“Go, be confined inside your house!”
According to the book of Ezekiel, these are the words the prophet heard as he stood, barely—propped up by the spirit of God—on a plain in Babylon in the sixth century BCE. It feels like we, too, have been hearing this command from public health officials since approximately the same bygone era. Despite the recent moves towards reopening the economy, it remains unclear when it will be safe to go out into our communities again. Being stuck inside our homes due to strange and uncertain circumstances lends us a new sense of kinship with those who have weathered it before us. Many have already noted the parallels between our current situation and the pandemics of the past, such as the deadly flu of 1918 or the plagues of medieval Europe.
Yet I’ve been struck by a parallel even further back in history: not a parallel of pandemic, but of confinement. Reading the accounts of the Hebrew prophets active during the period of the Judean exile to Babylon (sixth century BCE), I noticed how often they found themselves enclosed in small spaces, isolated, and cut off from their communities during a tumultuous time. Ezekiel is one example and his contemporary, Jeremiah, is another.
There are several possible reasons for the prophets’ confinement, some of which feel oddly familiar. Ezekiel may have been quarantined due to illness or fear of illness. Jeremiah, confined in a besieged city, was menaced by self-proclaimed patriots who considered him a disloyal nay-sayer. According to the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the prophets’ loss of freedom and control at the hands of both divine and human actors was a result of their vocation. However, the accounts of Ezekiel and Jeremiah’s ministries evoke confinement and terrifying isolation to a greater extent than those concerning the other Hebrew prophets. The loss of control felt by a society in turmoil seeps through the narratives and into the prophetic bodies they contain.
Although the biblical text isn’t clear on the details, it suggests Ezekiel was confined inside his residence for the first half of his prophetic ministry: about seven and a half years. Ezekiel had been a priest in Jerusalem before the Babylonians exiled him and some of his fellow urban elites in 597 BCE. His prophetic ministry began in Babylon just over four years later, when God appeared to him with fire, chariots, and heavenly creatures. During the first half of Ezekiel’s commission, the primary message God had him proclaim was that the Babylonians were going to finish what they had started: they would destroy Jerusalem and its temple, and God would use the Babylonian armies as his instrument of punishment. Ezekiel had to tell his fellow Judeans that they had repeatedly violated their covenant to worship only God and were about to feel the force of divine judgement.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah was saying the same thing to an unreceptive audience. While Ezekiel was confined in his house, Jeremiah was confined in a series of increasingly uncomfortable spaces as the residents of Jerusalem tried to shut him up both literally and figuratively. About a decade after the first deportation, in 587 BCE, the Babylonians did destroy Jerusalem and displaced many more Judeans, fulfilling Ezekiel and Jeremiah’s predictions and, no doubt, occasioning their recognition as true prophets.
By contrast, the time leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem was characterized by the prophets’ alienation from their communities. At the same time, Ezekiel and Jeremiah were impacted by rapidly-developing political events, bickering government factions, the loss of loved ones, and concerns about food supply. (There was no toilet paper to begin with, so they were spared that particular shit-show). Their society seemed to be crumbling around them even as they were cut off from it.
It is tempting to imagine the Hebrew prophets as desert ascetics or cloistered monastics, self-isolated in order to better distill the voice of the divine. Yet this was rarely, if ever, the case. The prophets of the ancient Near East, including Israel, could be major political players. They advised kings (whether the kings wanted the advice or not) and often spoke in public places where they would attract the most attention. Sometimes they conducted outlandish “sign acts,” adding a physical, even theatrical, dimension to their words. When Ezekiel and Jeremiah experienced confinement it happened, as with today, in the middle of society. They were surrounded by other people but could not access them.
It’s unclear why Ezekiel was confined to his house. The account specifies that members of his community bound him with cords to ensure he didn’t leave. Adding to the prophet’s isolation, God rendered him mute, causing his “tongue to cling to his palate.” It’s puzzling that God placed these limitations on Ezekiel just after having called him to be a prophet: a task rendered significantly easier by being able to speak to people outside of one’s home.
Some commentators have suggested Ezekiel was quarantined in his house due to an illness (though not one which resembled Covid-19). In the ancient Near East, there was no clear dividing line between religion and medicine. Conditions we would today identify as physiological or psychological were often attributed to the effects of demons or other malevolent spirits. Ezekiel’s “symptoms” more closely resemble ancient Mesopotamian descriptions of demon possession.
