“No One Looked on You in Pity or Compassion”:
The Marginalization of Women in Ezekiel 16
by Isaac Lang
The Hebrew Bible offers numerous troubling accounts of brutalized women. These accounts often serve as reminders of Yahweh’s religious expectations of his followers but are accompanied by heavily gendered threats regarding female sexuality and marital submission. This essay analyzes the particularly violent prophecy conveyed to the people of Israel in the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Ezekiel and the implications that the events of this chapter may have had on actual Israelite women. There is, of course, ample opportunity for a modern analysis of this ancient text to result in anachronistic findings, as the modern values of gender equality cannot be entirely comparable to ancient understanding and performance of gender and gender roles, but as the crux of this essay rests on the nearly eternally traumatic experience of sexual assault and marginalization of the female body, modern notions of gender-based violence and oppressive attitudes can be applied to the relevant pericope. The methods of approach for this project include small-group and class discussions of marginalization in the Hebrew Bible as a whole, a close individual analysis of Ezekiel 16 itself, and engagement with Jewish feminist scholarship from the second (approximately 1960) through fourth (current) waves of feminism. The results of this project yielded particularly interesting findings regarding the relationship between linguistic nuance of narrative construction and the loss of female autonomy, as well as the anticipated—though potentially anachronistic—marginalization of Israelite women across several fields of ancient culture. In conclusion, Ezekiel 16 is both a harrowing tale of coercion, rape, and oppression as well as a malevolent reminder to real Israelite women to voluntarily submit their autonomy under the threat of potential sexual violence, should they fail to comply.
religion, women, feminism, Christianity, Judaism, Bible
Metaphor serves as a powerful tool for Yahweh and his prophets throughout the entire Hebrew Bible. Often, these metaphors serve to inform Jerusalem of how she has disappointed Yahweh. Unfortunately, a remarkable number of these metaphors characterize Jerusalem as an unfaithful wife, a prostitute, or as a woman who has otherwise displeased the men in her life. The book of Hosea paints Jerusalem as an unfaithful prostitute to whom Yahweh is shackled and who has born children outside of this union. The book of Jeremiah again portrays Jerusalem as unfaithful, but also adds that this infidelity is akin to wickedness. As such, Jerusalem has become wicked in her negligence of Yahweh’s will. The book of Ezekiel, however—specifically chapter sixteen of this book—expands on the metaphor of the unfaithful wife in a different and more troubling way.
Ezekiel, in this chapter, details a prophecy given to him by Yahweh in which he must convey to Jerusalem that she has angered Yahweh by engaging with the religious customs of neighboring cultures and neglecting to offer Yahweh his due deference. Ezekiel’s message to Jerusalem begins with an anecdote of her humanized infancy, in which she was abandoned by her parents. Yahweh discovers the abandoned newborn, whose umbilical cord has not yet been cut and who is lying in her own blood and placental discharge. He commands her to survive this critical abandonment in the hopes that she will someday honor His love for her. As Ezekiel’s message to Jerusalem progresses, Yahweh reconnects with a pubescent Jerusalem, essentially entering a marriage with the adolescent girl. Jerusalem, however, uses her beauty to secure extramarital relationships. Yahweh, angered at Jerusalem’s adultery, facilitates a public gang rape by her adulterous partners as a punishment for her promiscuity. Ezekiel’s prophecy concludes by comparing Jerusalem to Samaria and Sodom, both of whom are infamous for having neglected and having been destroyed by Yahweh.
Whereas the books of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah compare Jerusalem to an unfaithful wife and a prostitute and include the exposure of the wife’s body to her peers, they—unlike Ezekiel 16—do not include detailed accounts of her punishment at the hands of her scorned husband, nor do they include explicit references to physical sexual violence facilitated against her. Before one can analyze Ezekiel’s use of sexual violence against a wife, or the wife’s identity as a social “other” within his metaphor, one must consider the role of the wife as a biblical archetype. In the Hebrew Bible, a wife cannot be perceived as independent of her husband. Sarah is Abraham’s wife and Isaac’s mother before she is her own person. Delilah is Samson’s wife and a foreigner before she is Delilah. Feminist scholar Esther Fuchs postulates that biblical wives “progressively lose status, integrity and impact relative to their male counterparts.” Jerusalem, by virtue of her female characterization in Ezekiel 16, is already disadvantaged in these regards. Furthermore, because of Jerusalem’s marriage to a deity Himself, her independence from her husband and identity as a woman is further repressed. Of course, Jerusalem is not an actual woman in the book of Ezekiel—she is a personified nation. The point stands, however, that Jerusalem, as Yahweh’s partner within a covenant, is subject to Yahweh’s will and can never be fully separate from the desires of her husband, father, and creator.
