One of the extraordinary things that God asked Ezekiel to do was not to mourn after his wife died. Yahweh told Ezekiel, “Son of man, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your sandals on your feet; do not cover your upper lip or eat the bread of mourners” (Ezekiel 24:16–17).
Why does God not want Ezekiel and Israel to mourn?
The text is silent on Ezekiel’s internal agony about the announcement of the death of his wife. God told Ezekiel about the death of his wife early in the day. During the rest of the day the prophet went on with his normal routine. In the evening, his wife died. When the people heard the announcement that his wife had died, the people were baffled since Ezekiel did not show any outward display of grief over the death of his wife. So shocked were the people that they asked Ezekiel, “won’t you tell us what these things have to do with us?” (Ezekiel 24:19).
Ezekiel was commanded to eschew the traditional mourning practices common among his people. Through Ezekiel’s non-traditional mourning practices, God would be conveying a message to his people. The manner by which Ezekiel was to remain in normal dress and not display the typical mourning customs was meant to send a message to the people in exile. The message was about the welfare of their holy city, Jerusalem. By the death of Ezekiel’s wife, and his lack of grief in the traditional sense, God was telling the people that a tragic event was about to take place. This event would be the fall of Jerusalem, the city which was “the delight of their eyes and their hearts’ affection” (Ezekiel 24:25).
The purpose for this event in the life of the prophet, the death of his wife, was to convey the message that something striking and very solemn was about to occur in Judah. Ezekiel’s wife was the delight of his eye. Jerusalem was the people’s “delight of their eyes and their hearts’ affection” (Ezekiel 24:25). The city was going to be taken from them in the same way Ezekiel’s wife was going to be taken from him.
The fall of the city was to occur at the hand of God. This striking event of great sadness would be the fall of their city of delight, the city the people loved. The people were warned that this loss would also impact them on a personal level, their sons and their daughters would be killed in the destruction of the city. They would experience a great loss just as Ezekiel experienced a great loss with the death of his wife.
God’s command to Ezekiel not to follow the customary mourning rituals for his wife was an unusual command, considering the culture of the people to whom Ezekiel was preaching and the traditional mourning rituals of Israel. In Israel, the traditional mourning rituals for the dead were an outward, visible demonstration of a person’s loss. According to Christopher J. H. Wright, the customary rituals included “weeping, lamenting loud and long, going bare-headed and bare-foot, and covering his lower face” (Wright 2001: 217).
In Israel, the High Priest was forbidden to mourn for the dead: “The high priest, the one among his brothers who has had the anointing oil poured on his head and who has been ordained to wear the priestly garments, must not let his hair become unkempt or tear his clothes” (Leviticus 21:10–11) . However, although Ezekiel was a priest, he was not a High Priest.
The biblical text does not say much about Ezekiel’s wife. The text does not provide a description of her appearance nor her age nor how long she was married to Ezekiel. The only thing we know about her is that she was the person whom Ezekiel loved. She was “the delight of his eyes” (Ezekiel 24:16). The Hebrew word for “delight” refers to what is dear and precious to a person. In Ezekiel’s case, his wife was a special person, the desire of his life, a wife much loved. These words imply that her death would be incredibly painful to Ezekiel and would bring much distress to his life.
Ezekiel’s wife is one of the few women mentioned in the book of Ezekiel, but we only know her through the announcement of her death. There is very little said about her. She was the delight of Ezekiel’s eyes. This term of endearment which is used to describe Ezekiel’s wife indicates that the prophet had a close and special relationship with his wife.
The cause of her death is not given. God tells Ezekiel: “Son of man, behold, I am about to take the delight of your eyes away from you at a stroke” (Ezekiel 24:16 ESV). The fact that it is God who takes away Ezekiel’s wife has caused many people to ask whether God actually killed her. The expression “at a stroke” suggests sudden death. A possible cause for her death was that she was already very sick or that her death was caused by a sudden illness. People struggle with the death of Ezekiel’s wife because the text does not provide enough information about her death. Because of the lack of reason for her death, God becomes the agent of her death.
Ezekiel’s wife would be taken from him through maggēpāh. This word has been translated differently in English translations: “blow,” “pestilence,” “stroke,” “a fatal blow,” or “by disease.” The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, says that Ezekiel’s wife died “by violence.” The word is used to refer to the plagues in Egypt (Exodus 9:14) or the act of hitting a person (Exodus 21:22 ). Since the maggēpāh was sent by God, some people believe that God deliberately caused the death of Ezekiel’s wife as a way to communicate a message to the people. The text is silent about the cause of Ezekiel’s wife’s death. Probably she was sick, and her death was caused “by disease.”
As Ezekiel’s wife was the delight of the prophet’s eyes, so the temple was “the delight of the people’s eyes” (Ezekiel 24:21). The relationship between Ezekiel and his wife and her death is used to represent how the people of Israel viewed the temple in Jerusalem.
Ezekiel’s wife represents Jerusalem which is about to fall. The people who came to Ezekiel’s house knew his wife. They probably also knew of Ezekiel’s relationship with his wife and her importance to him. When Ezekiel explained the reason he refrained from mourning his wife, they understood the immensity of the tragedy that was about to befall the holy city and the temple.
Ezekiel’s Mourning for His Wife
God made specific demands upon Ezekiel in response to the death of his wife. The way Ezekiel was to mourn for his wife is critical to the understanding of God’s message to the people in exile.
Mourning for the dead was part of the grieving process. The normal mourning period for the dead in the Old Testament was seven days (Genesis 50:10). When Moses died, the people mourned him for thirty days (Deuteronomy 34:8).
The mourning ritual included the practice of rending or tearing one’s garments and putting on sackcloth. In addition, the mourning process included shaving one’s head or putting ashes or dust on the head. The ritual also included the bringing of the “cup of consolation” or eating the mourner’s bread. These rituals were designed to display mourning in its most traditional way.
God’s request of Ezekiel was not the traditional mourning practice in Israel. God said to Ezekiel, “Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your sandals on your feet; do not cover your upper lip or eat the bread of mourners” (Ezekiel 24:17).
God’s instructions to Ezekiel were contrary to the traditional mourning practices in Israel. God told Ezekiel not to follow the traditional mourning rituals. Ezekiel was told not to weep or cry. He could only sigh, and that must be kept to himself, that is, he could only sigh inwardly, in his heart. He was told to keep on his turban or headdress, to keep his shoes on, not to cover his beard, and not to eat the mourner’s bread. Ezekiel was not to observe the traditional funeral practices. God commanded Ezekiel to do the exact opposite of what the people would expect him to do. By refraining from the traditional mourning rituals, God was sending a strong message to the people.
Posts on the Death of Ezekiel’s Wife
The Death of Ezekiel’s Wife – The Message To Israel
The Death of Ezekiel’s Wife – God’s Supposed Cruelty
The Death of Ezekiel’s Wife – Ezekiel and the Prophetic Office
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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