The Harlotry of Jerusalem

Ezekiel 16

The LORD commands Ezekiel to speak to Jerusalem a narrative of its history of judgment and salvation under the figure of a waif who becomes his adulterous bride. We might think of the story as a kind of allegory, but in this allegory the LORD himself appears, as Robert W. Jenson writes, “as a speaker within the story that he tells, and there directly addresses his bride Jerusalem, so that the line between the figure and what is figured is constantly erased” (Ezekiel, p. 126). YHWH is both the author of Israel’s history and a dramatic actor “within it as his own history” (p. 126). That he is both, Jenson comments, “is decisive for the Bible’s whole account of God” (pp. 126-127).

Contrary to the expectations of the reader, the narrative of Israel’s early history begins not with the LORD‘s election of faithful Abraham and the divine deliverance of the twelve tribes from their bondage in Egypt and the bestowal of Torah but with Jerusalem’s heathen genesis: “Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite” (Ezek 1:3). But even worse, she was rejected by her parents and exposed to the elements:

And as for your birth, on the day you were born your navel string was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor swathed with bands. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you; but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born. (Ezek 1:4-5)

Jerusalem’s existence, in other words, begins in an act of brutal dehumanization under pagan ungodliness. She is denied the love of parents and community and cast into the wilderness to die. In this pitiable condition God rescues the foundling infant. “Thus in the version of salvation history here narrated, Jerusalem is outside humanity when the Lord comes along” (p. 127). “Comes along” is particularly appropriate, suggests Jenson, as it bespeaks the contingency of the city’s election: “the Lord is on his way to somewhere else and might have gone a different route. As it is, he finds this reject from humanity in his way, ‘flailing’ in placental blood. And he chooses her for himself” (pp. 127-128). Why Jerusalem and not some other city? No reason is given; none can be given. All that matters is the LORD‘s choosing. The child doomed to death is delivered into new life by incorpora­tion into the salvation history of Israel.

Ezekiel notes a two-step betrothal: (1) “And when I passed by you, and saw you weltering in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live, and grow up like a plant of the field'” (Ezek 1:6). By his prophetic word (“live!”) the LORD grants Jerusalem a new beginning under his rule and protection. She prospers and grows into maturity. (2) At the age of maidenhood, the LORD returns to her and makes her his bride:

And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full maidenhood; your breasts were formed, and your [pubic] hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare. When I passed by you again and looked upon you, behold, you were at the age for love; and I spread my skirt over you, and covered your nakedness: yea, I plighted my troth to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you, and anointed you with oil. I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with leather, I swathed you in fine linen and covered you with silk. And I decked you with ornaments, and put bracelets on your arms, and a chain on your neck. And I put a ring on your nose, and earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown upon your head. Thus you were decked with gold and silver; and your raiment was of fine linen, and silk, and embroidered cloth; you ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful, and came to regal estate. And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor which I had bestowed upon you, says the Lord God. (Ezek 1:7-14)

The LORD woos Jerusalem and wins her love. He takes her out of her loneliness and poverty, making her his wife and consort. He joyously gives her gifts beyond number. She blooms into queenly beauty, becoming the envy of the nations.

I do not know if Ezekiel intends the two-step election to correlate with actual historical events. If so, perhaps it corresponds to David’s initial conquest (1 Chron 11:4-5), followed by prosperity under Solomon. If this scenario is plausible, then perhaps the making of the covenant corresponds with the building and consecration of the temple. But that is purely conjecture on my part and likely incorrect, given that the commentaries I have looked at make no mention of it. But the key point is the supplanting of the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants by the covenant made with Jerusalem: “Thus Jerusalem replaces Abraham or the tribes at Sinai as the original recipient of the covenant—to cast her ominous shadow over Israel’s whole history” (p. 128). The import of this move becomes immediately clear, as Ezekiel then proceeds to recount the city’s abominations. Jerusalem’s heathen ancestry reasserts itself. YHWH’s bride becomes adulterer and harlot. The prophet identifies three abominations: polytheistic idolatry, child sacrifice, and the worship of Astarte:

But you trusted in your beauty, and played the harlot because of your renown, and lavished your harlotries on any passer-by. You took some of your garments, and made for yourself gaily decked shrines, and on them played the harlot; the like has never been, nor ever shall be. You also took your fair jewels of my gold and of my silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself images of men, and with them played the harlot; and you took your embroidered garments to cover them, and set my oil and my incense before them. Also my bread which I gave you—I fed you with fine flour and oil and honey—you set before them for a pleasing odor, says the Lord God. And you took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. Were your harlotries so small a matter that you slaughtered my children and deliv­ered them up as an offering by fire to them? And in all your abominations and your harlotries you did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare, weltering in your blood.

