This passage in Ezekiel caught me by surprise, and the surprise intensified when I read Robert Jenson’s commentary. I was not expecting an eschatological turn. Suddenly we find ourselves at what might be called a last judgment.
Behold, every one that useth proverbs shall use this proverb against thee, saying, As is the mother, so is her daughter. 45 Thou art thy mother’s daughter, that loatheth her husband and her children; and thou art the sister of thy sisters, which loathed their husbands and their children: your mother was an Hittite, and your father an Amorite. 46 And thine elder sister is Samaria, that dwelleth at thy left hand, she and her daughters: and thy younger sister, that dwelleth at thy right hand, is Sodom and her daughters. 47 Yet hast thou not walked in their ways, nor done after their abominations; but, as if that were a very little thing, thou wast more corrupt than they in all thy ways. 48 As I live, saith the Lord GOD, Sodom thy sister hath not done, she nor her daughters, as thou hast done, thou and thy daughters. 49 Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom; pride, fulness of bread, and prosperous ease was in her and in her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. 50 And they were haughty, and committed abomination before me: therefore I took them away as I saw good. 51 Neither hath Samaria committed half of thy sins; but thou hast multiplied thine abominations more than they, and hast justified thy sisters by all thine abominations which thou hast done. (16:44-51 [ERV])
Earlier in the prophecy, Ezekiel had described the pagan origins of Jerusalem. How could anyone, therefore, have expected her not to behave like the woman who birthed her? Like mother, like daughter, as the proverb goes. Now we learn that Jerusalem also has two infamous sisters, Sodom and Samaria. The mention of Sodom, the older sister, does not surprise. By this time Sodom had become a byword of iniquity and sexual immorality and a terrifying symbol of divine judgment. Commenting on the decision of Lot to settle in Sodom, the Scripture states: “Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord” (Gen 13:13). The angels who visited Abraham could not find even ten righteous people in her midst (Gen 18-19). Ezekiel cites in particular Sodom’s neglect of the poor: despite her prosperity, the city scandalously refused to provide for the destitute and needy: “pride, fulness of bread, and prosperous ease was in her and in her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” So heartless and cruel were the people of Sodom, Rabbi Joshua ben Korha (2c.) remarks, “they would cut of the branches of fruit trees above the fruit so as not to provide benefit to birds of the heavens” (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 25). Yet Jerusalem’s sins are greater still: “As I live, saith the Lord GOD, Sodom thy sister hath not done, she nor her daughters, as thou hast done, thou and thy daughters.” Nor does the mention of Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, surprise. Like Judah, Israel too had been chosen by YHWH and had received his Torah. And like Judah, she too had acted the harlot and embraced the idolatries of the heathen, as the prophet Hosea recounts. But, Ezekiel tell us, her sins did not compare to the sins of Jerusalem, not even by half. God then makes this surprising statement: “thou hast multiplied thine abominations more than they, and hast justified thy sisters by all thine abominations which thou hast done.” I highlight the word “justified.” Its startling significance is revealed in the following verses:
Thou also, bear thine own shame, in that thou hast given judgment for thy sisters; through thy sins that thou hast committed more abominable than they, they are more righteous than thou: yea, be thou also confounded, and bear thy shame, in that thou hast justified thy sisters. 53 And I will turn again their captivity, the captivity of Sodom and her daughters, and the captivity of Samaria and her daughters, and the captivity of thy captives in the midst of them: 54 that thou mayest bear thine own shame, and mayest be ashamed because of all that thou hast done, in that thou art a comfort unto them. 55 And thy sisters, Sodom and her daughters, shall return to their former estate, and Samaria and her daughters shall return to their former estate, and thou and thy daughters shall return to your former estate. 56 For thy sister Sodom was not mentioned by thy mouth in the day of thy pride; 57 before thy wickedness was discovered, as at the time of the reproach of the daughters of Syria, and of all that are round about her, the daughters of the Philistines, which do despite unto thee round about. 58 Thou hast borne thy lewdness and thine abominations, saith the LORD. 59 For thus saith the Lord GOD: I will even deal with thee as thou hast done, which hast despised the oath in breaking the covenant. (16:52-59)
The bolded phrases did not jump out at me when I first read chapter 16. That’s because I read the chapter in the Revised Standard Version. Compare vv. 51-52:
Samar′ia has not committed half your sins; you have committed more abominations than they, and have made your sisters appear righteous by all the abominations which you have committed. 52 Bear your disgrace, you also, for you have made judgment favorable to your sisters; because of your sins in which you acted more abominably than they, they are more in the right than you. So be ashamed, you also, and bear your disgrace, for you have made your sisters appear righteous.