Jerusalem is established as a subjugated party within this pericope by her inability to explain her own actions. The personified Jerusalem is never allowed to speak in Ezekiel 16. Rather, Yahweh presents this anecdote entirely from His own perspective and uses language which draws negative attention away from Himself and places it on Jerusalem. As a result, every transgression enacted on Jerusalem by Yahweh can be justified by His own rationale, whereas every transgression against Yahweh is not allowed an explanation. This forces Jerusalem into a role of intentional wrongdoing and negligence by Yahweh’s own estimation. Furthermore, the personified Jerusalem is effectively objectified within Yahweh’s anecdote. By virtue of the anecdotal structure of this passage, Yahweh’s interactions with Jerusalem are presented as a subject-object relationship. Though this objectification is not immediately or entirely sexual, it does strip Jerusalem of her autonomy by characterizing her as a passive party against whom actions are completed, rather than an active party who completes actions herself.
Ezekiel 16 illustrates that Jerusalem is only as she is because of Yahweh. The personified Jerusalem would surely not have survived infancy had it not been for divine intervention. Verse seven states that “[Yahweh] made [Jerusalem] grow like a plant of the field. [She] grew up and developed and became the most beautiful of jewels.” Later, when Yahweh takes Jerusalem as His wife, it is Yahweh’s actions—feeding, clothing, and adorning her with jewels—that awards Jerusalem a status of beauty and notoriety among nations. And, eventually, it is Yahweh’s will which punishes Jerusalem for her religious shortcomings and alleged spousal neglect. To apply a modern term to Yahweh’s relationship with Jerusalem, Yahweh groomed her to be his perfect bride. Jerusalem’s failure to fulfill Yahweh’s marital expectations inspires His jealousy and wrath—a wrath which seeks to humiliate Jerusalem before her peers. This humiliation, though applied to a metaphorical representation of the entire nation of Jerusalem, serves as reminder to the real women of Jerusalem to obey and revere their husbands under the threat of public punishment.
This pericope further targets women through its repeated references to a woman’s supposed inherent impurity. In ancient Levantine culture, menstruation and childbirth were unclean acts, and those capable of these processes were perpetually unclean for most of their lives. Yahweh’s initial encounter with the personified Jerusalem finds her lying in the blood of her own birth—a fact which stresses her marginal status and places her outside the norms of society. Additionally, Yahweh’s refusal to clean the infant Jerusalem of the aftermath of her birth implies a complacency in maintaining her marginal status. Yahweh’s later encounter with a pubescent Jerusalem again emphasizes her inherent impurity through her relationship with blood. In verse nine of Ezekiel 16, Yahweh states that He “bathed [Jerusalem] with water and washed clean the blood from [her].” At this juncture in the narrative, the blood by which Jerusalem is polluted is her own menstrual blood. The Biblical book of Leviticus 15 explicitly discusses the uncleanliness of bodily discharge and includes a passage specifically targeting the monthly impurity of a woman’s menstruation:
“When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean and anything she sits on will be unclean. Whoever touches her bed must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Whoever touches anything she sits on must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Whether it is the bed or anything she was sitting on, when anyone touches it, he will be unclean till evening. If a man lies with her and her monthly flow touches him, he will be unclean for seven days; any bed he lies on will be unclean.”
This perception of bloodborne impurity resulted in the standard of physical separation between menstruating Israelite women and the rest of society during the time of menstruation. Women who were menstruating or had completed their menstruation, but had not yet completed their ritual purification, were required to remain physically distant from men and those who were not yet menstruating. In Ezekiel 16, because Yahweh Himself cleanses the personified Jerusalem of her impure menstrual blood, Jerusalem’s purity is implied to be a result of Yahweh’s love, rather than something that Jerusalem can achieve of her own volition.
