Um. Ezekiel Chapter 23 is rather graphic in its imagery. But, to water it down in anyway would change the essential reason for its existence in the first place. Because this is the case, it’s useful to ask ‘Why?’ in order to interpret the ‘What?’.
What “What” are we talking about here, anyways?
So in this parable, Jerusalem and Samaria are framed as two adult sisters. We are told that both sisters (Jerusalem and Samaria) chose a life of prostitution from their youthful days in Egypt. The scriptural verses go into depths to show that we’re not talking about nice escort girls either. In any case though, it was under-age sexual exploitation in this analogy.
Time passes, and now the girls are older and on their own, but not much has changed. Both are still in the prostitution racket, though Jerusalem is even more hardcore about it than her older sister Samaria. (One of the points of astonishment that this chapter conveys.) This displeases God, since Jerusalem was supposed to be not only a holy place, but an example for others to follow.
Even with all this, we are still not to the shocking part of the Prophet’s message in this chapter. Ezekiel goes on to criticize Jerusalem for now courting the surrounding empires, taking them to her private bed chamber, enjoying the benefits of their lustful interest and then dumping them and treating them with contempt. This is the last straw and God is ready to react.
A severe punishment is described, one that is shocking to western viewpoints. Jerusalem is to be stripped naked and cast out into the street and then to be treated to punishments common for prostitutes at that time. The violence is extreme, with beatings and humiliations. At the end of it all, there is physical mutilation in order to “teach” the other cities that look up to Jerusalem to avoid these kinds of behaviors. Jerusalem is set up to be an extreme example.
Gulp. Ok. Why?
First of all, prostitution is being used as a metaphor for idol worship and for the practicing of foreign religious practices – in some cases, not even paying true homage to those, merely the same lip service given to the traditional faith of Israel as well. I find it interesting that Ezekiel maintains his position that before the 10 Plagues of Egypt, when Israel was finally released from captivity, Israel is portrayed as wantonly pursuing the idol worship of the Egyptians and that it was God who decided to reclaim his people and remove them from that influence. The book of Exodus has a completely different viewpoint in which the victimized people of Israel are so desperate to practice their faith that they must put up resistance to Egypt and eventually cry to the Lord for deliverance. Two VERY different views of the Exodus story.
In either case, this is a round about way for Ezekiel to continue his parallelization of the return-to-national-origin theme that has dominated his entire progression of visions and oracles. And, as I said before, Chapter 23 is very much a commentary on Chapter 22 and Chapter 24.
Back to ‘WHY???’
It seems to me that when prophets choose to use metaphors, imagery and poetry (or some combination of all three), they are usually trying to convey the emotion and gravity of the events, they are giving us a yardstick to measure how significant the events in play really are. The imagery also helps us understand the true nature of the impact of the decisions to whom the messages and oracles are directed. In this case, the overall emotional sense is one of extreme revulsion. That is a powerful word as it conjures feelings in the pit of your stomach, an abhorrence to the idea of drawing even on inch closer to the source of discomfort.
So too, the image of Jerusalem playing the role of prostitute is bad enough. But this image actively seeks new lovers complete with a full HD seduction plan. Then she is portrayed as trashing their dignity along with her own by turning away from them in disgust (themes of betrayal of trust as in chapter 22). Her behavior is capped off in this verse:
v. 39 On the very day they sacrificed their children to their idols, they entered my sanctuary and desecrated it. That is what they did in my house.
Idol worship, playing host to others regional idol based cults all for political advantage, casting one away in favor of another. Child sacrifice to these same idols, and in the act polluting the very sanctuary. God is astonished to find this in His house. He rejects all lip service by the leadership who have shown absolutely no loyalty to anyone and change their attachments at a moment’s whim. God can not bring himself any closer to a people so bent on defiling themselves.
And so the punishment gets very grim, graphic, and brutal. Jerusalem will have the same done to her that she did to her ‘suitors’. She will be shunned, thrown out in the street naked. She will be beaten for her lewdness. Her eyes will be gouged out and her ears and nose cut off. She will be stoned to death. In short, she will receive exactly what she had given out to her own people for generations; a quid-pro-quo form of justice: getting what she gave.
The brutality is fearsome indeed. And we congratulate ourselves that we are no longer in the barbaric ages where this sort of thing was considered a just punishment. But are we really so sophisticated as that? Perhaps we should keep in mind the lesson that Ezekiel offers when we harm others in the name of our own righteousness. Is that justice? or is it a mark against us when we come crying for forgiveness and mercy.
Consider this story from last week’s news releases. It seems that people are so ready to condemn not realizing that this could and probably will come back on all of us:
There is a line tacked on to the end of the chapter that seems to infer that this is an example to all actual women. However, Ezekiel’s message has always been to the people as a whole, and the reference to Jerusalem as an unfaithful woman stands as a stark contrast to the imagery that Jesus himself used of the bride preparing for the groom; an image used again more specifically in Revelations.
The message is for the whole world, not just for a sub-demographic.
-Deal with it.