Bizarre Prophetic Commands


Divinely Commanded Humiliation?

Most people would probably not envy a prophet's life. Spending one's days chastising a nation which does not want to change and foretelling doom and destruction to those who do not want to listen is not an easy task. Often, prophets were ridiculed, imprisoned, or physically threatened when their message was not to the liking of the masses or leadership. Sometimes, though, the prophetic mission itself had the potential to cause humiliation, as when Hashem tasked the prophet with performing bizarre actions and deeds as signs for the nation.  Some of the more troubling of these cases include:

  • Yeshayahu's nakedness – In Yeshayahu 20, the prophet is commanded to remove his sackcloth and shoes and to walk around naked for "three years as a sign and wonder for Egypt and Kush".
  • Eating barley bread and dung – In Yechezkel 4, Yechezkel is commanded to eat meager rations of multi-grain bread, baked in (or on) human dung as a sign of the imminent famine to be brought by the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem (Yechezkel 4:9-17).

How are we to understand these directives?  Why would Hashem instruct a prophet to engage in embarrassing behavior?  Would not such actions cause the prophet to be viewed with disrespect by the nation?  Why would anyone heed the messages of a prophet who eats dung or take someone who walks around naked seriously?  Could Hashem not have relayed these messages via means which would not be so harmful to the reputations of His prophets?

Commanding a Transgression

In at least two cases, it appears that Hashem's commands might not just cause shame, but also necessitate transgressing one of Hashem's commandments.

  • In Yechezkel 5, Hashem tells Yechezkel to shave his hair and beard, to burn a third, cut a third, and throw the last third to the wind, as a sign of the destruction and exile of the nation. If Yechezkel was directed to shave all the hair of his face and head, as might be implied by the verses, this would include shaving his sideburns, an act prohibited by Vayikra 19:27!1
  • Some are similarly troubled by Hoshea's marrying a prostitute (Hoshea 1). Though such a marriage is prohibited only to a priest, the fact that Hashem tells Hoshea that he will have "יַלְדֵי זְנוּנִים" suggests that his wife continued to sleep with others even after their marriage. In Hoshea 3, this may be even more explicit, as Hoshea is told to "love an adulteress"!

Does Hashem really command prophets to transgress Biblical law?  Why would Hashem demand of His prophets to engage in behavior which onlookers might find legally problematic?

Burdensome or Dismaying Missions

A third category of commands are neither shameful nor legally problematic, but simply burdensome or extremely distressing to the prophet:

  • In Yirmeyahu 13, as part of a symbolic act, Yirmeyahu is instructed to travel back and forth to the Perat River. If this refers to the Euphrates, this would entail traveling hundreds of kilometers!
  • In Yirmeyahu 16, a life of extreme loneliness is effectively decreed on the prophet when he is prohibited to marry, bear children, or visit a house of feasting or mourning.2  Yechezkel is similarly commanded not to eulogize, mourn, or cry after the death of his wife (Yechezkel 24).
  • In Yechezkel 4, Yechezkel is directed to lie on his left side for 390 days and then his right side for 40 more days to "carry the sins" of Yehuda and Yisrael. Hashem further tells him that that he will tie him with rope so that he not turn from side to side during his symbolic besiegement (perhaps implying that, for months, he was to spend the entire day lying on his side!). 

These demands seem like a huge personal price to pay in order to relay certain messages to the people.  Was dooming Yirmeyahu to a life of bachelorhood really necessary? Was forcing Yechezkel to react stoically to a loved one's death the only way to teach the nation that they, too, would eventually have no tears left? Moreover, how effective were these symbolic acts?  Would the people have necessarily connected Yirmeyahu's single status and asocial behavior to any Divine message?  Who would have witnessed the symbolic act at the Euphrates or Yechezkel's lying on his side?