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Ezekiel 23:4 introduces the sisters who “play the whore” in an allegory narrated by the LORD:

...וּשְׁמוֹתָ֗ן אָהֳלָ֤ה הַגְּדוֹלָה֙ וְאָהֳלִיבָ֣ה אֲחוֹתָ֔הּ
(BHS) : וּשְׁמוֹתָ֕ן שֹׁמְר֣וֹן אָהֳלָ֔ה וִירוּשָׁלִַ֖ם אָהֳלִיבָֽה

Oholah was the name of the elder and Oholibah the name of her sister....
As for their names, Oholah is Samaria, and Oholibah is Jerusalem. (ESV)

In addition to the fact that most names in the Hebrew Bible seem to have significance, the fact that the allegory is so transparent in its symbolism and that the two names are clearly related to one another makes it seem (to me) like the names themselves should mean something particular to the reader. The part they share is appears to be from אֹהֶל, ōhel, meaning tent. Understanding the rest as possessive suffixes and a word division in the latter gives Oholah = her tent and Oholibah = my tent [is] in her. Even Wikipedia sees this translation and asserts that the names are puns. However, the article doesn’t really explain how the pun works.

What is the meaning of these names, and what does it have to do with the allegory of Samaria and Jerusalem?

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  • I see the ESVSB states: "The significance of the symbolism of these names has been largely lost, and the translations suggested here are approximate." Oh well! (FWIW) Still worth nudging away at. – Dɑvïd Aug 16 '15 at 16:29
  • Yes, thank you. The discrepancy between that and a google search which quickly reveals that many think this is indeed knowable is what got me wondering. Perhaps different styles of scholarship. – Susan Aug 16 '15 at 22:25
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As OP notes, the names "Oholah" and "Oholibah" in Ezekiel 23:4 are identified as the capitals of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (Samaria) and the Southern Kingdom of Judah (Jerusalem) respectively. Typically commentators associate these obviously symbolic names with the Hebrew ʾōhel "tent".

The Hebrew Names

Again as noted by OP, these names are typically glossed this way:

  • אָהֳלָה ʾohŏlâ = "Her [own] tent"
  • אָהֳלִיבָה ʾohŏlîbâ = "My tent [is] in her"

Support for this understanding is found in other "ʾohel" names, e.g. Oholiab (Exodus 31:6) or Oholibamah (Genesis 36:2,5,etc.), although the derivation of the latter in particular has been disputed. Further support for this understanding of Oholibah has been found in "Hephzi-bah" = חֶפְצִי־בָהּ in Isaiah 62:4 (cf. 2 Kings 21:1).

There are problems here.

  • The endings of the names in Ezekiel are not the 3rd feminine single form as expected, and as seen in "Hephzibah". This suffix should have a dot in the he, known as "mappiq",1 which retains the consonantal value for the letter in this context. It is present in "Hephzibah", but not in either "Oholah" or "Oholibah". I.e., the "her" element, so key to the names as typically glossed, strictly isn't there.
  • (To anticipate, below) if the names refer to shrines, then "Jerusalem" is not fitting, as the Temple is not referred to as a "tent".
  • The ʾaleph-he-lamed cluster is sometimes associated with Phoenician or Arabic evidence to suggest associations different from "tent".

Modern Commentary2

Commentators generally agree that the names as such do not convey something inherently negative or judgmental, so that their significance must be sought elsewhere. Commentators still record and discuss the main options for interpreting the symbolic value of these names. The contenders include:

  • the unauthorized sanctuary of the North ("her own tent") and the authorized sanctuary of the South ("my tent is in her") (Greenberg, p. 474);
  • an allusion to the nomadism of the patriarchal period (Allen, p. 48);
  • the names simply have a "matching quality" (Allen, p. 48, who suggests an analogy in "Tweedledum and Tweedledee"(!); Wevers, p. 134);
  • the reference to "tent" in both may contain an allusion to the bridal/nuptial tent (Allen, p. 48; Block, p. 735; Zimmerli, p. 484);
  • they may be simply artificial constructs, matching the syllable pattern of their "target": Shomron (Samaria)/Oh(o)lah3 and Yerushalem / Oh(o)libah, with "tent" recalling the desert wanderings as a time of unfaithfulness (Block, p. 735-6);
  • the names may be "foreign sounding" (connecting to the Phoenician quality of the names) emphasizing their external origins (cf. Ezekiel 16:3; Zimmerli, p. 484).

Assessment

All of these commentators offer these suggestions tentatively, and usually only to reject them or shrug their shoulders in bewilderment -- except to affirm that the similarity of the names is of chief significance: these sisters are like each other.4

Beyond this, Robert Jenson -- in his "theological" commentary (p. 190) -- well captures the conundrum of the names:

Presumably the sisters' names in the allegory, Oholah and Oholibah, had some significance but we lack the key...


