By Shelley Neese

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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.

Guilty mountains

This week we are reading Ezekiel 6. In his previous demonstrations, Ezekiel centered his actions and oracles around his Jerusalem city model. After that drama, God instructed the prophet to turn and address a new audience, the mountains of Israel. God said, “Set your face towards the mountains of Israel and prophesy against them and say: You mountains of Israel, hear the word of the Lord God” (6:2).

Ezekiel certainly could not see the mountains of Israel from the plains of Babylon. In fact, in the low-lying valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Ezekiel would have seen only flat fertile land for miles. As the prophet set his face towards his homeland, he had to conjure up the memory of Israel’s mountain ridge that ran north to south for almost the entire length of the country.

Ezekiel’s address includes the hills, ravines, and valleys. All of Judah’s undulating landscape is in view, including Jerusalem situated on a plateau in Judea’s central highlands. However, Ezekiel did not recall the beauty of his homeland as a sentimental exercise. The prophet, speaking for Yahweh, pronounced, “I myself, will bring a sword upon you. And I will destroy your high places” (6:3).

The mountains often served the prophets in their visual representations of God’s will. Ezekiel’s predecessor, the prophet Micah, rhetorically beseeched the mountains to serve as a jury in the divine courtroom where God was bringing his verdict against the covenant people (Mic. 6:1-2). Ezekiel uses the vivid imagery of Israel’s mountains in the opposite manner. He included them among the accused.

The mountains housed the ritual sites where Israelites had long worshiped pagan deities instead of reserving their loyalty for Yahweh. Littered with idolatry, the mountains were guilty by association. They typified the wickedness that had taken root in the land. Yahweh promised the destruction of every cultic installation (6:4). God was bringing judgment upon the people for their waywardness.

High places versus Jerusalem

Repeatedly, Ezekiel targets the high places, which in Hebrew are called bamah, in the singular,or bamot, in the plural. At the high places, Israelites installed Asherah poles, stone pillars, incense altars and platforms to worship the false gods of their neighbors. They used poles in the fertility rites of the ancient Canaanite goddess Asherah, mother of Baal, to symbolize her presence (Deut. 16:21).

Standing stone pillars, or messebot in Hebrew, were used in Baal worship as a sacred marker of the storm god (2 Kings 10:26-27). According to the biblical narrative, the Israelites also tried to appease Molech—the god that required child sacrifice—and Chemosh—the Moabite’s god (Jer. 32:35; Judges 11:24). Although we credit the descendants of Abraham as being the first tribe to embrace monotheism, their idolatry problems started as soon as they had a land of their own.

When Joshua entered the land of Canaan, God commanded him to conquer every Canaanite city. Instead, the Israelite army stopped short of total victory when each of the tribes had a comfortable allotment of land. Rather than purging the Canaanites entirely and destroying their sacred sites, they settled among the pagans and adopted their false gods (Josh. 23:12-13). Events played out exactly as both Joshua and Moses predicted. By failing to destroy the poles, pillars, altars, and idols, they became barbs in the Israelites’ eyes and thorns in their sides (Num. 33:55). Although the Israelites did not totally abandon Yahweh worship, they blended pagan ritual with their recognition of Yahweh. Scholars refer to their deviation from pure monotheism as syncretism. Ezekiel gave it a more direct label: harlotry (16:15-20).

Before there was a temple, Shiloh housed the tabernacle and its furniture and served as the primary site for Israelite pilgrimage. However, during that time, God permitted the Israelites who lived away from Shiloh to construct open-air sanctuaries, if they were exclusively dedicated to Yahweh (1 Kings 3:2; 1 Sam. 9:12). That all changed once King Solomon finished the First Temple, around 959 BCE. Yahweh worship had to be in Jerusalem from that point, or at least that was the intention.

In one of Moses’s farewell speeches in Deuteronomy, he predicted the day when God would put his name in one place only. He forewarned the Israelites:

But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there. You shall go there, bringing there your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and your donations, your votive gifts, your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks (Deut. 12: 5).

Moses stopped short of naming the location of God’s sanctuary. But he asserted the principle of centralization as an eventual goal of restricting sacrificial worship to one place and protecting the Yahwistic religion.

Despite the magnificence of Solomon’s temple, the people that lived outside Jerusalem often preferred to make sacrifices at their own high places closer to their homes. A hilltop sacrifice was easier than a crowded pilgrimage to Jerusalem and obeying temple regulations.

Archaeologists in Israel have found altars, pillars, and incense stands—dating from the ninth to sixth century BCE—at sites excavated all over Israel. Israelites often repurposed former Canaanite places of worship. They also gave into the temptation to take part in the immoral practices associated with fertility gods and goddesses, like ritual prostitution.

