Oholah and Oholibah (Ezek 23)
The book of Ezekiel contains many long metaphors: kings are lions (ch. 19), the city of Tyre a merchant ship (ch. 27), and the Pharaoh a serpent (29:1–9). The two most disturbing metaphors in the book personify Jerusalem as a slut (chs. 16 and 23). These deliberately shocking images often puzzle contemporary readers who do not understand the parallels between the images and Israel’s history.
Why does the metaphor talk about two sisters?
For most of Israel’s existence, Israel consisted of two independent nations (Israel in the north and Judah in the south). These nations recognized their shared origins, even though they had separate kings. The fate of both nations hinged on their ability to appease the large empires that surrounded them, specifically, the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians. The metaphor in Ezek 23 compares Israel and Judah’s attempts at alliances with these empires to adulterous wives pursuing powerful foreign men to be their lovers.
Why are the foreign empires depicted as adulterous wives?
Throughout the ancient Near East, cities were personified as female, as seen in biblical references to daughter Zion (Lam 1:6) or weeping Rachel (Jer 31:15). Passages such as Hos 1–3 and Jer 2 depict the female city as a cheating wife in their condemnations of their respective governments. Ezekiel 16 and 23 differ only in the lurid detail of the picture it paints.
This common metaphor or trope, often referred to as the “marriage metaphor,” depends on an important assumption: that the covenant between a patron god and a city is similar to the legal relationship between husband and wife in the ancient world. Wives did not have equal status to their husbands. Husbands had legal rights over their wives especially with respect to sex. While men could have multiple wives, wives could only sleep with their husbands or face the death penalty for adultery. The marriage metaphor assumes that God legally owns Israel just as a husband legally owns his wife. A wife/Israel’s violation of that arrangement was punishable up to and including death.
The names of the cities in Ezek 23—Oholah and Oholibah—encapsulate the meaning of the metaphor. The “Ohol-” part of their names means “tent,” referring to the temple where God dwelled in the heart of the city. By using these names, Ezekiel is emphasizing that the nations these cities represent have turned away from the symbolic foundation of the city as the dwelling place of God to put their trust in other nations that had no connection to their God. The image of adultery and punishment captures the parallel between God and Israel as well as that between Israel and other nations.
Modern audiences struggle with this metaphor for several reasons. First, the sexually explicit language often surprises readers who do not expect such graphic language in a sacred text. Second, the book uses the metaphor of a husband violently attacking his wife to justify God’s violent punishment of Jerusalem, thereby seeming to valorize domestic violence. Third, the metaphor builds on the unstated assumption that men control women’s bodies, so it obscures the fact that the passage condemns male leadership, rather than casting women as uncontrollably promiscuous.
Image Credit: Willem de Kooning, Two Women in the Country, 1955, oil, enamel, and charcoal on canvas, 117.1 x 103.5 cm (cropped). Courtesy of The Smithsonian.