The Adulterous Sisters Oholah and Oholibah: A Commentary on Ezekiel Chapter 23


Ezekiel chapter 23 contains a striking allegory about the unfaithfulness of God’s people Israel and Judah. Through the imagery of two adulterous sisters, Oholah (representing Samaria/Israel) and Oholibah (representing Jerusalem/Judah), Ezekiel confronts the people’s sin of idolatry and dependence on foreign nations rather than God.

The prophetic book of Ezekiel was written around 597-586 BC during the Babylonian exile. Ezekiel ministered to the Jewish captives in Babylon, calling them to repentance and warning of coming judgment. In chapter 23, Ezekiel reminds the people of their long history of spiritual adultery, stretching back to Egypt. Using graphic sexual metaphors, Ezekiel exposes their flagrant sins in hopes of bringing repentance.

This vivid allegory contains several key themes that will be explored:

Key Takeaways

  • Oholah (Samaria) and Oholibah (Jerusalem) are portrayed as sisters and brides who were unfaithful to God through idolatry and foreign alliances. This allegorizes Israel and Judah’s unfaithfulness to Yahweh.
  • The adultery imagery underscores how grievous Israel and Judah’s idolatry was – it was akin to a wife shamelessly pursuing other lovers. This reveals God’s heartache over their betrayal.
  • The detailed recounting of the sisters’ lurid acts highlights God’s intimate knowledge of their sins. His righteous anger flares against their brazen unfaithfulness.
  • God hands the sisters over to be judged and shamed by their lovers, picturing coming exile for Israel and Judah at the hands of foreign nations.
  • Yet God’s discipline is purposeful – He yearns for the day when His people will return to Him as their true husband. His justice flows from spurned love.

Expanding on these themes, we now turn to examine this profound chapter in detail.

The Adulterous Sisters Oholah and Oholibah: A Commentary on Ezekiel Chapter 23

Dual Sisters, Dual Adulteries (Ezekiel 23:1-3)

Ezekiel opens the allegory by introducing two sisters, Oholah and Oholibah, as symbolic representations of Samaria and Jerusalem:

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, there were two women, daughters of the same mother. They played the whore in Egypt; they played the whore in their youth; there their breasts were pressed and their virgin bosoms handled. Oholah was the name of the elder and Oholibah the name of her sister. They became mine, and they bore sons and daughters. As for their names, Oholah is Samaria, and Oholibah is Jerusalem.” (Ezekiel 23:1-4 NKJV)

As daughters of the same mother, Oholah and Oholibah depict the shared heritage of Israel (Samaria) and Judah (Jerusalem). Though divided into separate kingdoms, their common ancestry reaches back to the patriarchs and the Exodus from Egypt.

Tragically, both sisters followed the same path into adultery. Oholah and Oholibah “played the whore in Egypt”, likely referring to Israel’s idolatry with the golden calf during the wilderness wandering (Exodus 32). This set a pattern of unfaithfulness continued by both kingdoms.

Oholah’s Adulteries (Ezekiel 23:4-10)

Ezekiel proceeds to chronicle Oholah’s (Samaria’s) acts of “harlotry” in detail:

“Oholah played the whore while she was mine. And she lusted after her lovers the Assyrians, warriors dressed in purple, governors and commanders, all of them desirable young men, horsemen riding on horses. She bestowed her whoring upon them, the choicest men of Assyria all of them, and she defiled herself with all the idols of everyone after whom she lusted…Therefore I delivered her into the hands of her lovers, into the hands of the Assyrians, after whom she lusted.” (Ezekiel 23:5-9 NKJV)

Here Ezekiel vividly conveys the northern kingdom of Israel’s alliances with Assyria and incorporation of Assyrian idol worship. Rather than trusting in God’s protection, Israel relied on military aid from pagan nations. But this backfired – Assyria eventually turned and destroyed Samaria in 722 BC (2 Kings 17:5-6).

Ezekiel’s imagery portrays this political prostitution and betrayal of Yahweh. God handed Israel over to her so-called lovers, allowing Assyrian judgment as consequence for her spiritual adultery.

