On The Left Edge

I have not walked on two legs for nearly 40 days. That's not kvetching, mind you, it's just a fact. For a person who has trouble waiting on a microwave, this has been a real test of patience (read here, here, and here to discover how all this came about). Still, I know others have suffered more. 

I can hobble for a while on crutches, but apart from these awkward jaunts, I spend a majority of my time (day and night) lying on my left side. My right hip is immobilized by a steel brace that runs from knee to just under my ribs. Straps with cinching cords prevent me from rolling around or bending. I still wiggle defiantly, however.

Working on my tan for the first day of school.

This view from the left edge gives me pause to reflect on a biblical prophet. Some prophets were eloquent speakers. Others were masters of the written word. Ezekiel was a master of the pantomime. Through theatrical performance he communicated God's message to refugees living far from home. Near the beginning of the book by his name is one the most puzzling pantomimes of them all.

Ezekiel portrays the coming destruction of Jerusalem in a series of acts. First, he takes a clay tablet, and pulling from his own memories, etches the outline of the city on it. Second, he places this embellished tablet on the ground and constructs tiny earthworks and siege machines (of dirt, twigs, and pebbles?) around it. Third, he takes an iron pan (from Mrs Ezekiel's own bread hearth?) and positions it between himself and the diorama he has built. Fourth, he lies down on his side behind the pan as directed by God:

“Lie on your left side and place the sin of the family of Israel on yourself. You will bear their sin for as many days as you lie on your side. The number of days you bear their sin will match the number of years of their sin, namely, 390. For 390 days you will bear the sin of the family of Israel.

Then, after you have done this, turn over and lie down on your right side and bear the sin of the family of Judah. Your assignment this time is to lie there for forty days, a day for each year of their sin. Look straight at the siege of Jerusalem. Roll up your sleeve, shake your bare arm, and preach against her.

I will tie you up with ropes, tie you so you can’t move or turn over until you have finished the days of the siege" (4:4-8, MSG translation).

Ezekiel on edge. The iron pan separates him from his little model of a besieged Jerusalem. Image from here.

Ezekiel's spectacle is disturbing. I try to imagine the questions and controversies it generated among his countrymen. Day after day, his body withering from a self-imposed starvation diet, the prophet mounted this public stage. Taut skin, stained teeth, twined ropes, and white knuckles were on display, but for what reason? What did all this mean?

Ezekiel not only sought to give his countrymen-in-exile a glimpse of things to come, but to explain to them the why behind it all. Congruent with the message of 6th c. BC contemporaries like Jeremiah, Ezekiel demonstrated that Jerusalem had been judged and was doomed to destruction. The surprise here (and one that he also shares with Jeremiah) is that there would be no miraculous rescue this time around (as in 701 BC). God has evacuated Zion (listen to Heaven's helicopter whirl away in Ezek 10!) and is now engineering the end of the city. In fact, one reading of Ezekiel's pantomime suggests that the prophet's position behind the iron pan mimics God's own perspective. The Divine coldly presses the siege Himself. Prayers rising from Jerusalem's inhabitants will not be heard; they merely bounce off the griddle.

God himself besieges Jerusalem. Image from here.

What catches my attention (here on my own left edge) is the command that Ezekiel lie down on one side for a period of days and then roll over and lie on his other side for another period of days. This odd piece is only partially explained by the text. By his action, the prophet is to "carry," or more loosely, "attract" (Heb. nasa') the iniquity of Israel. Such verbiage is reminiscent of Torah language elsewhere. As examples, note how folks must be careful not to carry iniquity lest they die (see Exo 28:43, Num 18:22) or, more pointedly, note how the scapegoat carries iniquity into the wilderness (Lev 16:22). Through this action--described in carefully chosen language--Ezekiel participates in a recognized activity of sin-bearing. Appropriately, he suffers.

Using the compass of the ancient world, Ezekiel must lay before his little diorama on his left side. Toes go to the east. Nose goes to the north, towards the liquidated Kingdom of Israel. Their accumulated iniquity was well-known and enormous. For 390 days (more than one year!), Ezekiel was obliged to carry the weight of their guilt. Then, he must shift to his right side and symbolically face the soon-to-be defunct Kingdom of Judah. In this posture he must endure another forty day period.

Some readers of this text fuss over whether this demonstration should be understood literally (Ezekiel never rose from the spot) or more figuratively. I believe the latter to be the case. The fact that he prepares food in the verses that follow suggests that there was some temporary reprieve from the pantomime. It was, after all, a dramatic display intended to communicate to others. I'm only guessing here, but perhaps Ezekiel assumed his public post every morning and abandoned it every night.

I sincerely hope this was the case anyway. Lying for nearly forty days on one side constricted by cord and strap is taking its toll on my own mind and body. Despite the pain of physical therapy (as many are wont to tell me), I welcome its coming. It means I am moving again. It means I may be able to roll to my right side again. It means I may be able to bend at the waist. Tomorrow is my first follow-up visit with the surgeon's office. Hopefully, we will emerge with a plan hobbling forward.

A Pompeii cast from the ashy excavations in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, southern Italy. Image from here.

In the meantime, we are left with Ezekiel 4 and more questions than answers. What is the meaning of the number of days? Do they count forward or backward? Are they to be considered concurrently or sequentially? More importantly, how was this pantomime received by Ezekiel's contemporaries? What is the relationship between this and other pantomimes in the book?

A quick glimpse at Ezekiel may suggest that he belongs in the theater of the absurd. The slow read from beginning to end, however, reveals just the opposite. Old Jerusalem is abandoned and destroyed. But another, a future and more glorious version, is inhabited and renamed Adonai-shammah, "The LORD is there."