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God Values All Human Life - a study of Ezekiel 16 and 23

Updated: Jan 21, 2022

Harming children, born or unborn, makes God angry.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Ezekiel 16 and 23

For this Sanctity of Human Life Sunday lesson, we are going to learn that adopting the practice of child sacrifice was the absolute rock bottom for the Jewish people and the final proof of their utter apostacy. God loves life, especially children, and so should we.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Abortion Laws Today

As you have guessed, this is the Sanctity of Human Life Sunday lesson. It’s a very important day, and it’s paired with a very important lesson, and all of the ideas I had for a cutesie/lighthearted opening just fell flat. If there’s a new baby in your group's extended family, I would recommend letting someone share a “babies are amazing” story. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a baby in our house, so I got a fresh kick out of the “new parents” websites and was reminded how amazing all babies are. Here’s one:

An opening topic like that will help everyone remember why we care about the sanctity of human life so much.

Here’s a helpful overview of the day from the Life Matters website:

On January 13, 1984, President Ronald Reagan issued a proclamation designating January 22 as the first National Sanctity of Human Life Day. (In 1973, January 22 was the day the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion-on-demand in all 50 states.)
Churches continue to recognize the third Sunday in January as Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. In 2022, that date falls on January 16, although some churches will mark it on the 23rd because it's closer to the anniversary. Either day is fine.
On Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, churches throughout the United States celebrate God's gift of life, commemorate the lives lost to abortion, and commit to protecting human life at every stage.

Abortion has been very much in the news this past year. As I surveyed the year, I was reminded just how slanted news coverage is of the topic. Take, for instance, this tag line for an ABC News story:

A half century of abortion rights for American women faltered this year.

The phrase often bandied about by pro-abortion sources is “access to health care for women”. What you’ll never see talked about is “access to health care for unborn children”. (Why? Because they don’t consider them to be human. Or else all of these signs saying “Abortion is a human right” would be intensely hypocritical; life is also a human right. But more on this below.)

  • Texas passed laws making it extremely difficult for babies to be aborted.

  • Mississippi is on the verge of banning all abortions post 15-weeks.

  • Ohio won the right to prevent abortions based on a diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome.

  • The Biden administration made access to the abortion drug mifepristone available by mail. (19 states have countered by banning that drug by mail.)

  • A dozen states have passed “trigger laws” that will go into effect if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

  • California has boasted the opposite – if Roe v. Wade is overturned, it will pass laws making it a “sanctuary” for anyone who wants an abortion.

The very pro-abortion website (they refer to abortion as “care”; states with abortion laws are identified as “hostile”) produced this map which puts each state into a category of “friendliness” toward abortion-on-demand.

I find the map encouraging. I expected to see the west coast and New England pro-abortion; I'm glad it's just them. People who believe that babies have a right to live have been making very hard-fought headway in states across the country. But there’s still a long way to go. (Maybe next year we can talk about how other countries are changing in their attitudes toward abortion-on-demand for better and for worse.)

(This would be a very appropriate time to remind everyone of the importance of Christian involvement in foster care and adoption. Yes, babies have a right to live, but they also have a right to a safe upbringing. If moms don’t want these kids, other parents must step into the breach.)

In summary – Sanctity of Human Life is a more important topic than ever. It seems that too many people have forgotten what it means to be human.

This Week’s Big Idea: Human Sacrifice in History

Our passage this week introduces the practice of child sacrifice, which has a lot of uncomfortable conceptual overlaps with the sanctity of human life.

This is a sad and depressing topic, so I won’t go into much detail. I just want to point out that the practice of sacrificing humans, even children, as part of some kind of religious ritual can be found throughout history all over the world.

Using a search phrase that I’m not at all happy to have in my Google history, I found this high-level overview of the topic:

Without going into detail, the article identifies cultures in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia that have evidence of human sacrifice in their history (although it sounds like there’s a lot of dispute as to whether the evidence points to "ritual sacrifice").

What would possess someone to sacrifice any human, let alone a child, for any reason, let alone a religious one? I have to imagine that someone will ask this question during the Bible study, so we may as well start thinking about answers now.

  • The “religious” answer I read the most is that the more “precious” the sacrifice, the more likely the deity will accept it (so the thinking goes). In other words, sacrificing a child is proof of how much the parent loves the child. I think that’s complete bupkis. I cannot wrap my head around the possibility that a sane-thinking person would be more committed to a deity than to their own child.

  • [In fact, I think the opposite would be more likely to be true. The sane-thinking parent would allow him/herself to be sacrificed in order for the child to be blessed. The website above mentions a legend along those lines from Japan.]

