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Welcome to Bible Fiber, where we are encountering the textures and shades of the biblical tapestry through twelve Minor Prophets, two reformers, and one exile. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.

This week we are reading Ezekiel 5, a continuation of the prophet’s bizarre series of sign-acts. The Lord commanded Ezekiel to get a sharp sword, instead of a barber’s razor, and shave his head and beard (5:1). The laws of Leviticus forbid priests from making bald spots on their head or shaving off the edges of their beards (Lev. 21:5). Yet, as a priest, Ezekiel did not protest this defiling performance. With a sword in his hand, he dramatized what must have seemed to his hearers like a self-appointed excommunication.

In biblical times, shaving could be a legitimate expression of mourning (Job 1:20). Ancient mourners tore their clothes, put on sackcloth, and rubbed ashes on their head as outward representations of their internal suffering. One interpretation of the sign-act is that Ezekiel was symbolically mourning the coming loss of Jerusalem. If that was his intention, a razor would have sufficed. Instead, Ezekiel used a sword, an instrument of war, to shear himself. In the ancient Near East, victorious armies often degraded their captives by shaving them as a sign of their forced subjugation (Isa. 15:2). Ezekiel humiliated himself to represent the Babylonian’s military defeat of Jerusalem.

After Ezekiel shaved, God instructed him to put the hair on a balancing scale so that he could divide it into three equal parts (5:1). Weighing and measuring were verbs often used to describe God’s careful and deliberate judgment. After he divided the hair into thirds, the prophet was to dispose of each section of hair through different actions that symbolized the fate of Jerusalem’s population, whether their death occurred by fire, famine, or sword.

Presumably, Ezekiel was still in his home, lying on his side near his model of Jerusalem. Instead of portraying the Babylonian’s protracted siege of Jerusalem like he did in Chapter 4, he acted out the destruction of Jerusalem using his own hair to represent the city’s inhabitants. He placed one section of hair in the middle of his city model and set it on fire. The burning hair was a terrible omen for the exiles’ friends and family still living in Jerusalem. Seven years from the time of Ezekiel’s performance, Nebuchadnezzar’s invading army would indeed burn Jerusalem’s temple, palace, and houses until nothing remained but rubble (2 Kings 25:8–9).

As part of the next step in his sign-act, Ezekiel picked up his sword. Note: It seems curious that a political exile living in a refugee camp had easy access to a sword. Following God’s instructions, he took the second section of hair, dispersed it outside the model city walls, and struck the mess of hair with his sword. With this strange act, he portrayed those poor Judeans who survived the siege and attack but were mowed down by Babylonian soldiers as they tried to flee the city.

In a symbolic gesture, Ezekiel scattered the third portion of hair to the wind, representing the Jerusalem inhabitants who were dispersed among the nations and lost to history. In the aftermath of the military conflict, a contingent of poor Jews remained in the ruined city. Nebuchadnezzar appointed a Judean puppet governor named Gedaliah, who, despite being subservient to the imperial authorities, tried to foster peace and rebuild Jerusalem.

A descendant of the royal line, Ishmael, resented Gedaliah’s appointment, and assassinated him. Fearing Babylonian reprisals, a subsection of Jerusalem’s population, including the prophet Jeremiah, fled to Egypt (Jer. 43:5-7). These Jews may have escaped immediate death, but they too eventually vanished.

Despite the ominous predictions of Jerusalem’s fate, God permitted Ezekiel to protect a handful of hairs from the fire, sword, and wind. He sewed them into the hem of his garment for safekeeping (5:3). Like the prophets who preceded him, Ezekiel forecasted the preservation of a small remnant of the faithful. The remnant offered the only guarantee that the Jewish nation would revive and one day return to the land. Zechariah described the surviving remnant as refined silver and tested gold (Zech. 13:9). Isaiah predicted the return of the “survivors of the house of Jacob” (Isa. 10:20). Jeremiah and Micah metaphorically described a scattered flock of sheep that God brought back into the fold (Jer. 23:3; Mic. 2:12-13).

