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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.

Last week, we studied Ezekiel’s call narrative, the longest and most dramatic commissioning of the prophets. Finally, in Chapter 4, Ezekiel switched from spectator to participant and delivered the invective. He had terrible news for his contemporaries. As he experienced a series of visions and performed various sign-acts, all his oracles forecasted the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of those who remained in Judah.

Prophetic sign-acts pop up frequently in the Major and Minor Prophets. They were real-life dramatizations that represented divine messages. I think of them as prophetic versions of immersive theater with object lessons. Knowing humans are visual, auditory, and tactile learners, God used all three communication methods to shake the covenant people out of their spiritual apathy. Elijah, Elisha, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah all performed sign-acts during their careers to reinforce their primary message. However, no prophet relied on sign-acts more than Ezekiel. This probably had something to do with the fact that he was also the prophet that God struck dumb.

God commanded Ezekiel to “take a brick and set it before you” and “on it portray a city, Jerusalem” (4:1). When imagining Ezekiel’s brick, do not picture a small, hardened, modern brick. It was more likely the size of a large tile or building block. Because God told Ezekiel to inscribe the brick, the clay must have not yet dried and hardened in the sun, according to typical Babylonian construction methods. Although the text does not indicate the level of Ezekiel’s artisanship, the prophet drew from memory a blueprint of his hometown, Jerusalem. God also instructed him to build models of siege equipment, possibly out of sticks, clay, or straw. Encircling the visual aid of Jerusalem was a miniature siege wall, a ramp, enemy encampments, and battering rams (4:2). According to Babylonian war tactics, the siege wall prevented escape during the siege, and the battering rams broke down the city’s gates and walls. In my imagination, Ezekiel engaged in a one-player version of the board game Risk.

Yahweh then instructed Ezekiel to take an iron griddle and place it between himself and the Jerusalem model (4:3). The griddle represented the impenetrable barrier between Yahweh and Jerusalem. When the Babylonians attacked, God would not protect the city from within. Instead, he oversaw its destruction from outside the walls. This act was a “sign for the house of Israel” that when the Babylonians eventually laid siege to Jerusalem, God would be out of sight and out of reach (4:3). Ezekiel was told “set your face toward it” as a sign that God was going to enable the siege and had no will to relieve it, a terrifying thought to Ezekiel’s observers (4:3).

Recall that part of Ezekiel’s commissioning rendered him tongue-tied unless God spoke directly through him (3:27). Knowing his handicap, it is unclear if he mimed the entire scene for spectators or if God allowed him to speak so he could verbally narrate the meaning behind the model. His observers would have recognized Jerusalem’s unique outline on the brick. Only five years from the trauma of their own deportation, they also would have easily identified the attacking army and siege equipment as Babylonian. What would have required explanation was the iron griddle and the thought that Jerusalem was going to be destroyed at Yahweh’s behest. The covenant people’s rebellion led Yahweh to set his sights on destroying his own beloved city and temple.

Next in the series of sign-acts, God told Ezekiel to lie on his left side and “place the guilt of the house of Israel upon it; you shall bear their guilt for the number of the days that you lie there” (4:4). As a trained priest, Ezekiel understood God’s terminology. The duty of the priest was to mediate between God and the people (Lev. 10:17). To Yahweh, the priest represented the people. To the people, the priest represented Yahweh. Every year on the Day of Atonement, for example, the High Priest ceremonially transferred the people’s guilt to a goat through the laying on of hands before its ritual sacrifice (Lev. 16:15-16). Only with that once-a-year ceremony could the priests ritually atone for their collective sins.

As the priest appointed to vicariously bear the exiles’ iniquities, Ezekiel’s suffering was in proportion to their sin. For the house of Israel, Ezekiel was told to lie on his left side for exactly 390 days, with each day representing a year. As God explained, 390 was “equal to the number of the years of their guilt” (4:5). Presuming that 586 BCE marked the end of their period of guilt with the climax of their punishment, scholars count back 390 years looking for the triggering moment that brought on their period of guilt. Around 976 BCE, King Solomon completed the First Temple. Was God asserting that for the entire duration of the First Temple, 390 years, Judeans lived in rebellion against him? According to the biblical narratives, when the temple stood, many refused to devote their worship to Yahweh alone. Perhaps Yahweh condemned the entire four centuries.

After laying on his left side for over a year, God told Ezekiel to “bear the guilt of the house of Judah” for forty days by lying on his right side (4:7). It sounds as if Ezekiel was referring to the two different political kingdoms of Israel and Judah, respectively known as the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. However, well over a century had passed since the Northern Kingdom was destroyed. Even when the Kingdom of Israel existed, it lasted only two centuries (931–722 BCE).

It is confusing for Bible readers to track the different uses of Israel and Judah. The postexilic prophets—Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, and Ezekiel—often used the term Israel to refer to all of God’s people, not just the former political kingdom. However, the preexilic prophets most often used Israel and Judah to distinguish between the two sister kingdoms. Part of knowing the meaning of the term is knowing when the prophets fell on the biblical timeline. Almost always, Ezekiel used the term house of Israel to refer to all the remaining descendants of Jacob. To Ezekiel, Israel and Judah were synonymous.

