From the Prophet Ezekiel:
[God said to Ezekiel] “You shall eat it as a barley-cake, baking it in their sight on human dung.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ezekiel 4:12 (NRSV) – May 13, 2013.)
Today’s Old Testament reading is a disturbing piece in which the Prophet Ezekiel is instructed to lie down for several days (in fact, for more than a year) as a sign of the number of years Israel and then Judah will be punished.
While lying down, he is to make grain cakes from specific measures of spelt, millet, wheat, barley, lentils, and beans, and he is to drink specific measures of water each day. This is to symbolize that during their punishments, the Israelites and the Judeans will lack bread and water; they will experience poverty and deprivation, and “look at one another in dismay, and waste away under their punishment.” (v. 17)
The selected verse is from God’s instructions to Ezekiel on how he is to prepare and bake his grain cakes, representative of the way in which the soon-to-be-exiled People of God will have to cook their food during their banishment.
The very thought of cooking with excrement must have been shocking to Ezekiel who objected and was given leave to use cow dung rather than human excreta. It would have been shocking in the extreme to people whose God had commanded them to cover their bodily wastes immediately after defecation because the very sight of it was offensive to God:
You shall have a designated area outside the camp to which you shall go. With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement. Because the Lord your God travels along with your camp, to save you and to hand over your enemies to you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you.
The “designated area outside the camp,” though initially commanded as the latrine, was where everything unclean was to be disposed: the offal of sacrificed animals, warriors’ garments soiled with the blood the enemy, the stones of houses in which plague has been found, and the idols and altars of other nations are all commanded in the Law to be taken there. Persons deemed unclean because of leprosy, menstruation, issue of semen, or slaughter of animals were sent outside the camp. The “designated area outside the camp” was a place of defilement, uncleanness, impurity, corruption, dirtiness, filthiness, pollution, contamination, condemnation, punishment, rejection, castigation, and reproach. It is where disease, dung, and death were. To cook one’s food over excrement wasn’t simply distasteful, it was to imbue one’s nourishment with everything foul and unholy from the “designated area.” The smoke from a cooking fire of whatever fuel flavors anything cooked upon it; the smoke from a fire of human feces would pollute everything cooked over it.
In modern kitchens where we cook on electric burners or over clean natural gas flames, we no longer appreciate how the cooking fuel affects the flavor of the food. Many years ago, the summer of 1969 to be exact, I went to study in Florence, Italy. Upon arrival, I discovered that my pensione (boarding house) would not have a room for me until the next day. So, I checked into a small bed-and-breakfast hotel where I was offered an evening meal of chicken cacciatore. Having no other plans, I accepted. Unfortunately, the hotel kitchen used a kerosene stove. Chicken cacciatore cooked over kerosene is inedible; so too (I discovered the next morning) is coffee.
On the other hand, several years later, I had occasion to rent a cottage near the River Shannon in Ireland. It was heated by a peat stove and on that stove I could also boil water for my breakfast tea. Although I prefer coffee, one does want to be traditional occasionally when living in a 200-year-old, turf-fire-heated Irish farm cottage. My tea tasted of peat, which was an odd flavor, but not an inedible one (like kerosene). By the end of my month there everything I owned – my luggage, my books, all my clothing – smelled of peat. A couple of weeks later, touring a whisky distillery on the Isle of Skye, I discovered that good Scotch whisky (the malt for which is toasted over open peat fires) reminds me of my Irish cottage and, especially, of my morning tea.
I cannot imagine what food cooked over human feces might taste like, and I certainly do not want to find out! Apparently I’m not alone: a couple of years ago, a Japanese scientist perfected a method of making a vegan meat substitute using proteins extracted from human waste. Of over 12,500 who responded to an internet survey, 76% said there was no way they would even try the substance and another 11% said they were unsure whether they would. We can be very sure that the Israelites and the Judeans would not have wanted to; even the thought (or the threat) of eating food cooked over excrement was a religious affront to them.
However it might have tasted, the prophetic meaning is clear: food cooked over human feces is a symbol of abject poverty and want. It is a symbol of something unclean and contaminated to be avoided, not only for ourselves but for everyone. Poverty and deprivation are an abomination; any system which creates them should be viewed as corrupt and filthy, as economic excrement, as financial feces. It does not matter what name we may give such systems — capitalist or communist, socialist or fascist — if the success of the financial institutions created by those systems depends upon human beings being made destitute, those institutions and the system which creates them should be relegated to the “designated area outside the camp.” Like the smoke from a cooking fire of human dung, they pollute everything they touch. They are, simply put, shit not fit for human society.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.