Ezekiel is the prophet of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians.
In the first chapters of the book, he was given the task of explaining this event to his people.
At the beginning of his mission, Ezekiel was committed to a period of housebound silence.
In keeping with this commitment, he presents his first message to the people as a drama in mime.
This drama has three scenes.
He shows a siege
He is told to take a brick (presumably a tile which has not yet been baked), and use it to portray the shape of a city. It should resemble Jerusalem
as far as can be managed.
He is to “put siegeworks against it”, and erect a mound against the wall. These could have been part of the portrait, but I think the meaning is
that he is to dig them in the sand in the sight of the fascinated observers. Any British child could have lent him a bucket and spade for the
He is to set up an iron plate between himself and the portrayed city and “set his face toward it” (with the angriest-looking scowl that he can
manage?). This represents the aggressive spirit with which the attack will be conducted.
In short, “let it be in a state of siege”.
He shows a period of punishment
He is told to lie on his left side, “and I will lay the punishment [ or “iniquity”] of the house of Israel upon you”.
For a further period, he is to lie upon his right side, to bear the punishment of the house of Judah.
“Left and right” in Hebrew also mean “north and south”, which seems to confirm that God is talking about the two kingdoms..
Meanwhile, he is to continue setting his face towards the city, with his arm bared, and he is to “prophesy against the city”. If he is still in
silence, then the “prophesying” can be done in dumb show, with the help of the accusing arm.
He will be still “in cords”, so that he cannot move from one side to another, as long as the siege lasts. However, this can’t be as absolute as
it sounds, as the very terms of the description oblige him to turn from his left side to his right side at least once.
This undermines the modern suggestion that Ezekiel is suffering from a disability of “natural” origin.
The first period is 390 days, and the second 40 days, each representing a number of years.
They can’t be consecutive, though, because then the full siege period (even without the week of “sitting there overwhelmed”) would not fit
between the two dates given in the text; the fifth day of the fourth month of the fifth year (ch1 vv1-2) and the same day in the sixth month of the
sixth year (ch8 v1). Evidently these sentences “are to be served concurrently”, as the judge would say.
The “forty years” is a symbolic number, suggesting a time of exile equating with the time which the Israelites spent in the wilderness. Jeremiah
prefers to talk about “seventy years”, which has a different kind of symbolic meaning.
The actual interval between the fall of Jerusalem and the fall of Babylon was forty-eight years, which ought to be a warning to anyone trying to
impose literal meanings on these things.
The longer period is more puzzling.
As a symbolic number, might it be forty days added on to a roughly-estimated lunar year?
If it represents a time of exile for the northern kingdom, it might end at the same time as the forty years for Judah.
The problem is that a starting date three hundred and fifty years before the fall of Jerusalem would be much too early. Though I’ve seen the
suggestion that the figure “390” should be read as “190”, which would be about right.
Or does their exile continue after Judah returns (which is what happens in history)?
Another proposition is that the 390 days do not relate to the other kingdom, nor to a time of punishment.
They are for the nation of Israel as a whole, which is what “house of Israel” means in the previous chapter.
And they represent the period of the sin
and the idolatry of Israel, going all the way back to the building of Solomon’s Temple.
He shows a famine
For the whole period that Ezekiel spends lying on his side, the whole of the 390 days, his food supply is to be restricted.
On a daily basis, he is to measure out his grain, twenty shekels by weight (about eight ounces?), and a couple of pints of water, and that is to be
This represents the shortages that will be felt by the inhabitants of Jerusalem, as the siege progresses- “I will break the staff of bread in
The grain is to be made into a cake and cooked over dung, premising that this is the only available fuel. God specifies human dung, in the first
instance, but allows Ezekiel to substitute animal dung when the prophet protests.
This last detail is also representing what will happen when the inhabitants are being taken into exile, perhaps even after they arrive- “Thus shall
the people of Israel eat their bread unclean, among the nations whither I will drive them”.
Even if they have cooking utensils for the food (as they might not, on the outward march), they will still be contaminated by their fuel, ritually
isolated from their God. That will be part of the punishment.
These three scenes, between them, constitute Ezekiel’s “siege”.
But when the scenes are taken in combination, there is an obvious difficulty.
The immobility imposed in the second scene is quite incompatible with the activity demanded by the other two scenes, the siege works and the food
measuring. Are we, then, to take it as purely notional?
I’m going to suggest that Ezekiel’s “siege” prophecy was acted out in this way;
On a daily basis, for the whole term of 390 days, each of these three scenes was enacted, in turn, during a portion of the day.
First, Ezekiel tinkered for a while with the “siege works”, making further progress from the point where he had left them the day before.
Then there was a period when he was lying on his left, making dumb show “prophecy against the city”. On forty of those days, he was turned round
and spent another period lying on his right.
Then he got up, measured out his food and cooked it, and drank his water.
All this was happening at least three years before the historical siege began, long before the rebellion which provoked the siege.
In other words, Ezekiel was demonstrating to observers what would happen in the future.
edit on 19-1-2018 by DISRAELI because: (no reason given)