Ezekiel’s second duration of laying on his side, 40 days, was much shorter than the 390-day demonstration. Most scholars speculate that the 40-day period was symbolic of the Babylonian exile, even if technically their time in exile was a little longer. In the Bible, the number forty was associated with periods of judgment. For example, while Noah was on the Ark, the rains lasted forty days and forty nights (Gen. 7:12). When Jonah preached repentance to the wicked Ninevites, he told them they had forty days before judgment (Jon. 3:4). God forced the Israelites who escaped Egypt to wander the wilderness without entering the promised land for forty years as a punishment for their lack of faith (Num. 14:34). Forty years guaranteed the passing of one generation and the emergence of a new, more faithful, generation. By Ezekiel’s assesment, 40 years of exile in Babylon would serve as the punishment for 390 years of rebellion.

Ezekiel’s 40 days on his right side were intended to be an earth-shattering oracle to his exilic audience. God even had the prophet use threatening body language by bearing his arm (4:7). Since the exiles’ deportation, they had eagerly expected returning to their native country. However, Ezekiel was communicating through his sign-act that their generation would die off before a new generation could return to Jerusalem.

In yet another symbolic act, God instructed Ezekiel to gather flour from four grains and two legumes to make a small loaf of bread. This is the second time in the chapter that God told Ezekiel to retrieve something (4:1, 9). Even though God had him relegated to lying on his side for well over a year, he must have also been able to get up and move a fair amount.

Biblical scholars interpret the strange bread recipe as representative of what the inhabitants in Jerusalem would eat once Babylonian forces surrounded their city. To make bread, they would scramble together all that remained from the bottom of their food storage barrels. The mixture was unsavory but edible, indicative of a siege diet.

While Ezekiel laid on his side, he was told to eat only “twenty shekels a day” of food and “one-sixth of a hin” of water, which translates in modern measurements to eight ounces of food and less than a quart of water (4:10). The rations imitated the near starvation that would overtake Jerusalem during the Babylonian siege. Restricting individual water intake would be another reality of life under siege.

Ezekiel began prophesying in 593 BCE, several years before the Babylonians surrounded Jerusalem for the last time. Conducting a siege was a brilliant war tactic. A starving population is likely to surrender before an attack is even necessary. Nebuchadnezzar drew out the siege of Jerusalem for two years. By the time the Babylonians attacked, the whole population was starved and weak. The book of Lamentations, documenting the effects of the siege on Jerusalem’s residents, described once compassionate mothers boiling their children for food (Lam. 4:10). Jeremiah confessed, “happier were those pierced by the sword than those pierced by hunger” (Lam. 4:9).

To symbolize the contaminating effects of living in captivity, Yahweh told Ezekiel to cook a barley cake over a fire fueled from human waste (4:12). Interpreting the sign-act, God said, “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread, unclean, among the nations to which I will drive them” (4:13). For the first time, Ezekiel pushed back on one of God’s bizarre requests of him. He reminded God that he was a priest and that since his youth and throughout his captivity, he had stayed pure, refusing forbidden foods. Not only was the idea of human waste repulsive, according to the laws of the Torah, human waste was unclean and had to be buried a decent distance outside of the Israelite camp (Deut. 23:12-14).

Kindly, Yahweh relented and lessened the severity of the sign-act. Ezekiel’s reasoning was pure-hearted. He wanted to obey God’s commands of him as a prophet, but he could not do so by disobeying the covenant laws. Instead of human waste, God told Ezekiel he could cook his barley cake over cow manure, a more commonly used source for fuel (4:15). Ezekiel’s cooking demonstration shamed his spectators, making them aware of the impurities they were accruing by living in a foreign land.

Surely, the curiosity of Ezekiel’s onlookers mounted with each passing day that he remained on his side, eating barely enough to survive. Dramatic street theater, rather than lengthy sermons, had more potential to go viral and spread the message of doom throughout the exilic community. The first series of actions represented the coming siege of the city of Jerusalem (4:1-8). In the second series, the suffering of those living in Jerusalem during the siege was portrayed as an even darker charade (4:9-17).

As Ezekiel grew skinnier and weaker, he surely attracted attention. The text later shows that fellow exiles visited the prophet in his home as a curious sideshow, even if they did not take his rebuke seriously (33:30-33). As the signs of malnourishment became clearer some were likely moved by his sacrifice, while his stubbornness angered others.

The exiles had family and friends back in Jerusalem. Since their capture, they naively believed that they would be released from captivity and return to Jerusalem, but Ezekiel admonished them; they had it backwards. All of Judah was about to land in Babylon because nothing would be left of their beloved city, Jerusalem. The good news was that God also abided with the exiles in Babylon! Ezekiel had seen the divine throne chariot by the River Chebar. He knew that they were not abandoned.

Next week, we are reading Ezekiel 5. The prophet will continue with the dramatic sign-acts and accompany them with a powerful message of rebuke. Because the prophet is often mute, when he spoke, he did so with force.

Please keep the nation of Israel in your prayers as the country continues to accomplish its war goal of eradicating Hamas. And please pray for the release of all the hostages who remain in Gaza without any visitation from the Red Cross. While I am reading about the depression that has set in among Ezekiel’s fellow exiles in Babylon, I think about the hostages in Gaza. I pray that like Ezekiel, they are comforted by God’s presence even in their captivity.

For all the Biblical references each week, please see the show transcript on our blog or by signing up for our emails at I do not say all the references in the podcast but they are all in the transcript.

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Shabbat Shalom and Am Israel Chai