The Strange Diet

‘Now, son of man, take a block of clay, put it in front of you and draw the city of Jerusalem on it. Then lay siege to it: erect siege works against it, build a ramp up to it, set up camps against it and put battering-rams around it. Then take an iron pan, place it as an iron wall between you and the city and turn your face towards it. It will be under siege, and you shall besiege it. This will be a sign to the people of Israel.
‘Then lie on your left side and put the sin of the people of Israel upon yourself. You are to bear their sin for the number of days you lie on your side. I have assigned you the same number of days as the years of their sin. So for 390 days you will bear the sin of the people of Israel.
‘After you have finished this, lie down again, this time on your right side, and bear the sin of the people of Judah. I have assigned you 40 days, a day for each year. Turn your face towards the siege of Jerusalem and with bared arm prophecy against her. I will tie you up with ropes so that you cannot turn from one side to the other until you have finished the days of your siege.
‘Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself. You are to eat it during the 390 days you lie on your side. Weigh out twenty shekels of food to eat each day and eat it at set times. Also measure out a sixth of a hin of water and drink it at set times. Eat the food as you would a loaf of barley bread; bake it in the sight of the people, using human excrement for fuel.’ The Lord said, ‘In this way the people of Israel will eat defiled food among the nations where I will drive them.’
Then I said, ‘Not so, Sovereign Lord! I have never defiled myself. From my youth until now I have never eaten anything found dead or torn by wild animals. No impure meat has ever entered my mouth.’
‘Very well,’ he said, ‘I will let you bake your bread over cow dung instead of human excrement.’
He then said to me: ‘Son of man, I am about to cut off the food supply in Jerusalem. The people will eat rationed food in anxiety and drink rationed water in despair, for food and water will be scarce. They will be appalled at the sight of each other and will waste away because of their sin.’
Ezekiel ch. 4

In a previous study I discussed the various theories with regard to whether Ezekiel lay continuously on his side without rising, or whether he lived a nocturnal life, moving normally at night and preparing his food and so on.

When you look at the whole passage, it certainly seems that Ezekiel was not continuously on his side. He had to prepare food – an unusual mixture of seeds from which to prepare a bread. He had to collect and make a fire with cow dung over which to bake the bread (he probably used one of the clay ovens that is raised on legs, under which you make a fire, which is a method that is still used in some parts of the world today). He had to measure out specific amounts of the mixture for the dough. He needed to measure specific amounts of water to drink. And in addition he needed to do this at set times. We are not told when those times are, but I can imagine it was sunset and sunrise and some kept by his side to eat in the middle of the day when he was lying. You may have other ideas, but it would certainly be times to help fit in with the whole scene that God was setting.

There is something about the mixture for the dough that reminds me of the story of Daniel and his 3 friends, who were selected from among the Israelite children and brought to Babylon to be educated. In that story, the children refused to eat rich food and only ate pulses and water. Pulses includes beans and lentils. God honoured the boys by making them healthier and stronger than the other boys. Any dietitian or nutritionist will be able to tell you that you can, indeed, survive on a diet like this but that they would not expect you to be healthier than someone on a wide variety of mixed foods in a balanced diet. So there had to be something else going on here – some divine intervention.

Ezekiel was already adult, he had passed his thirtieth birthday, and so was not having to feed a developing body, and so the diet he was being restricted to would certainly keep him alive for the year and a third he would be lying on the ground. We are not told about his health after this, only that the next task came quite quickly. But this is an unusual mix to make bread from, and has a wider variety of nutrients in it than normal bread. So, although some vitamins and minerals that we consider essential today were lacking, over this period of time Ezekiel would not have suffered too much because of his diet.

But there is more to explain here. What is a shekel for instance? It is actually a unit of currency, a silver coin. This coin was also used as a weight on scales, against which commodities were weighed. The shekel was used as currency in several cultures in the middle east over a long period of time, and the size and weight of the coin was not constant. So it is impossible to give an exact conversion to modern weights and so to know exactly how much. There are quoted variances from as little as 6 grams to 16 grams. Many think that 10 or 11 grams is a fair estimate for the weight of the shekel used on a balance. So the bread that Ezekiel ate was made from more than 200 grams of the seed mixture, and most likely not more than 300 grams.

