By Shelley Neese–

Welcome to Bible Fiber, where we are encountering the textures and shades of the biblical tapestry through twelve Minor Prophets, two reformers, and one exile. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.

This week we are studying Ezekiel 16:44-63, the last third of the longest oracle in the book. Ezekiel replaced the story of the generous king and his adulterous queen with new characters and a different plotline. In the marriage metaphor, Yahweh adopted Jerusalem as an infant and betrothed her when she matured. Ezekiel’s follow-on allegory inspected other branches of Jerusalem’s family tree. Ezekiel conducted his own version of a sibling study: three sisters separated at birth all make the same mistakes and pay a similar price.

The allegory starts with Ezekiel implying that Jerusalem was the butt of a popular joke. Ezekiel wrote, “See, everyone who uses proverbs will use this proverb about you, ‘Like mother, like daughter’” (16:44). He commented that just as Jerusalem’s mother had hated her husband and children, Jerusalem also hated her husband and children (16:45). Jerusalem was repeating the immoral choices of her mother, as often happens when families get caught up in generational sin.

Big sister and little sister

Jerusalem’s neglectful mother had abandoned her in a field and left her to die, but apparently there were two other siblings who suffered from the same difficult origin. Ezekiel said, “Your big sister is Samaria, who lived with her daughters to the north of you; your little sister, who lived to the south of you, is Sodom with her daughters” (16:46).

When Ezekiel referred to Samaria as Jerusalem’s “big sister,” he did not mean older sister, but larger sister. Ezekiel likely had in mind the relative size of the two nations, not their age. Jerusalem’s foundation predated that of Samaria by a century. Still, Samaria once serviced a larger nation, the ten tribes of Israel, while Jerusalem was the capital only for the two tribes of Judah. Ezekiel referred to Sodom as the “little sister,” but God destroyed Sodom a thousand years before King David even founded Jerusalem as Judah’s capital. Sodom was certainly not the little sister in terms of age, so here too Ezekiel likely referenced the relative sizes of the sister cities.

Ezekiel laid out the geographic placement of Sodom and Samaria in relation to Jerusalem. He described Samaria as to Jerusalem’s north and Sodom to her south, positioning Jerusalem accurately in the middle. Ezekiel described Sodom and Samaria’s satellite towns as their “daughters.” Although he only used the direct names for the three big sister cities, the oracle also incorporated all their surrounding settlements.

Samaria and Sodom

Before expositing Ezekiel’s allegory, it is helpful to first rehearse the history of Sodom and Samaria as presented in the biblical record. In 880 BCE, after the evil King Omri won a power struggle for the throne, he established Samaria as his capital to solidify his authority (1 Kings 16:24). Samaria was a hilltop location in the central highlands of Israel between the territories of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. This strategic location provided several advantages, including defensive fortifications and access to trade routes. For two centuries, Samaria flourished and grew in prominence, politically and economically. Spiritually, however, Samaria rotted from the inside. The people of Samaria turned away from Yahweh worship and instead practiced idolatry, worshiping the false gods of their neighbors. Throughout the biblical narratives, especially in the books of Kings and the prophets, there are frequent condemnations of Samaria’s spiritual abominations. Despite warnings and calls for repentance from the prophets, the Northern Kingdom never repented, which eventually led to their divine judgment at the hands of the Assyrians. By the time Ezekiel ministered, well over a century had passed since Samaria’s demise. Yet, the memory of the Northern Kingdom’s decimation was still fresh to Ezekiel’s contemporaries.

Sodom was an ancient Canaanite city that preexisted the Israelite nation. By Ezekiel’s day, the story of Sodom’s downfall had reached the status of well-known lore, the perennial example of what happens when a nation’s wickedness goes too far. According to the Genesis account, the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah reached such a pitch that it struck the ear of heaven (Gen. 18:20). When God sent two angels in human form to Sodom to investigate the city’s sinfulness, the debauched citizenry tried to gang rape the visitors. Only Lot and his family emerged from the investigation looking righteous. After Lot and his daughters escaped the city, God rained down fire and brimstone, destroying the cities and all their inhabitants, including Lot’s wife. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah served as a warning of the consequences of human sinfulness. Sodom became a byword for depravity.

