Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
EZEKIEL CHAPTER 23
This chapter's extended allegory about two lustful adulterous sisters comes to explain and justify the coming destruction of Jerusalem on account of the people's idolatry. The older (=GEDOLAH, literally "greater") sister is Oholah, representing the Ten Tribes (the majority of Israel ) under the leadership of Ephraim in their capital city of Shomron . The name Oholah is from the root OHEL, a tent, alluding to the "tent" or temple erected by Jeraboam, first king of the breakaway Ten Tribes, for the worship of his golden calves, and also to the house of Baal later erected by Ahab (Rashi on v 4). The name OHOLAH signifies HER tent, i.e. hers and not HaShem's, for He had no share in it (RaDaK on v 4). The "junior" sister, representing Judah , whose capital was in Jerusalem , is called Oholivah, "because My tent (OHOLI), My sanctuary, was in her (BAH)" (Rashi ibid.).
From their earliest youth the two sisters had acted like harlots (v 3). RaDaK explains that "Every expression of harlotry used in connection with the Assembly of Israel refers to idolatry. Even though the imagery is that of adultery and intercourse, this is all part of the allegory because she is compared to a harlot, but this is a metaphor for every kind of idolatry" (RaDaK on v 3). The infatuation with idolatry was more than a matter of simply bowing to graven images. Israel had a fatal fascination for foreign nations and their worldviews, cultures, styles and fashions (cf. vv 7, 12, 14-15), as if the YETZER RA (evil inclination) of the people whom God chose to be distinct and separate from all others necessarily craved for the diametrical opposite of separation, i.e. assimilation. The same craving to be like the nations has been manifest time and time again in Jewish history until the present, as in the case of those who sought to Hellenize during the Second Temple period, those in medieval Spain who embraced the philosophy and culture of the host country, those in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe who idolized the French and German "enlightenment", and those today who have eyes only for secular culture, the punkier the better.
Already in Egypt "their breasts were pressed and their virgin teats were handled" (v 3) - "That is to say, the Egyptians taught them the ways of their abominations" (Rashi ad loc.).
Initially Oholah led the way, "and she doted on her lovers, on those of Assyria , her neighbors." (v 5). Rashi (ad loc.) states that this alludes to the bribe paid by Menachem ben Gadi, one of the later kings of Israel, to Pol king of Assyria to help consolidate his kingship (II Kings 15:19). This indicates that political expediency was often a major factor in Israel 's dalliance with the nations. "Neither did she abandon the lewd practices she brought from Egypt " (v 8) - "We find that Hosea ben Elah (king of Israel ) sent emissaries to Sou king of Egypt " (II Kings 17:4; Rashi on our verse). In vengeance for the kingdom of Israel 's "adultery" with foreign nations, her "Husband" - God - delivered her into the hands of her lovers (v 9) - "for Sennacherib (king of Assyria ) came and took them into exile" (Rashi ad loc.).
Even though the allegory tells the story of both sisters, its essential purpose is to explain the reason for the calamity that was to befall the "junior sister", Oholivah, Judah and Jerusalem, who had witnessed Oholah's "adultery" and the terrible retribution she suffered as a result yet failed to take heed of the moral, and indeed did even worse (vv 11ff). Thus Jerusalem too "doted on the children of Assyria" (v 12) - "This refers to King Ahaz, who sent to the king of Assyria to help him" (Rashi ad loc.). Furthermore, "She increased her harlotries, and she saw men portrayed upon the wall, the images of the Kasdim." (v 14). In the eyes of the people of Jerusalem , the distant Kasdim (=Chaldeans, people of Babylon and surrounds) were much more exotic than the nearby Assyrians, and mere images and pictures of Chaldean culture were sufficient to cause the Jerusalemites to become infatuated. Likewise today, merely through the power of TV, film, magazine and internet images, millions of people throughout the world are hypnotized by the culture disseminated by Hollywood even though the vast majority have never physically set foot anywhere near Hollywood itself. The allurements of ancient Babylonian men's fashions as described in v 15 bring to mind how the Sophisticate in Rabbi Nachman's story of "The Simpleton and the Sophisticate" fell in love with the elegant hats and long pointed shoes of the shop clerks he saw in Warsaw .
