Sexuality and religion in the Sumerian hymns to Ishtar (Ezekiel 23)

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Illustration: The Goddess Inanna “The Queen of Heaven”

The sexual imagery employed by Ezekiel to demonstrate the apostasy of Israel and Judah is quite explicit. Equating the lovers of Oholah (Samaria) and Oholibah (Jerusalem) with the foreign nations of Egypt and Assyria, Ezekiel made use of Hosea’s image of Israel and Judah as prostituting women. The link the prophets established between sexuality and paganism could hardly have surprised the Israelites; they saw the evidence all around them and knew that from ancient times many of the gods of the nations were known to have highly erotic characteristics.

The Sumerian goddess Ianna, who later merged with the Akkadian goddess Ishtar, was the preeminent goddess among the Mesopotamians. In the mythology of Ianna/Ishtar, she is associated with prostitution. The explicit nature of Ezekiel 23 is in many ways evocative of Mesopotamian texts that praise Ishtar. In one of these texts Ishtar meets her lover, Dumuzi (Tammuz). Refering to her sexual parts as “a well-watered field”, she asks “Who will plow it?” The answer is “Dumuzi will plow for you”. Another text praises Ianna’s breasts as a “fertile field”.

Many of these texts may have been associated with a ritual involving sacred prostitution. Such rites were performed with regularity on the assumption that doing so would evoke the goddess’ blessing. Although we cannot be certain of the extent to which Ezekiel may have been thinking of Ianna/Ishtar in his caustic portrayal of Jerusalem and Samaria, it is interesting to note the sexually explicit parallels between Ezekiel 23 and the numerous hymns to this Mesopotamian deity.


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