The point of the RSV translation is plain. When one compares the abominations of Jerusalem to those of Sodom and Samaria, the latter cities appear righteous. It’s not that they are are actually righteous. It’s just that by comparison to the City of David, their unrighteousness, as odious as it was, seems less evil. It’s a figurative, hyperbolic manner of speech. But the Hebrew can be read quite straightforwardly, without the insertion of the word “appear,” as we see in the 1611 King James Version and the 1881 English Revised Version (quoted above), as well as the Septuagint. And that is how Jenson has chosen to read the chapter: Sodom and Samaria do not appear righteous; they are acquitted and declared righteous. The beloved of the LORD has justified them by Jerusalem’s abominations and shame.
Phryne was a famous fourth century Greek courtesan known for her beauty. Athenaeus records that she was put on trial for a capital crime and defended by the orator Hypereides, also her lover. When it appeared that the jury was on the verge of convicting her, Hypereides brought Phryne into the center of the court and tore off her tunic. He then “employed all the end of his speech, with the highest oratorical art, to excite the pity of her judges by the sight of her beauty, and inspired the judges with a superstitious fear, so that they were so moved by pity as not to be able to stand the idea of condemning to death ‘a prophetess and priestess of Aphrodite.'” Phryne is justified by her beauty. This is not how we are to imagine the trial of the adulteress Jerusalem.
“Bear thine own shame,” declaims the God of Israel. Jenson tells us that this language comes from cultic law. The judge opens the proceedings and declares judgment:
Jerusalem must confess and be disgraced before an assembled court. She has committed abominations far worse than those of Sodom or Samaria—what these were is presupposed from 16:1-43. And then the surprise: the guilt of Jerusalem is so dominating that by contrast it “justifies” Sodom and Samaria; that is, it secures their acquittal (16:51-52). This scene of judgment comes close to being a depiction of final judgment, since of course neither Sodom nor Samaria was available for trial in Ezekiel’s time, nor has been since. (Ezekiel, p. 134)
The LORD disrobes his beloved and exposes her to the nations in all of her shameful wickedness and infidelity. Only thus does justification become a possibility—and reality—both for her and the nations.
Justification by the unrighteousness of Jerusalem immediately leads to the LORD‘s promise of restoration, first of Sodom and Samaria and then of Jerusalem: “And thy sisters, Sodom and her daughters, shall return to their former estate, and Samaria and her daughters shall return to their former estate, and thou and thy daughters shall return to your former estate” (16:55). Jenson comments:
Ezekiel 16:53–58 promises restoration and salvation, following on the judgment. But the promise starts with the salvation of Sodom and Samaria—to which any righteous Israelite would have had to say, “Samaria, maybe—but Sodom?” Justified by contrast with Jerusalem, the two sisters will be restored to “their former state,” which of course does not mean their former state of wickedness but an hypothesized state of righteousness before a fall. Then Jerusalem too will be restored, but only “with” Sodom and Samaria, as a sort of appendage (16:53). And she will be restored only in order that she bear her disgrace and pay her penalty (16:54, 58). Indeed, she will be restored in order for the sight of her disgrace to provide part of Sodom’s and Samaria’s renewed happiness (16:54). The first shall indeed be last and the last shall be first. (p. 134)
What is this but apokatastasis? The LORD‘s prophetic words strain toward the final future. All that is needed is new covenant and new creation, cross and resurrection, vicarious atonement and Pascha. All that is needed … Jesus.