Eat This Scroll (Ezekiel and Revelation) by Meredith J. C. Warren

The bizarre image of eating a scroll is a pivotal moment in Ezekiel’s as well as Revelation’s prophetic visions.

Prophetic and apocalyptic visions are known for their peculiar knack of blending the everyday with the supernatural or surreal. Both Ezekiel and the book of Revelation turn the unremarkable act of eating into a powerful revelatory act. Ezekiel and the Seer, as the first-person narrator of the Apocalypse of John is often called, are commanded to “eat this scroll” in order to receive God’s heavenly knowledge and to be able to act upon it as instructed.

Who instructs Ezekiel to eat the scroll?

Both texts depict their protagonist receiving instructions from heaven. In Ezekiel, the prophet first experiences an apparition that is the “likeness of the glory of the Lord.” It seems to be this manifestation of the divine which speaks to Ezekiel, while an outstretched hand holds a scroll. The heavenly voice instructs him to “eat what is offered”; to “eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel” (Ezek 3:1). Ezekiel is obedient, but the instructions are repeated by the divine voice. The first-person narrator describes the taste of the scroll as being as sweet as honey. When the voice speaks again it is to implore Ezekiel once more to pronounce God’s words to Israel. There seems to be a relationship between the ingestion of the scroll, its sweet taste, and the ability to speak God’s words.

Did Revelation simply copy Ezekiel?

Revelation is known for its habit of alluding to the earlier prophetic texts of the Hebrew Bible, even if it never quotes them word for word. However, the Apocalypse uses multiple overlapping allusions to evoke new meanings, and the example of the little scroll is no exception. While Ezekiel hears the divine voice directly, John, as is often the case in apocalyptic texts, experiences his revelation with the help of angelic mediators. It is not clear in the text whether the voice that John hears is God’s or the angel’s (Rev 10:1), but it is this angel, rather than a disembodied hand (Ezek 2:9) who holds the scroll. John, like Ezekiel, is instructed to eat the scroll, but unlike the scroll in Ezekiel, the taste is complex. It starts out sweet like honey, but as John ingests it, it curdles his stomach: “when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter” (Rev 10:10). Again like Ezekiel, the Seer is instructed to deliver a divine pronouncement, but this one is not just to Israel, whose language is easy for Ezekiel, but to all nations and languages. In both Ezekiel’s and in Revelation’s borrowing of the trope, eating the scroll signals an important turning point in the prophet’s role.

Why do the scrolls taste sweet and bitter?

Most interpreters of these scroll passages focus on a possible correlation between the flavor of the scroll and the content of the divine message. A sweet taste signifies the sweetness of God’s words, just like in Psalms (e.g., Ps 119:103), while bitterness could point to the devastating message that John must pass on about the coming judgment. But this type of eating is remarkable in itself and occurs in many other texts that use the eating of divine food in this way. In another apocalyptic text, 4 Ezra, the titular Ezra’s revelatory experiences culminate in him consuming a fiery cup sent from heaven, which allows him to dictate books of scripture for scribes to write down. 

What does eating otherworldly food do?

In these and other examples, the eaters are changed by the food and are able to receive and transmit divine knowledge. This type of eating, called hierophagy, is a powerful literary tool that ancient authors used to signify the transformation of the eater in a way that associates them intimately with the divine realm. Tasting and ingesting otherworldly food dissolves the boundaries between heaven and earth in the same way that the mouth and stomach break down food and dissolve it into the body. So whether scroll, cup, or other heavenly morsel, biblical authors were making use of a known trope to locate their characters close to God and imbue them with divine authority.

Meredith J. C. Warren , "Eat This Scroll (Ezekiel and Revelation)", n.p. [cited 18 Apr 2021]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/passages/main-articles/eat-this-scroll

Contributors

Warren-Meredith

Meredith J. C. Warren
Senior Lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies , University of Sheffield

Meredith J. C. Warren is Senior Lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Sheffield and the Director of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies. She is the author of Food and Transformation in Ancient Mediterranean Literature (SBL Press, 2019) and My Flesh Is Meat Indeed: A Nonsacramental Reading of John 6:51-58 (Fortress, 2015). Her research focuses on eating, meals, and the sense of taste in antiquity.

The bizarre image of eating a scroll is a pivotal moment in the prophetic visions of Ezekiel and Revelation.

Did you know…?

  • Other ancient examples of transformational eating can be found in noncanonical texts like Joseph and Aseneth and The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas and in the Greek and Roman myth of Persephone.
  • Divine food is thought to be sweet in Greco-Roman traditions.
  • Angels sometimes avoid eating earthly food in order to maintain their heavenly status, like in Testament of Abraham and in the Quran (Hud 11:69-70).

Indirect references to another idea or document.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Visible or tangible form of something ethereal, abstract, or invisible.

Ezek 3:1

3 He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.

Rev 10:1

10 And I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillar ... View more

Ezek 2:9

9 I looked, and a hand was stretched out to me, and a written scroll was in it.

Rev 10:10

10 So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.

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Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

Ps 119:103

103How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!

Relating to the cultures of Greece or Rome.

Of or related to textual materials that are not part of the accepted biblical canon.

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