Ezekiel Blog 9: A little off the side

So finally we have arrived (Ezekiel 5) at the final sign of the four signs of the judgment of Jerusalem. It’s interesting that this chapter is entirely dedicated to the one sign and all the ramifications of it.  Not surprisingly, most people move right on through the beginning to get to the good stuff – you know how we all love a big finish complete with action sequences.  And we get it all, right?  Judgment, angel of death type stuff, old time vengeance, slaughter among the population left, right, and center.

Except.   What is with the whole haircut thing to begin with?  Everything we’ve seen so far with these signs tells us there are things to understand about each representation. Each sign has told us something about God – what God is like. This is the true nature of prophecy after all, to speak to the truth of the situation, to bring our own relationship with God into clearer focus, and to help reveal glimpses of God’s nature. Reveal = Revelation.

So hit rewind and lets go back to the beginning of the chapter and remember clearly that orthodox Jewish religious practice had very specific rules about hair. This goes all the way back to Leviticus chapter 21 where God made direct commandments about about priests not shaving their heads, etc.

What is surprising here is the direct commandment by God to go against those very rules. Why would God do that? What is the meaning of the haircut, and the sword, and making Ezekiel parade all over the place to dispense his locks of hair?  (I’m sure Ezekiel was thinking to himself, “and I thought the food rules were strange!”)  I want to emphasize again, in this same paragraph, that here we see God commanding something that is in direct contradiction to something commanded earlier, and in the context of direct revelation.   In any regard, this adds dimension to the conversation which scripture really is.

Some may write that off as a one-off, it was just Ezekiel.   But consider, how many times has some single statement by the Apostle Paul been pulled out of context and used as a prototype for emulation? Whole monasteries were created, whole orders of priests were organized, etc. Think about it.  Going further, a more faithful spiritual quest into scripture allows for a conversation with God, asking God, what did you mean by this?  How am I to understand what you are trying to do here?   Now, moving on…

Ezekiel has to somehow get a sword, shave his head!!!….We’ll deal with dispensing of his hair later.  The priests of other religions in the region often shaved their heads, one need only look at Egyptian historical art to verify this.  This means that God intends Ezekiel to become iconic in view of his people. He’s going to stand out.

Yeah, this could be interpreted as rubbing Israel’s own religious promiscuity in their face, highlighting that it was the importing of other nations idolatry into the temple which has brought all of this impending doom.  Really, though?  Do we read through all of this to conclude that God is spiteful and capriciously pretty?

There’s another clue at the end of the chapter though. It comes in the form of God’s true accusation against Jerusalem: “…You did not even hold to the standards of the nations around you…”   It seems that the original expectation was for the nation of Israel to become a conduit of blessing and instruction to the nations around her.  Jesus himself refers to this later in history by asking the question, “Do you hide a light under a bushel? No, you place it high….so that all can see its light”.   But that’s not how things appear to have been working out in practice.

Think of it this way. Suppose all members of the priesthood were suddenly commanded to become part-time bartenders, or bar owners in order to qualify for continued status as a minister.  Well, it’s pretty hard to look down your nose at people who drink socially, if you are the one required to serve them their drinks.  In fact, there would not be anything external to distinguish you from your clientele.  It’s just an example, and I can think of many more. But the point is, it is hard to hold yourself aloft, elevated above people you think beneath you if you are in their exact circumstances.  Maintaining that posture leaves you with very little credibility.

This is where we pick things back up with our guy Ezekiel who is now being commanded to make himself look exactly like the local clergy of their captors. “Shave your head, Ezekiel” goes the command.  Perhaps it is a call for Israel to recognize their infidelity of faith. More likely, it is a prototype for Israel to see that the exterior form of ministry does not matter so much as the inner faith.

Lets examine the progression of the four signs up to this point.  A picture of Jerusalem is drawn showing it in warfare and conflict.  A siege is put up around it to highlight its growing isolation. Ezekiel must sleep for so many days, in a specific way to show the length of time that Israel has been incurring debt against God’s good will…to the tune of hundreds of years. The signs include warnings that the conflict will escalate and the people will suffer long days of torment.  Ezekiel demonstrates this by cooking his food as if it was a prisoners ration.   And the warning continues that those who survive will eat the food of the captors from the land into which they are driven.

So we see two paths here.  The first being the fate of those who cling to what was the old Jerusalem way of doing things. The second being the groups who do leave all that behind and allow themselves to be driven.  They are to eat their captors food. They are to submit to their captors. They are to live and have families. They are commanded to heal and to prosper (words of Jeremiah).

And as for the hair which Ezekiel disperses?  Can we get any more classic than Broadway to understand that reference?  God wants to get this mess out of his hair. Just cut it off, cut it all off.  Burn it in the fire, scatter it in the winds, whatever.  Shave it to the skin and lets start all over.

