Sometimes a biblical passage makes me stop and read it over again, either because it is meaningful, or applicable, or challenging, or comforting, or confusing or just sounds bizarre. The bizarre factor struck me recently in the following verses from the prophet Ezekiel:
"He said to me: Son of man, eat what you find here: eat this scroll, then go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. Son of man, he said to me, feed your stomach and fill your belly with this scroll I am giving you. I ate it, and it was sweet as honey in my mouth. Then he said to me, Son of man, go now to the house of Israel, and speak my words to them." (Ezekiel 3:1-4)
We writers have a love affair with words, and deep respect for their power. I often feel nourished by words, but I have never considered actually eating them. We do sometimes refer to the consumption of words: Eating our own words means that we regret something previously spoken, or that those words have been proven false. Making someone else eat his or her words, of course, implies an appetite for revenge. Captured spies in movies have been known to eat the scrap of paper that contains the secret code, rather than surrender the information to the enemy.
The task of eating words, however, is usually metaphorical. But here we have Ezekiel, priest, prophet and eccentric, who willingly and literally eats a scroll full of words, following the instruction of an ethereal voice, a spirit speaking for the Almighty. How peculiar is that?
The eating of the sweet-as-honey scroll happens at the beginning of Ezekiel's story, and is hardly the oddest thing required of him before his prophetic duties are fulfilled. The job of a prophet is, at best, unconventional, risky, lonely and a little crazy. Prophets are often charged with speaking words that the targeted audience emphatically does not want to hear. The words in Ezekiel's belly are not heeded by his people.
The scroll-eating of Ezekiel is referenced in the Book of Revelation, when John takes a small scroll from the hand of an angel and is told to swallow it. "In my mouth it was like sweet honey, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour," reports John. "Then someone said to me, 'You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, tongues, and kings.'" (Revelation 10:10-11) Even after the coming of Jesus, it seems the world still needs its prophets, to tell the truth and to inspire hope.
For Christians, Jesus is the ultimate Word, the Word of God made flesh and dwelling among us, and we too are directed to eat this essential Word. Christ's body and blood nourish and strengthen us, in order that we might go about God's work here on earth. The Word we eat also speaks to us, offering us guidance, encouragement, and love.
For prophets of all faiths, the words are only the beginning. "However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do if you do not act upon them?' asked Buddha. Words may feed us and empower us, but their effectiveness lies in the way they motivate us to behave. Actions, after all, speak with clarity.
Ezekiel never questions the words he is told to speak or the work he is told to do, no matter how outlandish each divine instruction may seem to him. We, too, share in prophecy in some small way, whenever we accept God's will and turn God's holy words into deeds. Even if we must we eat them first.