Ezekiel 16:1-63 – Israel, the Unfaithful Wife
SummaryThis is an extended parable of the history of Israel as God's wife. Raised and loved by God from childhood, Israel repays the Lord with wanton idolatry and faithlessness.
AnalysisIt was common in the ancient world to speak of cities in personified, female terms, as if the city were a woman. Like chapter 23, here Israel's history is retold as the story of a girl who is born in poverty (16:1-6), but loved and blessed by the Lord, who then marries her and makes her wealthy, royal, and famous (vv. 7-14). But God's wife is wanton and plays the harlot first with false gods (16:15-22), then with other nations (23-34). In shocking detail, Ezekiel describes God's response: the "wife" will be mutilated and murdered by her foreign lovers with whom she committed adultery and harlotry. In this way God's wrath against the "wife" will be satisfied (16:42). This vision of sexual violence and murder is shocking in its details; for modern readers it may seem to encourage misogyny. Its theological implications are almost as troubling. It is a graphic image of God's wrath and the impending destruction of Jerusalem.
This extended parable, read in context and as part of the whole Christian Bible, must be interpreted with caution. It does not and should not sanction physical abuse of women, but reflects the cultural context of the day, in which women were subservient to their husband/master. Marriage could be a loving union, filled with joy and blessings, but adultery was punishable by death. At the symbolic level alone this story can speak to us of the reality of God's wrath and the terrible consequences of Israel's idolatry and faithlessness-but its literal depiction of physical abuse of women must be rejected.