Two sisters

Jerusalem and Samaria were described as two adulterous sisters in a parable that was intended to portray the two cities as corrupt and tied to the past by their habitual idolatry. (Ezekiel 23). The origin of the adulterous sisters’ behavior was an early exposure to sexual misconduct in the land of Egypt. The Israelites lived in bondage in Egypt for 430 years. When they were finally delivered from bondage by Moses, they had to be taken out of the land almost by force. During the 40 years they wandered in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land, the Israelites were continually reverting to old habits such as worshipping a golden calf (Exodus 32:4), and engaging in the fertility rites of Baal, the god of the Moabites (Numbers 25:1-2).

The parable of the adulterous sisters opened with a stark picture of violent sexual abuse. God said to Ezekiel, “Son of man, there were two women, the daughters of one mother: and they committed whoredoms in Egypt: they committed whoredoms in their youth: there were their breasts pressed, and there they bruised the teats of their virginity” (Ezekiel 23:2-3). The accusation of having committed whoredom was due to a voluntary and willful choice of a particular lifestyle that was contrary to God’s commandments. As God’s chosen people, the Israelites were forbidden to worship any god other than Jehovah. Even before Moses was given the Ten Commandments, it was clear to Abraham’s descendants that they were not to engage in idolatry. Circumcision was symbolic of God’s ownership rights to Abraham’s offspring, and a token of his entering into a covenant with each man individually (Genesis 17:10).

In the parable of the adulterous sisters, Jerusalem, capital of the nation of Judah, was designated as the younger sister, Aholibah, who followed in the footsteps of her older sister, Aholah, who represented Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel (Ezekiel 23:4). After the fall of Samaria, Jerusalem was expected to heed God’s warning and turn back to him, but instead, Jerusalem became even more corrupt than Samaria by defiling God’s holy temple. The result was alienation from God and isolation from his messengers, the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

In the parable, Ezekiel was told, “And when her sister Aholibah saw this, she was more corrupt in her inordinate love than she…She doted upon the Assyrians her neighbors, captains and rulers clothed most gorgeously, horsemen riding upon horses, all of them desirable young men” (Ezekiel 23:11-12). Jerusalem’s reliance on military strength rather than God’s protection was evident when king Jehoiakim paid tribute or ransom money in order to receive protection from Pharaoh-nechoh of Egypt (2 Kings 23:35). In the end, king Hezekiah of Judah invited the Babylonians to view the treasures of his kingdom which were later taken by king Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 20:13; Ezekiel 23:16).


Too late

On August 14, 591 B.C., “certain of the elders of Israel came to inquire of the LORD” (Ezekiel 20:1). At that time, the fall of Jerusalem was inevitable and king Zedekiah’s plan to escape into the desert was most likely already in place. The elders of Israel may have been hoping that Ezekiel would give them an alternative to what they had already heard from the prophet Jeremiah. The fact that they went to see Ezekiel while he was being held captive in Babylon suggests that the elders of Israel were expecting Ezekiel to be aware of the current situation in Jerusalem and was able to tell them what to do even though he had been in captivity for more that seven years. Otherwise, there would have been no point for the elders to travel such a long distance to get his advice.

Unfortunately, the elders of Israel were disappointed when they arrived. Instead of receiving the latest news from God’s appointed messenger, the elders of Israel were told it was too late for them to seek God’s counsel, their judgment was already sealed and God would not reconsider his sentence against them (Ezekiel 20:31). Ezekiel was instructed to pronounce sentence against them and was told exactly what to say so that the elders of Israel would realize time had run out and Jerusalem would soon be destroyed.

The seriousness of Israel’s wrongdoing was such that God had Ezekiel recite the history of their idolatry from its beginning in the desert outside of Egypt before the people ever entered the Promised Land. Several times, God wanted to pour out his fury, but spared the people for his own name’s sake. Eventually, God gave up on his effort to change the Israelites’ behavior and let them have their own way. He explained to Ezekiel, “Because they had not executed my judgments, but had despised my statutes, and had polluted my sabbaths, and their eyes were after their fathers’ idols. Wherefore, I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live; and I polluted them in their own gifts, in that they caused to pass through the fire all that openeth the womb, that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 20:24-26). In other words, God let them do what they wanted to so that they would become aware of their own sinful way of life.