Why Ezekiel built an allegory comparing the fate of Jerusalem to the fall of Samaria makes sense. Samaria truly was Jerusalem’s sister city in that the twelve tribes had once made up one kingdom, under one monarchy, before they ruptured. Both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms stayed aware that they were all descendants of Jacob and part of the covenant people chosen by Yahweh.

The comparison between Jerusalem and Sodom as sister cities seems initially puzzling, especially considering Sodom’s antiquity. Also, Sodom was a Canaanite city, not a nation of blood relatives like Samaria. God destroyed Sodom long before Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land. The two nations never crossed paths other than the legendary story of God’s punishment on Sodom in their holy text. Still, it was nothing short of insulting to put Israel on par with Sodom.

Ezekiel’s allegories were anything but predictable. He frequently heaped insults on his listeners to shock them out of their spiritual apathy. Comparing the holy city of Jerusalem to Sodom was a low blow, but it was also a jarring rhetorical device to convey the seriousness of Jerusalem’s sin. His audience did not need reminding that Sodom and Samaria were object lessons of what happened to nations that did not fear God.

Identifying the most wicked sister

According to Ezekiel, Jerusalem not only followed in the path of her sisters; she was more blameworthy than Samaria and Sodom (16:47). Her wickedness surpassed that of the two long-destroyed cities. As Ezekiel inventoried Sodom’s sins, he first listed “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease but did not aid the poor and needy” (16:49). He was likely referencing their sexual immorality when he accused Sodom of also conducting “abominable things” (16:50). It is interesting that the first offenses he highlighted were social sins. Anyone living in the modern industrialized world likely feels the discomfort of guilt when reading Ezekiel’s charge of gluttony, complacency, and oppression. I include myself among the convicted.

Ezekiel chose not to list the offenses of Samaria, probably because they were already familiar to his audience. Ezekiel claimed Jerusalem was twice as wicked as Samaria (16:51). Such a charge must have rocked the Judahite exiles’ understanding of their status before Yahweh. By their estimate, Samaria abandoned the Davidic kingship, Levitical priestly line, and refused to acknowledge Jerusalem as the proper place of Yahweh worship. All the divinely appointed systems that God setup, Samaria overlooked in favor of idolatry. Therefore, it made sense to the Judahites that God would reject them. Or at least that is how they interpreted Jerusalem’s continued survival and Samaria’s destruction.

Ezekiel told his audience that because Jerusalem had increased its abominations, her guilt outweighed that of Samaria and Sodom. In fact, Jerusalem’s corruption made the sister cities appear righteous by comparison. He said, “You have committed more abominations than they and have made your sisters appear righteous by all the abominations that you have committed” (16:51).

This is Ezekiel’s version of putting salt in the wound. In typical prophetic style, he reiterated three more times in a row that Jerusalem was worse than her sisters (16:51-52). Ezekiel may have repeated his points because his listeners protested the idea that they were as debauched like Sodom or as idolatrous as Samaria. Because the Jerusalemites thought of themselves as the more pious city, Ezekiel’s assessment seemed preposterous. Surely, his audience pushed back.

In exile, the Judeans likely comforted themselves with the justification that even if they had been punished, they were not as bad as other godless nations. However, what Ezekiel implied was that God’s justice required that Jerusalem suffer a punishment even worse than Sodom and Samaria.

What Ezekiel showed through allegory was that God did not see Jerusalem as she saw herself. In God’s eyes, Sodom, Samaria, and Jerusalem had all been guilty of spiritual abominations. Both Jerusalem and Samaria reneged on the covenant.

God’s justice would not be evenhanded if he punished two wicked sisters and not the other. God extinguished Sodom with fire and brimstone. According to the prophet Hosea, the Assyrians invaded the city by sword, dashing the children to the ground and ripping the pregnant woman open (Hos. 13:16). Those two fates portended the coming devastation of Jerusalem.

