As a Biblical Studies major and someone who loves the Bible, an issue I am rather passionate about is when people twist the words of Scripture to fit their desires. This twisting can occur in a variety of ways, but I feel the two most common occurrences of abuse come from;
- Removing a selected passage from its literary and/or historical context.
- Forcing a meaning on the passage in a manner in which it is never intended.
These two methods are employed by cults who read their theology into the text (eisegesis). These schemes are also used by skeptics to justify their unbelief (i.e. alleged contradictions between Paul and James’ concepts of justification by faith or works in Rom. 3:28 & Jas 2:17). Sadly, this faulty hermeneutic is also used by Christians (i.e. John 16:23 for selfish motives).
I thought to start this series out I would begin with something rather lighthearted; Ezekiel 4:9 bread from the Food For Life Baking Company.
The bread itself is flourless and made with organic sprouted grains. You can find it in the freezer section of most grocery stores as it has no preservatives. I bought the sesame loaf for the picture; it tastes good and is quite filling. Per slice, this bread offers 4g of protein and 3g of fiber. You can find more specific nutrition information on their website.
From both their website and the package Food for Life uses the name Ezekiel 4:9 on this line of products because the ingredients are “crafted in the likeness of the Holy Scripture verse Ezekiel 4:9 to ensure unrivaled honest nutrition and pure, delicious flavors.” The company then quotes a portion of Ezekiel 4:9a:
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… (English Standard Version).
One might assume that because the grains are in the Bible, it is an ancient and wholesome recipe from God. This assumption would not be too far off base as it is God speaking these instructions to Ezekiel. However, the questions we should always ask are:
- Why is God giving instructions?
- What other instructions are there?
In other words, what is the immediate context of these directions?
I will give the company credit for adding the ellipsis to the quote denoting that there is more to the verse, and when you look it up, you can see why it was left out. The rest of the verse reads: “During the number of days that you lie on your side, 390 days, you shall eat it” (Ez. 4:9b). Weird, right? This unusual request should be your first clue that perhaps you should back up a bit, but for humor’s sake, let us finish Gods command:
“And your food that you eat shall be by weight, twenty shekels a day; from day to day you shall eat it. And water you shall drink by measure, the sixth part of a hin; from day to day you shall drink. And you shall eat it as a barley cake, baking it in their sight on human dung.” And the Lord said, “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread unclean, among the nations where I will drive them” (vv. 10-13, emphasis added).
Dear Lord, I hope the Food For Life Baking Company does not take a literal approach to interpreting the Scriptures!
Alright, now that I have disturbed you and hopefully made you snicker it is time to look a little closer at this passage. Ezekiel opens in a very particular time and location (1:1-2) and places Ezekiel in exile in Babylon “on the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin” (v. 2b). This information corresponds with 2 Kings 24:11-12, when “Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to the city while his servants were besieging it, and Jehoiachin the king of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon . . . The king of Babylon took him prisoner in the eighth year of his reign”.
Babylonian Chronicle 5 which accounts the early years of Nebuchadnezzar II, also gives an account of Jehoiachin’s capture and records it as occurring in the “seventh year” and “on the second day of the month of Adar” (Grayson 102), which places this event on March 16th of 597 B.C. Jerusalem was finally demolished in 586 B.C., so Ezekiel’s vision of God occurred about six years before the final fall of Jerusalem.
Chapter 1 of Ezekiel continues in describing a highly symbolic vision of God. Chapters 2 and 3 recount Ezekiel’s commission as a Prophet and God’s command for him to go and speak to the rebellious people of Israel (2:1-5) to warn them to turn from their wicked ways (3:17-21).
Chapter 4 is the bread chapter. It is part of a warning that Jerusalem will be sieged as punishment for their rebelliousness. The instructions given to Ezekiel (4:1-5:17) are meant to symbolically and dramatically represent this onslaught. Ezekiel is first instructed to take a brick, write “Jerusalem” on it, and essentially create a diorama of the city under siege (vv. 1-3). Ezekiel is then instructed to put on a dramatic performance where he is told to lay on his left side for 390 days to represent the number of years Israel will be punished, and 40 days on his right side to denote the punishment of Judah (vv. 4-8). While he is on his left side is when he is to eat this bread (v. 9).
Interestingly the wheat, barley, millet, and emmer were common gains and part of the diet of all peoples of the ancient Near East (Walton 693). Beans and lentils are not typical of bread, and given the immediate context of the instructions, many scholars believe it to represent a siege bread. Daniel Block writes that during a siege “food will be so scarce that it will be impossible to get enough flour and vegetable meal together of any one kind to make even one loaf of bread except by ‘scraping the bottom of each of the storage barrels'” (184).
When Nebuchadnezzar’s forces laid siege to Jerusalem, they built a siege wall around the city (2 Ki. 25:1). This wall not only kept supplies out but kept the people trapped within, which quickly brought famine and pestilence. Archeological excavations of toilets inside Jerusalem reveal that “residents of the city were starving, reduced to eating dandelions or uncooked meat, wich resulted in tapeworms and other intestinal parasites” (Beitzel 192).