Was Ezekiel considered part of the remnant? Neither he nor his exilic audience could be confident of their inclusion. Even from the hairs he had preserved in his garment, God instructed him to remove a few and throw them into the fire (4:4). No one could be overly confident of their innocence.

To Ezekiel’s observers, his performance may have at first resembled pagan practices of sympathetic magic. Egyptian Pharaohs, for example, wrote the names of their enemies on statuettes or clay bricks. They ceremonially smashed the representation of their enemy as a sign of their impending defeat.

Known as execration texts, archaeologists have uncovered buried fragments at Egyptian tombs or ritual sites dating from 2600 to 1000 BCE. Ezekiel’s demonstration diverged from Egyptian execration rituals in one major way. He predicted the decimation of his own people, not his enemies. The Egyptians smashed, stabbed, and burned the statuettes, signifying their desired victory. Ezekiel laid siege to the Jerusalem model, signifying the least desirable outcome for his own people: defeat. Ancient magicians gained popularity because the masses believed them to have abilities to influence the gods and change their minds. Prophets were the opposite. Bound and gagged, Ezekiel was mostly powerless in altering God’s will; it was only his job to communicate it.

Surely, by this point, malnutrition from his siege diet weakened the thinning Ezekiel. Shaving with a sword also had to leave him gashed and bloodied. The acrid smell of burned hair lingered. A century earlier, the prophet Isaiah portended that one day the Assyrians, “a razor hired beyond the river,” would shave Israelite captives from head to toe (Isa. 7:20). Ezekiel must have been alluding to Isaiah’s prophecy, but he repurposed it to be about Babylon, the new agent of God’s judgment. Either consciously or unconsciously, Ezekiel’s one-man drama acted out what Isaiah verbally expressed.

For the crowd who gathered and gawked at the prophet, God loosened Ezekiel’s tongue so he could issue a verbal rebuke to accompany his nonverbal sign-acts. Literarily, the oracle in Chapter 5 is repetitive and convoluted, as if the prophet’s words came out haltingly. He began, “Thus says the Lord God,” because every word out of the prophet’s mouth was a divine download (5:5).

Presumably, he was pointing to his miniature brick model of Jerusalem when he declared, “This is Jerusalem; I have set her in the center of the nations, with countries all around her” (5:5). His language had a legal tone, as if he was in a courtroom introducing the accused. Perhaps he reiterated the identity of his model city if any spectator misunderstood him as foretelling the fall of the Babylonian Empire. Ezekiel knew people would try to hear what they wanted to hear.

When Ezekiel described Jerusalem as the “center of the nations,” he most likely meant theologically. Jerusalem was the place where God chose for his name to dwell. The Psalmist declared Jerusalem as “the joy of all the earth” (Ps.48:1) because it was the city where they worshiped Yahweh. In addition, as a land bridge between Asia and Africa, Israel was also a geographical focal point for much of history. Although the country was small in territory, it sat at a strategic crossroads that every empire felt compelled to conquer.

Ezekiel rebuked his listeners. He said, “You are more turbulent than the nations that are all around you and have not followed my statutes or kept my ordinances” (5:7). Jerusalem did not merely become like her neighbors. Her wickedness surpassed that of her pagan neighbors. By rejecting God’s special laws and decrees, Israel rejected her privileged position.

As a kingdom of priests, privy to the truths of God, Israel was supposed to live righteously, ethically, and morally. Ideally, she was to set an example of a people intent on following the one true creator God and living at peace with one another. God promised Abraham that his descendants would bring blessings to all the nations of the earth (Gen. 12:3). God desired to reconcile himself first to one person, Abraham, then one nation, the Jews, and then to the world. Israel’s unfaithfulness put a wrench in the redemption plan.

Yahweh swore, “I myself, am coming against you” (5:8), a chilling pronouncement to a people normally accustomed to God’s assurances that he was coming to protect them (Isa. 41:10). Yahweh was going to deliver the judgment personally. Because of all their abominations, he threatened to destroy them in a manner never seen before (5:9). Extreme rebellion triggered extreme punishment.

