and those who are sound in knowledge say: We affirm our faith in everything which is from our Lord. It is only the persons of understanding who really heed” (iii. 6). ‘A’isha (further) reported that Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said (in connection with these verses): When you see such verses, avoid them, for it is they whom Allah has pointed out (in the mentioned verses).

    Reference : Sahih Muslim 2665
    In-book reference : Book 47, Hadith 1
    USC-MSA web (English) reference : Book 34, Hadith 6442
    (deprecated numbering scheme)

    For a Muslim to understand that the Church is the She and Christ is the He in a relationship, must invite nothing less than a gag reflex.

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