To further demonstrate that this is a siege bread Ezekiel’s food is rationed to the weight of twenty shekels a day (Eze. 4:10). A shekel weighs about 11 grams, so Ezekiel’s food would be restricted about 220 grams, about 8 ounces, a day. If we translate that to Ezekiel 4:9 Bread’s nutrition label which claims that each slice of bread is 34g this would render Ezekiel’s intake to about 6 1/2 slices a day, that is a total of only 520 calories daily. That is all he is to eat for over a year!
Ezekiel’s bread is not a happy bread meant to epitomize wholesome nutrition, nor is Ezekiel being called to a religious fast as some recipe sites claim; this is a loaf of starvation and desperation to show the Israelites their punishment.
God even claims this is because He “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. 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” (vv. 16-17).
However perhaps even more disturbing, both to Ezekiel and us, is how he is to bake the bread, “on human dung” (v. 12b). Now, just to be clear, Ezekiel in fact, does not bake his bread on human waste, even this is too much for him to handle. He objects to this request and claims that he has never “defiled” himself by eating unclean foods (v. 14), and God complies allowing Ezekiel to bake his bread on cow feces instead (v. 15). I still very much hope the Food For Life Baking Company does not employ this biblical method in their food production. However, to Ezekiel this practice quite common in the ancient Near East. Trees in such areas were too valuable to be cut and used for fuel, and therefore dried animal dung was used instead (Walton 693). During a siege, animals would have been eaten first, as they would have required too many limited resources to keep alive. Once the animal waste was used up the only source left would be human, which would demonstrate their desperation since based on Deuteronomy 23:12-14 and Ezekiel’s reaction, would lead to ritual defilement.
Why would Food For Life use this verse which is unquestionably not intended to represent a healthy fast and wholesome nutrition?
I sent a message to the company asking if they were a Christian or Jewish based company and why they used this particular verse. I wanted to understand if the angle to which they approached the Scripture, and I left the question short as I did not want to lead their answer.
They responded to the second part by copy and pasting the website information about the recipe being inspired by the “Holy Scriptures.” However, they ignored the first piece of the question which leads me to believe that they are not a Judeo-Christian company. Usually, such companies take pride in their Scriptural basis and will gladly answer in the affirmative.
Unsatisfied with their response, I wrote again asking how they reconcile a the context of Ezekiel pointing to a bread of starvation and desperation cooked on human dung to their product? I got a rather pleasant response with a brief exegesis of Ezekiel 1-4. Unfortunately, like the previous message they ignored part of the question and focused on the issue of defilement. Food for Life recognizes that the bread was not cooked over human feces and therefore it was undefiled. However, it seems that they interpret this as meaning that therefore Ezekiel ‘s bread presents a positive message. They claim that Ezekiel’s food and water rations were “to show the good things that God gave Israel and how far they had fallen. How do we know this? Answer: by Ezekiel 4:15 – 16”, and that “the Undefiled Ezekiel 4:9 bread was to be eaten together with water with amazement! (Ezekiel 4:16)”. Here is where I have to disagree. I believe they are reading too much into the text to justify a nutritious loaf.
Nowhere in the verses that Food for Life uses as proof does the bread represent a good and amazing thing. In fact, just the opposite is stated in verse 17! The people are not to look at Ezekiel in amazement, but to look at each other in dismay!
What I thought was a simple case of ignoring the context, is now a matter of eisegesis, that is, reading an idea into the text as opposed to taking an idea out (exegesis). I can overlook some context violations as resulting from carelessness, ignorance, and apathy. Usually the reader did not know the verse was part of a larger body of text, and probably did not care what the larger body says. They get what they want out of the passage and move on before they discover caveats.
However, the deliberate manipulation of eisegesis is dangerous. It can force the text to say something that it never said, nor intended to say. This is one of the methods cults employ to “prove” their validity.
God’s allowing Ezekiel to use a clean fuel source to bake his bread was a compromise for Ezekiel’s sake and did not change the overall message to Jerusalem. There is no indication that since Ezekiel is eating his bread clean therefore the people will also eat their bread clean.
Ezekiel is still to ration his food and water, just like the people in Jerusalem would. Jerusalem will still be sieged, and Ezekiel is still to display this warning. The people of Israel had already turned their backs on the good things from God, and this message is not a reminder to fondly call them back, it is a final warning of what will happen if they do not turn back. It’s like your mom counting to three, and you better do what she asks before she finishes saying “two”!
I honestly feel that the name is merely a marketing gimmick to get people to think their bread is nourishing to both body and soul. I could understand if the founder ignoring the context decided to try the recipe and was pleased with how it turned out. But if that is the case, just admit it. Twisting the Scripture to fit your agenda is unethical.
Beitzel, Barry J. The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009.
Block, Daniel I. The Book of Ezekiel. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997.
English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2007.
Grayson, Albert Kirk. Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles. Vol. 5. Eisenbrauns, 1975.
Walton, John H, Victor H. Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, Victor Matthews, and Dr. M. W. Chavalas. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.