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  • Writer's pictureMark Bocanegra

Baking on human dung  for the sake of the Gospel.

I was planning to share a little about what kind of team I'm praying for in the future; however, as I was reading through Ezekiel for my personal devotions--with the help of Ian Duguid's wonderful commentary on Ezekiel (NIVAC)--I was convicted by Ezekiel's passion, commitment, and faithfulness in delivering the message of God to hard, rebellious, stubborn people. As a missionary-pastor who is still growing as a preacher, Duguid's insights into Ezekiel 4 were mindblowing. Too often, I think of contextualization of the Gospel as making something unpalatable, more palatable, by the use of clever illustration, culturally appropriated analogies, and impeccable delivery. However, as I read, Duguid's exposition of Ezekiel 4, I was deeply convicted of my shallow view of contextualization. I had basically had three misconceptions. 1) I thought contextualization was merely about making the "goodness" of Good News more pronounced. However, by the example of Ezekiel, the prophet is called to contextualize the Bad News as well! We are called to illustrate vividly the dire situation we are in as well--even if people don't want to hear it. 2) I thought contextualization was merely about how we communicate the Gospel. However, by the example of Ezekiel and Jesus, the prophet is called to contextualize the message of God in his very being. That the Word must be accompanied by action that illustrate and are in accordance to the Gospel. 3) I thought contextualization was trying to avert or cushion the "shock" of the Gospel. However, by the example of Ezekiel, contextualization is supposed to present the "shock" of the Gospel in the most penetrating, "in-your-face," and surprising way in order to get the attention of our hearers. Here are excerpts of Duguid's reflections that sparked these thoughts. Ezekiel 4:1-17 Ezek. 4:1 “And you, son of man, take a brick and lay it before you, and engrave on it a city, even Jerusalem. 2 And put siegeworks against it, and build a siege wall against it, and cast up a mound against it. Set camps also against it, and plant battering rams against it all around. 3 And you, take an iron griddle, and place it as an iron wall between you and the city; and set your face toward it, and let it be in a state of siege, and press the siege against it. This is a sign for the house of Israel. Ezek. 4:4 “Then lie on your left side, and place the punishment of the house of Israel upon it. For the number of the days that you lie on it, you shall bear their punishment. 5 For I assign to you a number of days, 390 days, equal to the number of the years of their punishment. So long shall you bear the punishment of the house of Israel. 6 And when you have completed these, you shall lie down a second time, but on your right side, and bear the punishment of the house of Judah. Forty days I assign you, a day for each year. 7 And you shall set your face toward the siege of Jerusalem, with your arm bared, and you shall prophesy against the city. 8 And behold, I will place cords upon you, so that you cannot turn from one side to the other, till you have completed the days of your siege. Ezek. 4:9 “And you, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and emmer, and put them into a single vessel and make your bread from them. During the number of days that you lie on your side, 390 days, you shall eat it. 10 And your food that you eat shall be by weight, twenty shekels a day; from day to day you shall eat it. 11 And water you shall drink by measure, the sixth part of a hin; from day to day you shall drink. 12 And you shall eat it as a barley cake, baking it in their sight on human dung.” 13 And the LORD said, “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread unclean, among the nations where I will drive them.” 14 Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I have never defiled myself. From my youth up till now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by beasts, nor has tainted meat come into my mouth.” 15 Then he said to me, “See, I assign to you cow’s dung instead of human dung, on which you may prepare your bread.” 16 Moreover, he said to me, “Son of man, behold, I will break the supply of bread in Jerusalem. They shall eat bread by weight and with anxiety, and they shall drink water by measure and in dismay. 17 I will do this that they may lack bread and water, and look at one another in dismay, and rot away because of their punishment. Ian Duguid on Ezekiel 4 (Excerpts) Meaning IN EZEKIEL 1–3, we saw how the prophet was called and commissioned to bring a message to his people. There were hints throughout that the message, when it came, would not be good news. The Lord appeared in the form of the divine warrior, ready to deliver judgment, and he came from the north, like Israel’s traditional enemies. In the face of this impending danger, Ezekiel was appointed as a watchman, to cry out a warning of the wrath to come. But just how bad is the bad news? The full extent of the bad news begins to become clear in the first message Ezekiel is given to deliver to the exiles (chs. 4–5), which is made up of a series of related symbolic actions, or “sign-acts,” along