How Low Can You Go?

52 “They shall besiege you in all your towns, until your high and fortified walls, in which you trusted, come down throughout all your land. And they shall besiege you in all your towns throughout all your land, which the Lord your God has given you. 53 And you shall eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters, whom the Lord your God has given you, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemies shall distress you. 54 The man who is the most tender and refined among you will begrudge food to his brother, to the wife he embraces, and to the last of the children whom he has left, 55 so that he will not give to any of them any of the flesh of his children whom he is eating, because he has nothing else left, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in all your towns. 56 The most tender and refined woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground because she is so delicate and tender, will begrudge to the husband she embraces, to her son and to her daughter, 57 her afterbirth that comes out from between her feet and her children whom she bears, because lacking everything she will eat them secretly, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in your towns.  Deuteronomy 28:52-57 ESV

These are disturbing verses. Their content is graphic and difficult to comprehend. And it is essential that we not forget the context. The people of Israel are poised to enter the land of Canaan and Moses has been addressing them for quite some time now. He has reiterated the law to them and reminded them of the blessings that will accompany obedience to God’s commands. But has also been warning them about the curses that will fall on them should they choose to rebel against God by disobeying His law.

But in these verses, Moses describes some very disturbing scenes that had to have left the Israelites appalled and shaking their heads in disbelief. They could never have imagined these kinds of things happening among their people. The graphic nature of Moses’ words would have been offensive and off-putting. Some probably accused Moses of resorting to scare tactics, using hyperbolic imagery in an attempt to goad them into fear-based compliance to God’s law. The thought of these kinds of hideous things happening among them would have been impossible to comprehend or even consider.

After all, Moses describes grotesque scenes of desperately hungry people resorting to cannibalism in order to keep from starving to death. The enemy has surrounded their city, creating a food-shortage within its wall and leaving the inhabitants with no food and little hope of survival. And this scene will be taking place all throughout the land of Canaan, as city after city comes under attack from a distant nation whom God will send against the people of Israel.

“The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young.” – Deuteronomy 28:49-50 ESV

Once again, as far-fetched as all of this may have sounded to the people of Israel, Moses was actually providing a God-ordained glimpse into the future. He was revealing what will actually take place when the Assyrians come against the northern kingdom of Israel and, hundreds of years later, when the Babylonians sweep down on the southern kingdom of Judah. The dire circumstances Moses described would actually take place. And Moses would not be the only one to predict this unfathomable outcome. Hundreds of years later, the prophet, Jeremiah, would deliver the following warning from God to the people of Judah:

“And I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its wounds. And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege and in the distress, with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them.” – Jeremiah 18:8-9 ESV

The book of Lamentations predicts this same implausible outcome.

Look, O Lord, and see!
    With whom have you dealt thus?
Should women eat the fruit of their womb,
    the children of their tender care?
Should priest and prophet be killed
    in the sanctuary of the Lord? – Lamentations 2:20 ESV

And the prophet Ezekiel would provide additional proof of God’s coming judgment.

“And because of all your abominations I will do with you what I have never yet done, and the like of which I will never do again. Therefore fathers shall eat their sons in your midst, and sons shall eat their fathers” – Ezekiel 5:9-10

That these atrocities actually took place is beyond debate. The Jewish historian, Josephus, records that, during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the city’s starving citizens resorted to eating their own children. He provides a detailed account of one such circumstance.

Among the residents of the region beyond Jordan was a woman called Mary, daughter of Eleazar, of the village of Bethezuba (the name means “House of Hyssop”). She was well off, and of good family, and had fled to Jerusalem with her relatives, where she became involved with the siege. Most of the property she had packed up and brought with her from Peraea had been plundered by the tyrants [Simon and John, leaders of the Jewish war-effort], and the rest of her treasure, together with such foods as she had been able to procure, was being carried by their henchmen in their daily raids. In her bitter resentment the poor woman cursed and abused these extortioners, and this incensed them against her. However, no one put her to death either from exasperation or pity. She grew weary of trying to find food for her kinsfolk. In any case, it was by now impossible to get any, wherever you tried. Famine gnawed at her vitals, and the fire of rage was ever fiercer than famine. So, driven by fury and want, she committed a crime against nature. Seizing her child, an infant at the breast, she cried, My poor baby, why should I keep you alive in this world of war and famine? Even if we live till the Romans come, they will make slaves of us; and anyway, hunger will get us before slavery does; and the rebels are crueler than both. Come, be food for me, and an avenging fury to the rebels, and a tale of cold horror to the world to complete the monstrous agony of the Jews. With these words she killed her son, roasted the body, swallowed half of it, and stored the rest in a safe place. But the rebels were on her at once, smelling roasted meat, and threatening to kill her instantly if she did not produce it. – Josephus, The Jewish War

So, there’s little doubt that the words of Moses were far from idle threats. God was deadly serious and wanted His people to know that a disregard for His holy law would result a breakdown of the social fabric of Israelite society that would be unimaginable and incomprehensible.

Josephus would go on to describe the scene that took place behind the walls of Jerusalem as “an act unparalleled in the history of either the Greeks or the barbarians, and as horrible to relate as it is incredible to hear.”

The curses of God would render every man and woman into selfish and self-protective beasts whose only concern would become their own personal survival. Love of God and love of others would be the farthest thing from their minds. The thought of a killing and consuming her own child is beyond comprehension. But the judgment of God against the repeated rebellion of His people would be so severe that the unthinkable would become commonplace. What was once immoral would become acceptable and unavoidable.

The Israelites, who at one time had enjoyed special status as His chosen people, would eventually become guilty of committing some of the most heinous and morally repugnant acts ever committed by humanity. And as Moses has pointed out, it will begin with their decision to disobey the commands of God. The “tender and refined” among them would become the cold-hearted and callous. Rebellion against God is downward spiral with a trajectory that is difficult to reverse. And these mind-boggling, sensibility-shocking descriptions of the once-law-abiding Israelites resorting to cannibalism may be difficult to comprehend, but they would be the unavoidable outcome of a willful choice to reject the will of God by disobeying the law of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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