Ezekiel 15-17 shows us the versatility of Ezekiel in using different genres and tactics to get across the message primarily of bad news, but sometimes acknowledging the good news to follow in a coda or epilogue. Ezekiel 15 gives us a parable of a useless vine for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Ezekiel 16 gives us a chiastically arranged analogy of Jersualem to the life of a woman who had been left to die as an infant, taken in by the Lord God, but then became a prostitute anyway. And then Ezekiel 17 gives us a riddle and a fable about two great eagles where on the level of the fable the first great eagle was Babylon, but on the deeper level of the riddle (in the good news epilogue) that great eagle will be the Lord Himself. Click here for an outline of these chapters that will be helpful in understanding the discussion below.
Ezekiel 15, though a short chapter and definitely separate structurally from the previous and next passages, is somewhat internally repetitive. Note the themes of fire consuming and usefulness.
As is typical in Ezekiel, the phrases “And the word of YHWH came to me: Son of man,” “therefore thus says the Lord YHWH,” “and you will know that I am YHWH…,” and “declares the Lord YHWH” at the end of a thought, serve as markers for the structure of the passage.
The chapter consists of a parable and its interpretation. The parable uses an everyday concept that one could see and agree to before it gets applied to something that you would not have agreed to otherwise. Thus, the people hearing it would have agreed with what the parable was saying, then Ezekiel tells them how it applies.
The meaning of the chapter seems somewhat straightforward: because of the faithlessness of the inhabitants of Jerusalem to the Lord YHWH He will destroy them. The idea of faithlessness is the theme that ties it to the previous chapter.
You could outline chapter 16 using the same key phrases we have used to outline other chapters in Ezekiel, but I want to point out instead that an even more detailed level the chapter is arranged in a chiastic fashion with an epilogue. The epilogue is the good news portion of the chapter, whereas the chiasm climaxes with the sin of child sacrifice.
The chiasm opens with God telling Ezekiel to make known to Jerusalem her abominations. The whole chiasm then addresses “Jerusalem” (a city, thus female). The chiasm closes by Ezekiel explaining that the abominations of Jerusalem have been worse than Sodom and Samaria. In fact, by comparison Jerusalem makes Sodom and Samaria appear righteous. This last point is actually related to the second to last point in chiastic fashion because of the order of Samaria and Sodom and then Sodom and Samaria. Thus the central focus is on Sodom, which is particularly appropriate for this chapter.
The second point and second to last points on this chiasm have to do with the text saying “your father was an Amorite” and “your mother was a Hittite.” They are in a chiastic order in that the second point puts them in this order and the second to last point reverses it. Thus the central focus is on the mother of Jerusalem with this proverb, “Like mother, like daughter.” Remember it is the city of Jerusalem that has an Amorite father and a Hittite mother – the city existed before the army led by King David conquered it.
At the third part of the chiasm you see the discussion of how the young girl Jerusalem was naked and bare and then God covered her nakedness. The picture is of the city being like a baby left to die of exposure. The mother gave birth to her but they did not even bother to clean off the blood and left her exposed to the elements to die. And one cannot even assume that if someone were to “rescue” that baby that they would do so for altruistic purposes – i.e. it was common for people to “rescue” babies left for exposure to raise the child to be a prostitute.
For a moment it is important to show how this relates to the center of the chiasm and the third to last part as well. At the center is this idea that Jerusalem did not remember that she was once left for exposure and that it was not someone who wanted to make her into a prostitute who “saved” her but God who cared for her and cleaned her up and the covering language means to convey as well the idea of marriage – she became the bride of God. Instead of remembering this history, she was repeating what her mother had done to her – by offering her children up sacrificially in idol worship.
And so the punishment (again in chiastic order because originally she was A naked and bare and B then He covered her nakedness) is that B1 God will uncover her nakedness and B2 leave her naked and bare. The curse was an undoing of the blessing. It was a divorce and shaming.
Also in this chiasm we see as the fourth point that God gave her fine things and jewelry to make her beautiful. And the fourth to last point that she gave her gifts away to all of her lovers. This point is made quite elaborately and with some detail. He had lavished all sorts of good gifts on her but then she gave them all away. This made her worse than a prostitute, which is what she could have become if it had been someone else who had “rescued” her from the death sentence by exposure, because if she were a prostitute then the men would pay her but instead she was paying everyone else.
And the fifth point and the fifth to last point both have in common this phrase: “you played the whore.” The fifth point is describing idolatry and the fifth-to-last point is describing their international relations/affairs. The chapter is quite sexually explicit, which is even toned down in English translations, but nevertheless it is not about sexual sin — it is using the metaphor of sexual sin to describe these other kinds of infidelity to God. This is probably the reason that the text later in the chapter does not highlight the sexual aspect of the sin at Sodom but instead a lack of hospitality.