In the Akkadian “Poem of the Righteous Sufferer” (Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi), possession by a demon is described as rendering the sufferer mute, immobile, and a prisoner in his house. Perhaps Ezekiel’s neighbors confined him in the belief that he was suffering from something similar. A community’s attempt to restrain a demon-possessed man is evidenced in the Gospel of Mark: the Gerasene demoniac, whose possession gave him superhuman strength, was said to have broken all the chains and shackles placed on him. If Ezekiel’s community wished to contain the prophet for his safety or for their own, the enforced quarantine must have been an isolating experience.
However, it may not have been a medical condition which Ezekiel’s peers sought to contain. It’s also possible that they bound him in his house simply to prevent his message becoming more widespread. The Hebrew Bible includes several examples of prophets suffering confinement because of their unpopular messages. Jeremiah first experienced this when a temple priest took exception to his prophecies and put him in stocks overnight. Later in his ministry, Jerusalem officials beat Jeremiah in a fit of rage and confined him in a makeshift prison. Finally, as the Babylonian army closed in around Jerusalem, its residents became increasingly angry with the prophet who had predicted this event. They threw Jeremiah into an empty water cistern and left him there to die of hunger, lodged in the mud at the bottom. Even when the king allowed Jeremiah to be rescued, he kept him enclosed in the court of the guard so the prophet couldn’t continue to enrage his fellow citizens.
The impulse to shut away disruptive behavior is related to the impulse to confine contagious disease. The writers of the Hebrew Bible conceived of this in terms of impurity. For example, they believed that God was most present in the Jerusalem temple, and thus it had to be kept clean or “pure” at all costs. Anything which threatened to contaminate it—including death, disease, and bodily fluids—had to be kept far away. These “impurities” (tumot) had to be properly dealt with before the one associated with them could re-enter the holy realm. Sometimes that meant enclosing the contaminated person or thing in a separate space until the impurity was resolved, as in the case of potentially contagious skin diseases.
Like viruses, “impure” things weren’t considered “morally bad” in and of themselves, but they did need to be properly contained. The prophets feared that unchecked impurities and contaminating sins would overflow from the community into the temple. Yet their opponents feared a different kind of infection: They believed that Ezekiel and Jeremiah’s negative words would spread hopelessness among the people, discouraging them in their struggle against Babylon. Like the modern practice of solitary confinement in prisons, the Judeans hoped that punishing “troublemaker” prophets with isolation would prevent discord from spreading through an already-fraught environment.
Jeremiah’s persecutors certainly had this goal, but retribution was not necessarily on the minds of those who bound Ezekiel. He hadn’t yet begun to prophesy when he was tied up in his house and, although he certainly had ideological opponents, his immediate audience didn’t seem to be hostile. Elders from the community often visited Ezekiel to seek God’s word. The people’s compliance with God’s command to bind Ezekiel may in fact have demonstrated their willingness to accept him as their prophet.
Previously, Ezekiel had been a priest in Jerusalem: a respected and sanctified member of society. In exile, he lost what had set him apart. As someone who had enjoyed the highest level of access to the Jerusalem temple, he was now prevented from going beyond the confines of his own house. As someone whose body had been kept completely pure, he now had to eat unclean food and raggedly shave off what had been a neatly trimmed priestly hairstyle (without so much as a YouTube tutorial for guidance). As someone who had been able to enact atonement for his whole community’s guilt, now he could not speak a single word aloud.
Ezekiel’s loss of his priestly identity and of his freedom—his embodiment of the prophetic vocation to an extent which compromised his basic human dignity—was the work not of a demon but of “the hand of the LORD.” Outside observers couldn’t necessarily have distinguished the two. In Akkadian medical incantations, for example, the hand of the deity does not offer comfort. Instead, it’s a traumatic experience for the person on whom it rests. Sometimes, its presence could be expressed through the seizure of their mouth or the binding of their limbs. God’s hand fell on Ezekiel in order to strip him of his high-status priestly role and commission him for another. Ezekiel’s house acted as a sort of cocoon inside which he underwent his transformation. It wasn’t all humiliation: God also equipped Ezekiel with a face “like the hardest stone, harder than flint” (in our idiom: nerves of steel, an iron will) so he would survive his commission.
As a prophet, Ezekiel’s actions symbolized the siege Jerusalem would experience at the hands of the Babylonian army. Bound and confined to his house, Ezekiel was the first to undergo what was in store for his compatriots. They would be confined within the walls of their city until the Babylonians eventually broke through and bound the survivors as prisoners of war.