Turn to hope

Ezekiel’s judgement speech intended to evoke shame and repentance among the exiles. In their warped understanding, God had failed them, but Ezekiel clarified it was the other way around. He explained, “I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath, breaking the covenant” (16:59). Judah betrayed her covenant with Yahweh, which Ezekiel presented as a marriage contract.

God had no choice but to punish her for her adultery. After humbling his audience and thoroughly rebuking their pride, he could change his message of doom to one of hope. When Jerusalem recognized her iniquity, her shame quieted her pride, and she realized she had no reason to be prideful. Shame was part of the process of teaching Israel how deserving she really was of her punishment. She had fallen so far from the covenant ideal.

The Christian path to redemption also insists that we fully recognize the darkness and enormity of our sin. The apostle Paul preached, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We can only appreciate the importance of God’s rescue plan for us if we also see the hopelessness of our sin.

Ezekiel eventually reassured the exiles that restoration was still possible. The catch was that Jerusalem would share the process of restoration with her sisters, Sodom and Samaria. When the time arrived, God would redeem all three together. Ezekiel prophesied, “I will restore their fortunes, the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and the fortunes of Samaria and her daughters, and I will restore your own fortunes along with theirs” (16:53). Not even Sodom’s and Samaria’s restoration was impossible for God.

For two centuries, the prophets had many times spoken of the restoration of Samaria alongside Judah. God promised one day to bring back the dispersed exiles from all over. However, Sodom became a newly incorporated part of the vision of Israel’s future. Like Jerusalem and Samaria, God said he would return the city to its “former state” (16:55). Some believe that God intended to restore the desolate land of Sodom, not the actual nation. Another theory is that he did not mean he would bring back the literal Sodom. Instead, Sodom represented God’s expanding covenant to other nations. If that is the right interpretation, Christians can read ourselves into the story. If the new covenant is so wide that it even redeems and includes Sodom, there is certainly room for us.

Judgement would not be God’s last act or the final chapter in Israel’s story. Just as Yahweh had sent the rainbow after the flood as a sign of his promise, he told Ezekiel that he would establish a new and everlasting covenant (16:60). Ezekiel prophesied, “I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, in order that you may remember and be confounded and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I forgive you all that you have done, says the Lord God” (16:62-63). The prophet Jeremiah, almost at the same time as Ezekiel, also prophesied the launch of a new and unbreakable covenant (Jer. 31:32).

Jerusalem had taken for granted its protected status as the city that Yahweh founded (Isa. 14:32). One way to humble those who feel entitled is to welcome in the formerly excluded. Samaria had been Judah’s former enemy, and now God was reabsorbing her into the eternal covenant. No city merited God’s rescue. Redemption sprang only from God’s great mercy.

Wedding feast

Ezekiel’s allegory of the redemption of three unrighteous sisters calls to my mind Jesus’s parable of the wedding feast. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus used the imagery of a wedding banquet to explain how God chose who he invited into his eternal kingdom. Jesus described a king who prepared a grand banquet for his son’s wedding. He sent out invitations to many guests, but those initially invited refused to come. They were the religious elite who prioritized their own agendas over the divine invitation. In response to their rejection, the king extended his invitation to everyone, regardless of status. His servants announced the feast out in the streets and gathered them all in the banquet hall.

When the king entered the feast, he noticed a guest who was not wearing wedding clothes. Wedding clothes were a symbol of righteousness. Despite being invited to the feast, this guest had not put on the righteousness that came from faith in Christ. The king ordered his servants to cast him into outer darkness. Jesus concluded the parable by stating, “For many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). Through this parable, Jesus illustrated how the kingdom of heaven was open to all, regardless of social status or background, but he emphasized the importance of responding to God’s invitation with faith and a full commitment to righteous living.

Thank you for listening and please continue to take part in this Bible Reading Challenge. Next week, we are reading Ezekiel 17.

And please keep the nation of Israel in your prayers. Ezekiel was also a hostage living in exile and what better prophet to read and study as we empathize with the Jews who are once again living their nightmare.

For all the Biblical references each week, please see the show transcript on our blog or by signing up for our emails at I do not say all the references in the podcast but they are all in the transcript.

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Shabbat Shalom