Playing with models is supposed to be fun, but, in today’s Old Testament lesson (Ezekiel 4:1-17), Ezekiel gets some rather odd instructions from God on how to play with his toys. Prophets have a tough job—finding a way to let God’s people see and hear what God is doing in their lives. That’s really hard when the message is one that no one would want to hear. So Ezekiel plays a game—a very intense, very symbolic game that prefigures the destruction of the Holy City.
In an attempt to get their attention, Ezekiel binds himself with cords and lies on his left side for 390 days—one day for each year of Israel’s punishment. Likewise, when that year-plus is over, he turns and lies on his left side for 40 days—one for each year of Judah’s punishment. I wonder if his plan worked. I wonder if it was worth it. The part of his dramatic display that caught my attention, however, was the water. He was only allowed one-sixth of a hin of water to drink each day. As best I can tell after some haphazard Internet research, that’s as much as a dozen eggs worth of water—about 2 cups?
Yesterday, I worked outside in the yard with my family, and several times I came in to get a glass of water—without measure. My son, who spent part of that time on my hip, enjoyed drinking out of my glass, and it reminded me how much better my mother’s glass of water always seemed to taste than my own when I was a child. As I reflected on that fact, it occurred to me just how much water my mother drank (presumably still drinks)—she always had a glass. I’ve lived through “water restrictions” that made it illegal to water my front yard, but I’ve never experienced a limit on how much water I can drink. For the situation to get that bad—bad enough for me to measure out how much water I can consume in a day—would be catastrophic.
And yet, for some, times do get that bad. Elsewhere in the bible, we read of times when Jerusalem was under siege long enough to force people to drink their own urine (Isaiah 36:12). My question behind all of this is to ask why. Why did Ezekiel endure such suffering as a demonstration to his people? Why did God insist on punishing Israel and Judah so completely? Why would God ever punish his people?
In another moment yesterday, I made a dramatic statement to my daughter without really thinking it through. After hearing her tattle-tell on her brother for the umpteenth time, I said, “From now on, whenever you tattle on your brother, I’m going to punish you instead of him.” She replied, “But I don’t want you to punch me.” I laughed empathetically. “I would never punch you,” I assured her. “I said ‘punish you.’” But what’s the difference, really?
I don’t really believe that God punishes us in the simple cause-and-effect way as is depicted in the Old Testament. And I don’t believe that God punishes (or punches) us the way a parent might punish a child. But I do believe that there are lessons to be learned from hard times—whether they are heaped upon us by a paternalistic deity or dealt us by the hand of chance.
When life is so lean as to require measured rations of drinking water, I begin to appreciate God’s abundance. I think it starts by hoping for—dreaming for—an end to the hardship. It may also involve a misty-eyed reflection on “the good life” of an earlier time. But it always includes thanksgiving for the end of suffering, whether realized or merely believed in. As I am forced to live on less—even a bitterly short supply—I grow in my appreciation of what God has given and one day will again give me. That attitude depends upon a belief that the period of hardship will eventually pass away—a matter of faith. If there’s any answer to the “why” question of divine punishment, that’s where it lies. It’s wrapped up in my faith that the agony will not last forever, and that God will restore my life. Punishment, therefore, isn’t an active force. It’s simply my ability to learn from and appreciate hard times.