with their explanation. The first of Ezekiel’s sign-acts symbolizes the siege of the city of Jerusalem and the reason for it. He is to take a clay brick (perhaps the size of one or two sheets of standard 8–1/2” x 11” paper),1and draw on it a map or picture of Jerusalem. Having created this visual model, he was to “lay siege to it” (4:1–2). The extent of the depiction of the siege with its accompanying siege works, ramps, army camps, and battering rams seems to have a deliberate element of overkill in it; clearly this was no halfhearted effort but the extension of the entire might of the Babylonian army to crush errant Jerusalem. Yet something more is at work in the onslaught than Babylonian imperialism. In Ezekiel’s depiction, the invisible aggressor who stands behind the Babylonians becomes visible. Acting the part of the Lord, Ezekiel is to set up a large iron plate between himself and the city (4:3), symbolizing the cutting off of relationships between God and his people. There is now no channel by which the people can communicate with God, even if they wanted to do so... At this point the sign changes to a new, though related figure, in which the prophet shifts into the role of siege victim. This sign-act is more complex than the previous one, not so much in terms of the act described, which is straightforward enough,3but of interpretation. The prophet is instructed to lie first on his left side for 390 days, “bear[ing] the sin [tissāʾ ʾet–ʾᵃwōnām] of the house of Israel,” then to lie on his right side for forty days, “bear[ing] the sin of the house of Judah” (4:4–6). While in a prone position, he is to continue to prophesy against Jerusalem (4:7), and he is to subsist on siege rations (4:9–17). The latter is a near-starvation diet, a mere eight ounces per day of an unpalatable mixture of grains and legumes, along with two-thirds quart of water (4:9–11). According to Moshe Greenberg, the strange mixture symbolizes a situation where the scarcity was such that no one kind of grain was plentiful enough on its own to make a whole loaf. He also records an interesting experiment carried out in the third century A.D. that apparently demonstrated that even a dog would not eat Ezekiel’s bread!4 Not only were the rations small and unappetizing, Ezekiel was further instructed (at first) to prepare them by baking them over human excrement, a way that would have rendered him ceremonially unclean—representing the unclean food that the Israelites would eat in exile. This would be particularly abhorrent to a priest like Ezekiel. However, in response to Ezekiel’s protest, the Lord permitted the prophet to substitute animal dung as the fuel... It is clear that Ezekiel’s “bearing sin” for the people has no substitutionary purpose. The siege and destruction of Jerusalem are not averted by his sufferings. Thus, throughout his period of prostration he is to continue prophesying against Jerusalem with bared forearm and set face (Ezek. 4:7). The purpose of his action is to illustrate the accumulation of the people’s sin rather than to be effective in removing that sin. In this respect, his action is comparable to the whole Old Testament sacrificial system, which, according to the writer to the Hebrews, could not effectively remove sin (Heb. 10:1–11), but rather served as “an illustration for the present time” (9:9). By this means, Ezekiel is to communicate graphically to the people the weight of the accumulated burden of their history of sin as the cause for the impending conflagration [Ezek, p. 78] of Jerusalem and the exile of the people in a land not their own. The punishment for that sin is coming upon them with full force, no matter what the optimistic false prophets may be saying (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). SIGN-ACTS OF the prophets. One of the great difficulties for the contemporary reader of Ezekiel is the outlandish nature of his behavior. We are uncomfortable with extreme commitments to religious beliefs, identifying those as typical of the “cults.” If one of our relatives were to behave similarly to Ezekiel under the influence of his or her religious beliefs, we would probably seek some means of “deprogramming” that person... Of course, we should not make the mistake of thinking that Ezekiel’s behavior was considered normal in his society either. By their standards too, his behavior was distinctly odd. But, unlike us, they would not have found it hard to believe that someone should be so taken up by the message he had received from God that it became the sole determining reality in his life... Ezekiel’s sign-acts are not diagrams on overhead projector slides with which he helps the slow-witted capture a difficult theological idea. They are “affective aids,” aimed not at people’s eyes but at their hearts and wills, the seat of their “affections.” They are designed not merely to help people see the truth, but to feel the truth. In the same way as the sacraments are not merely visual aids to the gospel but are “signs and seals of the covenant of grace,”17 so also the sign-acts are given not so much to clarify the message of the prophet as to drive it home to the people’s hearts. Ezekiel’s communication style. Why, though, should the presence of sign-acts be “particularly characteristic of Ezekiel”? Why, out