We are told Ezekiel was to eat this for 390 days, and so we have a maximum weight in the storage jar of 117 kilograms. To make the bread, Ezekiel would need to mill the grain together, grinding it to powder, and then mix it with some water to make a dough. I don’t know of any proper estimate of the calorific value of this food, but I would guess this is less than what is normally required as a daily intake for a man. So, as the days passed, Ezekiel would likely feel more hungry. But, other than the work to gather cow dung and prepare the dough, there was very little activity for Ezekiel over this time. He was going to be laying down most of the time. So at least the energy requirements were less than normal.

The next measure that is unfamiliar is the hin. Ezekiel was to drink a sixth of a hin per day. Apparently this measure was commonly used by both the ancient Israelites and the ancient Babylonians, and so we have direct archaeological evidence to help us. The accepted size of a hin was 3.667 litres. So a sixth of a hin would be 611 millilitres – about two thirds of a litre. Considering the hot country that Ezekiel was in, this is really not very much water at all per day.

Many have suggested that there are a variety of reasons for saying that Ezekiel chose a sheltered place. To be lying down without turning in the direct sun, especially in the summer, would be very dangerous. So perhaps a canopy was set up to be over the siege and place where Ezekiel was lying down. Or maybe he was in the shelter of trees, or a nearby building. We know that he was not too far from a river, so it was not a desert area we are talking about.

But however it was, protection from the sun and from overheating would certainly be something to consider with such a limited intake of water. Again, this can be enough to survive, but not to stay healthy. So one must either assume the care of God, or again, that the main purpose of this was display to the Israelites and that, perhaps, rules were more relaxed at night.

In this particular case, I favour that God was helping Ezekiel remain healthy, because a siege was being represented here. And the way Ezekiel was eating was like a demonstration of having to survive on rationed supplies (although I would think that a loaf of bread each day was more than the ration given out in Jerusalem during the siege). Others argue that, as Ezekiel was the one laying siege to Jerusalem, so he was representing God’s judgement against his people. And the army laying siege to Jerusalem was certainly not short of food or water. But then I don’t think this explanation makes sense, because Ezekiel was told to bake over dung as a representation of defiled food that the Israelites would be eating. So Ezekiel was representing the Israelites, despite the way the picture scenario was set up.

One last thing to notice about the diet of Ezekiel, and there is nothing in scripture to help us about this. The restricted diet, the rations, were for 390 days. This matches the 390 days that Ezekiel was to lie on his left side, representing the 390 years of the sin of Israel. But after this he was to lie down for another 40 days on his right side, to represent the years of the sin of Judah. We are told nothing about the diet of Ezekiel during this time.

Of course, the fate of Judah was different. They were destroyed and taken into captivity quite quickly. There was no lengthy siege with people starving, like was happening to Jerusalem at the time of this scripture. So there are two possible alternatives here. The first is that Ezekiel was to have a fast for 40 days, something that we read of other people doing elsewhere in the bible. The other interpretation is that Ezekiel could eat normally again. There can be seen to be good reasons for adopting either interpretation. I favour normal eating, because Ezekiel had been on rations for 390 days and so would not have the normal strength or fitness to begin 40 days of fasting.

And again, one can take the view that there was divine intervention in the strengthening of Ezekiel, although, unlike in other parts of scripture with other people, we are not directly given any reason to think so (for instance in the case of Elijah who went on a long journey of many days on the strength of a single meal).

And what can we learn from all of this? The simple answer is this: Ezekiel demonstrates for us the willingness to listen to God and to do as he asks. The only exception was with his challenge about defiled and unclean food. And in that is also a lesson – that we can speak with God without fear about the things that trouble us, even if those things are what God himself asks of us.

We are not promised a bed of roses in this life, not even as God’s people and members of his family.

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