"And the children of Babylon came to her into the bed of love" (v 17) - "I say that this refers to Hezekiah, who rejoiced over the emissaries sent by Merodach Beladan (king of Babylon) and fed them at his table and showed them his entire treasure house (II Kings 20:13; Rashi on our verse). But after having been defiled by the Babylonians, "her mind was alienated from them " (v 17) - the later kings of Judah , Yeho-yakim and Tzedekiah, rebelled against the Babylonians (Rashi ad loc.). Yet this did not spell the end of Oholivah's adultery, for "she multiplied her harlotries, recalling the days of her youth. in Egypt " - Tzedekiah sent emissaries to Egypt seeking help (Ezekiel 17:15; Rashi on verse 19 of our present chapter).
Verses 22ff explain that in retribution for Oholivah's long history of adultery God would arouse her lovers - the very Babylonians from whom she now recoiled in disgust - against her. "They shall take away your nose and your ears" (v 25). The primitive punishment of a harlot by disfiguring her face in this way is a metaphor for the abolition of the kingship and the priesthood (Rashi ad loc.). The nose, which protrudes from the face, alludes to the king, who is above all the people, while the ears allude to the high priest, the bells on whose coat are heard by the ears when he enters the Sanctuary (RaDaK ad loc.). All this would be Oholivah's punishment for going after the nations in the way of her sister Oholah (v 31).
Verses 36ff further elaborate on the sins of the two sisters. ".And blood is on their hands. and also they have caused their sons, whom they bore to me, to pass (through the fire) to them to be devoured" (v 37). While this verse overtly refers to the people's Molech-worship, the "blood on their hands" also alludes to their willful vain emission of seed with their hands, for which they did not repent (see Rashi ad loc.). On the very same day that they sinned, they had the gall to enter the Holy Temple , where they set up an idol (Rashi on v 38).
Vv 40ff depict Oholivah as a harlot seated on her couch at a banquet with her "lovers". "Then I said that she was worn out with adulteries." (v 43) - God thought that perhaps the people would eventually tire of their ways, but they did not, and there was therefore no other recourse than to stone them and cut them in pieces, kill their sons and daughters and burn their houses (v 47). This terrible retribution would be a lesson to Israel and all the nations, who would know that God rules the world, "and I shall cause lewdness to cease out of the land" (v 48).
"And the word of HaShem came to me in the ninth year in the tenth month on the tenth of the month" (v 1). This was the ninth year of the reign of King Tzedekiah - two years before the destruction of the Temple . The tenth day of the month of Teves of that year marked the commencement of King Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem , an event that is commemorated annually until today with the Fast of the Tenth of Teves.
There were no radio transmitters, phones, emails or anything of the kind when Ezekiel, located far away from Jerusalem in Babylon , received this prophecy about what was happening in the Holy City and was instructed to record the date. "The ultimate purpose of writing down the date was because the prophet was in Babylon yet he recorded what was taking place in Jerusalem, and when the people would hear from messengers that it was so, they would believe in him and stop paying attention to the words of the false prophets" (Metzudas David on v 2).
"And utter a parable." (v 3). We learned earlier that the inhabitants of Jerusalem had their own glib slogan that "Jerusalem is the pot and we are the meat" (Ezekiel 11:3), meaning "just as the meat does not leave the pot until it is completely cooked, so we shall not leave the city until we die naturally" (Rashi ibid.). Now God turns the same metaphor of the meat in the pot against the inhabitants of Jerusalem with a vengeance. Only now was the pot being put on the stove: this alludes to the fact that the siege was just beginning. ".And also pour water into it" (v 3): from the moment the water is first poured in, it takes time for the pot to boil. Similarly the siege would last for two long years before the bitter end (see Metzudas David ad loc.). "Gather the pieces of meat into it." (v 4) - "Out of fear of the siege, all the heads and ministers had gathered inside the city" (Rashi). "Take the choice of the flock." (v 5) - "these are the choicest of Israel " (Rashi). "Make it boil well" (v 5) - "After all of them are inside, the siege engines will be drawn up and war will come to the city" (Rashi).