  • The more likely “religious” answer I believe is that the religion teaches the non-value of human life. It teaches that humans are disposable, teetering between life and death by the whims of a capricious deity. But even in those cases, sacrificing prisoners of war and debt-slaves would be the first step. Sacrificing a child would be proof of how little one cares about that child.

  • To be clear, I believe that most common motivation behind ritual sacrifice, especially of children, is a very sick kind of self-preservation. Remember how I said that some parents in the ancient world would sell their children into slavery in order to pay off their debts, and that such people were so reprehensible and the lowest form of humanity? Well, this would be an even worse form of that. "Maybe if I let them have my child, they will let me live."

The presence of human sacrifice in a culture shows that they do not believe human life to be sacred at all. To them, humans are no different than cows or sheep. A parent would “feel bad” about sacrificing a child in the same way they would feel bad about sacrificing the family pet lamb.

There should be no confusion as to why God rips this practice to shreds.

Not coincidentally, there is a direct correlation between the spread of Christianity and the disappearance of child sacrifice in cultures.

And that’s what makes the vocal clamor in the world today for abortion-on-demand so depressing. We seem to be going backwards. Children in the womb are not children; they are not human. It’s the same attitude that enabled child sacrifice in the ancient world, isn’t it? You’ll find church leaders use the phrase “modern child sacrifice” to describe abortion (and that really rankles the pro-choice crowd). I find it apt. These unborn children are sacrificed on the altar of a woman's right to do whatever she wants with her body. And if people start to see these unborn children as humans, then the whole thing collapses.

You can see why Lifeway chose this passage for Sanctity of Human Life Sunday.

Our Wider Context in Ezekiel

You might remember that I set this lesson aside from the outline of Ezekiel. That’s because Lifeway chose 2 verses from Ezekiel 16, 4 from Ezekiel 23, and other verses from Psalm 139. They weren’t intending it to follow the larger argument in Ezekiel.

However – these verses very powerfully augment God’s primary accusations against His people. They’re very uncomfortable to read, and they should be. (Just like we should be very uncomfortable reading statistics about the plight of children around the world, including the unborn. The WHO says that 73 million abortions take place around the world each year. A further 6 million children under the age of 5 die each year. How many of those could be prevented?) So, let’s go back to this first section of Ezekiel:

  1. God *Will* Destroy Jerusalem (1-24)

  • Ezekiel's call to be a prophet/watchman (1-3)

  • Signs of Jerusalem's destruction (4-7)

  • Proof of the temple's desecration (8-11)

  • Destroying the false hopes of the people (12-14)

  • Jerusalem's failures (15-19)

  • Jerusalem cannot be saved (20-24)

We had lessons from chapter 3, chapter 11, and chapter 24. This week’s lesson picks from chapters 16 and 23. Here’s a more detailed outline of this week’s context:

  • Jerusalem’s Failures (15-19)

  • Illustration #1: Jerusalem is like a useless vine (15:1-8)

  • Illustration #2: Jerusalem is like an adulterous wife (16:1-63) This shockingly graphic chapter does not sugarcoat Jerusalem’s sin and is horrifying to read

  • Jerusalem is an unfaithful wife (16:1-43) who makes advances to any man who comes by in the hopes of enriching herself

  • Jerusalem is like her godless “parents” and “siblings” (16:44-63) the Hittites and Amorites who were infamous for their moral, social, and religious evil (like child sacrifice)

  • Illustration #3: Jerusalem is like a helpless vine fought over by two eagles (17:1-24) (but God will replant the vine on God’s mountain)

  • Jerusalem has fallen because her people have all sinned (18:1-32) (but God gives the individual an opportunity to repent and live)

  • Jerusalem has fallen because her leaders have sinned (19:1-14)

  • Jerusalem Cannot Be Saved (20-24)

  • Jerusalem has been guilty of idolatry since the Exodus (20:1-44)

  • God will bring destruction by the sword of Babylon (20:45-21:32)

  • All of Israel is guilty of bloodshed (22:1-31)

  • Samaria and Jerusalem are like two depraved sisters (23:1-49) Jerusalem is somehow even worse than Samaria, and only divine intervention could stop her growing depravity

  • Jerusalem will be besieged and fall (24:1-27)

So, this entire section is really, really rough. Not for the faint of heart. Anyone who tried to make an argument of “it’s not that bad” had no idea what was important to God. Chapters 16 and 23 are bookends containing some intensely graphic language describing just how awful things had gotten in Jerusalem. Our lesson this week which focuses on how God’s people had forgotten the value of human life powerfully highlights their great evil.


