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.