Verses 6-14 explain and elaborate the metaphor. "Woe to the bloody city, the pot whose filth is in it" (v 6). The "filth" is the scum that rises to the surface as a pot of meat comes to the boil, but here, instead of being removed, the filth stays within - i.e. the sinners in the city would not leave (Rashi). Instead, they would be burned up inside it (see vv 11-12).
"For her blood is in her midst, she set it upon the bare rock." (v 7). Our sages interpret verses 7-8 as alluding to the blood of the prophet Zechariah son of Yehoyada, which was spilled on the marble floor of the Temple Courtyard when he was killed on the instructions of King Yo'ash (II Chronicles 24:20-22) and which seethed incessantly in a mute call for vengeance until the arrival of Nebuchadnezzar's captain, Nevuzaradan, to destroy the Temple (Gittin 57b; P'sikta; see KNOW YOUR BIBLE on II Chronicles 24).
The pot was to boil and boil until all the contents dried up and burned on the fire in order that "its impurity may be molten and its filth may be consumed" (vv 10-11) - only thus would the sins of the people be expiated. "Because I have purged you but you were not purged" (v 13) - God had sent prophets to rebuke the people but they did not heed them (see Rashi ad loc.).
"I AM TAKING AWAY THE DELIGHT OF YOUR EYES" (v 15)
A new prophecy begins in verse 15 with God informing Ezekiel that He would take away "the delight of your eyes", i.e. the prophet's wife (see v 18), yet paradoxically, the prophet was instructed to exhibit no signs of mourning. He delivered his prophecy to the people in the morning; his wife died that very evening, and the following morning he acted quite unlike any mourner (v 18) in order to needle the people into asking him the reason for his strange behavior.
The prophet's explanation to the people is given in vv 20-24: Ezekiel's loss of his wife represented the coming destruction of the Temple - for "Whenever a man loses his first wife, it is as if the Holy Temple was destroyed in his days" (Sanhedrin 22a). Yet just as Ezekiel exhibited no signs of mourning over his wife, so the remnant of Judah who were in Babylon at the time of the destruction of the Temple would show no outward signs of mourning over it. Rashi explains that the reason for this was because there would be nobody to comfort the people since there would not be a single one among them who would not be a mourner, and signs of mourning are only displayed in a place where there is someone to give comfort. Moreover, the people would be afraid to shed tears openly in the presence of the Babylonians in whose midst they lived (Rashi on v 22).
Many important laws relating to mourning practices are derived from verse 17, which details the usual signs of mourning that Ezekiel was NOT to exhibit in this case. Instead, he was to "bind" his "turban" (PE-EIR) as usual. The PE-EIR refers to the Tefilin, which a mourner does not wear (Berachos 11a). Ezekiel was told: "Put your shoes on your feet", whereas a mourner is forbidden to wear shoes (Mo'ed Katan 15b). Ezekiel was told: "Do not cover your lips", but in earlier times, mourners would swathe their head in grief (ibid. 15a). Ezekiel was told: "And do not eat the bread of men", whereas a mourner is fed the first "meal of consolation" by his friends and neighbors (ibid. 27b).
In the final section of this prophecy (vv 25-7) God tells Ezekiel that on the day when a fugitive would arrive in Babylon to break the news that the Temple had been destroyed, "your mouth shall be opened and you shall speak and be dumb no more" (contrary to His telling him in Ez. 3:26 to be dumb) because then the people would see that everything had happened exactly as the prophet had foretold long before, and the truth of his prophecy would be vindicated.
BACK TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE HOMEPAGE
By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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