Jerusalem’s purification at the hands of Yahweh serves both to strip of her autonomy, as well as to force her into a state of gratitude toward Yahweh—a lack of which is exploited by Him in His punishment of Jerusalem’s political and religious promiscuity. Yahweh says to Jerusalem, “in all your detestable practices and your prostitution, you did not remember the days of your youth…”. As punishment for forgetting her youth, Jerusalem is made to strip and raped by all of her previous lovers in the sight of many women (vv. 41). While the anecdote of Ezekiel 16 primarily serves to warn the people of Israel against political and religious infidelity, by including the personified Jerusalem’s exposure to her fellow women, this passage also acts as a warning to Israelite women against sexual promiscuity, with the punishment for such an act being the public exposure and violation of the guilty woman.
Furthermore, the exposure of the female body is a recurring theme throughout this passage. When Yahweh initially encounters Jerusalem as an abandoned infant, she is naked. His later encounter with a pubescent Jerusalem again emphasizes her nakedness by explicitly stating that Yahweh “spread the corner of [His] garment over [her]” (vv. 8), an act which has described by Rabbi Moshe Greenberg as an acquisition of the woman as a wife. In both encounters, Jerusalem’s nakedness is symbolic of vulnerability, as well as implies an inherent shamefulness of her public exposure. In addition to her shameful nudity, the blood present in both scenes further exposes and humiliates the personified Jerusalem as an impure woman. The fixation on and policing of Jerusalem’s fictional body by Yahweh in this chapter of Ezekiel lends itself to the fixation on and policing of real female bodies as the objects of the male gaze among the audience of Ezekiel’s prophecy. This is further evidenced by passages of Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Nahum wherein the punishment of an adulterous woman is enacted by publicly exposing her body, implying that there is something inherently shameful about the female form. Additionally, passages of Leviticus concerned with sexual taboos are framed through the exposure of the naked body. As such, the repeated exposure of the personified Jerusalem in Ezekiel 16, even as child, sexualizes her and accuses her of a taboo.
The personified Jerusalem is further sexualized through a fixation on her fertility. Ezekiel 16:7 applies an agricultural simile to the pubescent body of Jerusalem, adhering to a standing tradition of fertility as analogous to agriculture. Yahweh states that He “made [Jerusalem] grow like a plant of the field. [She] grew and developed and became the most beautiful of jewels. [Jerusalem’s] breasts were formed and [her pubic] hair grew.” The implication of this passage is that, as a plant of the field, Jerusalem is to be fertilized by a man’s seed—an implication that is only solidified by the immediately subsequent references to her breasts and pubic hair, as well as the reference to Yahweh’s “entering a covenant” with Jerusalem in the following verse. This covenant can be viewed as a consummation of the marriage or, “solemn oath,” He gave her after His acquisition of her body resulting from His covering her nudity. Jerusalem’s fertility is again referenced in that she bore Yahweh multiple children through her covenant with Him, but these children were sacrificed on the altars of foreign idols as victims of Jerusalem’s promiscuity. Fertility is integral to the maintenance of a culture and, as such, a fertile wife who is steadfast in her marriage to an Israelite is necessary to maintaining the cult of Yahweh. This discussion of Jerusalem’s metaphorical fertility again serves as a reminder of marital faithfulness to real Israelite women in order to propagate the survival of the Israelite religion.
Despite the importance of fertility in this passage of Ezekiel, the actual act of motherhood is conveyed as something humiliating to the mother and as a source of shame for the daughter. Part of Jerusalem’s punishment for her infidelity is to adopt her personified sister cities, Samaria and Sodom, as her daughters. Both Sodom and Samaria are presented as sexually lascivious elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible and, by being forced into a role of motherhood for her lascivious sisters, Jerusalem is mantled with a degree of responsibility for their promiscuity. Yahweh states in verse forty-four of this chapter that “everyone who quotes proverbs will quote this proverb about [Jerusalem]: ‘like mother, like daughter.’” While this proverb is initially introduced to Jerusalem to disparage her matrilineal Hittite heritage, it takes a new meaning when applied to Jerusalem’s forced motherhood of her sexually promiscuous sisters. Furthermore, the people of Sodom and Samaria are referenced as the “daughters” of these nations, rather than the sons, as is customary when establishing citizenship. By emasculating the populace of these cities, this passage implies a shameful lewdness of the citizenry on account of their personified female form. Of course, the metaphorical equation between a female body and sexual promiscuity only serves to further marginalize real women.
