A severe and startling promise was once made to the covenant people of Israel. Should they disobey their liberator, a most despicable sin would overtake them. They would invert humanity’s duty to multiply and fill the earth; they would eat their own children.
It sounds unreal, but despite its nightmarish quality, Moses records this promise of the Lord in the Pentateuch: “If…you will not listen to me,” God uttered, “but walk contrary to me, then I will walk contrary to you in fury, and I myself will discipline you sevenfold for your sins. You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters.” (Lev. 26:27-30) These words are intense—no doubt—but they are not without rival. God reiterates His curse for the unfaithful in Deuteronomy 28:
“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you…You shall eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters, whom the Lord your God has given you, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemies shall distress you.” (Deut. 28:15; 53)
In the book of Ezekiel, God’s threat of immense calamity through familial cannibalism is warned yet again, except here it carries greater weight; it is not the promise of what “could” come to pass should Israel disobey its liberator, but is the forewarning of what “is” to happen when the Lord enacts His judgments upon His adulterous Jerusalem. The seer details this unavoidable consequence in the fifth chapter of his book:
“‘Behold, I, even I, am against you, and I will execute judgments among you in the sight of the nations. And because of all your abominations I will do among you what I have not done, and the like of which I will never do again. Therefore, fathers will eat their sons among you, and sons will eat their fathers; for I will execute judgments on you and scatter all your remnant to every wind.’” (Ezek. 5:8-10)
The prophecy recorded above by Ezekiel—and anticipated in the Torah—is one that may seem unambiguous, but truthfully, it has garnered more than one interpretation in the history of Christian exegesis. For the purposes of this post (and its sequel), I will not preoccupy myself with all of them; I intend to confine my reflection to the comments of St. Jerome. In the words that follow, I will engage with remarks credited to the aforementioned Biblical exegete as I seek to draw out applicable meaning from the hair-raising portent described in Ezekiel 5.
Teachers Incited Against Disciples
Even in light of the Pentateuch’s declarations, is it possible that the utterance “fathers will eat their sons” was not intended to be taken literally? Jerome makes this suggestion in his commentary on Ezekiel, asserting that it could be a metaphor. Since “no history relates a time when fathers” ate “their sons,” and vice versa (“unless one must believe that these things were done likewise during the multitude of evil afflictions” at the time of Jerusalem’s destruction), this passage perhaps implies a different hateful act. According to the Church father, what is meant here is that in the midst of the horrid turmoil which accompanied the Babylonian assault on Judah in 586 B.C., teachers (fathers) turned against their students (sons), and pupils likewise figuratively consumed their teachers in grief-fulled hostility.
Jerome is quite correct that a literal eating of fathers by sons cannot be found in the Biblical record, but something nearly identical to this atrocity is present within the book of Lamentations. While groaning over Jerusalem’s annihilation, the prophet Jeremiah chronicles a terrible event that had occurred in the once-holy city:
“The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; they became food for them due to the destruction of the daughter of my people.” (Lam. 4:10)
In this passage (and also in Lam. 2:20), we read of the fulfillment of the curse of familial cannibalism disclosed in Leviticus 26—not just of its certain imminence. For this reason, many have suggested that Ezekiel’s prophesy concerning fathers eating their sons must only be taken literally, not allegorically; it is implied that the horrific account described in Lamentations included fathers alongside mothers, both sexes boiling and devouring their offspring.
Must It Be Taken Literally?
One exegete who staunchly criticized Jerome’s reading of Ezekiel 5:8-10 was the Reformed theologian, John Calvin. Calvin evaluated metaphorical interpretations of this Biblical excerpt as being more than misguided. “Surely [Lam. 4:10] is a sufficient witness,” he said, “for to say that we never find that this actually happened is to reject the testimony of Jeremiah.” (Commentary on Ezekiel) I sympathize with Calvin in his critique, but that being said, I think he might be missing something with regard to Jerome’s perspective on this passage.
The Church father isn’t denying the reliability and inerrancy of Lamentations; nor would I suggest that he is giving evidence of an unfamiliarity with the book. In his commentary, we simply see the fruit of Jerome examining and comparing the specific words utilized by Ezekiel and Jeremiah. This process of exegetical precision is what informed his unique interpretation. In Jerome’s mind, there is a reason why Lamentations included a description of women eating their children, but not men, and there is likewise a reason for which Ezekiel forecasted the very opposite. If God intended to give proof that fathers literally ate their sons during the destruction of Jerusalem, why didn’t He inspire Jeremiah to record the exact words as Ezekiel?
Further justification for Jerome’s interpretation can be found outside of the Old Testament Prophets. In Galatians 5:15, we discover a very relevant metaphor utilized by Paul as he describes the magnitude of the golden rule:
“For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”
What the Apostle describes in this excerpt is seen by Jerome as having been retroactively fulfilled in Ezekiel’s prophecy. In the turmoil of Babylon’s assault on Jerusalem, mentors and disciples disposed of the second greatest of God’s commands and quarreled with one another; they devoured each other with their stony hearts (and quite possibly fists…maybe shovels too).
Literal, Metaphorical, or Both?
By now I hope that an allegorical rendering of Ezekiel 5:10 seems a little less farfetched to the reader. In my opinion, Calvin judged Jerome’s metaphorical interpretation too harshly—but he did not neglect truth in doing so. It seems to me that both the Reformed theologian and the Church father proposed something of value with their comments on this passage from Ezekiel. For John Calvin, I believe that his uneasiness about accepting a strictly allegorical interpretation of this verse is warranted because, as the theologian writes, “God had threatened that very thing,” that is, the eating of children, in the Pentateuch.
I, like Calvin, believe that it is implied in the passage from Lamentations, despite the fact that fathers aren’t explicitly mentioned (and sons for that matter!). It seems quite obvious that Ezekiel’s prophecy would have come to fruition literally, especially when it is considered along with the atrocious history recorded in Jeremiah’s book of laments. But on the other hand, I agree with Jerome’s take. The Holy Spirit inspired one prophet to use certain words that cannot be found in the analogous excerpt of another; this was not an accident. Additionally, there is something logical about the Church father’s rendering of the text. It is an allegory that is rooted in history; it paints yet another panel on the portrait of Jerusalem’s demise.
As a result of famine, and the promise concerning which God spoke through the mouth of Moses, the Israelites sacrificed their offspring to appease their hunger during the Babylonian siege. Parents ate their children, breaking the Lord’s prohibition against murder. Likewise, amid this time of this fear, teachers and students turned against each other; relationships were severed as God’s once-faithful people devolved into animals, gnashing their teeth at those whom they formally cared for. In Ezekiel 5:10, I am convinced that we have layers of meaning—not one, but two powerful lessons gathered from a single verse.
But wait! I’m not finished with Ezekiel 5:8-10. Be on the lookout for my next post on this topic.