To the prophets, these cultic installations were pure evil. Hosea, preaching to the kingdom of Israel, referred to them as “high places of wickedness” and likened the Israelites who worshiped at the sites to adulterers (Hos. 10:8). Isaiah delivered a similar message to the kingdom of Judah, accusing them in sexualized terms of abandoning Yahweh and opening their beds to other deities (Isa. 57:7-8). Jeremiah despised how the people used high places to burn incense to other gods (Jer. 1:16). He pronounced, “On every high hill and under every green tree you sprawled and prostituted yourself” (Jer. 2:20).

According to 1 and 2 Kings, God judged Judah’s monarchs based on how they dealt with the diffusion of high places. The Judean kings who destroyed the alternative shrines were righteous in the sight of the Lord and the ones who let them multiply were evil in his sight. In 621 BCE, King Josiah tore down the high places and restored Jerusalem as the single place of sacrificial worship and devotion (2 Kings 23). But we learn from Ezekiel that after the righteous king’s untimely death, the Israelites resorted back to idolatry.


Ezekiel gave voice to the Lord’s determination to bring punishment to his people for centuries of infidelity. He admonished, “Your altars shall become desolate, and your incense stands shall be broken, and I will throw down your slain in front of your idols” (6:4). Slaying the people in front of their idols exposed the worthlessness of the statues, poles, and standing stones. They exchanged the supernatural protection of the transcendent God for good luck charms. Baal and Asherah were fertility gods that the Canaanites believed controlled the rains and agricultural productivity.

Because Canaan was often rain-starved and drought-prone, the Israelites could not resist the temptation to cover their bases and pray to whatever deity promised harvests. Yahweh said, “I will lay the corpses of the people of Israel in front of their idols, and I will scatter your bones around your altars” (6:5). Animal bones often surrounded altars from prior sacrificial offering. Ezekiel’s utterance was ironic. The bones of the devotees, not their sacrifices, would encircle the altar.

Presumably, Ezekiel’s exilic audience would recognize his wording as he called back to their foundational covenant. In the covenant renewal ceremony of Leviticus, God outlined the rewards for faithfulness and the penalties for disobedience. He states, “I will destroy your high places, cut down your incense altars and pile your dead bodies on the lifeless forms of your idols, and I will abhor you” (Lev. 26:30). For eight centuries, they took their election for granted and ignored the pending consequences of their disobedience. As a prophet, Ezekiel was not being newly or overly harsh. He was reiterating the terms of the covenant, which should not have been a surprise to his fellow exiles. God said, “they shall know that I am the Lord; I did not threaten in vain to bring this disaster upon them” (6:10).

Instead of using a straightforward term for idols, like statue, Ezekiel refers to idols as gillulim, a rather offensive Hebrew word for round dung. English Bibles still translate gillulim into idols, but that is because the closest translation is not appropriate for sacred scripture. Let me just say that if the NIV included the correct word, the gillulim would hit the fan. By equating idols with dung, he showed how detestable idolatry was to God and how the people were ridiculous to worship something so worthless.

Ezekiel changes tone halfway through the oracle to offer a word of hope to the remnant. Although God promised to punish the wayward, he also assured that he would reward the righteous. In the last sign-act, Ezekiel spared a handful of his hairs from the fire, sword, and wind to represent the remnant (5:3). This brief message of comfort was addressing the remnant that the hairs represented. After escaping death, the righteous remnant would realize the sovereignty and power of their God. Once they remembered the Lord, they would fully repent of their sinful history, and allow themselves to be transformed and renewed (6:9).

God instructed Ezekiel to strike his hands together and stomp his feet (6:11). Our modern ears read joy and exuberance into that type of gesture but given the context, Ezekiel gesticulated out of frustration and anger. In case there was any confusion as to the actual object of God’s judgment, God told the prophet, “Say Alas! for all the vile abominations of the house of Israel” (6:11).

Sword, famine, and plague will nearly obliterate the house of Israel, the three agents of death repeated in Ezekiel’s judgment oracles (5:12, 17; 6:11-12; 7:15). The high places will become desecrated burial grounds. Not only the mountains were connected to cultic worship, but also the wooded clearings, valleys, and hilltops (6:13). Yahweh’s language imitated a jaded spouse, justified in his feelings of betrayal and jealousy.

The oracle closes with the classic biblical recognition formula “Then they shall know that I am the Lord” (6:14). From the despair of judgment, God would bring universal recognition of his name and power. The destruction of Jerusalem was for the sake of God’s own sovereignty.

By this point, you are accustomed to Ezekiel’s oracles ending on a morose note. The first twenty-four chapters beat the drum of judgment. But in the second half of Ezekiel, after Jerusalem’s destruction, Ezekiel will deliver words of comfort. He will even circle back to the mountains of Israel. Rather than the site of Israel’s abominations, the mountains will become a source of the people’s sustenance and protection (34:13-14). The mountains will not be the object of scolding but a beneficiary of his exhortation.

Speaking of words of comfort, please keep modern Israel and Jerusalem in your prayers. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem and her people as she feels more alone and isolated than ever on the world stage.

Thank you for listening and please continue to take part in this Bible Reading Challenge. Next week we are reading Ezekiel 7. The prophet will expand on the oracle of judgment.

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