Oholibah’s Adulteries (Ezekiel 23:11-21)

After detailing Oholah’s sins, Ezekiel turns to her sister Oholibah (Jerusalem):

“Her sister Oholibah saw this, and she became more corrupt than her sister in her lust and in her whoring, which was worse than that of her sister. She lusted after the Assyrians, governors and commanders, warriors clothed in full armor, horsemen riding on horses, all of them desirable young men. And I saw that she was defiled; they both took the same way.” (Ezekiel 23:11-13 NKJV)

Sadly, Judah followed the same path into idolatry and dependence on foreign nations. Over the centuries, Judah intermingled worship of Yahweh with Canaanite gods like Baal. And rather than trusting God, Judah relied on military aid from Assyria, Egypt and Babylon.

Ezekiel highlights Judah’s adultery was even “worse” than Israel’s, likely because they had witnessed Israel’s judgment yet failed to repent (cf. Jeremiah 3:6-11). Nonetheless God continued to pursue Judah, sending prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel to warn them. Tragically, the people persisted in their unfaithfulness.

God’s Jealous Anger (Ezekiel 23:22-35)

In light of Judah’s brazen adultery, Ezekiel conveys God’s righteous anger and jealousy:

“Therefore, Oholibah, thus says the Lord God: “Behold, I will stir up against you your lovers…And they shall judge you according to their judgments. I will set My jealousy against you, and they shall deal furiously with you; they shall remove your nose and your ears, and your remnant shall fall by the sword; they shall take your sons and your daughters, and your remnant shall be devoured by fire.” (Ezekiel 23:22-25 NKJV)

This depicts God handing Judah over to be judged and shamed by her lovers – the Babylonians and others. Though severe, this discipline flowed from God’s perfect justice and spurned love. Through it, He aimed to awaken true repentance and restoration:

“They shall also strip you of your clothes and take away your beautiful jewelry. Thus I will make your lewdness and your harlotry brought from the land of Egypt to cease from you, so that you will not lift your eyes to them, nor remember Egypt anymore.” (Ezekiel 23:26-27 NKJV)

Like a jealous husband, God’s anger burned against His people’s brazen betrayal. His coming judgment aimed to purge the idolatrous influences from the land, setting the stage for renewal.

Adulterous Sisters to Be Judged (Ezekiel 23:36-49)

Ezekiel completes the allegory with a summary of both sisters’ judgment for their idolatry:

“For thus says the Lord God: ‘Behold, I will bring up against you, O Oholah and Oholibah, My lovers from whom you have alienated yourselves, and I will gather them against you from every side: The Babylonians, all the Chaldeans, Pekod, Shoa, Koa…’ They shall burn their houses with fire, execute judgments on you in the sight of many women; and I will make you cease playing the harlot…So I will make My fury toward you to rest, and My jealousy will depart from you.” (Ezekiel 23:22, 47, 48a)

Through this coming discipline, God’s righteous anger toward the sisters’ adultery would be satisfied. Judgment would purge the idolatry from the land, setting the stage for restoration. God’s justice flows from wounded love – He longs for the day when His wayward people will love Him alone:

“‘Then I will establish one way with them, so that they may fear Me forever, for the good of them and their children after them… when I bring their exiles back, surely with deep compassion I will gather them again.” (Jeremiah 32:39, Ezekiel 23:47b, 48b).

Ezekiel’s allegory concludes with hope – God will make a new covenant with His people, with the law written on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34). For now, pain of exile and judgment would turn their hearts back to the Lord alone.


Ezekiel 23 delivers a scathing rebuke of Israel and Judah’s spiritual adultery through vivid allegory. As Oholah and Oholibah, the people shamelessly pursued false gods and foreign alliances, inciting God’s jealous anger. Yet even in His righteous discipline, God’s overarching purpose was restoration – to win back the hearts of His beloved yet wayward people.

For Christians today, this passage remains a sobering reminder to guard our affections for Christ. He is the divine Bridegroom who deserves wholehearted devotion (2 Cor. 11:2-3). May Ezekiel’s stark allegory move us to reject all idolatry – loving, worshipping and trusting Jesus alone.

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