Interpreting sexual rhetoric, particularly within the Biblical context, can be quite shocking. When it comes to spiritual intimacy with Yahweh, where His eternal holiness is uncompromising, Israel’s unfaithfulness and her complacency to it, resulted in a vivid and honest appraisal of their dire condition through the prophet Ezekiel. It is pertinent to realise that he was addressing the exiles in Mesopotamia, not the remnant in Jerusalem, and despite their captivity, they were blasé in their attitude to God. Is it any coincidence that the themes in Ezekiel’s intense pronouncements seem to bear some resemblance to those in the earlier Song of Moses? (c.f., Deut 32).
After inscribing the Laws of God that were given to the Israelites, Moses warned His people one last time prior to his death. His declarations paralleled Ezekiel’s, as he referred to Israel in ways that differed only at the point of labelling the nation blatantly as sexually promiscuous. The linguistic similarities, only found in these two passages in the Old Testament, alluded to Yahweh adopting Israel having discovered her as an abandoned child. He then cares for her, and eventually betrothed her to Himself. He continued to nourish her, but she forsook Him and gravitated towards strangers, angering Him. Both also mentioned Israel’s final restoration. Some commentators have interpreted that the Jews were singularly familiar with Moses’ Song, and his predictions were re-emphasised with its prophetic motifs now changed to that of an adulterous wife by Ezekiel, in God’s judgment of the nation (c.f., Deut 31:21).
Metaphorically, God equated idolatry – a forsaking of His laws – with descriptions akin to harlotry, abomination, lust, adultery, lewdness, detestable idols, jealousy, and arrogance. Israel owed her very existence and survival to God, but she trusted in herself and used whatever gifts God had given her to play the harlot with the nations around her, even bribing them to come to her. Furthermore, she violated the sanctity of the temple, worshipped detestable idols and sacrificed her sons to them (Ezek 16:15, 33, 36). Why would Ezekiel describe idolatry in such overt sexual language?
Not dissimilar to the graphic rhetoric of the poor man’s lamb that the prophet Nathan used on King David to demonstrate the gravity of his adultery before God (c.f., 2 Sam 12:1-15), Ezekiel’s metaphorical imagery referred to Israel as a nation of harlots who paid her clients to fornicate with her. Such explicit sexual language only signalled God’s exasperated anger towards the magnitude of His peoples’ unmitigated transgressions against Him. Principally, it was their behaviour, not their theology, that God was picking on; after all, the exiles did not cease practicing their formal religious rituals. Although Ezekiel’s representation of idolatry against Yahweh was directly referenced to Israel, the emphatic condemnation and the use of linguistic imagery of an unfaithful ‘wife’ can be generalised toward anyone who spurned His faithful love, for God is looking for a reciprocal faithful relationship. Through history, the human capacity to appreciate divine holiness is questionable; words fail us in attempting to describe Holiness personified. To embrace Him, then becomes a process steeped in becoming more like Christ, which invariably pits us against our own daily rebellious humanness. Our water-tight theology is no testimony of our explicit behaviour as faith is expressed. In fact, our behaviour towards each other and the issues of the day can undo everything that God represents in the matter of His holiness and lovingkindness. We are not so different from the exiles of Ezekiel’s days. Did his hearers repent of their sins and obey God after being traumatised by Ezekiel’s denunciations? One thing is certain though, as God withdrew His grace and Presence from His temple due to its desecration by His people, His holiness invariably provided the source for the hope of salvific restoration through Jesus Christ.