The sisters

God’s anger toward the city of Jerusalem was not an isolated incident. Beginning with the flood that wiped out all life on earth (Genesis 7:21), God continually acted to rid the world of corrupt humans. Two cities in particular were singled out for their wicked behavior, Samaria and Sodom. God likened these cities to sisters that loathed their husbands and their children (Ezekiel 16:45). God said of Jerusalem, “And thine elder sister is Samaria, she and her daughters that dwell at thy left hand: and thy younger sister, that dwelleth at thy right hand is Sodom and her daughters” (Ezekiel 16:46).

The characterization of these cities as sisters was meant to portray a similar behavior that was common to all, as if it was a family trait. What was the same about all of them was idolatry. It was said of Jerusalem, “Thus saith the Lord GOD: Because thy filthiness was poured out, and thy nakedness discovered through thy whoredom with thy lovers, and with all the idols of thy abominations, and by the blood of thy children, which thou didst give unto them; behold, therefore, I will gather all thy lovers…and will discover thy nakedness unto them, that they may see all thy nakedness” (Ezekiel 16:36-37).

The city referred to as Jerusalem’s elder sister (Ezekiel 16:46), Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Samaria was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. Among the many wicked kings that ruled over the northern kingdom of Israel were king Jeroboam who made two calves of gold to be worshipped as gods, and Omri who established the capital of Samaria and instituted Baal worship there. Comparing Jerusalem to Samaria, God said, “Yet hast thou not walked after their ways, nor done after their abominations: but as if that were a very little thing, thou wast corrupted more than they in all thy ways…Neither hath Samaria committed half of thy sins; but thou hast multiplied thine abominations more than they, and hath justified thy sisters in all thine abominations which thou hast done” (Ezekiel 16:47,51).

Sodom, a city that was destroyed when God rained brimstone and fire on it from heaven (Genesis 19:24), was described as haughty or proud. God said, “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). God said that Jerusalem had justified Samaria and Sodom because she was more wicked than they were. The Hebrew word translated justified in this instance is tsadeq (tsaw – dak´). “This word is used of man as regarded as having obtained deliverance from condemnation, and as being thus entitled to a certain inheritance” (6663).

Because Jerusalem was proven to be no better than Samaria and Sodom, these two cities would be restored to their former estate, just as Jerusalem would be in the future. In other words, when the Messiah came, he would not limit his ministry to the city of Jerusalem. God intended to extend his grace to the surrounding region, and eventually to the entire world. In spite of Jerusalem’s failure to meet God’s standards, God did not abandon his holy city. He said, Nevertheless I will remember my covenant with thee in the days of thy youth, and I will establish unto thee an everlasting covenant…That thou mayest remember, and be confounded, and never open thy mouth any more, because of thy shame, when I am pacified toward thee for all that thou hast done, saith the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 16:60,63).


In his call to turn from idols, the LORD repeated three times the accusation, “these men have set up their idols in their hearts , and put the stumblingblock of their iniquity before their face” (Ezekiel 14:3,4,7). To set up an idol in one’s heart means that you are intentionally giving it a place of priority in making your decisions. In other words, you are planning your life around the thing that you worship and want to make sure it remains a part of your life.

The Hebrew word translated idols in Ezekiel 14:3, gillul (ghil – lool´) is properly translated a log, as in something that is round and can be transported through rolling it (1544, 1556). A log was synonymous with an idol because the images of pagan gods were usually carved into wooden statues from giant trees. Jesus used the illustration of a log being cast out of the eye to teach against hypocrisy. He said, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5, ESV).

