My dear wife Ellen, now deceased, taught “The Bible as Literature.” Her favorite section of the course was the Hebrew Scriptures: The Prophets. Most of her students were Christians, so they hadn’t been exposed to the “weird prophets” about which she enjoyed discussing with them (as literary characters). I always enjoy looking back at her notes to match them with the “modern” prophets and politicians of today. They’re getting weirder, but it’s hard to match these folks!
The prophets are among the oddest and most eccentric characters of the Old Testament.
That might actually be an understatement. Put bluntly, the behavior of Old Testament prophets was so bizarre that by today’s secular standards of sanity they would end up institutionalized, or, at the very least, in some form of intensive therapy.
Consider Isaiah, who stripped off all his clothes and wandered around naked (Isaiah 20). Or Jeremiah, who not only hid his underwear in a rock but then went back to retrieve it after a “long time” (Jeremiah 13). Jeremiah apparently didn’t mind parting with under garments, but he couldn’t be separated from the cattle yoke he had fastened to his shoulders until another prophet broke it off (Jeremiah 27 and 28). Yet another eyebrow-raiser was Hosea, who married a prostitute and named their daughter Lo-ruhama, which means ‘unloved’ (Hosea 1).
Then there was Jonah, the run-away prophet who spent three days in the belly of a whale before answering God’s call. When he eventually got around to preaching in Nineveh, the entire city repented. For any other preacher this would have been a joyous outcome. But Jonah—a prophetic Puddleglum if ever there was one—was so upset that his doomsday prophecy wasn’t fulfilled that he begged God to kill him, a request that went unanswered.
Jonah then went into denial. Convinced that a local apocalypse was still in the works, he left the city and picked a vantage point from which he might safely watch the whole fire-and-brimstone show. Jonah had no pity for the Ninevites, but when a small bush that had been sheltering him from the scorching-hot sun died, he went berserk, asking God once again to just end his misery.
But the weirdest of the lot may be Ezekiel. After witnessing a vision of God flanked by four chimerical creatures, the prophet ate a scroll that had been given to him (Ezekiel 1 and 3). Ezekiel was called to be a prophet, but his ministry initially did not involve any prophetic words, as God had rendered him mute (Ezekiel 3). Instead he took to drawing, depicting an image of Jerusalem under siege on a clay tablet. Then he lay down on his side, with an iron pan separating him from his clay art. After 390 days had passed, Ezekiel rolled over and repeated (Ezekiel 4).
After his clay tablet stunt was over, Ezekiel went new diet of barley cakes baked over cow manure (Ezekiel 4). Next Ezekiel used a sword—yes, you read that right, an actual sword—to shave off his beard, dividing his hairs into thirds. He set one third on fire. He scattered another third around the city and stabbed it with his sword. He threw the remaining third into the wind. But the hair histrionics were far from over: Ezekiel had saved a few hairs from such abuse, which he sewed into his clothing. Then he burned some of those hairs too (Ezekiel 5).
The weird stuff didn’t stop when Ezekiel finally started speaking. In Ezekiel 6, he prophesies against the mountains. Six chapters later, he goes into lurid detail—at least by biblical standards—about the sexual depravity of two sister prostitutes. Later, he prophesies over dry bones in a valley. As Ezekiel stands speaking to his captive audience, he has a vision of the bones coming to life (Ezekiel 37).
One crucial detail has been omitted in these accounts: the actions of Ezekiel, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah were commanded by God, which means that we cannot dismiss their behavior. Indeed, these men were not prophets in spite of their eccentricities. Rather, their actions were at the center of their ministry. In the Scriptures, they are explained as symbolic acts that convey divine messages along with their words. For example, the stripping of Isaiah symbolized the future humiliation of Egypt and Ethiopia at the hands of Assyrian conquerors. Jeremiah’s yoke signified the servitude of the Jews to Babylonia while Ezekiel’s dung-warmed meals foreshadowed their exile, where they would be forced to eat unclean food.
My Weird Pagan Story
As I research and craft my story set in modern Wales, I’m discovering that Wales, during the Middle Ages, when witches were being executed by the thousands, elsewhere, Wales executed only five. The reason was that Wales had no word for a “witch,” and that the practices of prognostication, dream interpretation, astrology, and Druid natural potions and spells from the Earth were common. It was the Christian and Protestant superstitions against pagan beliefs and rituals that caused most of the convictions against “pagan idolatry” that never happened in Wales. I’m enjoying the writing of my story immensely. Probably as much as my wife did when she taught The Prophets!
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