Part 1: Wrongdoing Has Been Justified (Ezekiel 16:20-21)

And you took your sons and daughters whom you bore to me and sacrificed them as food to the idols. Was your prostitution not enough? 21 You slaughtered my children and sacrificed them to the idols

These verses are in the middle of a large allegory, comparing Jerusalem with an adulterous wife. It’s a mixture of allegorical and literal elements. For example, likening Jerusalem to a young woman is clearly allegorical (and that’s where the prostitute imagery comes from). God giving Jerusalem jewelry and clothing is allegorical. But making idols (v. 17) and offering sacrifices to them (v. 18) and building shrines (v. 25) are things the Jews actually did. A country does not have a “sexual” relationship with a country (that’s allegorical), but Jerusalem’s political overtures to Egypt (v. 26), Assyria (v. 28), and Babylon (v. 29) actually happened.

Now – as you can imagine, there are arguments as to what parts of the chapter are literal and what are allegorical. Some scholars say that these verses about child sacrifice are allegorical – Jews “metaphorically” sacrificed their children to idols by failing to teach them God’s Word.

Your leader guide treats these verses as literal. As in, Jews literally prostituted themselves to foreigners and then sacrificed those children to idols. (As an uncomfortable aside, that would cut to the heart of the pro-abortion movement, whose most common argument is “I have the right to do whatever I want with my body”, starting with unaccountable sex.)

I believe that verses 20-21 combine literal and allegorical elements. In the rest of the chapter, “prostitution” is very clearly allegorical. God entered into a covenant relationship with the Jews, a relationship much akin to marriage. So when the Jews began worshiping false gods, it is as if they committed adultery against God. And as the Jews continued worshiping more and more false gods, it is as if they had become full-on prostitutes, having “inappropriate relationships” with all manner of “other men”. So, the reference to prostitution in our passage in allegorical.

But the reference to child sacrifice is literal, just like the nearby references to mounds and shrines. The Jew’s literal acts of idolatry were allegorical acts of prostitution. As you might know, this is not the only time God has condemned the practice of child sacrifice:

  • Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. Lev 18:21

  • When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Deut 18:9-11

  • Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-five years. His mother’s name was Hephzibah. He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. … 6 He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practiced divination, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger. 2 Ki 21:1-6

It's in the Law because Israel’s neighbors engaged in this barbarism, and God was explicit about condemning it.

Rather, we should see these verses as the rock bottom of Jerusalem’s idolatry, the proof that they have fallen so far that they can only be destroyed.

Note how possessive God is about these children – “me” and “my”. Every effective parenting class I have been a part of starts on the foundation that our children first belong to God and He has simply entrusted us with raising them. Because the next section of the lesson basically echoes this section, I think you could camp out here for a while:

  • If we truly believe that our children are actually God’s children, how should that affect the way we parent?


Aside: Child Sacrifice in the Bible

As I was reading different articles about the history of child sacrifice, I was astonished by how many of them argue that the Bible condones child sacrifice. (And, of course, the authors would say something really clever like “I bet you didn’t know that the Bible teaches child sacrifice”.)

What do you think they might be talking about?

The story of Abraham and Isaac. I am going to leave this to you. If someone came at you with “Explain to me how God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac isn’t God endorsing child sacrifice?” how would you respond? If this turns contentious in your small group, please let me know and maybe there's a way I can help.

Note: here's our study on Abraham and Isaac, if it helps:


Part 2: Callousness becomes the Norm (Ezekiel 23:36-39)

36 The Lord said to me: “Son of man, will you judge Oholah and Oholibah? Then confront them with their detestable practices, 37 for they have committed adultery and blood is on their hands. They committed adultery with their idols; they even sacrificed their children, whom they bore to me, as food for them. 38 They have also done this to me: At that same time they defiled my sanctuary and desecrated my Sabbaths. 39 On the very day they sacrificed their children to their idols, they entered my sanctuary and desecrated it. That is what they did in my house.

As I said in the intro, this chapter is the bookend to chapter 16. The point is the same; most of the imagery is the same (and equally discomfiting). The difference is that this time God considers all of the Jews, including those of the fallen northern kingdom. “Oholah” is the name of the older sister, representing Samaria (the capital of the northern kingdom). “Oholibah” represents Jerusalem. Those two names are based on the word for “tent” – the first means “her tent” and the second “my tent is in her”. I’m not sure they are intended to mean anything special.

When we go through Old Testament history, we generally say that the northern kingdom was the absolute worst, and that’s why God disposed of them first. But, according to this allegory, Jerusalem was “more depraved” than Samaria! (v. 11) As awful as Samaria was, what Jerusalem has done is even worse. It’s hard to believe, but that’s where all of these examples (including child sacrifice) come into play.

The direction that your leader guide goes plays well against that shocking truth about Jerusalem. They saw Samaria do all of these terrible things. They saw the Egyptians and the Philistines and the Assyrians (etc.) do all of these terrible things. And generation after generation they became numb to it.