Even if Ezekiel was consciously conducting an extended sign act, the experience was no less isolating for him. Being confined to his house and rendered mute set him apart from his community. The extent to which the prophet was prevented from speaking is unclear. The book records that God opened Ezekiel’s mouth when Jerusalem fell, marking the start of a new phase in Ezekiel’s ministry. Yet the prophet gave many (apparently verbal) oracles before the fall of Jerusalem. Most commentators conclude that during this earlier period, Ezekiel could only speak God’s words to his companions at God’s will—and for seven and a half years, God’s words were ones of judgement and condemnation only.
The text connects Ezekiel’s confinement and silencing to his inability to act as a môkîaḥ, which should best be translated “intercessor.”Although môkîaḥ in Hebrew can be “one who reproves,” it is not possible that Ezekiel was prevented from reproving his compatriots: this is all he does throughout the first half of the book. The biblical scholar Robert Wilson has shown that in the legal contexts of the Hebrew Bible, the môkîaḥ often acts as a mediator between two parties. For example, the suffering Job wished for a môkîaḥ to “lay his hand” on both Job and his oppressor, God, so that Job could have a fair “trial” to determine his innocence.
In ancient Israel, legal trials were held publicly in the city gate. Not only was Ezekiel prevented from speaking words of intercession; he couldn’t even leave his house to go to the place where trials were conducted. As an intercessor, he was furloughed. God had deemed it non-essential work. Ezekiel could foresee the devastation of his homeland, but he couldn’t express how he felt about it.
The most striking example of Ezekiel’s loss of self-expression occurs halfway through the book. The reader learns for the first time that Ezekiel had not been in confinement alone: he had a wife. She is introduced into the narrative only to be removed from it immediately. She died by a maggefa—the same term that describes the plagues which ravaged Egypt preceding the Exodus. More broadly, it refers to a sudden death. The hand of the LORD struck fatally this time. God told Ezekiel not to mourn the loss of his companion, the “delight of his eyes.” The prophet could “sigh silently” but, like those who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus, he could not mark her passing in fellowship with people who might comfort him.
Jeremiah experienced a similar subjugation of his emotional needs to his divinely-ordained role. God commanded him to forgo having his own family. This unusual choice for a young man symbolized the futility of bringing new life into the doomed city of Jerusalem. God also prohibited Jeremiah from mourning the destruction of his community and the deaths of his neighbors. Although unable to grieve formally, Jeremiah did not remain silent like Ezekiel. His expression of despair and frustration is one of the most emotive in the entire Hebrew Bible:
O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!
(Jer 9:1; NRSV)
It’s difficult to read the books of Ezekiel and Jeremiah and feel okay about what the prophets went through in the name of their vocation. From a modern reader’s perspective, the ethics of the God-prophet power dynamic are sketchy at best. The way Ezekiel and Jeremiah describe it, theophany felt like a prolonged, traumatic event which removed much of their autonomy. Yet the context in which these narratives took place is highly significant. Ezekiel and his community had been removed from positions of prestige in their home city and transplanted into a foreign country where they were probably forced to do manual labor. They didn’t know when or if they’d be permitted to return home—or if there would be anything to return to. Jeremiah, meanwhile, was trapped in a walled city while his compatriots did nothing to stop the encroaching enemy that would destroy life as they knew it.
These traumatic experiences colored how the prophets and those who wrote about them experienced God. Perhaps that’s why, for them, theophany took place in confinement and excruciating isolation. Yet once the terrible event of Jerusalem’s destruction had finally occurred, God opened Ezekiel’s mouth, released him from confinement, and restored his personhood. The visions Ezekiel received after this were ones of hope and restoration: the Judeans would return to their land, cleansed and immune to the infection of rebellion against God. All of them would receive a new heart and a new spirit—ones that had not been crushed by experiences of loss, isolation, and confinement.
Prophetic confinement in the Hebrew Bible does not evoke hope or comfort. Symbolizing the rampant death and devastation of the era, confinement constituted long, isolating, even dehumanizing experiences for those who went through it. It may not be appropriate to attempt to take anything for ourselves from these narratives. But we can acknowledge voices from the past that speak to the difficulty of being separated from our communities during troubled times. And we can remember that the isolation, at least, didn’t last forever. The books of Ezekiel and Jeremiah end with the prophets among their communities and predicting a hopeful future, even if no one else could yet see it.
Rosanne Liebermann is the Friedman Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Johns Hopkins University and is writing a book about the body and embodiment in Ezekiel. You can read more of her work at rosanneliebermann.com or follow her on Twitter @ivritophile.