The entirety of Ezekiel 16 is an exercise in maintaining the marginalized status of Israelite women. The frequent references to the inherent impurity of menstruation and birth, though applied to a fictionalized metaphor, serve as a reminder that the real women practicing the Israelite religion existed on the boundaries of society because of this impurity. Additionally, the appearance of menstrual blood alongside the exposure of the naked body within this chapter heightens the shamefulness assigned to a female body during this period of Israelite history. Throughout this chapter, the female body is simultaneously objectified and disparaged. A woman, as presented by the personified Jerusalem, is revered for her fertility, but her participation in sexual acts is a punishable offense resulting in her public exposure and humiliation. Jerusalem’s public exposure again serves to subjugate real Israelite women, as it seeks to divide women into faithful and promiscuous, with each subdivision garnering different male attentions. This exposure also serves as a veiled threat to Israelite women to remain faithful to their own husbands, lest they receive the same punishment Jerusalem endured. Ultimately, though Ezekiel 16 is intended to remind the entire nation of Israel of her religious transgressions against Yahweh, by its very structure as an anecdotal betrothal and conjugal narrative from a male perspective, it more effectively serves to maintain the marginalization of Israelite women.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
Fuchs, Esther. Sexual Politics in the Biblical Narrative: Reading the Hebrew Bible as a Woman. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.
Greenberg, Moshe. Ezekiel 1-20. Garden City, NY and London: Doubleday, 1983.
Shield, Mary E. “Multiple Exposures: Body Rhetoric and Gender Characterization in Ezekiel 16.” Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Southwood, Katherine, and Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor. Women and Exilic Identity in the Hebrew Bible. T & T Clark, an Imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2019.
Yoreh, Tirzah Meacham “Female Purity (Niddah).” Jewish Women’s Archive. Accessed May 03, 2021. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/female-purity-niddah.
 Fuchs, Sexual Politics in the Biblical Narrative, 52.
 For further discussion of this theme, see M.E. Shield, “Multiple Exposures: Body Rhetoric and Gender Characterization in Ezekiel 16,” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).
 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978).
 Lev. 15:19-24.
 See Tirzah Meacham Yoreh, “Female Purity (Niddah)”
 Ezek. 16:22.
 H. Morse discusses this public exposure and violation of the promiscuous woman as an act of revenge porn by Yahweh which seeks to cause distress and humiliation for the personified Jerusalem. Morse also hypothesizes that the public punishment of Jerusalem in the sight of her fellow women opens the opportunity for slut-shaming by these women against a promiscuous woman. As Morse states, one of the pervading attitudes surrounding the creation of revenge porn is that the party who is violated—often being the female party—is in some way deserving of their violation and, that by adequately punishing a deserving party, the aggressor reestablishes control over his victim. Yahweh, in Ezekiel 16:36-37, expresses His belief that Jerusalem is deserving of her public violation and subsequent distress as a result of her failure to be grateful for His maintenance of her impurity until His purification of her unclean blood could serve His motive of a conjugal covenant. Additionally, by allowing women to see Jerusalem’s punishment and be granted the opportunity to slut-shame her, this passage encourages the continued marginalization of women by establishing faithful and promiscuous women as diametrically opposed characters. This characterization seeks to divide women amongst themselves, which further aids in their subjugation, as their marginalization can only be opposed through a united front. For more discussion on Ezekiel 16 as an act of revenge porn and an opportunity for slut-shaming, see H. Morse “‘Judgement Was Executed Upon Her…’” in Southwood and Martien’s Women and Exilic Identity in the Hebrew Bible (Clark, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2019).
 Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 1-20 (Garden City, NY and London: Doubleday, 1983), 277.
 See Hosea 2:3; Jeremiah 13:22, 26; Isaiah 47:3; Nahum 3:5; and Leviticus 18, 20.
 See Genesis 19 and the book of Hosea.
Acknowledgements: A special thanks to Dr. Amanda Walls for teaching a truly fascinating course and to my mother for agreeing to proofread and provide feedback on my paper.
Citation Style: Chicago