The leader guide makes the point that repeated exposure to sin desensitizes us. Are they right?

I want to be cautious about statements like “look at our culture today to see how far we’ve fallen!” I recently read the book Junction Boys about the 1950s Texas A&M football team coached by Bear Bryant. Let's just say that it involved brothels, bribes, utter disregard for health and safety, cheating, misogyny, and worse. Things are bad today, but things have been bad for a long time. Our culture isn’t being desensitized; it has been desensitized.


Part 3: God’s Truth Revealed (Psalm 139:13-16)

13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

I’m not happy about this choice of closing passages; they just plucked it out of another part of the Bible though it has nothing to do (textually) with Ezekiel. I would have preferred something bold like Ezekiel 24:15-24, when God tells Ezekiel that he is not to mourn his wife’s tragic death. The reason that passage is so outrageous is that God feels the opposite. God is brokenhearted by the deaths of Ezekiel’s wife and the people in Jerusalem, but those senseless and needless deaths will continue until God’s people stop sinning against one another. The appalling command not to mourn his wife’s death is the sort of thing that should wake people up to the tragedy of what is going on around them.

That said, you guys can enjoy and be encouraged by David’s words in Psalm 139. Maybe Lifeway decided that we have had enough depressing verses for the day! We have read Psalm 139 many times over the years. It shows a beautiful awareness of what goes on in the womb. People get distracted by “the depths of the earth” image; just read it as a poetic description of the “secret place” of the womb where no one can see (except for God). Remember – we are blessed by ultrasound technology and the like! No one in David’s day had seen anything like the pictures we can see.

Your discussion might focus on the final words, “all my days were written in your book”. What does it mean to you that God has known everything about you since before you were born?

The reason we have to have a day to talk about the sanctity of human life is how little regard some people in our world have for it. Unborn children are a nuisance, not a human. Elderly adults are a burden, not a human. People with certain disorders are an obstacle, not a human. People with certain beliefs are a threat, not a human. We need to remind everyone that all human life, from conception to death, is sacred to God and thus should be to us.

(Aside: God cares about all life, as Matthew 6:25-34 makes clear. However, humans are in their own special category (“a little lower than the angels”) to God because He gave us immortal souls and made us in His image.)

Do something today to demonstrate how much you value all people. Search your heart for attitudes that perhaps reveal a lack of regard for certain people and ask God to help you squash it.


Closing Thoughts: Where Do Babies Go When They Die?

If we can take any solace from this day, it is that God’s love for children means that those children who have been killed in the womb will not suffer any further pain and sorrow – they are taken into God’s presence.

How do I know this? How do I know that babies go to heaven? (Anyone who has suffered a miscarriage or been through the tragedy of infant mortality cares very much about the answer to this question.)

Step 1 is understanding what we read in Psalm 139 -- that God formed the life in the womb.

Step 2 is understanding that the Bible doesn't have a word for "fetus". The same word for infant is the word used of Jesus and John in the womb (Luke 1-2). In other words, it's the same child whether inside or outside the womb. (Which shouldn't be a shocking conclusion.)

To me, based on a continuity principle, that establishes that my existence/identity began at my conception. (Aside: this would mean that God "implants" our soul into our bodies at conception. Cool, huh?)

But, according to Psalm 51, that would also establish that our sinful nature was part of us even in the womb. We have always been sinners. Wouldn't that mean we have always been deserving of God's eternal punishment?

Well, according to passages like Romans 14:12, our punishment is related to our accountability. We have to give an account of ourselves to God in judgment. And as a general rule, no one can claim an excuse for their actions (Rom 1:20, 3:10).

However, infants cannot give an account. And God, who formed them in the womb, knows this far better than we do.

Step 3, then, is acknowledging the concept of "the age of accountability". There is a time in our spiritual/mental development when we become fully responsible for our choices. This is not a set biological age.

Because the Bible was written to people of an age to understand it, it does not go into detail about the destination of infants. Jews (and then Christians) were told to take individual responsibility for their actions and then to teach their children to do the same.

However, there is an amazing statement by David after the death of his infant son in 2 Sam 12:

22 He answered, “While the baby was alive, I fasted and wept because I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let him live.’ 23 But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I’ll go to him, but he will never return to me.”

I have heard more than one Debby Downer explain this to mean that David is just talking about "going" to the place of the dead, where all dead people go. But remember, this is the same David who sang that he would "dwell in the house of the Lord forever". David did not have a totally generic understanding of death. He believed that in death he would be with God. So, if David would follow his infant son and go "to him" in death, then he knew that his son would also be with God.

Is that reading too much into David's words? I don't think so. A friend of mine very eloquently summed up the case: "The God of the Bible doesn't send babies to hell". Hear, hear!

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