Notes

  1. See the Q&A on the possibility of the "divine name" in Song of Songs for another context in which the presence/absence of the mappiq plays a role.
  2. For this answer the the following commentaries have been consulted:
    • L.C. Allen, Ezekiel 20-48 (WBC; Word, 1990)
    • D.I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1-24 (NICOT; Eerdmans, 1997)
    • M. Greenberg, Ezekiel 21-37, (AB; Doubleday, 1997)
    • R.W. Jenson, Ezekiel (Brazos, 2009)
    • J.W. Wevers, Ezekiel (NCB; Oliphants, 1969)
    • W. Zimmerli, Ezekiel 1 (Hermeneia; Fortress, 1979)
  3. The short "o" in ʾohŏ is a semi-vowel. (I'm just reporting here, not commending!)
  4. Thus Block, p. 736: "In the last analysis, it is not their meaning that is most significant but their similarity. ... [T]hese names match, highlighting the women's sibling relationship". Cf. Zimmerli, p. 484; further, Amy Kalmanofsky, "The dangerous sisters of Jeremiah and Ezekiel", Journal of Biblical Literature, 130/2 (2011): 299-312 (who is interested in the siblings, not at all in the symbolic value of the names).
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  • Could you gloss אהליאב (FYI link goes to 31:7) and/or אהליבמה ? (And yes, I looked, and no, it’s not in my ESVSB.) Also, if Oh(o)libah then I suppose Y(e)rushalem? (Not really sure what to do with the last syllable(s) as written there though. Is there both a patach and a hiriq under the lamed? As if לַיִם- ?) – Susan Aug 18 '15 at 12:51
  • Maybe: Oholiab = "the father is my tent" ('ab as "divine" father?)? Oholibamah = "my tent is with them"? ABD has brief discussions of both. | (Link target differs in different browsers, it seems.) | The "semi-vowel" can be included or ignored at one's convenience. :) | And yes, typically two vowels for the one consonant: probably qere perpetuum - cf. GKC 88c and 17c. – Dɑvïd Aug 18 '15 at 13:14
  • Thank you. (ABD?) | (Link target differs possibly because the URL specifies v.6 for NASB and v.7 for WLC.) | Well if qere = יְרֽוּשָׁלַ֫יִם‎ then we have to ignore the shwa there but count it (er...something vaguely like it) in the “analogous" Oholibah. (“Not commending”, I know I know...) – Susan Aug 18 '15 at 13:24
  • ABD = Anchor Bible Dictionary. (Sorry about that!) | (Might have been, but doesn't matter whether the last digit is "6" or "7" - I think it has to do with how BibleWebApp manages its sync'ed auto-scrolling.) (That's my story and I'm sticking to it!) – Dɑvïd Aug 18 '15 at 14:00
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Analogy of Oholah and Oholibah

There is some disagreement as to the actual significance of the meaning of the names but there is no disagreement as to the fact that they to be understood figuratively. Rashi, commenting on this passage calls them "nicknames".

He further states,

Samaria is the one I nickname Oholah, for from the beginning she became a tent (אֹהֶל) for the calves of Jeroboam and for Ahab’s temple of Baal. Although Samaria was not built until the days of Omri, He calls the kings of Israel by its name, because as soon as it was built, it became the capital.(Taken from here)

It is with her sister(Oholibah), that there is some disagreement. He states,

Oholibah: Because My tent (אֹהֹלִי) was in her (בָה), and My sanctuary

In Keil and Delitzsch's Commentary on the same passage, they challenge the conclusion that some have in regarding this meaning:

The name אהליבה is formed from אהלי בהּ, "my tent in her;" and, accordingly, אהלה is to be derived from אהלהּ, "her tent," and not to be regarded as an abbreviation of אהלהּ בהּ, "her tent in her," as Hitzig and Kliefoth maintain. There is no ground for this assumption, as "her tent," in contrast with "my tent in her," expresses the thought with sufficient clearness, that she had a tent of her own, and the place where her tent was does not come into consideration.(Taken from here)

The names that they are representing of course are שֹׁמְר֣וֹן(Samaria), which is derived from שָׁמַר(shamar-to keep watch), and וִירוּשָׁלִַ֖ם(Jerusalem), (place of peace). An interesting sidenote is that "Bethel"(House of God) was located at one time in both Ephraim(Samaria) and Benjamin, where Jacob had received his vision. The fact the Temple was in Jerusalem was to be in no way misunderstood as God's presense was only in Jerusalem, "Bethel" was the place that Israel anointed and paid his tithes to, where "The house of God" and the "gateway to heaven" was revealed to him.(Gen. 28:17)

To further expound on this imagey of 'tents', when Jacob returned with his 2 wives, Leah and Rachel, they dwelt in tents near Shalem which was in Shechem. שָׁלֵם(shalem) of course is "complete" or "whole"-a derivative word is shalom, which means peace. שכם(Shechem) means "shoulder" in the masculine; but it means "to rise early" in it's feminine form. Isn't it a coincidence that Samaria(shamar) was to "rise up early to shoulder" or watch it's "peace"(shalem/shalom)?

I believe it's also no accident that Rachel 'stole' her father Laban's idols(Gen. 31:34), the consequence of the nation of Israel having "idols" hidden in the tent, which certainly follows Ezekiel's analogy.

The rest of the passage illustrates in graphic detail what these sister's sins were, which compared to the sins of Israel(Samaria) and Judah in their allegiences and pursuit of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Syrian empires, in complete rejection of God's protection and provision for them. They adopted the practices and idolatry of these nations and became as bad or worse than the nations around them. The graphic sexual imagery is analgous to the way that a jealous husband (God), sees an unfaithful wife who is persistant in exploiting her unfaithfulness. The judgments He spells out for them will for all time settle the matter of idolatry for them.

Summary

Though there appears no actual 'play' on words "Ohola" and "Oholibah" that I have been able to find in my research, there is considerable comparison to Jacob's wives, who were 'tents' for their children to dwell in "peace and watchfulness". But because of idolatry, they left their "place of security" and "played the harlot" to the nations which surrounded them. God's impending judgment towards them was that He would tolerate it no longer, but would thoroughly purge them from this sin.

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