Ezekiel 16:49-50 says, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.” The reference to “an abomination” may be a gloss for the sexual sin at Sodom but still the reason it is not mentioned more clearly is that the whole chapter is using sexual sin as a metaphor for describing the city Jerusalem’s sin against God.
Idolatry, we know, is an obvious infidelity against God. They were worshiping other things rather than worshiping the true God. They fashioned idols out of the good things that the true God had lavished upon them. They took some of those good things God had generously given them and offered them up to idols.
The other issue of infidelity was the other one often mentioned in the prophets – instead of trusting in the true God they made alliances with foreign nations for protection. Specifically the it says that they played the whore with the Egyptians, their lustful neighbors. They did this and more in order to provoke God to anger – God who you will remember is a jealous God (jealousy can be appropriate in a marriage metaphor). They also then lavished these good gifts God had given them on the Philistines, Assyrians and Chaldeans (Babylon).
One could argue that the climax really is the “playing the whore” metaphor for idolatry and second for international relations. Thus the discussion of child sacrifice falls under the point about idolatry. But the reason that I pulled it out as separate is how it is introduced: “Were your whorings so small a matter that you slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering by fire to them?” Thus the question shows that we have taken the discussion up a notch from the sexual sin metaphor to something more serious yet. The other verse that I prefer to see at the climax then is this remembrance one:
“And in all your abominations and your whorings you did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare, wallowing in your blood” (Ezekiel 16:22). They did not remember how their mother had abandoned them to die from exposure and how God had rescued them to be His bride. And so they slaughtered, God says, “my children.”
The reason the chapter is so explicit in its use of the metaphor of prostitution for the infidelity of Jerusalem to her husband, the true God, is to show just how ugly her sins are to God. Perhaps with this metaphor they would be able to see the problem with their idolatry and their foreign policy. This was a difficult thing for them to see because in that context it was normal to have a different idol(s) at home than the one(s) for your city than the one(s) for your nation and so they thought they could worship YHWH alongside these idols and because it was normal to have a variety of allegiances and to trust in alliances.
But then there is the epilogue of good news – it requires the bad news first – “I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath in breaking the covenant,” but yet gets to the good news, “yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish for you an everlasting covenant” (Ezekiel 16:59-60). This everlasting covenant mentioned here in Ezekiel is elsewhere called the “new covenant.” And their elder sister Samaria and younger sister Sodom will become as daughters in this new covenant – the gospel goes to the nations.
So thus far we have seen a parable and its interpretation and then we saw the chiasm using the metaphor of the prostitute for the city Jerusalem and now we see a riddle/fable and its interpretation in Ezekiel 17. Ezekiel almost seems to be showing off how many different genres he is quite capable of mastering. The ESV translates this one as being called a riddle and parable but it is not a parable the way we would normally define that genre. Instead it is a story that is more like an allegory or we might say a fable. No matter what we call it, the story communicates an important truth.
The idea of a riddle is that it conceals even as it reveals. The idea of a fable in this context is that it reveals even as it conceals. In other words, you might tell a fable when you could not say something outright because of fear of persecution. It is coded language. The fact that it is a riddle, on the other hand, means that there is an aspect to it that is still hidden and needs further explanation. Thus most people could have probably guessed the interpretation of the fable but the revelation of the riddle is more difficult.
This is somewhat ironic since when I was reading the riddle I kept thinking about God being the first great eagle. But the everyday original reader would have understood the king of Babylon as the more obvious reference and then God is the greater reference. In the riddle/fable there are two great eagles. The first one did all kinds of good things for the vines but they forsook the first one for a second great eagle that did nothing for them and would prove to do nothing for them. Thus the first eagle, the only active one, will come and pluck up the vine so that it withers and dies.
As a fable the understanding that would have been fairly obvious to the original audience was that the first great eagle was Babylon and the second great eagle was Egypt. As you remember the story, what the king of Judah did was he went and made a foolish alliance with Egypt. Thus he expected the Egyptians to come to their defense against the Babylonians. Thus the consequence will be that the Babylonians will conquer Jerusalem and carry the king and other prominent people off into exile and still others will be scattered and driven by the sword.
But as a riddle it was the Lord Himself who is the great eagle and He will plant the twig and it will grow into a noble cedar. In the original riddle/fable the twig only became a noble vine. This actually was the reason that they went and forsook the first eagle for the second eagle because they wanted to grow tall rather than low to the ground like a vine. In any case, the explanation of the fable is the more obvious interpretation and the riddle revelation that is an epilogue to the chapter gets at a whole new level of meaning.