YHWH instructed Ezekiel to take a brick, place it before him, and “engrave upon it a city, Jerusalem.” (4:1; see the Notes section.) He was then to stage a mock siege against the engraved city, apparently with models that he would fashion. These models included a siege wall, a bulwark or ramp, encampments, and battering rams that he would position against the representation of Jerusalem. Ezekiel was to set the battering rams (engines of war [LXX]) all around this representation (4:2) and take a “plate [or griddle] of iron,” positioning it as an iron wall between himself and the brick on which the representation of Jerusalem was engraved. With his face focused against the engraved city, he was to enact a mock siege against it as a “sign for the house [or people] of Israel.” This “sign” indicated that Jerusalem would be besieged and conquered. (4:3)
Lying on his left side, Ezekiel would be placing the “guilt [injustices (LXX)] of the house [or people (sons [LXX])] of Israel upon it.” For the number of days that he would be lying on his left side, he would be bearing their guilt. If he lay on his left side with his head to the west (the direction to Jerusalem from Babylon), his face would be looking north, the location of the former ten-tribe kingdom of Israel. The left side would have been bearing the weight of Ezekiel’s body representative of a heavy burden of guilt. (4:4; see the Notes section.)
For each year of guilt, Ezekiel would lie on his side for one day, thereby bearing the guilt of the “house [or people] of Israel.” The total number of days was to be 390. (4:5; see the Notes section.) YHWH commanded that Ezekiel complete the number of days and directed him to “lie on his right side,” bearing the “guilt of the house [or people] of Judah” 40 days (“a day for a year, a day for a year”). If he lay on his right side with his head to the west (the direction to Jerusalem from Babylon), his face would be looking to the south, the location of the kingdom of Judah. The right side would have been bearing the weight of Ezekiel’s body, representative of a heavy burden of guilt. (4:6; see the Notes section.)
YHWH directed Ezekiel to set his face to the siege of Jerusalem (the city engraved on a brick), to bare (“strengthen” [Targum]) his arm (unencumbered by clothing) so as to be in a position to strike, and to prophesy against Jerusalem, evidently to proclaim the certain conquest of the city. (4:7)
To prevent Ezekiel from turning from one side to the other, YHWH declared that he would put cords upon him. This restraint would continue until the time the days of the mock siege were completed. According to the interpretation in the Targum, God decreed his word upon Ezekiel to be as binding as cords that would prevent him from turning from one side to the other. (4:8; see the Notes section.)
Bread consisting of a mixture of grains, beans, and lentils would not have been ceremonially clean for a man who observed the Mosaic law, as the priest Ezekiel would have done faithfully. (Compare Leviticus 19:19.) Yet YHWH instructed him to put wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt into one vessel and then to use this mixture for making bread. This would be the only food Ezekiel would have to eat during the time he would be lying on his side and enacting the mock siege of Jerusalem. The stipulated period for this was 390 days (190 days [LXX]). No mention is made about what he was to do during the course of the 40 days of lying on his right side. (4:9) Ezekiel’s daily diet was limited in weight to 20 shekels. Based on the average weight of discovered ancient shekels, the amount of food would have been about 8 ounces (c. 230 grams), basically a starvation diet. This prescribed diet served to illustrate the extreme famine conditions that would come to exist inside besieged Jerusalem. The words “from time to time you will eat it” may mean that Ezekiel was to partake of this meager amount of food from one day to the next. (4:10) His intake of water was limited to “one sixth of a hin” (c. 1.3 pints; c. .6 liter). As in the case of the ingredients for the bread, Ezekiel had to measure the amount of water to determine the limited quantity he could drink “from time to time.” (4:11)
For Ezekiel to eat the bread he baked “like a cake of barley” could mean to eat it plain, without anything on it. Before the “eyes” of the people or when they could observe what he was doing, Ezekiel was to use human excrement as fuel for the fire needed to bake his bread. (4:12) For him to bake bread consisting of a mixture of ingredients and using excrement for fuel served to illustrate tangibly that the exiled “sons” or people of Israel would be eating “their bread unclean among the nations.” They would be living among persons who would be unclean to them and, therefore, in unclean lands. The exiled people would themselves be unclean, with the food they would be eating also being unclean. YHWH is represented as identifying himself as the one who would be driving the people away from their land to the territories of other nations. This is because he would permit this to take place. (4:13)
Ezekiel objected to his having to use human excrement, saying, “Ah, Lord YHWH! Look, I myself have [literally, my soul has] not been defiled.” He had not made himself ceremonially unclean by eating the meat from an animal that had died of itself or from an animal that a beast of prey had torn. (Compare Exodus 22:31; Leviticus 11:39, 40.) During the course of his entire life, from his youth onward, he had never put any foul meat into his mouth. (4:14) In response to Ezekiel’s objection, YHWH granted Ezekiel to use cattle mature instead of human excrement as the fuel needed for baking his bread. (4:15)
YHWH determined to break the “staff of bread” in Jerusalem. As a literal staff provides support, bread or food supports or sustains life. The breaking of the “staff of bread” meant that the food supply would be cut off from the people as a consequence of the siege of Jerusalem. The limited amount of available bread needed to be weighed or measured out daily so as not to run out completely. Anxiety would accompany eating, with the fear being that soon there might not be any bread. Water also would be scarce, requiring that the people drink it by measure and doing the drinking in terror, fearful that they could soon be without any water. (4:16; see the Notes section regarding “son of man.”) Suffering from lack of bread and water, the people would stare at one another (literally, a “man and his brother”) in a dazed or shocked state and would waste away, dying a slow death, in their guilt (“injustices” [LXX]). (4:17)
In this chapter (verses 1 and 16), as is the case throughout the entire book of Ezekiel, the prophet is addressed as “son of man.” This designation would have reminded him of his being an earthling or a mortal with a commission from the eternal Sovereign upon whom cherubs are in attendance.
