Ezekiel 21:18-27: Liver Spots

Naiveté serves a better purpose
than the dark magic of exercising control.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Spiritual Care)

In this third sword oracle, Ezekiel is told to perform another action-prophesy. I can see him grabbing the spoon from a cooking pot and using the handle-end to draw a map in the dirt.  He drew a path for the king of Babylon to ride towards Palestine. As the path neared, it split into two. One road took the attackers into Rabbah of the Ammonites, while the other path delivered the attackers into Jerusalem.

Where the two roads diverged, Ezekiel drew a sign-post. The Hebrew text implies that it could have looked like a hand with a finger pointing in the direction of the road. One hand pointed to Rabbah, while the other directed the attackers to Jerusalem.

. . .

The reality behind this action-prophecy of Ezekiel is easy to understand. The king of Babylon was riding to Palestine. When he reached the fork in the road, he did three things (v. 21, NRSV):

  • “He shakes the arrows”

This was a way of predicting the will of the gods, and is analogous to us flipping a coin. Presumably, two arrows were inscribed with the names of the two directions the king could attack. After they were shaken, one was drawn out: the will of the gods for their campaign.

  • “He consults the teraphim”

We do not know exactly what happened here. Teraphim are idols, but we’re not sure how they are consulted.

  • “He inspects the liver”

This is the most interesting (or disgusting—depending on how you look at it) method of determining the will of the gods. After an animal was sacrificed, the liver was cut out and examined. The marks on the liver all had meanings that could be interpreted by a diviner. Archaeologists have actually found clay models of livers, with over fifty sections mapped onto them. This was serious work (lunacy)!

All three methods of divination were used to determine the will of their gods. Presumably, you used three methods just to be sure. You wouldn’t want your god to play a trick on you by delivering the wrong arrow. What’s next—best three out of five?

. . .

One of the things that amazes me about God is his ability to use anyone and anything to accomplish his will. He is not limited to the church-goers who wait for a nudging from the Spirit!

This passage is laced with thick irony. On one hand, you have the wicked king of Babylon practicing divination (which was outlawed by Yahweh)—yet Yahweh used the wicked practices to give him the correct answer! Yahweh determined to use the king of Babylon to judge Jerusalem, and he used their wicked practices to guide them.

On the other hand, you have a quick snapshot of the people in Jerusalem. In what looks like holiness, they mock the king of Babylon for his wicked and worthless divination. Although they were technically right, their own wickedness lay thinly disguised. Under the righteous veneer lay contempt for the Babylonians and a lingering pride in their status as God’s people.

God chose to work through wickedness to punish his own pseudo-righteous.

. . .

When you look at the things happening in this world, it’s easy to categorize people and nations as the “good guys” as opposed to the “bad guys” (never mind Jesus’ imperative to love our enemies). For Christians, it’s not a large jump to start believing that “God’s on my side” instead of humbly aligning ourselves with God’s purposes.

Still, as in ancient Babylon, God will use anyone and anything to accomplish what he wants to do. That is the utterly mysterious and paradoxical—yet truly sublime God we follow.

. . .

Holy God, help us to discern what you’re doing in this world. Help us to align ourselves with your purposes, and pray and work to see your kingdom flourish. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

< Ezekiel 21:8-17 | Sword Song

Ezekiel 21:28-32 | Plot Changes >

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One Response to Ezekiel 21:18-27: Liver Spots

  1. Jo Rossano August 12, 2013 at 9:07 am #

    Thanks for the insights into this verse. The “liver” part of this verse is why I “googled” this verse. You say that they took out the liver to inspect it. Whose liver? They sacrificed an animal as part of getting in touch with their gods?

    Lastly, your article is insightful,, well thought out and organized, but you fail to capitalize God’s other names. Such as “His, ” etc.

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