Is Ezekiel’s parable of Oholah and Oholibah pornographic?

Q. How should we understand Ezekiel 23? Is it pornographic?

The parable that the prophet Ezekiel tells about two sisters named Oholah and Oholibah is not pornographic in itself. However, since it does use explicit sexual imagery, I would encourage people who struggle with pornography to be careful about reading it. I’ll discuss some options for them at the end of this post.

Pornography, by definition, is gratuitous. That is, it uses explicit sexual imagery only to excite sexual desires in readers or viewers. The imagery serves no higher purpose.

In Ezekiel’s parable, by contrast, all of the sexual imagery is used carefully to serve a higher purpose. Ezekiel wants the people of the southern kingdom of Judah to feel a proper sense of shame for their worship of idols instead of the true God. He also wants them to realize how foolish it is for them to worship idols when they have already seen God judge and punish the people of the northern kingdom of Judah for doing exactly the same thing.

The parable is essentially an extended metaphor: Idol worship is like infidelity in marriage. Because the people of Judah would have felt a sense of horror and shame about infidelity, Ezekiel describes it in explicit terms to try to make them feel the same thing about the way they have betrayed God by worshiping idols. All of the imagery, while graphic, is presented in a controlled and purposeful way. It is subordinated to the higher purpose of trying to call shamelessly disobedient people back to God before it is too late and they need to be judged and punished for their disobedience and disloyalty.

However, as I said, if someone struggles with pornography, then it may be difficult for them to read this passage without losing ground in that struggle. In that case, one possibility I would suggest is that they not read it. Even within a program to read through the Bible, such as many churches and other organizations sponsor, the understanding could be that in the interests of the highest goal of that program—a closer walk with God—participants would be free not to read this chapter if doing that might lead them to stumble.

Another possibility would be to read the chapter in a version of the Bible that translates it less explicitly. This might be a version translated at a simpler reading level whose intended audience includes children.

The final suggestion I would make is that if someone who struggles with pornography decides that they do need to read the chapter (in order to read all the way through the entire Bible, for example), they should not read it online or in any Bible app that appears on a screen. Instead, they should read it in a printed Bible. This will avoid reinforcing any connection between sexually explicit material and the greater visual stimulation of a glowing screen.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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