of all the prophets, should he have been required to act out his message so frequently? Perhaps it is due to the especially difficult communication task that faced this prophet. Up until the fall of Jerusalem, he had to preach a message of that city’s destruction to a people who believed it inviolable; after its fall, he had to communicate a vision of hope to a people tempted to despair. To a people well supplied with prophets telling them what they wanted to hear, Ezekiel had to say what God wanted them to hear, a task likened to being surrounded by briers and thorns and sitting on scorpions (Ezek. 2:6). To get his message across, Ezekiel adopted some extreme measures at the Lord’s command, including the performance of an unusually large number of sign-acts, which not only reinforced the content of his message but also underlined the extent of his self-commitment to the message.19 One might think of similarities to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s in the United States. Speeches were all very well, but dramatic actions such as boycotting the buses or breaking the rules against eating at “all-white” lunch counters had more impact on the unconverted. They were much harder to ignore. Ezekiel’s communication style was as unique as his situation. He had swallowed the word of God, and now that message “took flesh” before the eyes of the exiles in the visible form of the acted-out scene of judgment on [Ezek, p. 81] Jerusalem. No one could doubt his commitment to communicate that message, even though it would fall on deaf ears. The form of communication was ideal for a potentially hostile audience: a graphic, “in-your-face” message that would not easily be forgotten. The ultimate sign-act. The real significance of the prophetic sign-acts emerges when we ask the question, “How did God communicate his wrath and his love to a lost and dying world?” He did so through the ultimate prophetic sign-act of the Incarnation, whereby the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, not to act out a ten-minute dramatic sketch but to live in our midst for thirty-three years. God did not merely put on human costume, he became a human being. The culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry was the profound sign-act of the cross, where God’s wrath and mercy met. There that wrath was visibly depicted as the Sinless One was abandoned by God the Father. Just as Jerusalem was once abandoned by God because of her sins, so also Jesus was abandoned by God because of his people’s sins. Jesus was not playacting when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)... The cross is an “in-your-face” message of God’s love and his wrath, his justice and his grace. That is why the message of the crucified Christ is a stumbling block and foolishness to many (1 Cor. 1:23). It refuses to trivialize sin, insisting that only the death of the Son of God was sufficient to atone for it. It refuses to compromise with our cozy delusions of adequacy, whereby we fondly imagine that our best efforts will be enough to satisfy the demands of God’s holy law. It refuses to flatter our religious pride that demands a complicated scheme of salvation that allows us to earn our way to heaven. In but not of the world. But the cross is not simply something that has been borne for us, it is also something that we are called on to bear (Matt. 10:38). God’s “wonderful plan for your life” may easily involve suffering or even martyrdom for the sake of Jesus. Like Ezekiel, we are to be totally taken up by the message with which we have been entrusted. Many people will find our behavior odd in consequence, as we seek to remain pure in a world that is not our home... At the same time as our lives may be too pure for the taste of those outside the kingdom, we are not to be so separate from sinners in our desire for holiness that we fail to share the gospel with them. In the New Testament, the apostle Peter had a similar vision to Ezekiel’s, in which he too was commanded to eat unclean food (Acts 10:13). His response echoed that of Ezekiel: “Surely not, Lord! … I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” (10:14). But unlike Ezekiel, he is instructed not to call impure that which God has made clean (10:15). This vision, so important to the book of Acts that it is related three times, forms the theological basis for the mission to the Gentiles. The old laws of cleanliness, with their emphasis on separation from that which was unclean, had now been transformed on the basis of the new revelation in Jesus. As a result, the doors of the kingdom are now thrown open to “unclean sinners” and Gentiles alike, through faith in Christ. In obedience to this vision, we are not to build walls to keep the prostitute and the drug addict out of our churches, nor are we to treat those who come into the kingdom with a checkered sexual or marital history as second-class citizens. These too, if they have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, are declared by God as clean (cf. 1 Cor. 6:11).Like Jesus and Ezekiel, we are called to lives of identified purity, living in the world but not of it, loving every one of our neighbors even while living radically different lives from them.

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