The text does not describe Ezekiel’s actions that accompanied the oracle, but perhaps he pointed to the iron griddle that he set outside Jerusalem’s walls. The griddle represented Yahweh and the impenetrable barrier between himself and his city. Ezekiel pronounced, “I will withdraw; my eye will not spare, and I will have no pity” (5:11).

Ezekiel was bent on shocking the spectators with his words, just as much as he shocked them with his silent performances. His exilic audience had endured sieges by enemy armies before, but he stressed that the coming horrors were far worse than anything previous. During the coming siege, the occupants of Jerusalem would become so starved that they would resort to familial cannibalism, family members eating other family members (5:10). Ezekiel reiterated with grim words the drama of his burned, stabbed, and scattered hair, prophesying that a third of the people would die from plague and famine; a third would fall by the sword; and a third would be scattered (5:12).

During the sign-act with the sword, the only abomination Ezekiel named was their defilement of the temple (5:11). The oracle focused more on the full venting of God’s boiling wrath and fury than the specifics of their sins. A righteous God cannot condone any wickedness, rebellion, and desecration. Once Yahweh’s anger was spent and his jealousy satisfied, the people would recognize that he had spoken (5:13). The purpose of unleashing his wrath was to vindicate himself, to shake and wake the people so that they recognized their all-powerful covenant God and returned to him. The covenant people had failed him, so he was going to fail them. In his original purpose and design, he had hoped that Israel would introduce the nations to his glory through their faithfulness. Instead, he had to show his power through their punishment.

Jerusalem was going to become an object of scorn among the nations (5:14). In the decades following her destruction, the nations would pass by the ruins of the temple city and mock it. Hammering home his point, Ezekiel prophesied, “You shall be a mockery and a taunt, a warning and a horror, to the nations around you when I execute judgments on you” (5:15).

Probably still wielding his sword as a symbol of impending war, Ezekiel borrowed the curse language and theology of Leviticus as an explanation for Israel’s punishment (Lev. 26:33-40). Because of their covenant unfaithfulness, they would experience famine, plagues, and attacks by wild animals (5:16-17). Ezekiel did not choose these afflictions at random. Since the Sinaitic covenant, God pronounced the potential curses they would accrue if they were disobedient to the covenant.

A risk for modern Bible readers when studying the condemning words of Ezekiel is to come away with a feeling of superiority over the exilic audience. It is essential when reading the prophets to avoid that pitfall. The message of the prophets catered first to their contemporary audience and was specific to their unique struggles. Yet, their calls to meet God’s standard of justice, ethics, and morality apply to all peoples for all time. Our response in reading Ezekiel should not be to gloat over ancient Israel’s failures or to place a lot of distance between their shortcomings and our own.

The Israelites were held to the highest ethical standard because of the Torah. Christians are held to the highest standard because of the revelation given to us in Jesus. In Paul’s letters, the apostle preached that we are sanctified and justified through the sacrifice of Jesus, but we must live righteously in accordance with our newfound identity in Christ (1 Cor. 6:11). Believers must shed their old selves and embrace their new selves, renewing their minds in the process (Eph. 4:22). Jesus also taught, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required, and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). From the prophets to the epistles, the Bible reminds believers that God must be glorified. Ezekiel’s oracles and sign-acts sound harsh, but at their core, they are a reminder that we have a choice. God will manifest his power either through his people or despite his people.

Thank you for listening and please continue to take part in this Bible Reading Challenge. Next week, we are reading Ezekiel 6.

As the IDF moves the war against Hamas further south, please join me in this prayer for the hostages stuck in Gaza. This is a prayer often recited in Israel over the hostages as the whole country awaits their return. “May the Holy One of Blessing break their bonds, deliver them from their distress, and release them swiftly back to the loving embrace of their dear ones. Do all that must be done so that relief, rescue, and long life may be the lot of every one of the soldiers and the civilians who have been taken hostage.”

Shabbat Shalom