And after all your wickedness (woe, woe to you! says the Lord God), you built yourself a vaulted chamber, and made yourself a lofty place in every square; at the head of every street you built your lofty place and prostituted your beauty, offering yourself to any passer-by, and multiplying your har­lotry. You also played the harlot with the Egyptians, your lustful neighbors, mul­tiplying your harlotry, to provoke me to anger. Behold, therefore, I stretched out my hand against you, and diminished your allotted portion, and deliv­ered you to the greed of your enemies, the daughters of the Philis­tines, who were ashamed of your lewd behavior. You played the harlot also with the Assyrians, because you were insatiable; yea, you played the harlot with them, and still you were not satisfied. You multiplied your harlotry also with the trading land of Chalde′a; and even with this you were not satisfied.

How lovesick is your heart, says the Lord God, seeing you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen harlot; building your vaulted chamber at the head of every street, and making your lofty place in every square. Yet you were not like a harlot, because you scorned hire. Adulterous wife, who receives stran­gers instead of her husband! Men give gifts to all harlots; but you gave your gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from every side for your harlotries. So you were different from other women in your harlotries: none solicited you to play the harlot; and you gave hire, while no hire was given to you; therefore you were different. (Ezek 16:15-34)

The imagery is vividly salacious and pornographic. The honeymoon lasts but for a time. Israel forgets both her previous abandonment and her nuptial happiness. At the height of her beauty and desirability she turns to other lovers and adopts their religious and immoral practices. She becomes a whore, but worse than a whore. A harlot offers herself for hire and receives gifts from her lovers; but Israel instead humiliates herself and pays the heathen to take her and exploit her in the game of thrones. She does not trust the LORD to keep her safe and prosper her. And so she spreads her legs and invites all comers (first Egypt and then Assyria and Babylon [Ezek 16:26-29]) to come and possess her. With each successive overlord, Jerusalem makes its gods her own. Thus Jerusalem returns to the ungodliness of her pagan parents. Walther Eichrodt describes her fall:

In mistaken reliance on the power ofher beauty, seduced by the flattering attentions of the world around her, she who was so highly exalted forgets her past and her wonderful deliverance, and dishonours herself and her husband by surrendering as any harlot would to her adorers. Indeed, she sinks to being a common prostitute who serves the demands of the whole public. The parable thus changes into being an indictment against Israel for the cultic excesses of Canaanite nature-worship, and compares its high places, defiled as they were by cultic prostitution, to brothels set up at every street-corner. (Ezekiel, pp. 206-207)

Ezekiel’s ultimate gravamen against Jerusalem is that she does not trust YHWH to secure and protect her welfare. But we need to ask, Did not the geopolitical realities demand alliances with the pagans?

We may well ask whether Jerusalem could have done otherwise. Could her leaders really have said, “We won’t have your image of . . . in our city”? Or, “We won’t pay tribute”? In fact they sometimes attempted at least the latter, and it led to disaster every time; indeed, another prophet, Jeremiah, denounced resistance to Babylon’s impositions as resistance to the Lord’s own chastisement. Moreover, in the verses immediately following Ezekiel’s peculiar salvation history, he also will proclaim the catastrophe of Jerusa­lem’s revolt against Babylon as the Lord’s own act, done precisely as punishment for Jerusalem’s faithlessness (16:35–43).

Thus what was demanded of Jerusalem/Israel, and what during her entire existence as a national state or states she never quite managed, was total trust in the Lord and in him alone. She was not, like other nations, to depend on armaments or financial power or judicious tribute or alliances—and assuredly not on the gods of the nations—but solely on the Lord. Only insofar as the allegory measures by that standard is its depiction and judgment of Jerusalem’s history just and coherent.