Jesus may have been referring to the practice of idolatry as a serious problem compared with worry or being anxious about God providing for our needs (Matthew 6:32). At the core of idolatry was the belief that spiritual beings had power apart from God’s control. If you wanted to excel in a certain area of your life, you could gain an advantage by seeking the assistance of a god whose domain was that area. For example, Asherah was the Canaanite goddess of fertility.

Thinking of idols as images that were stored or set up in the heart, you could say that Asherah was a symbol of or was similar to pornography. She was often depicted as a partially naked woman and her image was probably intended to stimulate sexual excitement. As with pornography today, images of naked women take the place of a normal, healthy sex drive. When God said, “these men have set up their idols in their heart, and put the stumblingblock of their iniquity before their face” (Ezekiel 14:3), he was most likely referring to the statue of Asherah that was erected in the temple to serve as a daily reminder that sex was the most important thing in these men’s lives.

In as much as God knew that idols were a perpetual problem with his people, he reminded Ezekiel that the remnant of people that would be saved from destruction were just as evil as everyone else. It was only by his grace that God would be able to save anyone. He said, “Yet behold, therein shall be left a remnant that shall be brought forth, both sons and daughters: behold, they shall come forth unto you, and ye shall see their ways and their doings: and ye shall be comforted concerning the evil that I have brought upon Jerusalem, even concerning all that I have brought upon it. And they shall comfort you, when you see their ways and their doings: and ye shall know that I have not done without cause all that I have done in it, saith the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 14:22-23).

Remember me

One thing that is clear about God is he has feelings just like we do. The type of things that upset us, also upset God and cause him to act in ways that we can relate to. God’s anger toward his people was justified in that they had intentionally turned their backs on him after he had blessed them and shown them undeserved favor. Everything God did for the Israelites, he did out of love and compassion for them and he did not punish them until it was evident that his people had rejected him completely.

In the book of Hosea, the children of Israel are portrayed as an adulteress who looked to other gods, and loved to get drunk on wine (Hosea 3:1). In spite of their infidelity, God promised to restore the nation of Israel and to unite the divided kingdoms into one. God’s love for the children of Israel was like that of a jealous husband because his emotions were involved in the relationship. God had a strong emotional attachment to his people (160) and wanted to remain in fellowship with them, even though they did not feel the same way about him (Hosea 3:1).

In his explanation to Ezekiel of the destruction of Judah, God revealed his personal anguish over the situation (Ezekiel 6:9). Once again, he promised to leave a remnant that would one day acknowledge him as Jehovah, the Jewish national name of God. He said, “Yet will I save a remnant, that ye may have some that shall escape the sword among the nations, when ye shall be scattered through the countries. And they that escape shall remember me among the nations whither they shall be carried captives, because I am broken with their whorish heart which hath departed from me and with their eyes, which go a whoring after their idols: and they shall lothe themselves for the evils which they have committed in all their abominations” (Ezekiel 6:8-9).

The Hebrew word translated remember in Ezekiel 6:9 is properly translated as “to mark (so as to be recognized)” (2142) and is suggesting that God’s people would stand out among the other people of the nations in which they would be living in exile. God intended for his people to be different in that they were not to worship idols, nor were they to practice witchcraft or the occult. The idea that God’s people would remember him among the nations where they were taken captive was about the continued worshipping of God without a temple in which to do it. Only those who truly loved God would be able to maintain their relationship with him. Over time, it would be evident who really believed in God and who didn’t.

A legal case

Jeremiah’s message to Judah began with the presentation of a legal case against God’s people. According to the Mosaic Law, the Israelites were forbidden to worship any other God besides YHWH, the name of God translated into English as LORD. God chose this name as the personal name by which he related specifically to his chosen or covenant people (3068). The first three commandments of the Mosaic Law stated:

  1. Thou shalt have not other gods before me.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
  3. Thou shalt not bow down thyself  to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children  unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. (Exodus 20:3-5)

The first three of the Ten Commandments given to the children of Israel dealt with idolatry because the covenant between God and his chosen people depended on a relationship existing between the two parties of the agreement. In some ways, the Ten Commandments were like a marriage contract that specified the terms for a divorce to take place. It was implied that both God and his people would be faithful to each other and remain in the relationship for ever. The reason why idolatry was off limits for them was because like adultery, it undermined the intimacy that was necessary for a loving relationship to exist. The only way the Israelites would trust God and depend on his provision for them was knowing God and God alone could take care of all their needs.