A people humbled by captivity, brought again to a remembrance of true faith and belief.  A ministry that understands the concept that God can not be bought, bribed or fooled. An understanding that God is in all of his creation, out among the nations, even out here in the middle of the desert – just like the freed Hebrew slaves which Moses led.  God’s majesty and kingdom is not tied to a specific building, place or rock.  He is the fire that walks daily with His people.

Just like Jesus said, “the Kingdom is at hand.”

Ezekiel Blog 8: Now hold on just a minute

In my mind, Ezekiel goes down in history as an exceptionally gutsy sort of guy as prophets go.  Mind you, prophets as a whole seem to have considerable gumption and nerve having to take unpopular positions on major issues, standing out from the crowd, pioneering new conceptual models, and often winding up in peril of law enforcement branches of the local government. Case in point, Jeremiah, wound up on the dungeons and sewers of Jerusalem for positioning an unpopular and un-profitable political choice to Israel’s leadership. John the Baptist was beheaded for pointing out the obvious that the reigning king of Israel was going against established law and norms of moral behavior.

Even so, Ezekiel is high on my list because of what happens at the end of Chapter 4 of the Book of Ezekiel.  God has moved on to the third sign of coming judgments against Jerusalem. In the phase, while Ezekiel is to perform the year and 2 months of lying in bed staring at the picture of a beseiged holy city, God wants him to hand his food in a very specific way to simulate being under rationed conditions and the survival necessity of eating “unclean” food from other nations surrounding.

But it is the final detail that crosses an involuntary line in Ezekiel’s mind.  God wants him to cook his food over a fire that is fueled by human excrement and waste.  Ewww…   Ezekiel literally says “no” – the bible translation is somewhat more diplomatic and uses the phrase “not so”.  In any sense, Ezekiel stands his ground and says to God that he has never defiled himself in such a way and wonders if this is entirely necessary to get the point across.  God actually concedes the point and offers a secondary way for Ezekiel to prepare his food. Still sounds gross to me, but I know that there are places on the planet today where this method is still in use.  Ezekiel will cook his food over fire fueled by cow manure.

And what is God’s point to all this anyway?  Couldn’t he just as easily said to Israel, “You will go hungry, live off rations, and have to eat other people’s food.”  Probably yes, but it just doesn’t have the full emotional impact.   In order to put this into perpective, especially if we are considering Ezekiel’s frame of mind, you have to look at Mosaic law and history of Moses.  For that we turn to Deuteronomy 8: 6-9   Here is the link to that passage.

Notice in that verse, that wheat and barley and water are specifically referred to. At verse 16 (Deut 8:16) Moses reminds Israel that “…He (God) gave you manna to eat in the desert,….”

Now, contrast that to this new message that Ezekiel must carry. Not only carry, but live out day after day after day for over a year.  Ezekiel must have been thinking very hard about the last verse of Deuteronomy 8: 19-20 which says,

If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. 20 Like the nations the Lord destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the Lord your God.”

By the way, this chapter of Deuteronomy is referred to as “Do Not Forget the Lord”.  There is a lot of wisdom in that chapter – not only that, there is feeling of almost euphoria at the litany of blessings. Every kind of grain, so much water, fruit, olive oil.  This scriptures say that Israel “would lack nothing”.

And lets not get all high and mighty about this and forget as well that this advice/warning applies to us today.   There is more than one kind of idolatry and many more kinds of worshiping other Gods.  I’m going to step out onto a limb here and differentiate between working to be successful and worshiping greed for greed’s sake as is outlined in Deut 8:17-18.  Idolatry can be found creeping in to many common areas of civilization today whenever something that is objectified is placed at a higher value than the value of the human soul.   What idols of worship can you spot lurking in the places that you go – it may surprise once you start to look?

Getting back to Ezekiel though, how much this must have weighed on Ezekiel, and to know that even though the judgment seems harsh, that God is right. The warnings were there for hundreds of years. It was encoded in there most sacred text of scripture. And even the course of this third sign will last a year giving anyone a chance to repent, to submit to God’s will.

And so, just as Ezekiel was willing to Eat the Scroll of the first vision,  now Ezekiel is willing to eat the disgrace and defilement of his people.

I have to tell you that I have had to make myself focus on these signs and move slowly through the chapter.  Most commentaries blow through this very quickly. A human being by nature avoids that which is unpleasant and that which is uncomfortable.  But in case there is a platitude drifting through your mind that this was just for olden time, look at the very last verses of Ezekiel chapter 4.  It says that people in this condition will eat with anxiety and drink  rationed water in despair. People will be appalled with each other.

Anxiety, despair, and being appalled.  Those are strong words. Those are not the words of hope, and yet so many people today feel those same feelings. Worry, despair, depression, anxiety, isolation, aghast to discover that humans have pushed behavioral limits farther than anyone could have ever believed.

I believe that first step of the path back is the simple admonition to Israel: Be sure to Remember the Lord.  Strip away all the forms, ritual, rules, buildings, and monuments. Both Ezekiel and Moses carried the same message. Remember the Lord and simply observe his ways.