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Back in the day when virginity was a virtue women who had sex outside of marriage were considered harlots; and no woman wanted to be called “a harlot”. Sadly, harlotry has been sanitized of its negativity and exalted as acceptable and the norm in our day.
When God calls Abraham and his descendants into covenant with Him, He shares with them His Name, His land, and obligates Himself to them as their protector and redeemer. Abraham’s descendants spend 400 years in Egypt where they multiply and become a great people.
As God’s newly-minted people He brings them out of Egyptian slavery; cares for them during the forty year wilderness experience; forms them into a community by giving them laws (sacrificial, dietary, social, moral, etc.); and warns them against the dangers of idolatry of playing the harlot:
Further, God commands Israel to make tassels of blue on the corners of their clothing to remind themselves to keep His commandments “that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your eyes are inclined, and that you may remember and do all of My commandments, and be holy for your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD your God” (Numbers 15:39, emphasis added).
Under Joshua’s leadership during the Conquest Era Israel initially relies upon God to be her Commander (Joshua 5:13-15) and He fights for them. After Joshua and the elders die Israel, however, plays the harlot,
“Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals; and they forsook the LORD God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; and they followed other gods from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and they bowed dow to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger” . . . “Nevertheless, the LORD raised up judges who delivered them out of the hand of those who plundered them. Yet they would not listen to their judges, but they played the harlot with other gods, and bowed down to them (Judges 2:11-12, 16-17, emphasis added).
God also refers to Israel’s playing the harlot under Gideon’s leadership, “Then Gideon made it into an ephod and set it up in his city, Oprah. And all Israel played the harlot with it there” (8:27, emphasis added) and after Gideon’s death, “So it was, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the children of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made Baal-Berth their god” (8:33, emphasis added).
The writer of Psalm 106 characterizes the early days of Israel’s statehood, “But they mingled with the Gentiles and learned their works; they served their idols, which became a snare to them. Thus they were defiled by their own works, and played the harlot by their own deeds” (106:35-36, 39, emphasis added).
After the kingdom divides into two nations (Israel and Judah) these words, playing the harlot, recur:
“And they were unfaithful to the God of their fathers, and played the harlot after the gods of the people of the land whom God had destroyed before them” (1 Chronicles 5:25, emphasis added).
“Thus says the LORD God of your father David: Because you have not walked in the ways of Jehoshaphat your father, or in the ways of Asa king of Judah, but have walked in the way of the kings of Israel, and have made Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to play the harlot like the harlotry of the house of Ahab . . . “ (2 Chronicles 21:13, emphasis added).
“How the faithful city has become a harlot! It was full of justice; righteousness lodged in it, but now murderers” (Isaiah 1:21)
“They say, ‘If a man divorces his wife, and she goes from him and becomes another man’s, may he return to her again? Would not that land be greatly polluted? But you have played the harlot with many lovers; yet return to Me”, says the LORD” Jeremiah 3:1, emphasis added; see also verses 6 and 8).
God raises up Hosea and uses his relationship with his adulterous wife to illustrate Israel’s heart defection (Hosea 1:2; 2:4; 4:10-14, 18; 5:3-4; 9:1).
It is through God’s captive prophet that He gives His most vivid and graphic portrayal of Israel’s playing the harlot—the parable of Ezekiel 16.
It was through to and through this people that the Messiah would come and it was to and through this people that He would reveal Himself to the world as the heart-redeemer, “Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20). That’s tenacity! That’s faithfulness!
Israel’s treachery or spiritual infidelity—playing the harlot—pulsates through every human heart. Every man is guilty before God. It is through Israel’s story that readers see and appreciate God’s faithfulness, His longing to reclaim every stony idolatrous heart to Himself.