God’s issue with his people was not so much that they had broken his commandments , but that they had abandoned him for worthless idols. Speaking through Jeremiah, the LORD declared, “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns; broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). A cistern was a man-made storage tank designed to capture rain and make it available throughout the year. The cistern was representative of an idol because it was cut or carved out of stone and signified man’s ability to live independent of God’s ongoing provision. God’s reference to broken cisterns that could hold no water was meant to highlight the fact that a cistern was useless without rain, which God still had to provide.

The Israelites’ desire for independence was seen by God as being the same as an unfaithful spouse. Particularly in the book of Hosea, God’s people were likened to “a wife of whoredoms” (Hosea 1:2). Rather than being thankful for what God had provided, the Israelites preferred to fend for themselves (Jeremiah 2;25) and to worship whomever they pleased (Jeremiah 2:31). In spite of their flagrant idolatry, God’s people claimed to be innocent of the charges God brought against them. It was only because they refused to repent that God proceeded with his judgment. Jeremiah declared the truth about the people’s attitude when he said, “Yet thou sayest, Because I am innocent, surely his anger shall turn from me. Behold, I will plead with thee, because thou sayest, I have not sinned” (Jeremiah 2:35).

The harvest

The universal law of the harvest, sowing and reaping, applies to all areas of life and experience (2232). Referring to Israel’s idol worship, the prophet Hosea declared, “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7). In this instance, the wind “may be a suggestion of purposelessness, uselessness, or even vanity (emptiness)” (7307). The wind is regarded in Scripture as an emblem of the mighty penetrating power of the invisible God, therefore, the whirlwind or hurricane, suggests a spiritual storm that would snatch away the peaceful existence of God’s people.

The Israelites’ idolatry centered around two golden calves made by king Jeroboam I after Israel was divided into two kingdoms (1 Kings 12:28). The worship of these calves was most likely connected to the 400 years Israel spent in Egypt in slavery. Shortly after they were miraculously delivered from Pharaoh’s army, the Israelites made a golden calf and their leader Aaron declared, “These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:8). King Jeroboam I spoke similar words about his golden calves (1 Kings 12:28). God’s sentence against the Israelites specifically condemned this practice:

Of their silver and their gold have they made their idols, that they may be cut off. Thy calf , O Samaria, hath cast thee off, mine anger is kindled against them…The workman made it, therefore, it is not God: but the calf of Samaria shall be broken in pieces. (Hosea 8:5-6)

While the Israelites were dwelling in the Promised Land, they had enjoyed the benefit of God’s blessing and were given something no other nation received, God’s mercy. What this meant was that even though they had sowed wicked deeds like everyone else, the Israelites were not punished for their transgressions. Their sacrifices cancelled the record of their debt and they were blessed by God even though they didn’t deserve it. Because they turned their backs on God, things would to change.

Now will he remember their iniquity, and visit their sins…The days of visitation are come, the days of recompense are come; Israel shall know it. (Hosea 8:13, 9:7)

The northern kingdom of Israel received harsher treatment than Judah because their idolatry was blatant and continuous from the time of king Jeroboam I until the people were taken into captivity by Assyria. In particular, the capital city of Samaria had a reputation for paying tribute to foreign kings and relied on its army rather than God to deliver her from her enemies.

Ye have plowed wickedness, ye have reaped iniquity, ye have eaten the fruit of lies: because thou didst trust in thy way, in the multitude of thy mighty men. Therefore shall a tumult arise among thy people, and all thy fortresses shall be spoiled. (Hosea 10:13-14)