According to verse 4 of the Septuagint, Ezekiel was to lie on his left side for 150 days. Possibly the number 150 was introduced into the text from the reference in Genesis 7:24 to the 150 days during which the flood waters overwhelmed the earth. Nothing in the biblical account relating to the ten-tribe kingdom of Israel fits a period of guilt that lasted for 150 years (according to an application of the words about a “day for a year” [4:6]). The number 150, however, could represent a period of punishment.
One cannot be certain about how the 390 days (verse 5) relate to 390 years of guilt in the history of Israel. The record in 1 and 2 Kings regarding the number of years the kings reigned indicates that the ten-tribe kingdom of Israel existed for a much shorter time than 390 years. One possible explanation could be that the guilt of the “house [or people] of Israel,” though starting with the rebellion against the royal house of David and the introduction of idolatrous worship at the direction of Jeroboam (the first king of the newly formed ten-tribe kingdom of Israel), included the guilt of the people of the kingdom of Judah. Punishment for that total record of guilt came when the warriors under the command of King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem. Accordingly, the 390 years could represent the period from the establishment of the ten-tribe kingdom of Israel until the destruction of Jerusalem. The inclusion of the people in the kingdom of Judah as part of the record of guilt would not rule out a shared guilt with people from other tribes. Priests, Levites, and people from all the other tribes who wanted to be faithful to YHWH left the territory of the ten-tribe kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam, and likely their descendants were still living in the realm of the kingdom of Judah. (2 Chronicles 11:13-17) Doubtless a significant number of these descendants shared in the idolatrous practices and other iniquities or injustices of which the people of the kingdom of Judah had made themselves guilty, and their wrongdoing could be regarded as a continuation of the record of guilt of the “house of Israel.”
Another possibility is that the 390 days (verse 5) and 40 days (verse 6), or 430 days combined, relate to past history that represented future developments. According to Exodus 12:41, the Israelites left Egypt as a free people after 430 years. The release from Babylonian exile proved to be like a second exodus. Therefore, on this basis, the 430 days could be representative of the period of exile for the entire house of Israel, Israelites from all the tribes. The period of 40 days (with the accompanying formula [a “day for a year”]) is mentioned in Numbers 14:34. There the reference is to the 40 days that the Israelite spies spent in reconnoitering the land of Canaan, and the corresponding disciplinary punishment of 40 years of wandering in the wilderness that would end with the death of the generation that faithlessly accepted the bad report from ten of the twelve spies and then rebelliously refused to enter the land. (Numbers 14:26-38) The 40 days could then represent the time of disciplinary punishment for the people of Judah that would terminate with their being able to return to their own land, with 40 years marking the end for the unfaithful generation that would not be able to return.
If the 40 days mentioned in verse 6 are associated with a 390-day period that represents 390 years from the formation of the ten-tribe kingdom of Israel until the destruction of Jerusalem, then the 40 days either represent 40 years of the final part of the 390 years or an additional 40 years. About 40 years before the destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah was commissioned to be YHWH’s prophet in the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s reign (Jeremiah 1:1-3), and his basic message was that the Babylonians would conquer Jerusalem and the people would be taken into exile. As the prophecy of Huldah confirmed a few years later, the severe punishment for unfaithfulness was certain to befall the kingdom of Judah. (2 Kings 22:3, 10-20) In itself, however, the wording of verse 6 suggests that the “forty days” are to be added to the 390 days and, therefore, may be understood to represent a period of additional 40 years. Although the Septuagint reads 150 days instead of 390 days, it indicates, in verse 5, that the 40 days designate an additional period. The Septuagint refers to God as having given Ezekiel “two injustices” of the house of Israel for “190 days” (150 plus 40) and then (in verse 6) mentions that he should lie on his right side and take upon himself the “injustices of the house of Judah [Ioudas] for 40 days.” Idolatrous practices on an extensive scale began during the 40-year reign of King Solomon and before the establishment of the ten-tribe kingdom of Israel. (1 Kings 11:4-7, 29-42) Therefore, it could be conjectured that the 40 days represent the entire period of 40 years during which the record of guilt of the house of Judah had its beginning.
Ezekiel’s being restrained from turning (verse 8) does not appear to mean that he was rendered immobile for 390 days and then 40 days. The enactment of the mock siege of Jerusalem involved more than his lying on his side. For his daily portion of food, he needed to weigh a specific amount of the stored ingredients (wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt) and bake bread with them. Though he was allowed to drink very little water, he still had to get it from a source and then measure out the prescribed quantity. To bake the bread, he had to obtain cattle manure as fuel for the fire. Although his intake of food and water would be very limited, he would still have to relieve himself. Moreover, while sleeping he could not enact a mock siege. As verse 12 may be regarded to indicate, the objective of Ezekiel’s actions was for people to see them. During the night, this would not have been the case. Therefore, Ezekiel may have lain on his left side and then on his right side for considerable time during the course of each of the 390 and 40 days, but this apparently would not have been for 24 hours each day.