But again: Is trust only in God a possibility in this age? Is it possible even for persons, never mind for nations? Is not the sort of faithfulness the Lord demands by Ezekiel and other prophets possible only in a new kind of history, with utterly different dynamics than those now in force? Would not in fact the present age inevitably kill any person or community that lived as Israel is told to live, as though a better world had begun?

Christian faith says that Jesus the Christ—and in this age only he—man­aged pure trust in God and that the power structures of this age did indeed kill him for it and have with little interruption continued to kill those of his disciples who have followed most closely in his footsteps. Thus the coher­ence and truth of Ezekiel’s allegory is finally established only by this Jesus’s resurrection into a new creation and his commitment to bring God’s people after him. (Jenson, p. 131)

Disciples of Jesus wrestle every day with the demands of discipleship as articulated in the Sermon of the Mount. Does God expect us to embrace an absolute pacifism or to give all of our wealth to the poor? It’s easy enough to verbally affirm that he does, but what if we are responsible for spouses and children? These are not easy questions for those of us who have not been called to the monastic life. Harlotry seems to be inevitable. The Spirit has been poured out, yet the historical conditions of violence and privation still obtain. We live under the judgment of the cross. Lord, have mercy.

(Go to “Three Sisters”)

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4 Responses to The Harlotry of Jerusalem

  1. Is the start of a series on Ezekiel 16? Because what it has to say about Sodom is fascinating on many levels.


  2. Grant says:

    Perhaps Jerusalem functioning as the centre of the covenant may reflect that the legendary history of Israel had not been fully developed in the genesis of the book of Ezekiel, and any subsequent development and editing left this unchanged. At that point Jerusalem where the temple was would be the natural place to centre the covenant. Anyway, just a thought on that.

    The extent to which we are all harlots varies, we are all complicit in the harms our civilisations and nations do to people and creation around us, we ignore, hurt and kill those in God’s image in various diverse ways, committing sacrilege against the Eucharist present in each of these people in whom Christ is also directly present even as we honour Him at Communion, we are double faced and hypocrites bar a few of us, we are the worst of sinners, sick and desperately in need. And the questions of where is faithfulness or compromise are difficult, particularly when either dealing and seeing inculturation of the Gospel from a different culture to the European molds giving very different appearances to our own Western post-Christian world bringing to light both new and old and long forgotten questions, and where true faithfulness or compromise might be found.

    As St Paul said, in some ways it is better to be single, but the Church has compromised, with cilivasations of the day, interpreting the Gospel in their light rather than illuminate Christ in their presence. Taking on the world’s forms and image, rather than image of Christ, keeping Christ at arms length and jumping into bed with others, with Mammon and Ares, and their greedy and bloody lies. Twisting the Gospel till it is unrecognisable and using it to support the explotation, injury and killing of others, and so choosing to be those denying, crucifying and mocking Christ, rather than with His Mother before Him. Where once Christians could be said to be an army that sheds no blood, those days are long past, and the blood and thick and heavy, and has long stained our hands. We are right there dependant on Christ’s prayer of ‘Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do,’ and require the restoration of St Peter.

    We all need His mercy, and be changed as St Peter was continually.


    • Paul’s statement about it being better to be Single was his personal preference, not a doctrinal statement.


      • Grant says:

        It wasn’t intended as a doctrinal statement, more a reflection on something Father Kimel remarked on that being married and having children can make avoiding possible compromises harder than say someone with a monastic or celebrate calling. In that context St Paul had a point, though of course it’s debatable from single person to single person, often if they aren’t monastics or hermits they can often be the ones in families shouldering the day to day care of parents, and other expectations (since they are seen to be free of the constraints of children and their care). But still, it seemed one reason St Paul had in mind for his advice in relation to his experience vs others.

        It is given as advice to those called or who find themselves in it, more then just personal preference but no, not any doctrinal or moral injunction. I guess I should made it a separate sentence on it’s own, but I assumed the phrasing of comprising with civilizations of the day would indicate that was were comprise was relating to that. Otherwise I can’t see why you would be thinking I am making any doctrinal statement (or anything approaching it) about St Paul’s reference to celibacy. In anycase I’m happy (if a little bemused at needing to say it) to concede and in full agreement that yes indeed it is no doctrinal statement: ) .


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